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.

March 26, 2021

Scammers Taking Big 5 Publishers' Names in Vain: A Growing Trend


I've been doing the Writer Beware thing for quite some time, and I Have Seen Some Shit. 

But this solicitation from a Philippines-based publishing and marketing scammer calling itself Right Choice Multimedia (among other names) is one of the most disgusting things that has come across my desk in a while...and that's saying something. 

Here it is in its entirety. Read it and boggle. You can also scroll down directly to my (far more grammatical) debunking. Be sure to read all the way to the end, because I have some things to say about why Big 5 publishers should care that their trademarks and reputations are being co-opted in this way.


 


Right Choice Multimedia may not be able to produce a grammatical email, but it has a keen grasp of author psychology. Not only are writers being offered a shortcut to the glorious goal of traditional publication, they're specially invited (You're Exceptional!), and success is virtually guaranteed (Money Well Spent!) 

Of course, this is not how things work in the real world. Consortiums of major publishers don't "sponsor" vast collective slush piles, or solicit random authors to submit to them. Literary agents don't create "endorsement letters" at the behest of nameless committees, or acquire clients by assignment. There is no such thing as The Literary Review of Books Magazine. (There is a  Top Ten Magazine, but I'm guessing it would be surprised to find itself included here.)

The whole point of the scam is to get writers to buy a "ticket"--from which nothing will result, other than, perhaps, demands for more money for more worthless "services":


Check that "VIP Suite"! Accompanying the tickets is a series of obviously fabricated testimonials, to which the names of real authors have been attached:




As is often the case with this type of scam, it is operating under more than one name. Account Executive Sam Deeds of scammer Right Choice Multimedia touts his "Official Hollywood Profile", but if you click on the link, it delivers you to the IMDb page of Victor Ross, also of Right Choice Multimedia, but doing double duty as a "literary agent" for scammer West Literary Agency (I've written about West Literary Agency here). All four of the "in development" projects claimed by "Sam" show up on "Victor's" profile; all four have been published by an Author Solutions imprint (Author Solutions authors are overseas scammers' favorite targets), and all four show West Literary Agency as the production company. 



Needless to say, these projects are as fake as the testimonials--although the authors who have paid a bundle for their books to be turned into screenplays or films or whatever "service" was pitched to them may not yet know it.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I've written extensively about the class of scams of which Right Choice Multimedia/West Literary Agency is a part, and collected reams of documentation, including solicitation emails, contracts, and other materials. In 2014, when I first identified them, the scams focused primarily on selling overpriced publishing packages and junk marketing, especially book fair "representation" and display. 

As time has passed, however, increasing competition (there are now more than 125 of these companies, and I'm certain that's an undercount), efforts to expose them (primarily my own), and more recently, the pandemic-fueled shutdown of book fairs and other in-person events, have pushed them to employ different techniques (book-to-screen packages and vanity radio) and more baroque schemes: impersonating real agents and literary scouts; creating a stable of fake agents complete with websites and biographies; and the solicitation that's the subject of this post, in which Big 5 publishers are presented as sponsors of an elaborate pay-to-play submission scheme.

The scams--virtually all of which are based in the Philippines, despite their apparent US addresses and phone numbers--largely fly below the radar of the traditional publishing industry. In part, this is because their targets--writers who've self-published with exploitative companies like Author Solutions, small press authors, and vulnerable groups such as the elderly and disabled--are not really that industry's constituency (unless, of course, they're being recruited to a Big 5 pay-to-play division), and the scammers' activities have little to no impact on the business of traditional publishing. There's not a lot of incentive, therefore, for publishers to take action or push back--or even, really, to take notice of what's going on. (One writer who contacted PRH about a scam solicitation using the PRH name received a response from someone in administration who assumed the writer was referring to phishing scams on Upwork. Several others who tried to alert other Big 5 houses told me they received no response at all.)

The scammers rely on this, and their overseas location, to protect them. And they are getting bolder. It used to be rare for them to purport to be in "partnership" or "created by" or otherwise connected with or acting with the approval of Big 5 houses, but in the last year it's become common. I've seen faked-up emails from HarperCollins, solicitations claiming to be from Picador (an imprint of Macmillan), contract offers from an outfit called Stephenson and Queen that pretends to be an "imprint" of Thomas Nelson (it has registered a domain but as yet has no website). 

Scammers are using the names of real Big 5 editors and other staff to pitch their "services". Just the other day a writer told me that they received a phone solicitation from someone claiming to represent Penguin, who then referred them to scammer SPARK Literary and Marketing "for the details on securing a contract." And check out these "new submission guidelines", also supposedly from Penguin, but really created by Silver Ink Literary Agency to convince writers to pay for editing so their books can be "endorsed": 


As poorly put-together and obviously false as many of these efforts are, people do fall for them. A lot.

The authors whose names have been attached to the fake testimonials above would surely object to their identities and reputations being used to defraud unsuspecting writers. Shouldn't the Big 5 houses also be concerned about the blatant misuse of their names and trademarks, even if the scams don't affect their bottom line? I'm not suggesting that PRH and Harper and the rest rush out and file lawsuits in the Philippines. But it would be nice if they focused a fraction of the attention on these scams that they've devoted to a different solicitation-and-impersonation scam that targets trad-pubbed authors. 

