Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware® is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

December 31, 2020

James Paul Amstell: A Vanity Publisher By Any Name


A quick "beware" as we bid a glad goodbye to 2020.

A guy called James Paul Amstell (aka J.P. Amstell or James Amstell) is madly changing the name of his recently-launched vanity publishing operation, likely in order to evade online warnings (mostly from me).

The first iteration, Heart and Goldman Book Publishers, has been wiped from the web. I have one of its contracts, though, which gives authors the option of paying between £1,000 and £4,000, depending on what level of service they choose. Other traces remain:


The second iteration, J.P. Amstell Book Publishers, has also been erased, though Google has cached some of its website and I saved some as well. See the image at the top of this post.

Though Mr. Amstell changed the name of his publishing venture, he didn't bother to change the website. Other than substituting "J.P. Amstell Book Publishers" for "Heart and Goldman", the sites were identical. Sometimes, though, search-and-replace lets you down.


This past September, I tweeted a warning about the name switcheroo:


I also posted a warning on Facebook. A few days later, this landed in my personal inbox:


You can imagine my (non-)response. Ditto for the identical threat Mr. Amstell sent three days later.

I've heard nothing further. However, possibly because websearches on J.P. Amstell bring up my warnings on the first page, Mr. Amstell appears to have felt the need for yet another name change.


Notice any similarities?

Once again, apart from "Book Publishers London" in place of "J.P. Amstell Book Publishers", BPL's extremely wordy site content--which includes serious misinformation about traditional publishing and does not disclose the fees--is identical to that of the previous two. For instance:


This time, though, Mr. Amstell has managed a better job of name replacement.

Mr. Amstell is currently soliciting manuscript submissions as Book Publishers London (that's how I became aware of the latest name change):


Mr. Amstell doesn't seem to have actually published any books to date, under any of his company names. Since his first foray into vanity publishing kicked off over a year ago, that does make one wonder. Also, contrary to his claim of maintaining a "staff who previously worked deep inside the traditional system at senior levels with important positions in power throughout the entire traditional world," Mr. Amstell seems to plan on outsourcing much of the work--judging, at least, by the several author services providers who contacted me after Mr. Amstell sent them identical proposals for book formatting.

More evidence of the interconnection of the three publishers, from Companies House:


Mr. Amstell appears to have been associated with two additional companies, both dissolved. Note the identical birth dates and also the creative deployment of different versions of his name, which (with the exception above) avoids more than one company showing up on a search on any one version.

UPDATE 1/17/21: I'm starting to hear from writers who've paid Amstell, under one name or another, and have gotten nothing for their money (including responses to their emails).

UPDATE 7/28/21: Somewhat to my surprise, given the communications problems that have been reported to me and the just general sleaziness of the whole operation, Book Publishers London has managed to issue around 15 books to date. 

Not to my surprise, however, the covers are mostly terrible--and, scanning the first couple of pages of several of the offerings, the prevalence of uncorrected typos, formatting errors, and mis-spellings strongly suggests that no meaningful editing or copy editing is being provided for the large amount of money writers pay.

December 22, 2020

Spooky Phishing Scam Targets Traditionally-Published Writers

 
Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

The New York Times has published the story of a strange international phishing scam: unknown actors targeting traditionally-published writers, posing as their agents or editors to obtain copies of their unpublished manuscripts.
Earlier this month, the book industry website Publishers Marketplace announced that Little, Brown would be publishing “Re-Entry,” a novel by James Hannaham about a transgender woman paroled from a men’s prison. The book would be edited by Ben George.

Two days later, Mr. Hannaham got an email from Mr. George, asking him to send the latest draft of his manuscript. The email came to an address on Mr. Hannaham’s website that he rarely uses, so he opened up his usual account, attached the document, typed in Mr. George’s email address and a little note, and hit send.

“Then Ben called me,” Mr. Hannaham said, “to say, ‘That wasn’t me.’”

Mr. Hannaham was just one of countless targets in a mysterious international phishing scam that has been tricking writers, editors, agents and anyone in their orbit into sharing unpublished book manuscripts. It isn’t clear who the thief or thieves are, or even how they might profit from the scheme. High-profile authors like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan have been targeted, along with celebrities like Ethan Hawke. But short story collections and works by little-known debut writers have been attacked as well, even though they would have no obvious value on the black market.
The phisher, or phishers, employ clever tactics like inserting or transposing letters in official-looking email addresses (like "penguinrandornhouse.com" instead of "penguinrandomhouse.com") and masking the addresses so they only show when the recipient hits "Reply". They know how publishing works and appear to have access to inside information, utilizing not just public sources like acquisition announcements in trade publications, but details that are harder to uncover: writers' email addresses, their relationships with agents and editors, delivery and deadline dates, even details of the manuscripts themselves. 

And they are ramping up their operations. According to the Times, the scam began appearing "at least" three years ago, but in the past year "the volume of these emails has exploded in the United States."

So what's the endgame? Publishing people are stumped. Manuscripts by high-profile authors have been targeted, but also less obviously commercial works: debut novels by unknowns, short story collections, experimental fiction. The manuscripts don't wind up on the black market, as far as anyone can tell, and don't seem to be published online. There have been no ransom demands or other attempts at monetization. 
One of the leading theories in the publishing world, which is rife with speculation over the thefts, is that they are the work of someone in the literary scouting community. Scouts arrange for the sale of book rights to international publishers as well as to film and television producers, and what their clients pay for is early access to information — so an unedited manuscript, for example, would have value to them.
I heard about the scam a couple of months ago, from an author who was targeted after their forthcoming book was announced on Publishers Marketplace. What they reported to me tracks with the information above, including the credible approach by what appeared to be the writer's own editor or agent (complete with authentic-looking email signature), a credible excuse for why they wanted the writer to send the manuscript again, and the altered sending address. The writer did send the ms., and didn't discover until they talked to their agent that they'd been tricked.

