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.

September 25, 2020

Pay-to-Play Alert: Europe Books / Europa Edizioni / Gruppo Albatros Il Filo


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Over the past few weeks, I've gotten a number of questions about a publisher called Europe Books (EB). It's part of a complex of "brands" under the umbrella of Gruppo Editoriale Europa, including Europa Edizioni (Italy), Europa Ediciones (Spain), and Europa Verlagsgruppe (Germany)*

EB's motto: "Our Books Travel the World." 
We live in a time of great political and social changes, of liquid boundaries and cultural contaminations. This context makes it inevitable that literatures rapidly lose their national connotation and gain a more extended European trait. Over the past 15 years, we have established our leadership by reaching a wider audience which is not confined to the Italian borders. We opened branch offices in the main European capitals. Both our bestselling writers and emerging authors are published simultaneously in Italy, Spain, Germany and, from now on, in England as well. France and the United States are our next goals.
Despite the slightly shaky English on display in the paragraph above, EB looks--at least to the casual glance--like a traditional publisher, boasting important-seeming titles in Italian editions by Barack Obama and Pope Francis, along with bestsellers by Adam Kay, Melvyn Bragg, and more.

On closer examination, however, it turns out that most of those titles have not been published by EB at all, but by other imprints of EB's parent company, Gruppo Albatros Il Filo (more on that below). There's also a distinct promoting-to-authors vibe on EB's website, with much mention of "emerging authors" and touting of the publicity EB says it provides. There's also this: a "submit your unpublished manuscript" page offering "evaluation" of a laundry list of markets and genres, from fiction to non-fiction to children's books to "degree theses" (not generally a category in which reputable publishers are actively seeking submissions). An equivalent page appears on each of the company's websites. There's even a standalone URL

Some caution is always in order when a publisher focuses recruitment efforts on unpublished authors; not infrequently, what the publisher is really after is inexperienced writers who'll be less likely to recognize a bad deal when they're offered one. And indeed:


"Co-production" equals pay-to-play. "May or may not" usually equals pretty much always.

Writers who submit to Europe Books, or are solicited to submit (EB seems to be active in that regard) are told that they must buy 200 copies of their own books--not at discount, but at cover price, with amounts running into four figures. Publication happens only upon payment in full. The order form is part of the contract:

Self-purchase requirements are a common way for vanity publishers to dodge the vanity label. It's not an upfront fee, it's just you buying your own books! But whether you pay upfront or after the fact, the bottom line is that you must give your publisher cash in order to be published. 

Far from being "co-productions"--which imply that the publisher is investing something of value--pay-to-play publishing offers are usually carefully calculated to cover not just the entire expense of publishing your book, but the publisher's overhead and profit as well. And a publisher that has made a profit before the book is even released is unlikely to be highly motivated to cut into that by providing high-quality editing, design (you can judge the quality of EB's book covers here), distribution, or marketing (EB's promised marketing, detailed in its contract, focuses on cheap and not-very-useful methods like website listings, press releases, and email blasts).

Note also the promise of a refund if 500 copies sell (those sales, of course, exclude ebooks and any copies bought by the author). Where fee-based publishers promise refunds, the benchmark has been set where it is because it's almost never reached. 

Other EB contract lowlights: 10% net royalties on electronic editions, sales reports just once a year and only on request, a two-year contract term with no possibility of renewal, and the ability of the author to cancel at any time. While that might sound good, the latter two provisions emphasize that it's all about the (upfront) money: once the writer has paid in full, EB has received its profit, and any sales are gravy. It thus has no need for an extended claim on the books themselves. 

As mentioned above, EB and the other Europa imprints under the Gruppo Editoriale Europa umbrella are just one branch of a larger group, Italian publisher Gruppo Albatros Il Filo. Albatros owns two additional imprints, Vertigo Edizioni and Lastaria Edizioni--which are the actual publishers of most of the recognizable authors and titles claimed on the websites of EB and its Europa cousins. 

Clearly, Albatros does at least some traditional publishing through Vertigo and Lastaria; it's not very likely that Barack Obama and Pope Francis--not to mention successful writers like Adam Kay (This Is Going To Hurt) and Jean Teule (Le Magasin des Suicides)--agreed to buy their own books in order to be published by these imprints. 

However, both Albatros and Vertigo have recruitment pages similar to those on the websites of the Europa brands; and writers' own experiences confirm pay-to-play offers from both. They've been doing it for a long time, too. In a 2012 expose, Italian author and journalist Alessandro Cascio describes sending Albatros a trunk manuscript, and receiving an offer requiring him to buy 300 copies of his book for around 3,000 euros. The reward? If sales (excluding his own buys, of course) reached 300 copies, he could publish a subsequent book and not have to purchase anything.

Of all the imprints, the only one that doesn't seem to be recruiting is Lastaria--but given the consistency of the business model across the rest of this company, I wouldn't be at all surprised if it plays the same game. 

Always remember: reputable traditional publishers don't require authors to pay anything or buy anything as a condition of publication. 

* Not to be confused with Europa Editions, a well-regarded New York-based independent publisher.

