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.

January 7, 2022

The Best of Writer Beware: 2021 in Review




Ah, 2021. The year that was supposed to deliver us from the pandemic, and instead delivered...well. You know.

At least one expectation didn't change: scammers gonna scam. Writer Beware was ready. Below are highlights of a busy year of scam hunting, scheme exposing, contract analyzing, and just plain crazy stuff.

IT CAME FROM OVERSEAS

I know I'm kind of a broken record here, because I've written so many posts about them...but the tsunami of publishing/marketing/fake literary agency scams out of the Philippines really is one of the realest and most present dangers for self- and small press-published writers, who are almost exclusively these scammers' target.

This was one of the more elaborate of the Philippines-based scam efforts: the creation of a large roster of fictitious literary agents, complete with fake resumes and/or websites. The "agents" are fronts for referrals to paid services.

Scammers are increasingly using the names of top publishers and their staffs to make false claims and offers. Here's one especially brazen effort: the supposedly Big 5 publisher-sponsored sale of "tickets" that buy a "letter of endorsement" by "commissioned literary agents". Needless to say, this is not how publishing works.

2020 was all about scammers impersonating reputable literary agents. 2021 ushered in a wave of film studio and production company impersonations. Major studios like Universal, smaller companies like Roth/Kirshenbaum and Bluegrass Films, and producers like Todd Phillips and David Ellison were all impersonated by scammers looking to trick writers into paying thousands of dollars for a screenplay.

This triple-barreled scammer has not just impersonated major publishers, but falsely claimed an alliance with the Authors Guild...which did not take that lie lying down. The person claiming to be the CEO of these ventures is unusually visible and flamboyant on social media (most of the people connected with Philippines-based scams go to great lengths to hide their identities).

BUT WAIT...THERE'S MORE!

From fake agent photos and bios, to unverifiable details about its background, to zero internet presence beyond a hasty website, this fee-charging agency was much less than it appeared. There are useful tips here for vetting an agency by analyzing its website.

A fake conference promises a hefty appearance fee--but first you've got to send money for "equipment". And Goodreads trolls are targeting writers with demands for money to head off fake one-star reviews.

A pair of dodgy new ventures from two individuals whose previous businesses screwed writers over in a major way.

CONTRACT MATTERS

Although not common, this is something to watch for, especially in small press contracts. While there aren't any definitive legal rulings to disallow such claims, there aren't any to support them either--and, just as important, there's no obvious benefit for publishers in refusing to allow writers to re-publish the final edited version of a book whose rights they've reverted.

The number of reading/writing apps and platforms like Wattpad, Webnovel, and Radish has exploded over the past couple of years, and many are aggressively soliciting for content. Unfortunately, contracts can be seriously author-unfriendly. The contract offered by ByteDance's Fizzo is no exception.

Another reading/writing app, another terrible contract that, among other things, imposes punitive word count requirements.

Scribd is engaging in a major push to acquire audiobook and ebook rights for already-published books. The contract it's offering has some issues that require careful consideration, including what could be very limited compensation, depending on how popular your book turns out to be.

ADVICE YOU CAN USE

Overly sweeping--and unnecessary--rights grants are a common feature of contest rules. One contest's inclusion of such language, why the language is problematic--and how it was changed for the better.

These out-of-the-blue offers are almost always from fraudulent companies that want to get you in the door so they can pressure you to buy additional, costly "services." Many simply stop responding once writers get suspicious and start asking questions, or shut down without notice when complaints start accumulating...leaving authors high and dry.

SAVE YOUR MONEY

In the few countries with an official registration process, there's no legal substitute. Nevertheless, there are many fake and exploitative "registration" services that claim to offer a shortcut or an alternative. Here's one that apparently got so many credit card chargebacks from unhappy writers that it adopted an...unusual response.

Beware of bookstores calling out of the blue to sell you shelf space. They may be owned by a predatory publishing service that wants to sell you other stuff as well (of course, they won't tell you that).