Public warnings would be a good place to start--ideally on publishers' home pages, but at least on submission pages and on the websites of targeted imprints like Picador and Thomas Nelson. If the Combined Book Exhibit could post a scam warning when it discovered that Filipino scammers were misappropriating its name and services, surely PRH et al. can do so too. And how about outreach to an organization like the Alliance of Independent Authors, which advocates for self-publishers--or even to Author Solutions, from which the scammers draw their largest victim pool--and with which three of the Big 5 already have or have had a relationship?

Contact me. I'll be glad to assist in any way I can.

UPDATE 4/11/21: I'm thrilled to announce that all five publishers have contacted me to express their eagerness to do all they can to warn authors about the scammers that are misusing their names and logos!

Just kidding. I haven't heard from a single one.

In other news, Right Choice Multimedia has torn another leaf from the Author Solutions playbook, and established its own fake publisher/agency matching site


March 19, 2021

Contract Red Flag: When a Publisher Claims Copyright on Edits



This is an updated version of a post I published a couple of years ago.

It's not all that common, but I do see it from time to time in small press publishing contracts that I review: a publisher claiming ownership of the editing and copy editing it provides, or making the claim implicitly by reverting rights only to the original manuscript submitted by the author.

Are there legal grounds for such a claim? One would think that by printing a copyright notice inside a published book, and encouraging the author to register copyright or registering on the author's behalf, publishers are acknowledging that there is not. It's hard to know, though, because the issue doesn't seem to have been tested in the courts. There's not even much discussion. Where you do find people talking about copyright in the context of editing, it's usually related to editors as independent contractors, such as how authors hiring freelancers should make sure they own the editor's work product, or how freelance editors might use a claim of copyright interest as leverage in payment disputes.

In 2011, Romance Writers of America published a brief legal opinion on the copyrightability of editorial input (it's on the RWA website, but unfortunately not accessible by the public), indicating that the claim would probably not prevail in court. But that's the only legal discussion I've been able to find.

The legal ambiguity of a copyright claim on editing is good reason to treat it as a publishing contract red flag. But that's not all.

It's not standard industry practice. No reputable publisher that I know of, large or small, deprives the author of the right to re-publish the final edited version of their book or story, either in its contracts or upon rights reversion. One might argue that in pre-digital days, this wasn't something publishers needed to consider--books and stories, once reverted, were rarely re-published--whereas these days it's common for authors to self-publish or otherwise bring their backlists back into circulation. But publishers haven't been slow to lay claim to the panoply of new rights created by the digital revolution. If there were any advantage to preventing writers from re-publishing their fully-edited works, you can bet it would have become common practice. It hasn't.

Publishers can and do legitimately claim ownership of their own work product, such as cover art, design, and interior formatting. But is editing the publisher's work product? Editing is--or should be--a collaboration between author and editor. The editor makes suggestions; the author implements them. In any fully-edited manuscript, it's likely that most if not all of the actual re-writing and revision will have been done by the author. Why should a publisher be able to claim ownership of that?

Finally, there's the question of benefit or damage. What material benefit does a publisher gain by forbidding an author to re-publish their fully-edited book? How does it damage a publisher if a rights-reverted book is brought back into circulation as originally published? Other than satisfying a misguided and pointless desire for possession or control, none and not at all.

Nevertheless, through ignorance, possessiveness, or simple greed, publishers sometimes do make this claim. As far as I can tell, this is strictly a phenomenon of the small press world; I've never seen it in a contract from a larger publisher. Below are some examples of the kind of language you may encounter (all bolding is mine).