September 18, 2020

Dissecting a Scam: Fact & Fiction Entertainment and Literary Agency

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

In the past week, I've gotten two questions about solicitations from a literary agency called Fact & Fiction.* As I've mentioned many times on this blog, it is rare for agents to cold-call writers...but that's not to say it absolutely never happens.

Here's the solicitation.

Unlike other solicitations I've been writing about lately, this one is actually somewhat credible--at least if you don't look too closely. It mentions the writer's work (I've redacted their book title, along with their name). It provides a rationale for reaching out that's not blindingly bogus on its face. Aside from the one typo, there are no glaring English-language errors. It doesn't ask for money.

Of course, it's odd that a literary agent would boast about being top of the slush pile--since the whole point of having an agent is avoiding the slush pile. And a request that a manuscript be "professionally edited" should always spark caution (for reasons that are explained here).

Still, an eager or inexperienced writer could be pardoned for mistaking this for a serious approach. Even I, when I first saw this email, didn't immediately tag it as a scam; I thought it might be a marginal agency looking to expand its client list. There are a lot of these; since they lack contacts and expertise, they specialize in placing books with smaller publishers, including many that don't typically work with agents. Whether it's worth paying a 15% commission for placement with a publisher you could have approached on your own is an open question--but at least (most) such agencies aren't overtly fraudulent. 

Then I looked at Fact & Fiction's website


The instant I saw that last sentence, I knew I probably wasn't dealing with a marginal-but-honest agency. Book-to-screen scams--where an unscrupulous operator cold-calls writers, claiming to be able to bring their books to Hollywood's attention for enormous fees--are among the most common solicitations these days, now that the book fair display racket has become a non-starter due to the pandemic. Any time you see "book-to-screen", warning bells should start to ring. (Another red flag: Fact & Fiction's page for this supposedly robust program is...blank.)

There's more. On its About page, Fact & Fiction claims to have started up in 2005...


...yet its web domain is only 86 days old.


Perhaps that explains why Googling the agency's name (and various permutations thereof) turns up absolutely nothing, including any trace of its "satellite office in Los Angeles, California" (its Manhattan address does exist, but--surprise!--it's a virtual office.) A successful agency--especially one in business for so many years--should have a much bigger online footprint, even if it's publicity-shy. 

As for Fact & Fiction's "topnotch literary agents", who are purportedly named and pictured in this extremely bogus-looking organizational chart...they too are a big bag of nothing. Publishers Marketplace has never heard of any of them. Websearches on the more distinctive names turn up no references to agents, publishing professionals--or, in some cases, actual living humans--anywhere online. 

Also MIA: a client list, which most reputable agencies' websites will prominently feature. Conveniently, this makes it impossible to verify either the multitude of publisher "partnerships" or the august array of awards and honors touted on the agency's home page. (Psst, SFWA: they're using the Nebula logo.)

What about a sales list? Agents are usually eager to proclaim their sales; it's an indication of success and a form of advertising. But Fact & Fiction doesn't mention sales, either. 

That, however, is a recent development.

When I looked at Fact & Fiction's website on Tuesday of this week, it included a "Gallery" link to a page of book covers, mostly YA and middle grade novels, many by well-known writers such as Sarah J. Maas, Ann Aguirre, and Jennifer Echols. It wasn't explicitly stated that these were books the agency had sold--but that was definitely the implication. 


Given the degree to which Fact & Fiction was proving to be fiction rather than fact, I was dubious. I contacted one of the authors, who confirmed that they'd never heard of the agency. I also put out a tweet, which resulted in more confirmations:

I don't know if any of the authors or agents contacted Fact & Fiction themselves (there is an email address on the website), or if whoever's behind the scam watches Twitter--the many Philippines-based scamsters are well aware of me and my warnings--but when I checked in on Wednesday afternoon, poof! The "Gallery" link was gone. (Though not the page; it's apparently just the link that has been removed.)

The only thing missing from this so-fake-it's-almost-awesome picture was a demand for money...though I was sure I'd hear about that in due time. And I did--that same Wednesday, even sooner than I expected--from a writer who was asked for editing fees. Fortunately the writer smelled a rat, and was able to initiate a dispute with their credit card company to get their money back:


Here's Mr. Jan Carlo Carpio. Guess where he's from?

And here's Andie Millstone, the day after the writer got their refund, trying to salvage the scam by persuading the writer that it was all a big mistake, and their "dues" actually needed to go somewhere else:

"Partner editing firm" Beacon Books Agency is--you guessed it--one of the Philippines-based publishing and marketing scams listed in the sidebar of this blog (also in this post). It's not uncommon for the scams to operate under multiple names, and for writers recruited by one name to be routed to a differently-named company for payment.

I've amended my scam list to include Fact & Fiction and its relationship to Beacon Books Agency.

Writers, I can't say it enough. While it is very rare for reputable agents, publishers, or PR companies to phone or email authors out of the blue with offers of service, invitations to submit, claims you've been recommended by nameless book scouts or referred by Amazon (yes, I've seen this), or anything else--for scammers, solicitation is a primary recruitment tool.

