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November 19, 2021

Small Press Storm Warnings: Hurn Publications, Dreaming Big Publications, Azure Spider Publications


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

HURN PUBLICATIONS

I first heard of Hurn Publications (that's a link to an archived version; the Hurn website is no longer online) not because of author complaints, but because of a contact from the company's founder, Meaghan Hurn.

Shortly after I published this post about contract cancellations and other troubles at vanity publisher Waldorf Publishing, Meaghan emailed me to say that she had a list of publishers who were willing to "help" the cancelled authors by printing new editions of their books. Regardless of the publisher, referring authors isn't something I'd ever do; Writer Beware is scrupulous about avoiding conflict of interest, and we never offer publisher (or agent) recommendations or referrals. We also promise confidentiality, and don't pass on names to third parties.

Meghan also asked me to take a look at Hurn and "see where we might be able to improve from your unique viewpoint." I give advice to writers for free, but to publishers, not so much. Nevertheless, I took a look. And I saw some warning signs. Meaghan Hurn had no apparent professional publishing or writing experience prior to founding the publisher. The company was less than a year old (there's a really high failure rate among new small publishers; it's best to wait until they've been publishing books for at least a year, and preferably longer, before approaching them); it described itself as a "collaborative" publisher (often a euphemism for pay-to-play; Hurn emphatically denied that authors had to pay for anything, but some publishers make that claim and still have a book purchase requirement); and it claimed trademark status for non-trademarked properties (I checked).

Last but not least, Hurn's contract suffered from multiple personality disorder: it required authors to surrender copyright, yet promised to register copyright in the authors' names; it claimed rights in perpetuity, yet released them after five years; and it pledged to pay royalties quarterly, but also just once a year.

So I honestly wasn't too surprised when, in late October, I began hearing from Hurn authors. They told me that on October 24, after several weeks of silence, Meaghan Hurn abruptly took down the Hurn website and closed her social media accounts. 

The same day, they received this letter, informing them that Hurn was closing immediately due to Meaghan's illness. The letter does dissolve all contracts and revert all rights (a step that many small presses that go suddenly dark neglect to take) and agrees not to enforce "the portion of the contract that requires you to pay to use [your edited manuscript]" (this provision, which Writer Beware considers predatory, did not appear in the early version of Hurn's contract that I saw). But it also seeks to monetize the company's dissolution by offering to let authors buy their cover art for $350.

Especially with publishers that are one-person operations (or one person plus some freelance editors), illness or family troubles or other personal misfortunes can completely derail the business. But Hurn's sudden closure didn't come totally out of the blue. Authors told me that there were trouble signs well before October 24th: books with uncorrected errors, late royalty payments and statements, unfulfilled marketing promises, and poor communication.

As of this writing, Hurn books are still for sale on Amazon, in both print and Kindle editions. It can take some time for retailers to remove listings, and publishers do have the right to continue to sell any print editions they have on hand at the time of closure or contract termination. They should pay royalties on all of those post-closure sales, however. Hopefully Hurn will do so.

Hurn authors, please let me know.

DREAMING BIG PUBLICATIONS

I've been getting complaints about Dreaming Big Publications (not to be confused with the similarly named, and now defunct, Dream Big Publishing) off and on since 2018. These include scheduling delays, unpaid royalties, no sales information, failure to respond to emails, and in one case, publishing an audiobook that the publisher did not have the rights to.

Now, apparently things have gotten worse, to the point that authors are asking to to terminate their contracts. In late August, Dreaming Big posted this in the members-only section of its website:

Compared to some termination fees I've seen, these aren't large--still, it's not a great sign to have enough authors wanting to get out of their contracts that you feel obliged to monetize the process.

Like Hurn, Dreaming Big is basically a one-person operation that has been derailed on occasion by the owner's health issues. But that may not be the only source of Dreaming Big's problems with paying and accounting royalties. Here's the royalties clause of its contract:


That's it. No schedule of payments. No requirement that the publisher provide a royalty statement. Small presses often ignore the terms of their own contracts, so having a royalty schedule and an accounting requirement doesn't mean you'll get them. But not having them definitely increases the chances that you won't.

Something to watch for.

AZURE SPIDER PUBLICATIONS

Another one-person operation--Azure Spider Publications--is the subject of a spate of recent author complaints. These include no royalties, no royalty statments, non-response to emails and messages, and refusal (via non-response) to terminate contracts and remove books from sale despite clear evidence of breach (the said non-payment and non-provision of royalty statements, both of which are required in the contract).