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster have sent out warnings, as have agents, one of whom offers this helpful advice:
If you receive an email requesting sensitive information or items (manuscripts, contracts, etc.) to be sent via email, or to follow a link to sign a document, please consider the following steps:

1. Carefully inspect the sender’s email address. Ensure the person’s name is spelled correctly and, most importantly, that the company’s domain name (which is located after the @ symbol in an email address) is spelled correctly.

2. Call the supposed sender to verify that the items/information requested in the email are legitimate.

3. Do not reply to the email. Message headers can look real but have hidden text triggered when “reply” is hit. Instead, start a separate email chain with the sender asking if they did, in fact, request that item/information from you.

4. Carefully look at the email header, which contains detailed information about the email – where it came from, who it was sent to, date, time, subject, etc.
To be clear, there's no connection here with the crude agent and publisher impersonation scams I've been writing about for the last year or so. This is a sophisticated scheme by a person or persons familiar with the publishing industry (including its lingo) who understands the ins and outs of acquisition and production and has access to inside information. There's also no obvious monetary angle--unlike the impersonation scams I've previously reported, where the whole point is to screw as many thousands of dollars out of unsuspecting writers as possible.

More reporting at Jezebel.

December 8, 2020

Attack of the Fake Literary Agencies: West Literary Agency, Stellar Literary Press and Media


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Scroll down for updates

Much of what I'm going to talk about in this post, I think most of my readers already know. But I'm getting so many questions about these two scam "agencies"--both of which seem to be super-active right now with solicitations--and providing so many warnings about them, that I think a broader warning is in order.

First, though--because it's relevant to what follows--some tips on evaluating a literary agency's website.

1. There should be a website. A pretty basic starting point.
2. It should be grammatically correct, and free of spelling errors and typos. Also very basic points, but as you'll see from what follows, their lack can be an important clue.
3. It should feature recent sales (this is how you can tell whether an agency is successful), with verifiable info (title, author, publisher) so you can assure yourself that the publishers are reputable (no vanity presses or "hybrids") and the sales really are recent (you want an agency that's selling books right now, no matter how successful it's been in the past).
4. Not all reputable agencies' websites include a client list, but many do; it's an additional way to verify bona fides.
5. The agents should be named--with bios, so you can verify their backgrounds and experience. 
6. There should not be any kind of upfront fee. 
7. Also helpful: an agency history, including how long it's been in business; clear submission guidelines; disclosure of commissions (standard is 15% for domestic sales, 20-25% for overseas and film [the extra is for co-agents' commissions]); and recent media coverage.

WEST LITERARY AGENCY

West Literary Agency appears to be blanketing the internet with solicitations (at least, judging by the number of questions I'm receiving). "Agent" names--no doubt fictitious--include Rachel Williams and Celine Meyers.

Here's one of West's solicitation emails:


Pretty much all the warning signs you need are in this email:

- Out of the blue solicitation (not always suspicious, but much more likely to be than not).
- Reputable agents are highly unlikely to advance-shop the work of writers they don't represent. 
- As noted above, the overwhelming standard for commissions on domestic sales is 15%, not 10%. Bogus agencies sometimes offer lower commission rates, to encourage writers to believe they're getting a better deal (a safe offer, since such agencies never actually sell any books).
- Reputable agents don't double as PR people. (The "help" West offers involves large fees--the only kind of selling bogus agencies do.)
- No reputable agent charges a "$95 fee to sign you up" or indeed any other kind of upfront fee.

The contract attached to the solicitation presents additional issues. For instance, the solicitation indicates that commissions are 10%--lower than standard. But in the contract,


See the problem? Plus, if the 10% commission for subrights sales "includes" 10% for co-agents, West would be getting zero for those sales. Just saying.

Also, didn't the solicitation mention a $95 fee? But in the contract,

$2 isn't much of a discrepancy. But what does it say about a company that it can't get its written materials to agree?

Last but not least, West Literary Agency's website. (You should ALWAYS check an agency's website before engaging with it.) (UPDATE 6/24/21: West Literary's website is down as of this writing, so the link may not work.)

Other than the fact that it exists, the website fails every test mentioned above. Telltale grammar and proofing errors (like so many of the scams I've written about this year, this one is based in the Philippines and staffed by people for whom English is a second language). No sales. No client list (other than one featured author whose book, sadly, has been published and re-published by two notorious scammers). No agent bios--no named agents at all, or any verifiable information about the agency itself (though if you check its domain registration, you can see that it did not exist until 46 days ago). 

And then there's this:


I guarantee that when you look at a reputable agency's website, you will not find a late night TV advertising-style LOW, LOW PRICE pitch like this. 

UPDATE 3/3/21: The latest grammar-challenged solicitation from West:


Writers who ignore or refuse Sarah's offer are contacted by "Victor Ross" of Right Choice Multimedia, who alleges that Sarah referred them for representation. Victor is in the movie biz; he even has an IMDb profile with what looks like several film projects. Like much of what scammers do, however, it doesn't stand close scrutiny: all the projects are "in development" (which could mean anything but definitely means they aren't movies), the production company for all four is West Literary Agency, and the names attached as writers and producers have no IMDb presence other than the projects themselves.

