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.

August 28, 2020

Alert: Scammers Impersonating Major Publishing Houses


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about scammers impersonating reputable literary agents. These are not isolated incidents: I have a growing file of reports and complaints about this growing phenomenon--including from writers who've lost large amounts of money.

Now publishers are being impersonated as well. Here are a couple of examples of the kind of thing I'm seeing.

Here's the pitch one author received from "Michael Smith" of "HarperCollins" (see the email address):


To pass the "1st stage of the acquisition" of their book, and move on to "an exclusive contract," the author had already been persuaded (by "agent" Arial Brown, who is as fake as this offer) to hand over more than $8,000 for a new website and YouTube video. Now, in order to proceed to the next stage, they must shell out still more cash for "Developmental Editing and Content Editing." But not to worry--all that spending is in aid of big rewards down the line:

Who wouldn't want a HUGE of money? There is, however, plenty wrong with this picture. First, HarperCollins doesn't use gmail (here is its email format). Second, it doesn't demand that authors pay for services as a pre-condition of a contract offer. Third, anyone can make a typo, but someone working for a major English-language trade publisher can reasonably be expected to write proper English--which is definitely not the case in the excerpts above. Fourth, major publishing houses, which are rigorously selective, are unlikely to consider manuscripts with multiple grammar errors and poor word use. 

Finally, the author received these payment instructions:

That's right--it's another Philippines-based publishing and marketing scam. Due to the tangled web of purported agents, web designers, and publisher representatives (as well as the author's understandable confusion), I wasn't able to determine which one. But the provenance is clear.

Here's a second HarperCollins impersonator. This one has taken more trouble to fake things up:


Editor's Press and Media is (surprise!) another Philippines-based scam (see the list in the sidebar). This is clearly a setup to enable it to soak the author for large amounts of money to re-publish and edit their book, after which the supposed offer from HarperCollins will mysteriously evaporate. 

Even if one didn't know all that, though, there's enough wrong here to ring warning bells (though many authors, dazzled by what appears to be an offer from a major publisher, will not hear them). Publishers prefer manuscripts that haven't been published before--but if they do consider taking on an already-published book, they won't demand that it be re-published so that they can then publish it a third time (this makes absolutely zero sense). Additionally, offers of publication aren't typically relayed by contract assistants, and smaller lapses (it's HarperCollins Publishers--as in the logo "Joseph" has appropriated in his signature--not HarperCollins Publisher--as in the email heading) also give the game away. Not to mention: would a staffer for HarperCollins, with its New York City address, really have a Detroit phone number? (Yes, I know that people work remotely--especially these days--but still.)


(Curious, I called the number, and got an American-accented voicemail message from "Joseph Adams with HarperCollins" inviting me to leave a message--an unusual degree of base-covering for these scams, which heavily rely on their victims not checking up on them.)

Penguin Random House is also a target for the scammers, and doubtless so are other publishers I haven't heard about yet. Bottom line: an offer from a reputable publisher should not be contingent on you spending money, plus it will most often come via a reputable literary agent who hasn't charged you any fees either. 

If it seems too good to be true, it often is.

As always, if you have questions about any offer you receive, or any service you're offered, contact Writer Beware

UPDATE 9/14/20: Here's another fake HarperCollins offer from Editor's Press and Media, for a different author and book. 


August 13, 2020

A New "Beware": Scammers Impersonating Reputable Literary Agents


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

This post has been updated

I've written about this new "beware" twice already (you can see those posts here and here), but it appears to be a growing problem, so I want to put out a more focused warning.

