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).

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.) 

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
 
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