STELLAR LITERARY PRESS AND MEDIA

Stellar Literary appears to be soliciting at least as energetically as West Literary Agency, if not more so. 

Here's an example of what you might receive from "Senior Literary Agent" Charlie Dunn or Aaron Williams.


Red flags: 

- Solicitation.
- Grammar lapses and typos.
- Pengiun. Need I say more? 
- It's HarperCollins Publishers, not Harper Publishing. Not a mistake you'd expect a real agent to make.
- Note how the solicitation defaults almost immediately to a pitch for re-publishing the recipient's book. You hire an agency to get you published, not to publish you itself. Also, as I've said in other posts about scams that push re-publishing offers, re-publishing an already-published book so that another publisher can publish it a third time makes absolutely no sense (and is not how things work, in any case). 
- What recommendation? Who made it? Here's Stellar's nonsensical reply to one writer who asked:


Note the ongoing problem with the spelling of Penguin.

Like West, Stellar offers an author-agent agreement, which looks fairly standard until you get to this:


I'm imagining all the subagents lining up for that 3% commission.

On Stellar's website, the whole "literary agency" pretense comes crashing down. There's nothing there that you'd find on a real agency site: no word on who is actually part of the "team with a vision", no sign of the "countless" writers the team has supposedly guided "from query letter to published book for over 20 years." No sign of the books, either. In fact, from the fractured English...


...to the pay-to-play publishing packages...


...to the gigantic markups on marketing services (a Kirkus Indie review will cost you $575 at most if you buy it yourself)...


...it's the very portrait of a scam. 

Stellar has been around a bit longer than West, but not 20 years longer. Its domain was registered just this past August. 

SOME FINAL WORDS

For many of my readers, all of the above will seem very obvious, and these warnings may seem redundant because you've heard them so often. 

But I'm hearing from an awful lot of writers who've been solicited by these two scammers, and sense that there's something off (at least enough to contact me) but are tempted enough, or unwary enough, to believe West and Stellar just might be real. I worry that there are many more who won't smell a rat. 

Some tips to protect yourself:

- Be an informed writer. Understand how literary agents (and publishers) really do things--preferably before you start trying to get published (I provide some suggestions for that here). It's a step that too many eager new writers skip.

- Be suspicious of direct solicitation. It's not always a scam. But it's a scam often enough that it should always prompt caution.

- Don't take anything at face value--not solicitations, not offers, not websites. Research. Do some digging. See if you can verify any claims (and if there's no way for you to verify them--no staff names or book sales to back up claims of success and expertise--be suspicious). You can contact me at Writer Beware, and I'll tell you if I know anything: beware@sfwa.org

- Don't ignore warning signs like the ones identified above. I'm constantly amazed, for instance, at how many writers overlook the glaring English-language errors in scammers' emails and websites (a product of the scams' overseas origins: most are based in the Philippines). If an agent purports to be able to rep your English-language work, they should be able to speak and write correct, grammatical English. This isn't bias: it's professional competency. 

- Beware of shortcuts. If you're a celebrity, you may be able to skip the intervening steps between a completed manuscript and a publishing deal. But for regular people, there's no sure-fire way to shorten the process or jump the line. Don't trust anyone who tells you that there is. 

For lots more information on literary agents, including how to vet them, whether you need one, and links to helpful resources, see the Literary Agents page of Writer Beware. 

UPDATE 12/16/20: These agency scams are like cockroaches: if you can see two, you know there are dozens more you can't.

Case in point: Authors Legacy, which has no website or Facebook page (as of this writing, at any rate) but is busily soliciting writers with transparently bogus offers (among other things, there's no such thing as a "Literary Agency License").

Bogus offer 1

Bogus offer 2

November 20, 2020

#Audiblegate: How Audible-ACX Returns Policy Penalizes Authors


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Do you have audiobooks on Audible, either through your publisher or via ACX? If so, you'll want to head over to author Susan May's blog.


What follows is a long, detailed account of how Audible-ACX has been, in effect, hiding the volume of audiobook returns from authors by lumping them in with sales. 

Here's how it works. Audible-ACX records audiobook sales on a daily basis--but it shows them as an aggregate figure: the total of books sold less books returned. Returns are not broken out separately, and only show up on authors' sales statements if they exceed the number of sales. 


Why is this a problem? Well, returns strip authors of income, since authors' accounts are debited for those returns. Of course, returns are a fact of life in the book biz. But Audible-ACX's Premium Plus program--a relatively new membership category that allows readers to make unlimited returns (for books not finished) and exchanges (for books fully read), no questions asked--aggressively promotes returns and exchanges as a reader benefit, likely incentivizing readers to do so.

Hiding returns under sales also prevents authors from getting an accurate picture of how their books are doing in the marketplace. If your sales figure is zero, you can't know if it's zero because you've sold no books or because sales and returns cancel each other out. If your sales figure is ten, how many returns--if any--are included? If your sales figure is -5, does that mean five returns total, or were there even more returns that were offset by sales--sales you'll never be able to count because of the aggregate accounting? All of this is information authors need to assess and plan important things like marketing strategies. 