Scammers--the same Philippines-based Author Solutions copycats that I've featured numerous times in this blog (also see the long, long list in the sidebar)--are impersonating reputable literary agents and agencies in order to bamboozle writers into buying worthless "services." Here are the misused names I've documented so far; the scam companies they work for are in parentheses:

- Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency (TechBooks Media, aka Chapters Media and Distribution)
- Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency (Writers Desks)
- Danielle Burby of the Nelson Literary Agency (Writers Desks)
- Nelson Literary Agency (some guy calling himself Justin Smith, Book Scout, with a fake Nelson Agency email address)
- Matt Belford of the Tobias Agency
- Clare Richardson of the Maria B. Campbell Associates (Chapters Media and Distribution)

The scammers' solicitations come out of the blue. Here's what you might receive:


Or this: 

Or this: 


These approaches are followed by opportunities to spend large amounts of cash. For the Jennifer Jackson scammer, it's a "review" of your book plus "book insurance and returnability" for a total of $1,400. For the Victoria Marini scammer, the video trailer she's shilling for "promotional" purposes costs $3,000 (an amazing discount!) For the Danielle Burby scammer, it's "Submissions to Traditional Publishing Companies" by "Book Scouts" for the wallet-squeezing sum of $5,000. 

The Jennifer Jackson scammer has also recently started offering something so off the wall that it's worth another image:


I've seen a lot of egregious lies and bullshit from the Philippines-based scammers, but this one--that there is such a thing as publisher insurance and writers need to buy it in order for their work to be considered--really takes the cake. There. Is. No. Such. Thing. (This email also illustrates a growing scammer trend: attempting to capitalize on the pandemic. A number of predatory vanity publishers are doing this too.)

I shouldn't need to say that reputable literary agents don't charge fees or sell services as part of (or as a condition of) representing you. It's also very rare that a reputable literary agent will contact you out of the blue; in the publishing biz, you can never really say never, but the odds that any such contact is legitimate are extremely small. 

The poor English in the emails above should be a very large clue as well. 

Even though I've only identified four iterations of this scam so far, I don't doubt that there are others. Writers, please, PLEASE be on your guard. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And if you encounter a scam like this, please contact me, so I can add it to my list.

Some basic tips for protecting yourself: 

1. Proceed from a point of skepticism. As noted above, an unsolicited contact from a real, reputable agent 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 to see what information you can find (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 checkable details (such as names or book titles) attached to the claim, be wary. 

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? (For the Jennifer Jackson and Victoria Marini scammers, the mismatch between their email addresses and their claimed agencies is an important clue. Unfortunately, the Justin Smith/Nelson Agency scammer is a bit savvier; the address he's using is fake, but it looks legit if you don't know otherwise.) 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 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.

Finally, I want to note that, while writers are the scammers' principal targets, the agents and agencies are also victims. These scams are a form of identity theft, tying the agents' names and reputations 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 8/20/20: Here's the payment request that "Jennifer Jackson" sends out to prospective victims. Note that "she" requests a wire transfer--preferred by the scammers over credit cards or PayPal, where payments can be reversed via a dispute:


Chapters Media and Advertising is run by the same people who run TechBooks Media (the scam company "Jennifer" is shilling for). Chapters has business registrations in several states, including Wyoming and Florida--though not in Nevada, where it purports to be located. It's registered as a "foreign LLC", and guess where officer Mark Rosario lives:


UPDATE 9/25/20: Matt Belford of the Tobias Agency is the latest to have his name appropriated by scammers.


UPDATE 10/17/20: Chapters Media is impersonating another reputable agent: Clare Richardson of Maria B. Campbell Associates. Here's one of its solicitations:


As with the Jennifer Jackson impersonation, writers who respond are referred to "secretary" Mia Roberts for a "social media campaign", and asked to send the four-figure fee via wire transfer to Bank of America. The writers I've heard from report that the so-called campaign amounts to little more than some stuff on Facebook plus a bunch of unverifiable promises.

August 4, 2020

Small Press Storm Warnings: Filles Vertes Publishing


Scroll down for updates

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I first heard of Filles Vertes Publishing (FVP) in late February of last year, when I was contacted by a writer wanting to know if I'd received any complaints. I hadn't--but a look at FVP's website prompted some concerns. 

On the plus side, FVP was distributed by Small Press United, the small press arm of Independent Publishers Group: a positive indication for a small press, as it can boost the possibility of getting books into brick-and-mortar stores. Pretty covers and an attractive website produced a professional impression.