I tweeted a couple of alerts about the situation, which appear to have motivated the publisher to reach out to me.


I'm always at least a little skeptical about health excuses, since I've encountered so many situations in which they turn out to be false. Covid especially provides a convenient rationale: I've seen it used frequently in the past year and a half--sometimes honestly but often otherwise--to justify non-performance. But these tales of misfortune may also be genuine, so they deserve at least the benefit of the doubt.

In this case, though, doubt has run out. The promises made in the email have not been fullfilled--at least for the authors who contacted me, who have still not received royalties, rights reversions, or even a response from Ms. Osborne.

******

Finally, an observation. As I've noted in each case, these publishers are all basically one-person operations, with perhaps some freelancers or part-timers to fill in the gaps. The owner of Dreaming Big, for instance, has admitted that publishing is a sideline: "Publishing is fun and more than a hobby, I suppose, but it's not what pays my bills".

If you're going to put your manuscript into the hands of a publisher--not to mention, sign a contract that binds you to the publisher for years if not the life of your copyright--you really want publishing to be the publisher's primary business--not something done "for fun" or as a hobby or in their spare time evenings and weekends. With the best will in the world, one-person and part-time ventures, which are often without financial reserves and don't have the cushion of regular staff, are super-vulnerable to unexpected outside events--illness, family emergency, personal misfortune, and the like. As seen above, these can lead to mistakes and delays, or even push the company into closure, leaving authors in limbo.

Again, part-time publishers may be entirely well-intentioned, and may have the savvy or drive to keep things running smoothly. But for authors, signing with a publisher that isn't a full-time operation is a risk factor. When you're evaluating whether to accept a contract offer, it's something you need to consider.

November 12, 2021

An Editing Tale: Editor and Author Coach Christina Kaye of Write Your Best Book (aka Book Boss Academy)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I first heard about editor and author coach Christina Kaye (aka Christina Broaddus) last year, via a writer who later posted this public complaint on Facebook. The allegations: misrepresentation of services (editing by a trainee rather than Christina herself), inadequate performance (the complainant paid for content editing, and got something more like copy editing), and refusal by Christina to either re-do the edit or provide a refund. 

In addition to the allegations, the complainant provided supporting documentation...including Christina's furious emails and lawsuit threats when the complainant refused to back off.


As far as I know, the lawsuit never materialized.

So who is Christina Kaye? Owner of two-year-old editing and coaching service Write Your Best Book, her resume includes a predecessor, Top Shelf Editing, which launched in September 2019 and whose URL is currently set to re-direct to WYBB, as well as stints with Limitless Publishing (publisher of several of her novels) and Dragon Street Press

Other entrepreneurial ventures include Bon Chance Press, which started up in early 2017 and contracted several books before closing that same year without publishing anything; a registered business called Book Boss Boutique, LLC; and an Etsy storefront that sells writing-related planners and gifts. Christina also has a substantial presence on various social media platforms, hosts her own podcast, and has amassed a large following on TikTok.

The WYBB website displays testimonials from satisfied clients (of which there are apparently 300, or maybe it's 150?). And a single bad review, even one as convincingly documented as the Facebook complaint, doesn't necessarily indicate a problem business. Anyone can fly off the handle and say unwise things in response to pressure. Maybe this was an isolated incident? Maybe there was something else that explained Christina's over-the-top response?  

Over the past year, however, several writers who've used Christina's services have contacted me to report similar experiences: editing that didn't fulfill what they were led to expect or the terms of the contracts they signed (such as copy editing presented as content editing, or editing by a trainee); hostile, threatening, insulting, and generally unprofessional responses by Christina to concerns and complaints (not just in email or texts but on social media); and refusal of refund requests, including in one case where services weren't just unsatisfactory, but mostly weren't delivered. 

That writer went public with a video on Facebook, in which she describes paying $2,500 for editing and coaching that Christina subsequently decided she couldn't do; when the writer asked for the money back, Christina refused, claiming the payment was "in the bank" to cover future help the writer might need. The writer filed a dispute with her credit card company, which initiated a chargeback. Christina was not pleased.


(Refunds seem to be a particular issue for Christina's business. Write Your Own Book's editorial contract specifically excludes them--in ALL CAPS:
Like "we don't guarantee that you'll make any sales" clauses in publishing contracts, this suggests not so much a hypothetical situation as an anticipated one. And why would an editorial service anticipate refund requests?)