More generally, an unlimited returns policy lends itself to abuse. Readers can, for instance, use the monthly credit they receive with their Audible memberships to download and return multiple audiobooks--without paying for any of them. For example, an author who joined Audible as a new customer in order to test the system was able to download and return more than 20 audiobooks in just three days, using the same customer credit. Readers can also load up their devices with multiple books, and then return those books en masse, without penalty, when they don't have time to read them. 

In the Facebook group where Audible-ACX authors have gathered to share information and experiences, there's discussion of these and other abuses.

Because of the way Audible-ACX treats returns, authors weren't aware of the scale of the problem until this past October, when a technical glitch caused three weeks of returns to be recorded in one day. Suddenly, the returns that had been largely camouflaged by sales when reported on a day-by-day basis sprang into glaring view.  

Since then, authors have been emailing Audible-ACX to ask for their returns data, to request that returns be broken out separately from sales, and to request that at least some limits be imposed on returns. "Twenty or thirty odd percent of a book is enough to know if you like the narrator and want to continue," May writes. "This is the return policy we want implemented." 

Reportedly, Audible-ACX has responded only with "cookie-cutter" replies that ignore the requests. Amazon and its companies are famously black boxes, and frequently take unilateral actions they decline to explain. So this is about what you'd expect. But that doesn't make it right. 

Susan May and others are advising writers to put their audiobook projects on hold until Audible addresses the problems. In the meantime, the Authors Guild and the Alliance of Independent Authors are going to bat for Audible-ACX authors. ALLi has received a "we take your concerns very seriously" response from Audible, saying that they are "actively reviewing this policy with the feedback under consideration." Per a media release on November 19, ALLi has downgraded ACX from an "approved" service to "pending", until a satisfactory answer is provided.

For more reporting, see this post from Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader, this YouTube video from writer Daniel Greene, and this post from writer Kyle West. Or check out the #Audiblegate hashtag on Twitter.

Authors are welcome to join the Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators Facebook group, where Audible-ACX authors and others have come together to try and work for change. Authors aren't the only ones who are affected: narrators who've accepted a profit share as payment are also losing income. 

Returns aren't the only issue with Audible-ACX, by the way. Susan May indicates in her post that there are substantial delays on approval of finished audiobooks (pre-dating the pandemic), and last year I wrote about problems with rights fraud and inexplicably withdrawn promotional codes. 

UPDATE: Authors Guild, SFWA, RWA, ALLi, Novelists Inc., and Dramatists Guild have jointly issued a letter to Audible’s CEO Bob Carrigan and General Counsel Stas Zakharenko, demanding that Audible end its practice of encouraging easy returns and exchanges. "This is not an exchange policy, but an unauthorized audiobook rental arrangement supported by authors’ reversed royalties, and it must stop." You can add your name to the letter here.

UPDATE 11/25/20: Audible has responded to authors' and narrators' concerns by announcing that as of January 1, 2021, ACX will begin paying royalties on titles returned more than 7 days after purchase. 

Notably, there's no mention of the accounting concerns outlined above, and the announcement includes a lengthy justification of the returns policy, along with a claim that returns abuse by customers is "extremely rare". 

The Authors Guild has updated its letter to Audible to respond to the policy change. 


At Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson has more responses from authors' groups, including ALLi and the Society of Authors.

UPDATE 11/27/20: Multiple members of the Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators Facebook group are reporting that they've received this email from ACX, removing their titles from sale for "suspicious free trial activity":


Has ACX decided to deal with customer abuse by penalizing authors? If so, that would make absolutely zero sense, and be massively unfair. 

Stay tuned.

UPDATE 12/7/20: ALLi reports that it has gathered the following evidence, as part of its advocacy in this situation:
  • Proof that a listener can return 9 books using the button on the app with no interaction or oversight by Audible/ACX. After that, it is a simple matter to return more using email, chat, phone—all actively encouraged by Audible (and why not, when it doesn’t cocst them a penny). 
  • Recording of an Audible UK phone support where the first choice is PRESS ONE to exchange a book they haven’t enjoyed. It’s pretty bold. 
  • Folder of 49 return emails done on one credit. (This is the highest we’ve seen, to date, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others who’ve done more). 
  • Correspondence between Audible and authors who have queried returns data showing threatening emails and account closures. Multiple authors have reported this happening. They have no right of reply and the emails are aggressive. 
  •  Reports from authors of being under investigation for “fraud" or "suspicious free trial activity" with their royalties withheld for months. They keep getting told that the investigation will end the following month and they’ll be paid but on it goes. One is reported to be owed since August, another owed $12K was never paid and has given up. In these cases, Audible is retaining the authors’ payments' on all books, not just the ones being “investigated".
UPDATE 1/20/21: Susan May is keeping tabs on #Audiblegate, and providing ongoing updates in her blog. Here's her latest post

UPDATE 1/21/21: ACX has announced that will share returns data with authors, starting in March 2021. Kudos to the activist authors and authors' groups whose continuing pressure achieved this result!

UPDATE 2/23/21: The Audiblegate campaign now has a public page on Facebook. You can also keep up with the latest news and updates at the Audiblegate website

UPDATE 3/22/21: ALLi has launched a petition to urge ACX Audible to:
- provide monthly returns statements for all books from date of publication
- pay for its unorthodox “returns and exchange” swap scheme from its own share of revenue
- pay compensation for monies wrongly debited from creator accounts via the secret returns accounting system
- Supply transparent, detailed payment reports going forward
- install an appeals mechanism for future high-level grievances to be dealt with by management and senior management in a timely manner
- correspond fairly and respectfully with authors who question payments, or whose accounts are closed /accused of fraud, etc.
You can add your name here.

