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.

July 23, 2020

Small Press Storm Warnings: Lethe Press, Seventh Star Press



LETHE PRESS

Founded by Steve Berman in 2001, Lethe Press is an LGBTQ-focused independent publisher "specializing in the strange, the eerie, and the uncanny". In a publishing environment where small presses come and go like mushrooms, it has been in business for nearly two decades, and has garnered awards and starred reviews for its books.

Unfortunately, it has recently also been garnering complaints.

Writer Beware has heard from multiple individuals who cite a variety of problems at Lethe, including contract breaches in the form of unpaid royalties (for both authors and editors) and late royalty payments and statements. Contractors (such as audio narrators) have also gone unpaid. Royalty reports I've seen are seriously lacking; among other things, they fail to state sales numbers for ebooks, showing only gross income. 

Poor communication also seems to be a major problem. Nearly everyone who contacted me told me that they have had difficulty getting Berman to respond to questions and emails--or in some cases, to respond at all. Several authors told me that when audio versions of their books were released, Berman didn't let them know. More troublingly, some writers cite retaliatory actions by Berman--for instance, taking a writer's book abruptly out of print after the writer voiced concerns, or sending angry and/or belittling emails (I've seen examples). In one case, Berman posted a negative review of a writer's (non-Lethe) book years after their dispute was resolved (I don't want to out the author so I'm not linking to this, but I've confirmed that it exists).

Although the complaints are recent, the issues--particularly the problems with payment--go back years. Unlike many small presses that face a sudden eruption of complaints, it doesn't look to me as if Lethe is on the verge of failing; I think it's more a matter of long-standing issues reaching critical mass. 

When I reached out to Berman for comment, he referenced the money challenges all small presses face.
Alas, like many small presses, Lethe Press operates on a small and limited cashflow and budget. And some authors have seen unforeseen delays with royalty statements and payments. I do try and do my best to make payments as fast as possible. Should any author request the dissolving of the business relationship, I return rights and pay any and all royalties due immediately. Yes, there has been some rancor, but many of our authors will attest that we publish in good faith and try and make amends.

If there are certain individuals who feel as if I have taken advantage of them, please let them know I am willing to pay them immediately.
Lethe authors, take note. And if you do contact Berman, let me know how you fare.

SEVENTH STAR PRESS

Seventh Star Press is a speculative fiction publisher founded in 2008 by Steven Zimmer. (Zimmer also runs a number of related enterprises, including the Imaginarium Convention and Seventh Star Studios, which develops TV/film and gaming properties.)

On June 6, Seventh Star author Frank Hall posted disturbing allegations to Facebook. Among them: allegations of harassment by Zimmer, as well as royalty payment issues.


The post has attracted hundreds of comments, both from defenders of Zimmer and from individuals who say they've had experiences similar to what's described in Frank's post. Sadly, there's also a lot of victim-shaming, and some of the defenses are vicious. This may explain why, even though I and others have actively invited contact, I've heard from only a handful of Seventh Star writers (who do cite what sounds like a toxic culture). I wish it weren't so common for small presses to develop a kind of cultlike atmosphere, where anyone who steps out of line is persecuted and those who've had bad experiences are too afraid of retaliation to speak up.

In late June, Frank Hall received this, from Zimmer's lawyer. 


The cc's, which I've redacted, are to one of the individuals who shared their experience on Frank's Facebook post, and another who shared the post itself--which seems pretty random, given the number of comments on the post. None of the three have so far complied with the letter's demands.

For more coverage, see Jason Sanford's Genre Grapevine post, which discusses the recent allegations as well as criticism leveled against Zimmer for his defense of right-wing troll Tommy Robinson.

July 16, 2020

The Impersonation Game Redux


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

A few months ago, I warned about a scammer impersonating agent Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

The fraudster in question turned out to be yet another of the Philippines-based publishing and marketing scams that I've been writing about so much over the past couple of years (see the sidebar for a full list of the nearly 100 I've discovered so far). These ripoff artists regularly pretend to be associated with reputable publishers, so it wasn't a surprise that they'd try the same sort of thing with a reputable literary agency.

It was just one instance. But these scams all use the same tactics, so if there was one, there were sure to be more.

The other day I received an email from a writer who was concerned about the legitimacy of a cold-call solicitation from someone claiming to be Victoria Marini, an agent with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Here's an excerpt of the email that followed.
 

Over the exchange of several emails, the writer became suspicious. Here's the response the scammer sent when the writer expressed doubts--with, you'll note, a rather interesting invitation to confirm "her" legitimacy:



The writer did indeed contact me, and this blog post is the result.

There's scam sign aplenty here, including the many typos and English-language errors (not exactly what you'd expect from an established literary agent), and the fact that the "office" number goes not to Writers Desks but to a trademark registration service (which itself doesn't look all that kosher). The supposed sample video trailer is a highly professional video from 2013--but Writers Desks didn't exist before June 2020. As for its website, clicking on the URL yields malicious website warnings.

I was pretty sure at this point that Writers Desks was the same kind of scam as the one that impersonated Jennifer Jackson. And sure enough, when I checked its domain registration:


They don't always make it that easy.

I contacted Ms. Marini to let her know.
I'm still puzzled as to why the scammer suggested that the writer contact me. Many of these ripoff artists are aware of my interest in them (there are even some that provide "warnings" about me in their solicitation emails); you'd think they'd want to evade my notice rather than attract it. Maybe the scammer thought the writer would just send me a question, rather than forwarding the entire email chain. Of course, even without the emails, if someone told me that a reputable agent was cold calling random writers to shill video trailers, I'd be pretty sure something fishy was going on.

Some tips for seeing through scams like this:

1. Proceed from a point of skepticism. An unsolicited contact from a real, reputable agent or publisher isn't automatically suspect, but it's rare. Out-of-the-blue contacts are far more likely to be illegitimate. Caution is definitely in order.

2. Mistrust--and verify. Google all the individuals and/or companies that are mentioned (are there complaints? Have they shown up on this blog?) If someone claims to have worked for a major publisher or agency, or a 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. If you can't, or if there are no checkable details (such as names or book titles) attached to the claim, be wary. Especially be wary if, as in this case, you can find nothing to connect the person who is supposedly contacting you with the company they claim to be contacting you from. 

3. 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? (You'd expect Ms. Marini to have an Irene Goodman Literary Agency email address--as indeed she does.) 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 publishers generally don't).

4. Contact Writer Beware. Always a good default if you aren't sure about an individual or company. We may have heard something, or received complaints, and if we have, we'll let you know.

NOTE: Writers Desks LLC is not to be confused with Writer's Desk, a company that provides English-language tutoring and classes for Chinese students.

UPDATE 7/20/20: Looks like the Nelson Literary Agency is also being targeted by the scammers. I'm trying to get more details.
 
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