In the past couple of weeks, I've also heard from WYBB staff members who say they have not been paid (and I've seen documentation to support this). 

These are all serious complaints. What really stands out for me, though, is Christina's communication style, particularly her volcanic reactions to criticism and complaint, or to people she perceives as having disrespected or dismissed her. In addition to the publicly-posted emails and messages above, I've seen many examples shared with me privately by clients, staffers, and people with whom Christina has worked professionally. Several of them told me they're afraid of her. 

Since I promise confidentiality, I can't share any of those examples. But my own exchange of emails with Christina should give you a flavor of what I'm talking about.

The same day I tweeted this...
...I received this:


Hmmm. I responded in my mild mannered reporter guise:


Within minutes, I got this:


Allll righty, then. (Between Facebook and Twitter, I actually have around 43,000 followers...still so sadly short of 100,000 friends, though.) 

Christina did eventually agree to answer my questions. So I sent them off (you can see the exchange that prompted my first sentence at the bottom).


A bit to my surprise, she responded to at least some of what I asked.


(Right after receiving this, I emailed one of the WYBB staff members who contacted me about outstanding invoices. They provided documentation that confirmed that they were still waiting for payment.)

The TikTok Live didn't happen. But a few days later, Christina added three lengthy posts to one of her Facebook pages, in which she claimed to know who was complaining about her ("there are THREE former clients I’m aware of who are 'unhappy' with my services"), accused those people of misleading gullible fools like me with "false information and even doctored documentation", and threatened them, along with anyone who "jumps on that bandwagon", with "pending legal action." All with the greatest love, positivity, mercy, and compassion.

I always do due diligence, so I decided to reach out again.


This did not go over well.

Well, I tried.

Christina has since decided to take a break from social media

If you're thinking of hiring a freelance editor, Writer Beware's Editors page has lots of information, tools, tips, and of course cautions, as well as links to helpful resources. 

UPDATE 11/16/21: As I thought it might, this post has motivated new reports. I haven't obscured the names on these, as they're publicly viewable on Facebook



From Writer Beware's Facebook page



UPDATE 11/17/21: Christina has deleted the three long Facebook posts referred to above. I have screenshots, if anyone wants to see them. 

Christina has also changed her name and handle on TikTok, reincarnating as ED Foster (quick editing tip: add periods to indicate abbreviations, unless you want people to think your name is Ed) and @bookbossacademy. 


She has posted a video, all about how to deal with "enemies".

UPDATE 11/20/21: Christina has changed the name of her Facebook page to Book Boss Academy. The company website still has the old name.

November 5, 2021

Bad Contract Alert: NovelCat


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

How cute is NovelCat's kitty logo? If only its contract were so adorable.

NovelCat is yet another of the reading/writing platforms, mostly based in Singapore and Hong Kong, that have sprung up relatively recently and are aggressively recruiting authors. A few have decent contracts, but many offer truly terrible terms, which I've explored in a couple of previous posts: EMP Entertainment and A&D Entertainment, which appear to have been deputized to recruit for Webnovel (this post includes an assessment of a number of similar companies), and Fictum, a new platform from ByteDance.

The full NovelCat contract can be seen here. It's non-exclusive, and the non-exclusivity doesn't seem to be vitiated by prohibitions within the contract (as with the EMP and A&D contracts, which include several clauses that severely restrict their supposed non-exclusivity). There's also an advance; the amount wasn't stipulated in the contract I saw, but similar platforms pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1,500.

But...

The grant term is 20 years, auto-renewable for another 20 years if you neglect to "dispute" renewal or if you do dispute it and NovelCat doesn't agree (Clause 9). That's not as bad as the life-of-copyright grants I've seen in other reading/writing platform contracts, but it's still a seriously excessive grant term--especially since options for authors to terminate are very, very limited.

Did I mention that termination options are limited? Per Clause 2.2.4, you can ask NovelCat to remove your work from its platform, but it doesn't have to agree. The only other situation in which you can terminate is if NovelCat defaults on its obligations or otherwise breaches the contract. Even assuming NovelCat still exists in 20 years, that's a long time for your work to be stuck in one place, especially if it's generating little income.

