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.

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.

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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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