This is from Uncial Press:
Contract may be terminated by either the author or publisher with a 90-day written, certified mail notice or other receipted or traceable delivery service, and all rights to the original, unedited manuscript granted the publisher will revert to Author at the time of the termination.
From Idyll Arbor, Inc.:
An editor will be assigned by Company to prepare the Book for publication. All editorial changes will remain the property of Company.
In this contract from Totally Entwined Group (which also does business as Totally Bound), the publisher appears to be claiming ownership not just of edits, but of the edited book itself. The publisher may not actually intend such a sweeping claim--small presses often don't fully understand the implications of their own contract language. But as written, this clause is seriously problematic.
The Publisher shall own all intellectual property rights in any edited version of the Original Work, including, but not limited to, the Final Edited Version (and the Author hereby unconditionally assigns such rights to the Publisher)
Some publishers use a copyright claim on edits as a way to make a buck as the author goes out the door. This is also Totally Entwined/Totally Bound, from an older version of its contract (the money demand does not appear in the more recent contract quoted above):
Upon expiration of this Agreement, should the Author wish to acquire rights to the final edited version of the Work, the Author agrees to pay the Publisher:
2.5.1 £250.00 for a Novel;
2.5.2 £80.00 Novella;
2.5.3 £40.00 a Short Story.
2.6 In consideration of any payment made according to clause 2.5 or clause 2.7, the Publisher and the editing staff agree to release any and all further claim to payment for the final edited version of the Work.
Storm Moon Press is no longer extant, but it too wanted to retain the right to edits, and authors had to pay if they wanted to use them:
All rights to the original Work as submitted will revert to the Authorwithout prejudice upon expiration of this contract. Should the Author wish to acquire rights to the final formatted and typeset digital files, he or she agrees to compensate Publisher in the amount of two hundred dollars ($200). In consideration of this payment, Publisher agrees to release any and all further claim to compensation for the finished Work.
Ditto for eXtasy Books Inc.:
All rights to the original Work as submitted will revert to Author without prejudice upon expiration of Contract. Should Author wish to acquire rights to the final edited version, he or she agrees to compensate the assigned editor and/or copyeditor in the amount of $500 less royalties received for the editor or $250 less royalties received for the copyeditor. In consideration of this payment, the editor/copyeditor agrees to release any and all further claim to compensation for the finished Work.
Vanity publisher GenZ Publishing doesn't explictly claim copyright on edits, but it does prohibit authors from using them--which is especially obnoxious since it keeps up to $2,500 of authors' royalties to pay for, among other things, editing:
The Author cannot use any version of the book that has GenZ Publishing edits or comments from editors, proofreaders, or other staff associated with GenZ or Zenith Publishing.
Crooked Cat Publishing's contract does not include a copyright claim on editing. However, the publisher makes that demand after the fact, in its reversion notice. Beyond any other legal questions, a publisher has zero standing to demand something that's not in the contract:
We kindly ask that you NOT use the completed final, edited copy of this title to re-submit elsewhere or self-publish. We request that you make changes, however subtle, to the content of the edited, released version, so that it is not an exact re-publication of the version we published.
Claret Press is another publisher that makes extra-contractual claims on editing, using this dubious logic:
At the moment, because you have not paid for...edits, the intellectual property still belongs to [the publisher]. If you do not use any aspect of the edits, then you do not have to pay....If however, when you publish the books, there is any aspect of any piece of your writing that relates to anything in the...edits...then you have violated [the publisher's] ownership of...intellectual property.
Writer Beware, indeed.

For any lawyers reading, I'd be interested to know your thoughts on this issue.

March 12, 2021

Scam Alert: Paper Bytes Marketing Solutions, Blueprint Press, and Their Stable of Imaginary Literary Agents


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Once upon a time, there was a publishing and marketing scammer called Chapters Media and Advertising, owned by one Mark Joseph Rosario. Chapters pretended to be a US company--it even had dual business registrations in Wyoming and Florida, as well as a purported address in Nevada--but in reality, it operated out of the Philippines (much like its many brethren).

Chapters was an unusually devious little scammer. In addition to offering the usual substandard publishing services and junk marketing ripoffs, it had a sideline in impersonating literary professionals, including agent Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Agency and literary scout Clare Richardson of Maria B. Campbell Associates. I've written about both of these impersonation scams (as well as the issue more generally; Chapters was not the only one doing this).

I don't know if it was my posts that did it, but Rosario apparently felt that Chapters had received too much exposure--because sometime in the past couple of months, he abandoned the old Chapters website (along with the website of an associated scam, TechBooks Media) and rebooted as a pair of new companies: Paper Bytes Marketing Solutions and Blueprint Press.

Here's the "paper" trail tying Chapters to Paper Bytes; note the officer names and identical Florida "head office" addresses (that address, by the way, is a vacant lot).




And here's the trail tying Rosario to Blueprint Press (which purportedly is based in Oregon):


(Also see the Update toward the bottom of this post for more evidence pointing to Mark Rosario.)

To go with his brand new companies, Rosario has initiated a brand new scam: a stable of imaginary literary agents. It's an unusually detailed endeavor, with actual websites for many of the agents (albeit not very good ones) that include photos--some stock, some stolen--as well as made-up bios and false claims about who/what they represent. All share the email address @bookliteraryagent.com, which no doubt is convenient for the interchangeable roster of Paper Bytes/Blueprint marketers who inhabit these agent personas, but also makes them easier to track and expose.

I'll list them all below. But first, How It All Works!

Targeted writers (who, as with all the Philippines-based scams, are primarily self-pubbed or small press) receive a solicitation like this one:


Too good to be true? You bet. If the writer responds, they're told that, while the agent is Commission Only! No Fees Ever! they will still have to tap into their bank accounts. For instance, Imaginary Agent may excitedly relay this news:
Amazing! Fantastic! Once in a lifetime! All the author has to do is provide the requested treatment. Now, they could write it themselves--although that would be awfully difficult to accomplish because, naturally, there's a deadline. Not to worry: Imaginary Agent has a "trusted" company that can do the job.


Writers who decline to pay receive a succession of additional fake treatment requests, from Netflix, HBO, and more, with pressure to capitulate each time. One writer told me that their Imaginary Agent claimed they'd be blacklisted in the film industry if they continued to refuse.

Here's a different solicitation, from another Imaginary Agent. Note the @bookliteraryagent.com email address:


This one is a re-publication scam. The writer is offered "licensing" so that their book can be re-published, supposedly to improve its prospects of a "mainstream" contract (even though re-publishing an already-published book so it can be published a third time makes absolutely no sense, and is not how it works in any case), plus "book returnability insurance" that's as imaginary as the agent is. Services will be provided courtesy of a totally unrelated company, Paper Bytes, which doesn't usually deal with lowly self-pubbed writers but is willing to make an exception, thanks to the efforts of trusty Imaginary Agent:


Alternatively, the "services" recommended come from Blueprint.