Although the contract is non-exclusive, it makes claim on a large array of subsidiary rights (Clause 2.2), including "movies, TV dramas, online drama series, animations, dramas, games, audiobooks, radio dramas" (soooo much drama!), which NovelCat can "commercialize...in any form, format, language or method, or produce, use, sell, market, import, reproduce and distribute Contractual Works or derivative works." It can also use your title and character names as "trademarks on relevant commodities," and license subrights to third parties, with no obligation to inform you if it does.

For the average author, how likely is it that NovelCat will use or license any of these subrights? In most cases, probably not very (with the possible exception of audiobooks). Still, it's a pretty sweeping authorization, and if you sign a contract where something can happen, you should never assume that it won't happen.

You must grant rights not just for one work, but for all works related to that work in just about any way--even if you haven't written them yet. Here's the relevant clause, from the Definitions section:


This is one of the more greedy rights grabs I've seen.

Speaking of rights, clause 4.1.3 suggests that NovelCat can simply buy you out at an agreed-upon price, and thereafter keep all sales and licensing proceeds.


Royalties are paid monthly...but they are paid on net profit (Clause 4). The royalty percentage sounds high (50% of "distributable income"), but distributable income is defined (in the Definitions section) as "the income after channel charges, promotion fees, claw-back deductions, all costs and any other charges are deducted from sales revenue generated from works". In other words, net profit.

Since you don't know what the deducted costs will actually amount to (the contract includes no requirement that NovelCat disclose them), 50% could be considerably less than it sounds. Additionally, there's nothing to clarify how "sales revenue" is generated. Page reads? Some kind of coin or tip system? Something else? Between that lack of clarity and all the deductions, you really have no idea what you might be paid.

You also will be paid only once you recoup whatever advance you're offered, and will receive payouts only when accumulated royalties exceed $100.

As with some other reading/writing platform contracts I've seen, word count requirements are pretty stiff--as are penalties for failing to meet them (Clause 3.2). You must produce "not less than 30,000" words per month (a pace that even a prolific writer might find difficult to keep up on a constant basis). If you fail to deliver, you are "fully liable for losses arising from such failure"--an ominous phrase that the contract neither explains nor defines.

Furthermore, if that failure is "without cause", or you confirm that you can't finish, or you write "abnormally" (whatever that means) by failing to adhere to "outlines" (whatever those are), you are deemed to have breached the contract and NovelCat can simply take over the writing, and retain both copyright and income for such new writing, while still using your name as the author.


There's what amounts to a morals clause (Clause 3.2.8). You must "actively preserve the image of Party A" and can't take "any action that is prejudicial" to such image. Vague and sweeping language like this can be and is easily abused--especially since it would be up to NovelCat to decide what's "prejudicial"--and could seriously limit your ability to speak or write about your NovelCat experience.

It's not just about speech. If NovelCat deems you to have breached Clause 3.2.8, Clause 6.2.2. suggests that you could suffer quite a financial hit: "Party B shall pay Party A USD 1,000 as liquidated damages and punitive liquidated damages equal to twice the total amount of remuneration and relevant fees Party B has obtained from Party A. If such liquidated damages are not enough to compensate for Party A's losses, Party B shall be liable for all losses beyond such liquidated damages."

Disputes are governed by the laws of mainland China, and are subject to arbitration. Generally speaking, when you sign a contract with an arbitration clause, you're giving up your right to resolve disputes in court. Even without an arbitration clause, disputes can be very difficult to resolve if you're contracting with a company from overseas.

Bottom line: this is a really problematic contract. Even if NovelCat were willing to negotiate--and many reading/writing platforms absolutely are not--you'd have to do a major overhaul to make it more author-friendly. Additionally, the dense language is a chore to parse even for someone with a lot of knowledge, and its complexity can make even the kind of analysis I've done above hard to understand.

If all of that is challenging for someone like me, with years of experience reading publishing contracts, imagine what it's like for the writers NovelCat and others are seeking to recruit, many of whom are young, inexperienced, and don't have English as their first language.

Also, the explanations provided by the marketing people who approach these writers, while not actually false, is often misleading or incomplete--especially in regard to the income writers may receive from their presence on the platform. There are dozens of these platforms out there, all competing for readers: in other words, an increasingly diluted market. I'm hearing more and more from writers who've signed with one or another of the platforms and are discovering that even after months of posting segments or chapters, they still haven't made enough income to exceed the payout threshold. And because their contracts are interminable, they can't get free.

Writer beware.
 
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