But the bio of founder and owner Myra Fiacco did not suggest an abundance of relevant publishing or writing experience (FVP has removed staff info from its Our Team page--for reasons that will become clear--but here's how it looked last year). And given that FVP had been in business for several years, I was struck by how few books it had issued: just nine, according to Amazon: three in 2017, five in 2018, and one to date in 2019, with big gaps between some of the pub dates (you don't want a small press to rush out too many books and get into logistical trouble or become an author mill, but you do want to see a more robust--and regular--publishing schedule). Oddly, at that time only seven of the nine appeared on FVP's bookstore page, and the one book with a 2019 pub date was listed on Amazon as "unavailable".

I suspected that FVP might be having some production or logistical issues. If so, I figured I'd get more questions, or hear something through the grapevine. I didn't. Meanwhile, FVP modestly upped its 2019 production to six books, and its 2020 offerings to nine (four pubbed so far, with five more scheduled for later this year).

Flash forward to July 2020. As sometimes happens with troubled small presses, long-standing problems abruptly reach critical mass and news breaks all at once. In the past few weeks, I've received multiple complaints from FVP authors and staff that suggest a seriously troubled publisher.

Both authors and staff cite royalty and other payments late by weeks or months (most of those who wrote to me told me that this was not a one- or two-time issue, but a consistent, ongoing problem); delayed or missed publication dates (some authors had their pub dates pushed back; others told me that on release day, their books were available on the FVP website but could not be ordered elsewhere); missed deadlines for cover art, editing, formatting, and proofing; poor communication (both staff and authors told me it was often difficult to get Myra Fiacco to respond to questions and concerns, and authors cited communication lapses with some staff members as well); and various contract breaches, including overshooting the publish-or-return-rights window and failing to register copyrights.

Most of FVP's staff has resigned (hence the removal of staff info from FVP's website)--something that's complicated by the fact that several FVP staff members are also FVP authors. I'm told the total number of departing staffers is nine, though I haven't independently verified that (FVP also seems to have depended heavily on unpaid interns). 

Some resigning staffers have been asked to sign multi-page non-disclosure agreements. When I asked Myra why the NDAs (see question 2 of our Q & A, below), she indicated that two staffers who were also authors had been asked to sign NDAs "as authors" (I saw one of these NDAs, and it was, in fact, specifically for the individual's employment), but they'd refused, and negotiations were in progress. Later, she told me that "[d]ue to the misstep and confusion in the contracts involving authors that were team members, both authors have been reissued new termination agreements that are author specific and have been issued updates per their resignation with the company." This appears to be true--for those two author/staffers. However, I've heard from others who did sign NDAs, either as part of their employment or as a condition of rights reversion.

Along with staff departures, a number of FVP authors have asked that their rights be returned (and with its small catalog, FVP can't afford to lose too many). Initially, some were asked to sign reversion documents that included onerous liability releases and confidentiality terms, and potentially relieved FVP of the obligation to pay any sums still due and owing at the time of termination: 


Possibly because the authors balked (and also after I sent Myra my questions), there appears to have been backtracking on these documents, with at least two authors issued more conventional reversion letters that do not include language like that above. However, one of these letters includes a demand for a substantial termination fee. And Myra shared the letters with me without asking the authors' permission to do so (I confirmed this with the authors)--which in light of her concerns about confidentiality seems fairly ironic. 

I should note that I've also heard from a couple of FVP authors who say they've had a much more positive experience. But given the number and magnitude of the complaints I've received, as well as the document demands, the apparent confusion around staff and author departures, and what feels like general disarray, it seems clear that Filles Vertes Publishing is a company in trouble. 

Publishers do survive upheaval and financial stress. But right now, if I were an FVP author I'd be feeling pretty nervous.

******

I sent a list of questions to Myra Fiacco. She has given me permission to print her responses, and I reproduce them without comment.

1. As I mentioned, I've been hearing from authors and staff who say that they've been experiencing delayed or missing payments, going back months or longer. Could you comment on this, please? How are you addressing these issues? 

