If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I like the weird stuff. And this is definitely weird.
You can read the letter yourself by clicking on the images, but if you have better things to do, here's a quick synopsis.
The curiously old-school letter--complete with fake handwritten notes, just like that junk mail you got so much of before email spam was a thing--is addressed to you by name from someone you never heard of called Monica Susan Main, who claims to have met you at a conference (conveniently not specified).
Monica remembers the heartfelt conversations you two had about your dreams of becoming successful writers, and she's distraught about the current state of publishing--especially the influence of Amazon and the hordes of "hacks and talent-less [sic] crack-pots" who self-publish their "trash novels" via KDP.
Not to worry: Monica has had a brainstorm!
Amazingly (or maybe not), Monica can offer just such an opportunity! A "long-reigning #1 New York Times Bestseller stemming back to the early 1980s" is looking to start a "James Patterson kind of writing 'empire'" that would release multiple co-written books a year. And you--yes, YOU!!!--could be one of those co-writers!
Of course, Monica can't tell you just who this bestselling author is. It's top secret! If you want to proceed, you even have to sign an NDA! But there's a very special video, just for you (it even has your name in the URL), and if you watch it, All Will Be Revealed. But hurry! There's only one more slot left to fill! If you don't click RIGHT AWAY, you'll miss the boat!
(Here's an earlier version of the solicitation, which pairs the co-authoring pitch with the shilling of Main's Living the Writer's Dream pamphlet--just $10!)
So who is Monica Main? According to her official website, she's "a serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of real-world experience in all types of businesses and investments." While there's nothing to suggest she has ever worked in publishing, she does claim to be "a Best-Selling Author in THREE Categories!" on Amazon (where you can be a bestseller with only a handful of sales if the category is obscure enough). She also runs several get-rich-quick-style satellite sites, retreats, and super-sekrit workshops. Whatever her actual credentials, she clearly has a doctorate in flim-flam.
If you're bowled over by Monica's snail mail letter pitch (or just curious about where the whole thing might go, like me), and type the personalized link on page 2 into your browser, you wind up here, with Monica and a video pitch. I watched so you don't have to: it basically reiterates everything in the letter, and concludes by inviting you to click on the link below the video.
That link lands you at a second video, in which some dude named Robert "The Blade" Robinson--a "professional brand spokesman" who appears to have been hired for the purpose--makes the pitch yet again, and also details what happens next. Step 1: you sign an online NDA (conveniently present below the video). Step 2: you submit a writing sample. Step 3: All Will Be Revealed!
How could I resist? Using one of my burner names and emails, I signed the NDA, which took me to the writing sample page. To the accompaniment of yet another video (a woman claiming to be one of the chosen co-authors, though naturally she can't provide her name or the title of her book) I pasted in 500 words from one of my own novels, and clicked "Submit". That whisked me to a fourth video, in which, at the end of a long spiel about the fabulousness of this "incredibly rare" opportunity, "The Blade" closes the circle by inviting me to set up my "strategy session" with Monica Main.
He also provides the big reveal. The famous #1 New York Times Bestselling Author is Judith McNaught.
I have to admit I was surprised--not just because there actually was a reveal (I was expecting more obfuscation, or possibly a demand for money in order to get the secret info), but because Judith McNaught is exactly what Monica Main and her video pitchman claim: a famous, bestselling romance author who has written a lot of books and has a devoted fan base. Definitely not what I expected. Also, in the fourth video "The Blade" goes into some detail about the writing and collaboration process, which--again to my surprise--sounded fairly credible, or at least comparable to how legitimate co-writing arrangements really work.
Looking closer, though (and you know I always do), some oddities appear. 77-year-old McNaught hasn't published anything since 2005. Her website is badly outdated, as is her Facebook page, where the last post was written in 2018. That's the same year a new McNaught novel, The Sweetest Thing, was announced, but the book has yet to appear (on Amazon, it's listed as publishing in 2045; even so, fans are still pre-ordering it). Worried fans are wondering why, and asking where in the world is Judith McNaught?
Oddest of all: I could not find a single word about this co-authoring venture from McNaught herself or any official McNaught representative.
It certainly seems plausible that a highly successful writer might want to set up a co-authoring franchise like James Patterson's. But wouldn't it make sense to handle this through their publisher or agent or business manager? Wouldn't they announce it? Why outsource such an important endeavor to someone like Monica Main, of whom the most charitable thing that can be said is that she is not someone with substantial publishing industry experience? Why the whole top secret schtick, the multiple layers of reveal, the absurd NDA? This is definitely not how things work with legitimate publishing projects.
What's really going on here?
Being the cynical person that I am, I initially assumed the entire scheme was a figment, a take-the-money-and-run play of some sort (which of course may still turn out to be the case). But the "disclosing party" in the NDA writers have to sign to proceed into the scheme is LWD International Inc., a publishing company incorporated in April 2020, of which Monica Main is, basically, a one-woman band: CEO, Secretary, CFO, and Director.
LWD International has filed several recent trademark applications, including two using the name of Judith McNaught: one for a mark, the other for "the category of downloadable series of fiction books". Both of the McNaught applications were submitted in May and July 2020 (note how close those dates are to LWD's incorporation), and both were registered in May 2021.
The M.S. Main registration application, submitted in June 2021, is for "categories of series of fiction works, namely, novels and books". It's still pending.
So it looks like Monica Main is planning to become a publisher, and the McNaught co-authoring thing is a real endeavor of some sort (though the trademark description indicates that the books will be ebooks, rather than glossy hardcovers adorning bookstore shelves, as the pitch videos encourage writers to assume).