UPDATE 7/28/21: The latest news from Susan May:


Read the rest here.

UPDATE 8/30/21: Via their own publishing corporations, two authors have launched a class action lawsuit against Audible for unpaid royalties. I'm told that this is the first of several suits that will drop in the next few months.

October 30, 2020

Disssecting a Scam: The Literary Scout Impersonator


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I've written several posts about a fairly new phenomenon in the world of writing scams: scammers that falsely use the names of reputable publishing professionals, including literary agents and publishers, to lure writers into paying large amounts of money for worthless, substandard, and/or never-delivered services.

This time, I'm breaking down a very similar scam that, capitalizing on the pandemic-fueled popularity of Netflix and other streaming services (as well as the eternal writerly dream of having one's book translated into film), is appropriating the name of Clare Richardson, Senior Scout for film and TV at the New York office of Maria B. Campbell Associates, to hoodwink writers in an unusually complicated--and expensive--scheme.

Here's "Clare's" initial approach:

Warning signs abound. First, it's Maria B. Campbell Associates, not Maria Campbell Associates (a small error, but it's unlikely a real literary scout would get the name of their own agency wrong). Second, the scammer uses a gmail address (mariacampbellassociates@gmail.com), which not only is implausible for an agency with its own web domain, but doesn't match the email address on the agency website (info@mbcbook.com). Third, not only are such out-of-the-blue approaches rare, a real literary scout won't offer to act as your social media broker, or to hook you up with book video providers. That's not what scouts do.

However, an eager writer--especially an inexperienced one, their head spinning with visions of Netflix fame and fortune--could be pardoned for missing these hints of bogosity. The scammer is counting on it.

If the writer responds, they get an immediate followup: 


"Clare" is signaling the next step: the pitch for money. And boom! Less than two hours later:


The stench of rat is even more apparent here. Like a reputable literary agent, a reputable literary scout won't ask for upfront money, or make buying some sort of service a condition of working with them. Also, "Clare's" description of the representation process is 100% not how it works--a real literary scout sends out writers' books or manuscripts, not video trailers and screenplays written by random, un-named "professional content writers". And anytime someone who offers to represent you tells you that you don't need a contract, run like hell. 

Again, though, inexperienced writers may not recognize the warning signs. Plus, in a world where writers and publishing people never stop talking about social media and self-promotion, "Clare's" recommendations may seem to make sense...especially since "she" appears to be open to the writer buying services from someone else. (It's a trick many scammers use, knowing very well that few potential victims will know how to "find another company to help you".)

Given the go-ahead, "Clare" responds with this:


Now, if you looked at the links in the first paragraph of this post, "Mia Roberts" and "Chapters Media" may ring a bell. That's because this is the same outfit that's running a similar scam using the name of Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. After all, if your scam plan is to impersonate a literary professional, why stop at just one?

If the writer contacts Mia (which this writer did, the same day), they get a quick response offering social media marketing packages starting at $1,399. The Chapters gang is certainly aware that credit card charges can be successfully disputed by defrauded authors, so they've taken steps to make sure that doesn't happen:


Having wired their money away, the author hears from yet another character.


Later, "Emma" sends the writer a "campaign proposal" consisting of windy (but carefully vague) promises, generic social media "strategies" (Facebook ads, etc.), and a pledge to make regular progress reports. We'll have those million impressions before you know it! Around the same time, the writer hears from "Clare":


The purpose here isn't just to make it look like "Clare" is working for the writer, with fancy-sounding marketing promises that the writer has no way to verify (are ebook displays at book fairs even a thing? Not to mention, again: this is not what a literary scout does). It's to set the writer up for the next phase of the scam: book orders! From a real bookstore!


This is an email that might make any writer flip out. Seven stores! 500 books! For each store! 

Never mind that no independent bookstore chain is going to place such an enormous order for a book by a non-celebrity author (though an inexperienced writer may not realize this). Never mind that, as with "Clare Richardson", the email address is wrong: another gmail address, josephbethemailconsultant@gmail.com, rather than the email format Joseph-Beth actually uses (unfortunately, not so easy to determine, given that Joseph-Beth doesn't provide an email address on its website). And never mind that no bookseller would claim that any author--or publisher--had to obtain "Insurance Proofs to cover for possible loss". Why? Because there's no such thing. 

Something the scammer, again, is betting the writer doesn't know.

At this point, Mia takes over--by phone this time, since phone calls are a better persuader than emails. No bookseller, she claims, will place an order unless the author has insurance and is "registered" with Ingram. If you want to sell books, you really don't have a choice. It'll cost you nearly $6,000, but don't faint: Tamara's amazing book order will not only cover the expense, but make sure there's a profit! (The scammer is hoping the writer isn't aware of how bookstores actually buy and sell books.) Of course, Mia will handle all the arrangements, so you don't need to worry about where to send your money. Just wire it to Chapters Media.

To scammers like the Chapters Media mob, writers are frogs to be boiled. Lure them with what seems like an amazing offer (for instance, by what appears to be a reputable literary scout) costing a large, but not necessarily eye-popping, amount of cash. If they hop into the pot (thereby identifying themselves as willing marks), lull them with promises, fake progress reports, and even a bit of flattery while turning up the heat with another offer, for even bigger money. If they still don't sense they're being scalded and pay up, do it again. And so on, until the writer realizes they're on fire or the scammer decides that all the meat is off the bones, at which point the scammer disappears.