Any contact of this type should make you extremely cautious. Resist the appeal to your emotions (the scammers are counting on you not doing so), and don't respond before thoroughly investigating whatever company or individual has targeted you. Carefully peruse the company's or individual's website (and be wary if they don't have one). Do a websearch; are there complaints? If there are claims of success, can you find independent evidence to corroborate them? Ask a question on social media. DM me on Twitter or drop me a line at Writer Beware. 

The best remedy for scams is not to fall victim to them in the first place.

* Not to be confused with the identically-named advertising agencybased in Boulder, CO.

September 4, 2020

Contest Beware: "Lovecraft Country" Short Story Contest


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

HBO's buzzed-about new series Lovecraft Country has spawned a short story contest: For the Love of the Craft

Co-sponsored by HBO and The Root, the contest invites writers "to pick a decade or an important moment in Black American history, and weave a tale of the monsters that litter that time." There's a $5,000 prize for the winner, along with publication of their story on The Root and mentoring from writers on the show. The submission deadline is September 18.

As always, the devil is in the details. In this case, as so often with writing competitions, that's the official contest rules. (These are only accessible via Submittable, and you must have an account.) Here's the passage that concerns me:


To break the small-print legal language down:
  • Just by submitting your entry, you agree to grant HBO and G/O Media, Inc. (The Root's parent company) an exclusive six-month license to your work. 
  • The license is "irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, fully-paid-up and royalty-free, sub-licensable, [and] transferable", and empowers HBO and The Root "to use, publish, distribute, copy, edit, adapt, and perform your Entry or any elements thereof...online, in print, or in any other format, for any commercial or noncommercial purposes (e.g., marketing; advertising or native advertising; promotion; editorial coverage), whether related or unrelated to the Contest."
All of this is, no doubt, intended to allow HBO and The Root to market and publicize the contest, rather than to engage in the wholesale theft of rights. Nowhere in the contest description or rules is it indicated that any entries other than the winner's will be published. On the other hand, nothing in the rules prevents The Root from publishing entrants other than the winner--or bars HBO from, for instance, turning an entry into an episode. And remember, the license is "royalty-free."

Bottom line: I don't suspect nefarious intent here, but this is a very sweeping license, and there are potential unforeseen consequences. You need to be sure you understand what you're agreeing to here, and are comfortable with all that it implies. 
  • After the exclusivity period expires, all "rights, title, license, and copyright" revert back to you.
This is mentioned in The Root's contest announcement as well: "We'll retain the rights to your story for six months, after which the rights revert back to you." So while the license you've granted to your intellectual property is very expansive, it is also time-limited (note: the license does not include an explicit grant of copyright). Where publication is part of a prize, contest sponsors often require a temporary grant of rights to cover the judging period, so that entrants' works will still be fully rights-available by the time the winner or winners are chosen. That's acceptable as long as the grant expires as soon as the winner is announced (and, of course, as long as you're okay with your rights being tied up for that period of time). 

But wait--there's also this:
  • "After the Exclusivity Period, you grant to Sponsor and HBO an irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, fully-paid-up and royalty-free, sub-licensable, transferable right and license to use the Entry as described herein."
Say what? Didn't the rules just state that all your rights revert back to you once the six-month exclusivity period is up? How can the contest sponsors be claiming those exact same rights--a claim that, don't forget, is irrevocable and perpetual and applies to every single entry--at the exact same time as they're apparently relinquishing the very same claim? The one should cancel out the other. If your rights have returned to you, the sponsors shouldn't be claiming them. If the sponsors want a perpetual claim on your rights, why include reversion language at all?

I have no idea what's really going on here. It's always possible that the post-exclusivity rights claim is a careless mistake of wording: a bit of legalese that slipped past the proofreader and shouldn't have been included. Or maybe the second rights claim is meant to be non-exclusive, and that word just got left out. If there is error, I hope HBO and The Root will promptly address it (The Root also needs to take a look at its contest announcement, which encourages writers to believe their rights revert after six months.)

At the very least, though, the rules for this contest currently include a major ambiguity that raises a number of questions and could potentially have serious consequences--most concerning of which is that, per the literal wording of the rules, simply entering the contest entails a perpetual and irrevocable--and apparently exclusive, since nothing states otherwise--grant of rights to your entry, whether you win or not. 

Also worth noting: there's nothing in the rules to guarantee that publication of the winning entry will carry the winner's name, and the Dispute Resolution clause, which bars class action, also bars disputants from claiming anything other than "actual out-of-pocket expenses (i.e. costs associated with entering this Contest)".

UPDATE 9/7/20: .The Root's contest announcement states this, which is misleading, for the reasons outlined above: 


Shouldn't The Root, or its parent company, want to provide accurate information to would-be contestants? Apparently, not so much. I've left this comment on the announcement page twice, once on 9/4 and once on 9/5:
Neither comment has been approved. When I checked just now, they were both still "pending" (for comparison, several articles posted more recently than the contest announcement have numerous approved comments.) Nor has the misleading claim about rights been corrected.
 
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