Yes, this is true and unfortunate. In the wake of recent setbacks, several payments have had to be deferred. As with many small businesses, we operate with tight profit margins and a small, rotating amount of operating capital. This year has been difficult for us, as it has for many publishers during this pandemic, but we are not giving up. We understand this unfortunate change of financial events have resulted in broken contracts and broken trust 

We have taken and are continuing to take all appropriate steps to rectify each situation accordingly. Payments are being made to team members within the parameters of their contracts and with applicable interest. All royalty payments to authors have been caught up. We are terminating two contracts as requested by backlist authors as a result. Additionally, we are negotiating with forthcoming authors whose contracts we have not broken but whose faith we have compromised, especially as the editors they signed with are departing from the company. We understand one of the largest contributing factors to signing a book with a small press is the team with which the authors plans to work as it drastically affects the outcome of the book. We care deeply about each book and want what is best for each author, even if it's not with us. 

 Although making payments late is not preferred--and neither is the resulting fall out--it is preferred over shutting our doors, as many publishers have been forced to do since the pandemic. We will get through this tough time without compromising our commitment to the authors who have put and renewed their faith in us. 

2. I understand that you've been asking at least some departing staff to sign non-disclosure agreements applying retroactively to their employment with Filles Vertes. Could you comment on why you feel this is necessary?

I am happy to comment. This is not true. We have asked two members of the staff who were also signed authors to sign a non-disclosure agreement as authors. This was a part of the initial offer for negotiations to receive their publishing rights back. The goal, as communicated with each author, was to protect confidential information about the company including but not limited to processes, budgets, and terms we have worked hard to build over the last four years in business. The proposed terms did not require non-compete clauses, as we want authors to use their best judgment for their future writing careers. Both authors have refused and we are not requiring them to sign but are currently in negotiations with each author to find an agreeable solution that does not include an NDA. 

3. I've seen several recent author termination agreements that include confidentiality clauses and require the author to release the publisher from all liability. These aren't things that are typically included in publishers' rights reversion documents. Could you comment on why you feel this is necessary? 

As stated above, none of these termination agreements were final agreements, but merely starting points for negotiations with authors whose contracts were not compromised in any way. Although a request may not be typical for an industry, we don't believe there is shame in asking for additional protective measures to preserve what we have worked tirelessly to create as a company. The goal was and continues to be an amicable solution for all parties involved. 

4. I've been told that a number of Filles Vertes staff members have recently resigned. Could you confirm whether this is the case? 

Yes, we are in the midst of a significant team changeover, which is common in growing businesses. Not only has the previous few months been a time of duress for many members of the publishing community, but after several months of trying to make the team function to our highest potential, it became clear that we could not find a solution to differences, varied expectations, and vision for the company's future direction. As a result, multiple team members have chosen to take what they've learned with FVP and pursue opportunities elsewhere, which we encourage and support. 

 Each member of the team, past and present, has contributed to the company's current status; to the successes and the lessons learned. We look forward to rebuilding with a stronger, more unified team to continue serving our purpose; to produce "Fresh, Wild, and Different" books for our valued readers. 

5. What are your plans for the publisher going forward? 

Filles Vertes Publishing has continued production of our forthcoming books without any plans for delayed releases. We are building a stronger marketing and sales team and are focusing many of our efforts locally to better serve our community in the Inland Northwest. We are pruning away processes that have proven ineffective and replacing them with simpler and more powerful systems of operation that better serve our authors and negate confusion. We will continue working with authors from around the world and commit to providing world-class support, especially to those who are new to their publishing journey. Additionally, we are narrowing the genres and age groups we work with to better serve our valued readers. Although we won't reopen to submissions for a few more months as we focus on rebuilding our team, we look forward to contributing to a bright literary future for many authors. 

We have many lessons to learn from and look forward to a brighter future. We will continue to grow with sincerity and well-earned character and wish nothing but the best for our previous team members and authors.

UPDATE 8/5/20: Here's what Myra DM'd to a former FVP staffer, after they commented on Twitter about this blog post. (Note the further confirmation of FVP's practice of forcing departing staff to sign NDAs.)



UPDATE  8/14/20: Filles Vertes Publishing is closing down. Authors have received emails to this effect, and all books are listed on the website at half-price, as FVP looks to reduce inventory. 

UPDATE 8/25/20: Filles Vertes has announced its closing date: August 27, 2020.


 
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