That's what happened to two of the writers who kindly provided me with all this documentation. One, who shelled out only for the social media campaign, was so disgusted by the campaign's low quality that they started asking questions, at which point Mia and crew ghosted. Later, the writer found my blog. 

The other writer bought the book insurance, and quickly received another "order" from another purported bookstore--which, of course, required yet more insurance. After they wired the cash, the booksellers canceled, and Mia and her band of thieves stopped responding to emails and texts. The writer is out more than $13,000.

********

Some basic tips for protecting yourself: 

1. Know how things work in the publishing world. Agents and scouts don't charge upfront fees. They don't sell marketing services, or refer writers to companies that do, as a condition of representation. And they don't commonly contact writers out of the blue. The warnings at the Writer Beware website can help you recognize non-standard or predatory practices.

2. Proceed from a point of skepticism. An unsolicited contact from a literary agent or scout isn't automatically suspect. As commenters have pointed out on a number of my other posts, it does happen. But, as mentioned, it's not common. Out-of-the-blue contacts are far more likely to be illegitimate than on the level. Caution is always in order. 

3. Mistrust--and verify. Google all the individuals and/or companies that are mentioned to see what information you can find...and do it BEFORE you respond. Are there complaints? Have they shown up on this blog? If someone claims to work for an agency, visit the agency's website to see if that person is mentioned--and be suspicious if they aren't. If an individual or company claims to have placed books with reputable publishers, or to have sold film or other subsidiary rights, see if you can verify the claim--and if you can't, or if there are no researchable details attached to the claim (such as names or book titles), be wary. If the name and bio check out, but the approach seems suspicious (if their English is ungrammatical, for instance, which many scam approaches are), don't be afraid to contact the agency to ask.

4. Use your common sense. Anyone can make an occasional typo, but professionals communicate professionally (no reputable agent would send out language-challenged emails like the ones above). Check the email address and any links--do they match the person or company claiming to be contacting you? If there's a demand for money, or if there's a service for sale, be sure it's a company that customarily charges such fees or offers such services (reputable agents and scouts generally don't).

5. Contact Writer Beware. Always a good default. We may have heard something, or received complaints. If we have, we'll let you know.

Finally, I want to note that, while writers are the scammers' principal targets, the agents, scouts, and agencies are also victims. Scams like the one described above are a form of identity theft, tying the person's name and reputation to dishonest and predatory practices that they are then forced to disclaim. Everybody loses--except the scammer, of course. 

Hopefully, with increased awareness, we can make it more likely that the scammers will be losers, too.

UPDATE 11/12/20: The Clare Richardson impersonator seems to be aware that writers are getting wise to the scammers' accents. 


October 19, 2020

Bad Contest Terms: T.A. Barron's Once Upon A Villain Flash Fiction Contest


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Popular YA/MG author T.A. Barron is running a flash fiction contest


Stories must be 750 words or fewer, and the contest is accepting submissions through Friday, October 23. Three winners will receive prize packages consisting of books, games, swag, and/or gift cards.

The catch? You guessed it. It's in the fine print of the contest guidelines. (I wasn't able to provide a direct link to these, but if you scroll down to the bottom of the contest post there's a link you can click to see them.)

Here's my main concern.


While this grant of rights is non-exclusive (you aren't barred from publishing the story elsewhere), it is also inappropriately sweeping. The contest sponsor (identified in the rules as Thomas A. Barron, LLC) has the right to do anything and everything with your entry, including publishing it and licensing it to others--royalty-free. Barron, LLC can also "modify and make derivative works...and...use any ideas, concepts, know-how, or techniques...for any purpose." There's no end point for the grant, which endures even for entries that are disqualified--nor are non-winners released from the grant, making any story submitted to this contest an instant reprint, even if it never gets published for the first time.

Last but certainly not least, entrants must waive moral rights. Moral rights for written work aren't much-recognized in the USA, so US writers may not be familiar with them--but they include the right of attribution. If you waive your moral rights, your writing can be published without your name--or attributed to someone else.

There's also this, in the "How to Enter" paragraph: "All entry information and materials become the property of the Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned." 

To writers who contacted me about the Once Upon A Villain contest, this suggested that Barron, LLC was trying not just to encumber entrants' rights, but to seize their actual intellectual property. But that doesn't really track with the grant of rights paragraph, sweeping as it is, so I'm not so sure. Back in the dinosaur days, when contests involved the submission of paper manuscripts, such provisions were common: they were not intended to make a copyright grab, but rather to spare the contest sponsor the expense of returning all those paper manuscripts. For Once Upon A Villain, of course, all submissions are digital--but there's a lot of lawyering in these rules, and this language may just be in keeping with the general overkill. Nevertheless, it's a curious inclusion, and not something you should see these days unless actual physical materials are involved.

I write a lot about contests on this blog. Since the problems are often very similar, my contest posts may seem repetitive; also, most contests are one-and-done, so they pose a limited threat rather than an ongoing one. Plus, it's pretty rare than any contest sponsor changes its mind about bad contest rules, even when outed (though that has happened). 

But contests are common, and writers love them. Many authors are already pretty savvy about this stuff; I became aware of Once Upon A Villain, for instance, via tweets and emails from concerned authors. But not all writers are forearmed--especially younger writers just starting out (Once Upon A Villain features an 18-and-under prize). And any warning reaches only a limited number of people. So I keep putting it out there, so that writers will understand what to look for--and avoid--in contest rules and guidelines...and, hopefully, will get into the habit of always carefully reading the fine print, no matter how dense or boring.