Plenty of writers who receive these emails will smell a rat: from the out-of-the-blue solicitations to the laughably rudimentary websites (see below) to the poor written English, there are a ton of scam markers here. But like the Nigerian email scammers, Mark Rosario and scammers like him just need a tiny number of potential victims to buy in in order to make a profit. 

Those who do pay up will be pressured to spend more money for more bogus services; eventually, when they start asking too many questions or the scammers judge that they are tapped out, they will simply be abandoned, their emails unreturned, their phone calls blocked, and their bank accounts considerably smaller.

******

Here are the imaginary agents I've identified so far.

Alexander Sy
Email: alexander.sy@bookliteraryagent.com
Alexander boasts an impressive-sounding but strategically vague bio ("His success in the independent publishing industry helped him become the youngest Senior Traditional Marketing Executive, in partnership with some of the largest Traditional Houses in the world") and a new and notable page that encourages potential victims to believe that he reps Robin Cook and Andrew Mayne, among others. His is the one photo I couldn't confirm was stolen or a downloaded freebie--but it sure looks fake. 

Lola Moira Ventura
Email: lola.ventura@bookliteraryagent.com
According to her bio, Lola is "a Mexican American literary book expert, author's adviser. In 2012, she founded Ravenous Romance Books, an e-book publishing company" (this might surprise actual Ravenous Romance founder Lori Perkins). The accompanying photo has been stolen from an article about author Maaza Mengiste. Imaginary Lola wants unwary writers to be wowed by her imaginary track record, which includes James Comey and Rick Gates.

John Morris
Email: john.morris@bookliteraryagent.com
"I started as a jr. literary agent at Writers House and Trident Media before I decided to venture as an independent literary agent." Impressive! John's I'm-too-sexy-for-my-shades photo has been borrowed from free image website Unsplash. Chuck Pahlaniuk and N.K. Jemisin might be startled to discover themselves on John's Books page.

Mia Sanders
Email: mia.sanders@bookliteraryagent.com
Mia claims to be "a frequent speaker at writer’s conferences and conventions from romance to kink and attends approximately 13 conferences a year." Her photo is from Unsplash, the free image website, where it's alt-tagged "woman in pink crew-neck shirt in closeup photography". Mia is the only imaginary agent who doesn't claim to have repped Big 5-published books from major authors: the covers on her Books page--which, oddly, have all been stripped of authors' names--all come from an Author Solutions imprint or another Philippines-based scammer.

Jessica Myers
Email: jessica.myers@bookliteraryagent.com
Jessica has a terrific work background! "I started as a jr. literary agent at Writers House and Trident Media before I decided to venture as an independent literary agent." Her Book Gallery encourages writers to believe that she reps Jennifer Armentrout and Susan Sallis, among a grab bag of other authors. Like her buddy "Lola Ventura," Jessica hasn't bothered with free images; she has appropriated the image of Juliana Martins, a cosmetics expert.

Harry Taylor
Email: harry.taylor@bookliteraryagent.com
Harry is one handsome, happy dude! Just one problem: he's been downloaded from free image site Unsplash, where his photo is alt-tagged "smiling man standing between brown concrete buildings at daytime". Harry too "cut his teeth in publishing" at a prestigious agency--Writers House--and according to his Books page, he reps Chuck Palahniuk, putting him in direct competition with his imaginary colleague John Morris, who claims to rep the very same book by that author. I guess it gets boring copying book cover images to paste into your imaginary agents' websites.

Lloyd Perkins
Email: lloyd.perkins@bookliteraryagent.com
I'm getting a 403 notice today when I try to access Lloyd's website, which was extant a couple of weeks ago when I began researching this post. You can still see a cached version, though, and here's Lloyd's About page, where he claims to have "worked with" real writers such as Lisa Jewell and A.S.A. Harrison, whose books supposedly are "now being considered by one of the Top 5 traditional publishers in the US". Except...oh dear...looks like those books were actually published years ago.



As with two of his imaginary brethren, Lloyd's photo is stolen: it's been purloined from a business photographer's website.

Chris Archer
Email: chris.archer@bookliteraryagent.com
Website: Chris is one of several members of the Imaginary Agent squad who doesn't have a website, but he uses the same email address and solicitation style as the rest.


Bryan Archer
Email: bryan.archer@bookliteraryagent.com
Bryan is Chris's (imaginary) twin brother. He uses the same signature block (just with "Bryan" instead of "Chris"), and also has no website--but, no slouch at the impersonation game, has concocted an elaborate, four-page, laughably fake resume that he provides to authors who are savvy enough to ask about his bona fides. Here's page 1 (you can see the whole thing here):


Johnny Saints
Email: johnny.saints@bookliteraryagent.com
Like his buddies Chris and Bryan, Johnny has no website, but his 7-page resume is equally fake, from boasts of professional success to claims of famous clients (surprise, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ernest Cline: meet your REAL agent!) His photo looks a bit more convincing than some of the others, but no doubt it's stolen too.


Casey Howard
Email: casey.howard@bookliteraryagent.com
Casey is another Imaginary Agent who doesn't have a fake website, but his email solicitations are identical to those of his imaginary brethren (see this comment below).