Vanity publishing as education? New Degree Press is the publishing arm of a university course in which students are coached to produce a book. NDP presents as a publisher, but it functions like an assisted self-publishing service. Fees are crowdfunded but they're hefty, and students often wind up out of pocket.

PUBLISHERS IN--OR GIVING--TROUBLE

Author complaints are a familiar litany: publication delays, late or missing royalty statements and payments, unpaid staff, poor editing and production. And, in one case, a book purchase requirement that's not revealed on the company website.

Multiple author complaints include missing and inaccurate royalty statements (in some cases going back years), missing royalty payments (even where there were thousands of sales), failure to respond to reversion requests on contract expiration, and more. As sometimes happens, these were problems of very long standing that suddenly acquired critical mass.

Late royalty payments, missed editing and other deadlines, poor communication, books ordered and never received, and major gaslighting by the company's owner. City Limits suffered a mass staff exodus shortly after I published this post, and closed its doors for good a few weeks later--leaving writers and staff unpaid.

All three of these publishers are the subject of author complaints of non-payment, and all three illustrate the risks of signing with publishers that are basically one-person operations: a single personal problem, family illness, or other mishap can derail the entire operation.

BAD MOUSE

Disney has acquired many publishers and imprints over the years, along with their intellectual property. In many cases, however, Disney is taking the position that, while they've acquired these publishers' contracts, they have not acquired the obligations the contracts stipulate...such as paying royalties and providing royalty statements.

In 2021, SFWA and other professional writers' organizations established the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force to advocate for affected authors. My blog post takes a look at the situation as of September 2021: some progress, but much work still to do.


AND FINALLY, A SALUTE TO THE CRAZY

When was the last time you got a snail mail get-rich-quick solicitation? This one from Monica Main promises the opportunity to be a co-writer with a best-selling author in a "James Patterson kind of writing 'empire'"...you just have to watch a bunch of videos and sign an NDA! What I didn't expect as I looked into this scheme: the best-selling author is real. Monica Main is a convicted felon who was prosecuted by the Feds for commodity trading fraud. And the trademark applications are...interesting.

Come for the lawsuit threats, stay for the insults. My encounter with highly volatile editor/author coach Christina Kaye, who is the focus of multiple client and staff complaints. She clearly didn't expect that I'd publish the threat- and expletive-laden emails she sent in an effort to get me to back off. Oops.

4 comments :

Jo said...

Thank you for all you do for writers, Victoria - and I hope you have a good 2022!

Unknown said...


Thank you for continuing to warn writers of all the bad guys out there pretending to be agents, publishers and "helpers" in getting published. I took your advice seven years ago and after investigating a publishing firm (Mom and Pop, I found out) I went elsewhere.
Ted

Anonymous said...

Since so many of these scams come from the same country, wouldn't it be possible to get the government there involved? Like at a minimum, these scammers probably aren't paying all their taxes on the stolen money.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 1/09,

I know of a couple of people who are attempting to take action in the Philippines. One of the problems is that so many of the scammers do business there under different names than they use in the US and Canada, and also under cover of being outsourcing services.

I'd also think that, since the scammers are targeting people in other countries, any action would need to be joint between the Philippines and the US or wherever. It's historically difficult to get the authorities interested in writing-focused fraud; also, while the scammers in aggregate are likely raking in millions of dollars every year, they are individual businesses operating independently of one another, and in any one instance, the money writers lose is relatively small--at least, as compared to other white collar crime. The difficulty is getting law enforcement to understand this as a phenomenon, rather than a series of individual defraudments by individual companies.

That's not to say that writers shouldn't report their experience. I encourage anyone who has lost money to an overseas scam to report it to their local law enforcement, their state Attorney General, the FBI, the Internet Fraud Center, and others. Posting a review or complaint at the BBB is also helpful (the BBB has no authority to compel payment or restitution, but people do check it and a negative review could save another writer from being ripped off). There's a number of suggestions for places to file complaints at the Writer Beware website.

 
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