October 16, 2020

Bad Contract Alert: EMP Entertainment and A&D Entertainment


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Lately I've been hearing from writers who've been solicited by one or another of two companies offering to distribute their books to Webnovel, a Wattpad-like platform based in Asia: EMP Entertainment and A&D Entertainment. (Note: there are a number of companies with similar names focused on concert invites, event scheduling, and DJ services.) (UPDATE: See the bottom of this post for a roundup and evaluation of additional reading/writing platforms and apps.)

EMP and A&D are both based in Singapore, and both are just 11 months old (which raises interesting questions about whether they're really different companies, though their contracts differ enough to suggest that they are). They present themselves as Webnovel partners--and, apparently, sometimes as Webnovel itself--authorized to offer non-exclusive contracts that allow authors to continue to publish on other platforms (such as Wattpad, where both companies are actively approaching writers) if they choose. (UPDATE: info I've seen since publishing this post suggests that Webnovel has contracted with these companies to recruit writers for its platform, allowing them to use their own contracts.)

I've seen numerous examples of each contract...and they are not author-friendly, to put it mildly. Nor are they truly non-exclusive.

EMP ENTERTAINMENT

Here's an example of an EMP solicitation. In addition to Webnovel, EMP promises to distribute writers' work to several other platforms.


Here's the contract. Substantial problems include:

- The grant of rights is "irrevocable" (Clause 4.1). EMP can terminate it at will or for breach (Clauses 9.1-9.5), but there's no option for the author to do so. 

- Also in Clause 4.1, the grant of rights is said to be "non-exclusive". However, this is appears to be the case only to allow for already-published versions of the work, because any new publication is severely limited by Clauses 4.2 and 10.1, which make any additional licenses subject to EMP's written consent, and directly contradicted by Clause 4.7, which prohibits authors from selling the work to third parties during the term of the agreement.


- Clause 4.7 includes what amounts to a perpetual claim on the work by EMP, since, even after the contract has been terminated, authors must allow EMP to match any offer for a subsequent sale, and can't complete a subsequent sale unless EMP signs off on it. (My highlighting.)


- There's what amounts to an ethics clause (Clause 4.3), which requires authors to "uphold the reputation of EMP Entertainment" and decrees that they "shall not engage in any activities which in the opinion of EMP Entertainment, reasonably held, may be harmful to the reputation of EMP Entertainment or its interests." Companies can and do abuse such clauses--something that's made even easier when the terms are as vague as they are here. 

- Authors receive 50% of "net revenue", which sounds good until you realize that it's actually net profit


These "total expenses" are not detailed anywhere in the contract, so authors have no idea of what they are, or how much they may reduce the amount on which royalties are calculated. (Payment is monthly, with a US$200 threshold.)

A&D ENTERTAINMENT

Here's part of A&D's solicitation. Unlike EMP, A&D promises distribution on Webnovel only, with various conditions attached.


Here's A&D's contract. In my opinion, it's even worse than EMP's.

- The grant of rights (Clause 3) is, basically, all rights forever. Writers must grant "any and all intellectual property rights in and to the Work" via "a worldwide, nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, freely transferable and sublicensable license of the entire copyright subsisting in the Work." Whether A&D actually intends to take possession of copyright is not clear (despite the wording I've quoted, other language in the contract is ambiguous), but the duration of the grant is clear: life of copyright. 


- Like EMP, A&D seriously qualifies the supposed non-exclusivity of their license. A&D's Power of Attorney authorization forbids authors to exercise the granted rights without written permission:


Also, writers who want to maintain existing work on other platforms, such as Wattpad, must give Webnovel most favored nation status by publishing to Webnovel first, and by pausing or unpublishing previously published content to make sure that Webnovel is always several chapters ahead. 

- Did I mention that A&D requires authors to grant power of attorney? (See the last pages of the contract). There is absolutely zero reason for any publisher or platform to require this.

- Per Clause 9, which covers termination, the author has the right to terminate the contract only in the event of breach by A&D (including failure to pay royalties). A&D, by contrast, can terminate at will--and, if it deems various kinds of breach by the author, can impose onerous provisions. 

In Clause 9.1, for example, "breach" includes failing to deliver work on time or to A&D's satisfaction. If after "three reminders" the writer still can't satisfy, A&D can terminate the contract and bill the author for "all losses suffered in that connection, including but not limited to additional expenses incurred by Party A such as notary fees, attorney fees, accreditation fees, litigation fees, and travel fees."

Here's another example. Not only must the writer compensate A&D for "losses", they must return 50% of earned income.

- As with EMP, author royalties are paid on net profit. 

It's not stated anywhere in the contract what those "other costs" might be.

UPDATE: I'm hearing from a lot of writers who signed with EMP or A&D, and then found this blog post and are wondering about how to get free. As I've detailed above, there is no provision for termination by the author in either of these contracts. So there is no way for authors to simply cancel.

Instead, I've been suggesting that authors consider contacting the companies and asking to be released. While initially the companies seemed willing to grant at least some such requests, more recently I've heard from writers who say they've been told no.

UPDATE: A&D (or AnD as it also seems to call itself) has published a rebuttal to this post...sort of, since it doesn't address any of the points I've made above, and really just boils down to "mean people are saying we're bad, but we're really not, we promise!"