UPDATE: I'm kicking myself for dropping the ball, but the one thing I didn't do in researching this post was to check the domain registration info for the fake agent websites (partly because I had so much other evidence of fakery, but also because scammers are good about anonymizing). If I had, I would have discovered that all but one of them look like this:



Amazingly, Mark Rosario has been careless enough to allow his name (not to mention his Cebu address) to appear on these registrations (see the first image in this post). Oops.

Thanks to the anonymous commenter who drew my attention to this.

******
How to protect yourself?

1. Know how things work in the publishing world. Real literary agents don't sell services to potential clients, or refer them to companies that do. Real agents 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 isn't automatically suspect--as commenters have pointed out on a number of my other posts, it does sometimes happen. But it is not common. With the volume of scams currently in operation, out-of-the-blue contacts are far more likely to be illegitimate than on the level. Caution is always in order--especially if it sounds too good to be true.

3. Mistrust--and verify. Do a websearch...and do it BEFORE you respond. A real agent, with real sales, will have at least some web presence; be suspicious if you find nothing, or almost nothing (strategically, Paper Bytes' imaginary agents have common names or names that are similar to celebrities', making them harder to research). Vet the agent's website: my recent blog post unmasking a fake agency provides some tips for that. If the agent claims to rep authors or books, or to have worked at a particular agency or publisher, see if you can verify whether this is true (often you can find out who agents an author with a simple websearch, or by visiting the author's website).

4. Use your common sense. Out of the blue, too good to be true? Extra-careful research is in order. Also...anyone can make an occasional typo. But agents selling rights in English-language markets are capable of speaking and writing grammatical English. No reputable agent would send out language-challenged emails like the ones above.

5. Contact me at Writer Beware. Always a good default. I may have heard something, or received complaints. If I have, I'll let you know.

UPDATE 4/12/21: Five days ago (as of this writing), Mark Rosario resuscitated Chapters Media & Advertising with a new domain name (chaptersmediaad.net) and a new website. The address: that vacant lot in Defuniak Springs, Florida.

March 2, 2021

Publisher Cautions: Riverdale Avenue Books, Breaking Rules Publishing, Adelaide Books


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®


Riverdale Avenue Books was founded in 2012 by literary agent Lori Perkins of the L. Perkins Agency. Riverdale, which describes itself as a "hybrid" publisher even though, as far as I know, it does not charge fees, boasts a whopping 13 imprints, covering everything from erotica to mystery to sports and lifestyle titles.

It also, apparently, has trouble providing royalty statements and author copies.

Writer Beware has received a number of complaints from Riverdale anthology and book authors who cite publication delays, poor copy editing, late or missing royalty statements, non-provision of contractually-promised print author copies, and poor communication (for instance, authors finding out about to-be-published stories only when other authors spotted the stories in proof copies).

I've also seen royalty statements for several RAB anthologies, which appear to sell in miniscule numbers (for example, several years into its five-year contract term, one anthology had sold just 35 copies in total, according to correspondence from RAB). RAB has a policy of not paying out anthology royalties at all until at least $50 is due; this benchmark is stipulated in most of the RAB anthology contracts I've seen--but not in all, and even where it's not, the $50 benchmark has been cited as a reason for not providing royalty checks.

Lori Perkins' previous publishing venture, Ravenous Romance, was the focus of similar complaints before it shut down in 2016 (some examples can be seen in the comments thread on this post from the Dear Author blog). In particular, it stirred conflict of interest concerns, in part because of Perkins' dual position as owner of an agency and part-owner/editorial director of Ravenous, but also because Perkins Agency agents and Perkins herself were placing clients' manuscripts with Ravenous. Similar concerns exist for RAB--something that is explicitly acknowledged in at least some RAB book contracts:


******

Breaking Rules Publishing (BRP) bills itself as "an open and inclusive publishing house" that was founded "to help writers break down the system."

Indications at its website, however, are not auspicious. Founder Christopher Clawson-Rule had no professional publishing or writing experience before starting BRP in 2018. BRP covers leave a lot to be desired (to put it mildly). It runs a large roster of high-entry-fee (read: profit-generating) awards (such awards, with no name recognition, are a complete waste of writers' money, especially where, as in BRP's case, the primary prize is "exposure"), along with no fewer than 15 different writing contests that, while not as expensive to enter, are clearly also designed to generate a profit. To complete the picture, BRP sells a range of paid services, including editing and cover design (always a signal for caution, as this poses a potential conflict of interest; Duotrope declines to list BRP for this reason), and hawks ads to writers:


All of the above would be sufficient reason to be wary of BRP. But there's more.

Writer Beware has received multiple complaints about BRP, from both authors and staff. These include: late payment of royalties; non-payment of royalties, staff salaries, anthology flat fees, and story fees for publication in BRP's magazines; failure to provide author copies; failure to provide books ordered and paid for by authors; problems with online orders; confusing or inadequate contract language (for instance, anthology contracts that are really only lightly-adapted book contracts, and magazine contracts that don't include rights language or grant terms); and rude and aggressive responses to questions and complaints.

These financial problems and logistical snafus will probably sound very familiar if you're a regular reader of this blog, as they often precede a publisher's abrupt demise. Even if BRP isn't on the brink of going bust, the complaints suggest that there's considerable disarray behind the scenes...possibly because BRP--which offers not just book and anthology publishing, but magazines, awards, contests, workshops and classes, and a recently-established European branch--may have expanded its offerings considerably beyond the capacity of what (I'm guessing) is a tiny and not-necessarily-very-experienced staff.