The question remains, though: why would someone like McNaught put her publishing franchise in the hands of someone like Monica Main?
I will go far for Writer Beware, but not so far as to subject myself to a 45-minute phone conversation with Ms. Main. So don't know the answer, at least not yet. But I will keep digging. McNaught's last-published book, Every Breath You Take, was repped by Suzanne Gluck at William Morris; I've reached out with a question, and will report back if I get a response.
UPDATE: So, wow. It gets darker. Monica Main has a rap sheet.
A reader directed me to this 2007 article, which describes a Federal prosecution against Main and her husband for fraud. According to the article, more than 1,200 people signed up for a trading system sold by the Mains, and lost a total of $3 million. I looked the case up on PACER: the court ordered the Mains to pay a $9 million penalty plus the $3 million customers lost, and permanently enjoined them from engaging in any commodity or options trading.
That's not all.
The couple operated the fraud, which involved a bogus software program called Trade Pro and “boot camp” training seminars, from 2001 to 2005, according to the CFTC. Despite Monica Main’s false claims to clients that she was a millionaire, she actually lost money with the small amounts she traded, and she went bankrupt in 2003, according to court records.The name cited in the article--Monica Schiera Main--is different from the name she's using for the Judith McNaught solicitation, but in this 2019 interview, which includes a photo, her bio admits to "a short stint in federal prison, a personal bankruptcy, and a devastating two-year civil lawsuit with the government".
Under the Commodity Exchange Act, the Mains should have informed customers about Monica Main’s bankruptcy and her felony conviction....
Fearing a loss of business, the couple failed to inform clients that Monica Main had been convicted of felony mail and wire fraud in connection with an advance-fee loan scam, according to court records.
Monica Main and her company, Success for Life, Inc., were also sued by InfoUp, LLC for allegedly infringing its intellectual property to promote her own book.
InfoUp won a default judgment in March 2021, granting it a permanent injunction, statutory damages, and attorneys' fees.
I have to give a shout-out to Bryan Young @swankmotron, who encountered Monica Main last April and, in a long Twitter thread, unpacked her unsavory past.
UPDATE 9/9/21: I'm digging deeper into the "Judith McNaught" trademark applications, and what I'm finding is...interesting.
The initial trademark application, made by Monica Main's company, LWD International Inc., on July 13, 2020, was refused on August 24, 2020 because "applicant submitted what appears to be an advertising display of book covers, and not the actual series of books applicant provides. Moreover, there is insufficient context to ascertain whether the goods depicted in the specimen are in fact a downloadable series of books".
Here are the referenced book covers, which incorporate the applied-for trademark, but otherwise look like they were purchased from a pre-made cover service. Also, one may not be able to judge a book by its cover...but the kinds of stories suggested by the titles and art don't exactly seem like a seamless fit with McNaught's previous work.
Responding to the application refusal, LWD's lawyer produced a new series of images that appear to show the books for sale online. Here's one of them.
If you click on the image to enlarge it, you'll see a URL at the bottom: www.judithmcnaught.net. This is not the URL of McNaught's official website. It leads here:
Pretty cheesy, am I right? The three books do appear to be orderable from the website--but not from anywhere else; they aren't present on Amazon or any other retailer that I could discover. Also, see that smiley photo, which visitors will surely assume is McNaught herself? It's a stock image.
(UPDATE: Sometime in October or early November--i.e., after I published this blog post--www.judithmcnaught.net was set to re-direct to www.judithmcnaught.com, McNaught's official website, which does not include any mention of the three new books. The .net site survives on the Wayback Machine.)
But wait, there's more. If you look at the top of the "Reign" image above, you'll see, in tiny print, "Paris Steel Books". I googled Paris Steel Books, and found this:
Looks an awful lot like the cheesy McNaught website, doesn't it? That's no coincidence. "Paris Steel" is trademarked by Living the Writer's Dream Co., another of Monica Main's companies. The "Steel" trademark application was submitted on June 21, 2020, just a couple of weeks before the "McNaught" one. As for Paris Steel herself, she's not just evasive, but nonexistent: her only web presence is this website, which, in another similarity to the McNaught website, is the only place her books (if they even exist) can be found.
Why would a Paris Steel header appear on the order page of a Judith McNaught book? Well, if your trademark application got refused because you hadn't shown that the books you were touting as proof of your publishing venture were actually for sale anywhere--maybe because you'd registered a domain name but hadn't yet gotten around to building a website--you might hastily paste the covers into the order page of a website you already controlled, as a stopgap measure. I'm guessing that's what happened here. Another indication that the McNaught website has been sloppily adapted from the Steel website: the meta tags on the Judith McNaught order page still point to Paris Steel.
Getting back to the trademark application...the August refusal also required clarification of whether the applied-for mark referenced "a particular living individual", and if so, instructed the applicant to provide "a written consent personally signed by the named individual."
Here's the relevant section of the response by LWD's lawyer.
And here's a screenshot of the written consent. Note the date: four months after the initial trademark application was submitted.
Anyone out there with a signed McNaught book?
On January 15, 2021, the trademark application was refused again, this time because the applied-for mark "identifies only the name or pseudonym of the author of a written work; it does not function as a trademark to identify and distinguish applicant’s goods from those of others and to indicate the source of applicant’s goods."
Whatever else one might make of all of this, or guess about what's really going on here, it's just very, very sad that the name of such a beloved author has been attached to such a sketchy, tacky, unprofessional venture. Judith McNaught deserves better.