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A lot of companies are jumping on the reading/writing app bandwagon. Many other "monetize your writing" chapter-by-chapter publishing platforms are actively soliciting authors on Wattpad and elsewhere. Unlike EMP and A&D, these companies aren't distributors; participating authors publish direct to the companies' platforms and reading apps. However, concerns about terms and contract language seem to be similar.

- Webnovel (sometimes dubbed "the Wattpad of Asia"). I've seen a number of its solicitations, and though I haven't yet seen a contract (Webnovel offers both exclusive and non-exclusive contracts), online discussions by authors who publish on the platform suggest that it has problems along the lines of those discussed above.

- iReader is a mobile reading app that's soliciting writers with non-exclusive contract offers. It's a good deal more professional-seeming than some of the others mentioned here, and, also unlike some of the others, its representatives are willing to answer questions and even do a little negotiating. Its contract is also less predatory than many. Even so, there are issues, including net profit royalties, a most favored nation clause that could limit non-exclusivity, and no option for termination by the author (although the grant term is limited to 5 years).

- Readict/VitalTek. This company asks writers to provide a sample of their work, which they'll display for a couple of weeks to gauge reader feedback and gather "data", whatever that means (here are the Terms and Conditions of submission). At the end of that period, they'll decide whether they want to offer a contract, which can be exclusive or non-exclusive. 

Writers may receive a flat licensing fee (supposedly as much as US$10,000, although in correspondence, a company representative acknowledged that there is a "range" starting at US$300), a signing bonus of $100, and "massive exposure". No royalties or other payment (the contract is very specific about this). Readict also rewards referrals: if you get "peer writers" to sign up with the platform you can receive a bonus of "up to $500". Since there's no revenue sharing with Readict--whatever you get on the front end is it--there would seem to be a substantial incentive for Readict writers to solicit on their own.

I've seen one of Readict's non-exclusive contracts, and while it's significantly more author-friendly than A&D or EMP, there are some issues. The company makes a claim on a large range of subsidiary rights, including translation and film rights. The grant term is limited--years (variable, depending on the offer), rather than perpetual, but authors have no right of termination. Readict can edit at will, and if the writer fails to turn in a complete work, can hire someone else to complete it. There's also a waiver of class action rights.

- Anystories/Read ASAP Ltd. invites writers who've uploaded least 30,000 words to apply to be a "signed writer". If accepted, they may receive an exclusive or non-exclusive contract, and will earn monetary "rewards" based on how many words they upload per day (at least 1,500) and how many words their story contains (at least 80,000). The schedule is pretty grueling: writers must "update daily with a maximum of 3 days absent allowed per calendar month". Writers with exclusive contracts are eligible for an additional "cash prize."

- Hinovel provides very little information on its website, but describes itself on its Facebook page as "a mobile reading app with massive excellent novels and perfect reading experience". It is currently soliciting authors with publishing offers, offering two models: "an amount of advance payment" plus a 15-30% royalty share once the advance is recouped; and a 30-35% royalty share with no advance.

The Hinovel contract is less author-unfriendly than others I've seen, notably in that it has a limited 5-year term rather than being "perpetual" (though authors have no right of termination). But that's not to say it's free of concerns. The term "digital copyright" is used when what's really meant is "digital rights;" the contract does make clear that Hinovel isn't demanding a transfer of copyright, but it's an odd confusion of terminology, and I don't know if it might pose issues at some point. Authors should also note that they will only get paid once the entire work is uploaded (so if they plan on doing it chapter by chapter, it'll be a while before they're eligible to get any income), and that there's what amounts to a morals clause, which could affect what authors could say publicly about the company or their experience with it. Finally, disputes are subject to arbitration. I don't know about the law in China, but in the USA, when you sign a contract that includes an arbitration clause, you waive your right to go to court. 

- SofaNovel/Vlight I haven't seen a contract, but otherwise this one is very similar to the rest: exclusive or non-exclusive contract, signing bonus, income from "rewards". Based in Singapore, SofaNovel was launched--like EMP and A&D--in November 2019. Reviews of the app are mixed.

- Dreame/STARY Pte. Ltd. also also does business as FicFun and Ringdom. These sites' setup is  similar to Anystories: writers submit at least 30,000 words, after which they can apply for an exclusive contract and "rewards" depending on word counts and updates. To claim the rewards, they must update daily, with only two absences allowed per month. The STARY platforms allow fanfic but say they don't sign it. 

Other than Webnovel, the STARY ventures have been around the longest of these companies, and there's a fair bit of discussion about them, some of it not very favorable (among cited issues are poor quality/poorly edited stories and aggressive solicitation). Although the grant term is limited (5 years), snippets of the Dreame contract that have been posted online (see, for instance, this 2018 blog post and this Reddit thread) include problematic provisions, including net profit payment, no option for author termination, onerous penalties for author breach (return of all earned income, remuneration of company "losses"), and the use of the term "Digital Copyright" to describe what otherwise reads like a conventional (if sweeping) rights license. 

- Goodnovel, Bravonovel, Babelnovel, Elfnovel, Webfic, NovelsLite, and dozens more. Primarily based in Singapore and Hong Kong, most seem to function similarly to those above. While not all may have terrible contracts, given the many that do there's reason to be very careful with any solicitation or offer you may receive. 

Feel free to email me if you'd like me to take a look at any contract and offer non-legal (I'm not a lawyer) feedback. 
 
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