(If Breaking Rules rings a bell, that may be because of its encounter with supertroll Gary Kadet, about whom I wrote last year. Briefly, BRP agreed to publish Gary's novel, Ogre Life (giving it a cover of typical BRP caliber), but Gary's reputation caught up with him when, apparently, he was mean to people in one of BRP's author groups. In response, BRP "downgraded" and then booted him. Drama ensued: Twitter insults, angry Yelp reviews.)

UPDATE: I've received an email from Christopher Marry Hultman of Breaking Rules Europe, who says this:
In January of this year, I and two other authors took over the European and Australian wing of Breaking Rules Publishing, calling it Breaking Rules Europe. This does not mean that we are a part of Breaking Rules or are governed by Christopher Clawson, we are an independent entity and do not engage in or offer the services that BRP provides.
******


Adelaide Books presents itself as "an independent publisher dedicated to publishing literary fiction and creative non-fiction." In fact, it is pay-to-play, requiring authors to purchase 45 copies of their finished books.

Shifting fees to purchases, rather than book production, is a tactic some fee-charging publishers use to try to make their fees more palatable. You're not paying the company to publish your book--just buying books once the process is complete! But whether you pay upfront or on the back end, the bottom line is that you are giving your publisher money in order to be published. That's vanity publishing.

Adelaide does not mention the purchase requirement on its website, nor is it included in the sample contract. Writers' first indication that they will have to pay comes with the offer email:


Naturally some writers, having assumed they were submitting to a non-fee-charging publisher, aren't too pleased to discover they are in fact expected to "support" the publisher by handing over a large amount of money. Here's Adelaide's rather snippy response to the concerns expressed by one of them:


Okay, then.

The 45-book fee may not be all authors wind up spending, either. At the 2019 Book Expo, authors were given the "opportunity" to buy 100 ARCs for $1,100, to be exhibited for sale at Adelaide's booth. I've also heard from writers who paid even larger sums in "partnership" arrangements, and were not satisfied with the results.

Additional concerns: royalties paid on net profit (net income less printing and shipping costs--not quite as "generous" as claimed), very high cover prices (at least for print, likely an indication that Adelaide uses KDP and/or IngramSpark for production), an eyepoppingly huge publishing schedule (Adelaide published more than 120 books in 2020, with a similar number planned for 2021--an enormous list for a small press even with a large staff, which I could find no indication Adelaide has); and a range of author complaints, including inadequate (or no) editing, poor proofreading (books published with errors), little in the way of marketing, and, recently, difficulty getting the publisher to respond to emails.

February 5, 2021

Pique Literary: Unmasking a Fake Literary Agency


This is an expanded version of a Twitter thread I published last weekend--but not everyone is on Twitter and there have been new developments, so I'm amplifying it here. 

You'll find this post useful not just as an amusing account of unmasking a fraud, but as a series of tips on what should ring warning bells when you're evaluating an agency's website.

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On Sunday morning, an alert writer DM'd me about a new agency promoting itself on Twitter: Pique Literary. 

 
That caught my attention: reputable agents don't charge upfront fees. So I looked into it. Spoiler: Pique Literary no longer exists, so I can't provide any links, just screenshots. 


Pique gets props for spelling "pique" correctly. But the administration fee was only the beginning of the red flags I found. 

1. The fee. 

Only £10 ($14 US) but as noted, reputable agents/agencies don't charge such fees, and they are always a red flag. Even if small, they can represent a considerable income stream for a busy agency, and can be an incentive to rake in as many submissions as possible, even if the agents aren't actually interested in the manuscripts.

Bonus red flag: Pique's bizarre rationalization of the fee. This is from the FAQ page.
As absurd as this is, it's also a rather clever spin. Yes, you have to give us cash, but we aren't trying to make money here--in fact it's TOTALLY IN YOUR INTEREST because it will help us give your deathless prose the attention it deserves! And guess what! Paying us isn't just helping you, it's helping hungry people! Which local food bank was that again? Never mind.

2. Agent bios that either didn't cite any publishing or agenting experience, or made vague claims that could not be verified.

Agent names and biographies are definitely something you want to see on an agency website--they make it possible to assess the agents' competence and experience. "Agent" is not an entry-level job: it's a skilled profession that requires specialized knowledge (of publishing contract terms, for instance) and contacts within the publishing industry. 

Previous positions in publishing, or working or training with another (reputable) agency: this is the kind of resume you want an agent to have. People who come to agenting without that professional background are at a significant disadvantage...which means that, as a client, you will be too. Be wary also of non-specific claims like "Agent X has worked for multiple publishing houses" or "Agent Y interned with a successful agency". Anyone can make such statements, whether they're true or not--or whether the publishers or agencies are reputable or not.


In all three of the Pique agent bios above, you can see this sort of vagueness at work. No experience mentioned, or experience mentioned but impossible to confirm due to the lack of details. Also, Daniel's and James's photos look awfully headshotty for a small agency website. I ran all of them through an image search, which turned up nothing (more on that below).

3. Other than the Pique website, not one of the Pique agents--including founder Paula Wellington--had any internet presence.

Zero on a websearch. Zilch on Publishers Marketplace or QueryTracker--two excellent sources of agent information. If an agent has made sales, there should be some trace of them on the internet. Not all agents/agencies have super-high web profiles, and a brand-new agent still building their client list may not have much web presence. But for an entire agency's staff to turn up empty on a search is definitely suspicious.

4. No client list, no mention of sales.

Who an agent/agency represents, and what--and where--they have sold are really important, not just for assessing the agent/agency's competence and standing, but for evaluating whether it's the right agent/agency for you. Where an agent or agency has placed books is a good predictor of where they will place them; if your goal is one of the big houses, a track record of placements mostly with small presses probably isn't a good fit (especially if those presses primarily work directly with authors: you hire an agent to get you through doors you can't open on your own, not to approach publishers you could have submitted to yourself.) 

Most reputable agencies prominently feature client and especially sales information. It's a form of advertising. 

New agencies may still be chasing clients and sales. So a new agency's lack of sales--assuming it really is new and not just pretending (see Red Flag #5)--isn't necessarily a warning sign, especially if the agents have the right background and experience. But there should at least be some indication of whom they're representing. The complete absence of any of this information on Pique's website is another red flag.

5. Pique did appear to be new--at least, judging by its domain registration. But was it? 

According to Pique's domain registration, it was less than a month old.


Yet throughout the Pique website, there were references to "restructuring", "rebranding", and "working through the pandemic" (see the first image above, also the rationale for the administration fee), and the agents' bios mentioned clients--all of which would seem to indicate an agency that had been in operation for months, if not longer. Could it have been operating under a different name? If so, that information wasn't present anywhere. Why not?

This kind of conflict/confusion is another red flag. It also points up the importance of trying to verify what an agency says about itself.

6. A curious lack of transparency around the agency's origins and history.

Not all reputable agencies provide detailed histories, but if they do, they shouldn't suggest that there is something to hide. 

Founder Paula Wellington did address the agency's background in her bio, which was as specifics-challenged as those of her fellow agents:

Which agency did she start working with in 2006? What was the name of the "small agency" she founded in 2009? How did it "evolve" into Pique (apparently less than four weeks ago)? There's no reason not to provide this information...unless there's something you'd rather not say. Some sort of controversy or scandal or legal trouble, for instance. Or a terrible track record. 

Or maybe you're just lying.

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As mentioned, I posted most of this as a Twitter thread. Shortly after I did, Twitter detectives went to work.

Suspecting a stolen or stock image, I'd run an image search on the Pique agent photos, but turned up nothing. Smarter people than me figured out why: at least two of the images had indeed been stolen--but they had also been reversed, manipulated, and treated with a black-and-white filter in order to foil search engines.

Agent Marta's photo actually belongs to book YouTuber The Book Leo.


And Founder Paula's photo is actually Cynthia Figueroa, featured in a recent news article about her appointment as Philadelphia's new deputy mayor for children and families.


In other words, Pique Literary had moved out of the realm of "sketchy agency you maybe want to avoid" and into the land of "outright fraud". 

Just a couple of hours after being exposed online, Fake Founder Paula vanished.


Minutes later, so did Pique's website:


You couldn't ask for a more compelling admission of a scam.

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So what was Pique's endgame? Whoever was behind it went to quite a bit of trouble to create a fictitious website, manipulate  stolen photos, etc.--though in the end, they didn't do enough to withstand a close look. 

Perhaps they intended to sit back and collect the admin fees. £10 doesn't seem like a lot, but for a busy agency receiving 50 or 100 queries a week, it could create a nice income stream. A one-person operation could easily impersonate four agents, using fake email addresses and canned  responses, putting clients off with delays, excuses, and fictitious submissions. Or who knows, maybe they really would have made submissions, and even managed to place a few books with smaller publishers. That would just have been gravy, enabling the scam to last a bit longer than it otherwise might have.

Or did Pique intend to steal manuscripts? Theft is a huge fear, especially for aspiring writers, but while you can never say never in the publishing biz, it really is extremely rare--at least, before a work is published. Even scammers almost never do this, mostly because it's way more trouble to steal someone's manuscript and pretend it was written by someone else than simply to con the writer directly. 

On the other hand, there is a thriving niche in the self-publishing world of people who pay cheap ghostwriters to create books that they then publish under their own names (this niche is largely invisible but occasionally bursts into view, usually not for happy reasons). It's conceivable that Pique could have planned to make additional money by selling manuscripts on to dishonest ghostwriters who ply their trade on Fiverr and similar sites.

Regardless, we'll never know--and really that's a good thing. For anyone who paid the admin fee, I encourage them to file a dispute with their credit card company or PayPal to get their money back. 

Most sketchy agencies won't turn out to be actual scams--they may simply be amateur, marginal, or delusional. But in terms of time-wasting and career damage, the bottom line can be pretty similar, whether you sign up with an agent who hasn't the skills to perform or an agent who is only interested in how much money they can cheat you into handing over. That's why, when a new agency comes along, or you discover an existing one you haven't heard of, it's so important to evaluate it as critically--and dispassionately--as you can. 

The red flags I've identified above should help. And, as always, you can message or email me to find out if I've heard anything. 

January 29, 2021

Vanity Press Storm Warning: Waldorf Publishing


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

A couple of years ago I featured Waldorf Publishing in a post about a manuscript contest it was running, which was replete with red flags--not least of which is that Waldorf is a vanity publisher. At the time, it was charging a menu of fees, from which authors could pick and choose:

In 2019, Waldorf switched to a book purchase requirement: authors were required to buy 50 or 100 books, "to ensure us that Authors are participating in marketing and actively promoting their book". Possibly it won't surprise you to learn that there is nothing on Waldorf's website or in its publicity materials to suggest that fees are involved.

Waldorf is owned by Barbara Terry, who describes herself as "America’s Favorite Auto Expert, CEO, Spokesperson, Author, Off-road racer, Columnist, Television Host, Marketing and Public Relations expert". The company appears to depend heavily on unpaid interns for staffing (at least one of whom did not have a happy experience); this may explain the quality of its covers, some of which you can see here. For a time, in addition to pay-to-play publishing, it sold author services a la carte.

Recently the company has re-branded as Waldorf Publishing, Marketing and Public Relations--the marketing and PR being provided by Barbara Terry Public Relations Group, which promises MAXIMUM IMPACT without providing any examples to illustrate the claim (and no indication as to whether these new services entail extra cost for Waldorf authors). Ms. Terry has also started several spinoff businesses: Waldorf Bookstands LLC, which "provides books on spinner display stands to businesses all around the United States" and has no web presence other than a single mention on an investment website; Shaggy Pup, a distribution company focusing on "libraries and school curriculum" that also seems to be on pause (its Facebook page hasn't been updated since January 2020, and clicking on its webpage URL produces a 403 Forbidden notice); and Waldorf Book Fairs, whose website is currently blank.

Other business ventures undertaken by Ms. Terry include Dream Coast Films, a production company she established in 2013 that doesn't appear to have ever gotten off the ground, and Master Media Class, a short-lived media training course she co-founded in 2020 with two Waldorf authors. 

Over the past couple of years, complaints trickling in from Waldorf authors and contractors suggest a company under stress: unfulfilled marketing promises (such as paying for Kirkus Indie reviews that were never delivered), books paid for and not received, under-reported sales, and unpaid royalties. You can see additional complaints in the comments thread on my original Waldorf post (Ms. Terry threatened at least two of the complainants with legal action) and in other places online.

Recently, though, signs of trouble have increased. 

This document from the Fort Bend, TX library system appears to be a request to terminate a contract won by Waldorf in October 2019, through which Terry's distribution company, Shaggy Pup, was supposed to supply "high demand" books to Fort Bend libraries. The document details numerous issues and lapses on Waldorf's part; for instance:


This past December, a comment appeared on my original Waldorf post from a liquidation company that claimed to have acquired a large number of Waldorf books. I followed up with a request for more information and got this response, which I've been given permission to share:


A defaulted storage unit filled with thousands of books? Not good. 

Waldorf is also shedding contracts. In September of last year, a number of Waldorf writers received emails informing them that their books were being discontinued due to low sales. (A brief brouhaha erupted when a former Waldorf staffer contacted terminated authors to offer her own formatting services should they wish to re-publish, prompting the company to send out another email declaring that the former staffer was "misleading [authors] of communications from Waldorf Publishing" and that the matter had been referred "to our attorney as we speak.")

Then, last week, I began hearing from more Waldorf authors who'd received termination emails in early January, this time from a lawyer apparently retained by Waldorf. Just like in September, they were informed that their books were being discontinued due to low sales. But this time, money was involved. 


Now, there are two ways to read this email. The first is that two separate things are being offered here: one, the return of "physical and electronic" rights, and two, a suite of (dubious--see below) extra services. Saying yes to the first offer, which does not involve a fee, doesn't mean you have to accept the second, which has a price tag of $350.

The other way to read it--especially if you are in shock at suddenly discovering your book is being axed, or your eyes glaze over at the sight of legalese--is that the return of rights is contingent on handing over $350 for a bunch of services you didn't ask for. Which is, in fact, exactly what all the authors who contacted me about this email assumed. 

Poor wording, or deliberate ambiguity? Hmmm.

As for the services writers are being asked to buy, they are at best dubious, and at worst undeliverable. The shoddy quality of much of Waldorf's design and formatting work is not a huge recommendation for the reformatting offer--plus, there's no guarantee it would result in a file that was usable by another publisher or publishing platform, all of which have their own requirements and protocols. The new ISBN might not be especially useful either; ISBNs uniquely identify the purchaser, and if Waldorf bought them, they are Waldorf ISBNs just as much as the ones on the books that are being discontinued. 

As for the offer to "release and reassign" audiobook rights...Waldorf audiobooks are published through Audible/ACX. ACX contracts extend for seven years, can't be terminated (except by Audible), and can't be reassigned without written permission from Audible (and Audible is highly resistant to such requests). So it's unclear how--or if--Waldorf could accomplish this. 

I can't say for sure that Waldorf is in the kind of death spiral that offloading contracts and abandoning stock often indicates for small presses. What's clear, though, is that Waldorf's business ventures are in disarray, and it is not just getting rid of books, but trying to monetize the process by making a few bucks on its authors on their way out the door. 

Writer beware.
 
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