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.

July 23, 2021

Bad Contract Alert: ByteDance's Fictum Reading/Writing App


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Over the past year, I've gotten a flood of questions and complaints from writers who've been approached by reading/writing platforms or apps based in Hong Kong or Singapore. 

There's a growing number of these platforms, and they are aggressively soliciting for content, including on established platforms like Wattpad. While most of the solicitations target writers directly, agents are receiving approaches as well.

Some platforms appear professional, with contracts that are fairly reasonable and straightforward. Others...not so much. Last October, I wrote about the terrible contracts offered by A&D Entertainment and EMP Entertainment, two companies that are deputized to recruit for Webnovel.

A new player in the reading/writing app field is Fictum (domain registered just this past November). Available on Apple and Google Play, it's owned by ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, and is currently recruiting writers with existing published books, as well as writers willing to produce 200,000 words or more of new material for its Long English Story Project

For new material, Fictum offers both exclusive and non-exclusive contracts, with different levels of financial remuneration that are rather confusingly described here. You must first publish three chapters in order to apply for a contract; once you're contracted, you must fulfill punishing word counts and maintain a grueling schedule in order to earn. For the exclusive contract, for instance, you must publish at least 1,000 words a day in order to receive a "daily update bonus" of $200 per month. More words equal more cash: if you can bang out 100,000 words a month, you get $400. Time is money, though: you can't take more than four days off in a single month, and if you fail to produce for more than four days in a row at any time, you forfeit payment.

I've seen one Fictum contract, offered for an existing published book. You can view it here. To put it mildly, there are issues of concern.

- The Grant of Rights is non-exclusive and time-limited--but it is also irrevocable. In other words, you aren't stuck forever--but you have no right to cancel. 

There was originally a clause allowing the author to terminate for cause, but in the contract I saw, that clause had been blacked out. The deletion wasn't as effective as someone thought, though, because when I converted the contract to PDF, the excised words showed up:


This isn't much better than saying "no, you can never cancel". You'd have to wait a year, and you could only invoke the clause if not a single person had accessed your work in all that time (which might be hard to show, given that Fictum doesn't have to tell you how your work is performing--see below). Talk about crafting an option so that it practically never happens! Plus, if even if you were unfortunate enough to fulfill the requirements, you'd still be screwed, because you'd have to give money back to Fictum:


Let me know if you can make sense of that formula.

- You must waive your moral rights. Moral rights include the right of attribution (the right to be identified as the author) and the right of integrity (the right to protect your work from changes that would be prejudicial to the work or to you). If you waive your moral rights, you surrender both. Among other things, this means that your work could be published without your name, or under someone else's name.

Moral rights aren't really recognized in the USA, but they are important in other countries, and the Fictum app is distributed in multiple nations across the world.

- The initial 2-year term auto-renews (at the publisher's discretion; the author doesn't have a say), but the language isn't clear.


Does this mean auto-renewal for a single 1-year period? Or for successive one-year periods? It's not clear. This is the kind of thing that really needs to be unambiguous.

- There's no fixed payment schedule, payment terms are opaque, and Fictum doesn't have to give you performance data. 

The payment scheme detailed in the contract is different from what's described on the Fictum website, likely because this contract was offered for a finished book rather than for a serial work not yet written. Collectively called a License Fee, payment consists of a "fixed royalty" (equivalent to an advance); a "contingent royalty" (a KDP Select-style payment based on reading metrics), and a performance-based bonus granted "from time to time". 

The fixed royalty (based on word count--around $600 for the book this contract was offered for) is payable 20 days after contract signing or manuscript acceptance, whichever is later. It must be recouped by contingent royalties; once it is, those royalties become payable. 

So far, so good. However, the formula for calculating contingent royalties is not exactly transparent:


Nowhere is it explained what's meant by "effective reading time", or "unit rate", or how either one is calculated, except to say that it's at the publisher's discretion. Nowhere is there a payment schedule to indicate when and how often contingent royalties are paid once the advance is recouped, other than to vaguely promise, further on in the contract, "commercially reasonable efforts to inform Author...in [Fictum's] discretion from time to time." (Might this suggest that Fictum doesn't expect it will have to regularly pay out contingent royalties?) 

Equally concerning: nowhere is there any language requiring Fictum to share performance data, such as how many readers have accessed your work. 

Bottom line: beyond the advance, you have absolutely no idea what financial remuneration you might receive, and no guarantee that you'll get any insight into how your work performs on the Fictum app.

- The grant term is time-limited, but Fictum's right to use and exploit your work is not. There are two areas where this applies. First, even after the contract ends, your work will continue to be hosted on Fictum's servers in order to service customers who've downloaded it, which they do on a "perpetual" basis. (This is a common feature of such apps and platforms; it's not so much a "beware" as it is a "be aware".)

Second, Fictum claims copyright on derivative works created by it in connection with its exploitation of your rights as granted in the contract, and can continue to exploit these derivative works "perpetually". So what exactly is meant by derivative works? The contract doesn't really say.


A previous clause discusses derivative works in the context of promotion, such as creating short video clips based on a work's characters or setting. Other than this, though, "derivative works" is not defined, and the word "including" in the final sentence of the clause above suggests that such works may not be limited to promotional materials.

- Anything you write during the term of the contract is subject to first refusal by Fictum. Not just work related to the contracted work: anything.


This is an onerous requirement.

- And finally, language like this is never an encouraging sign:


There's a lot of competition out there in the reading app sphere, with dozens of companies vying for content. Most have little or no name recognition. That's not true of ByteDance, which likely gives it a substantial recruitment advantage. 

That's unfortunate, not just because of the unfavorable contract terms discussed above, but because the writers being approached by the apps, many of whom are teenagers or college students, are among the most naive and least savvy I've ever encountered (at least, judging by the many questions and panicked "I signed up without reading the contract, how can I get free" pleas I'm receiving). Considering how long I've been doing the Writer Beware thing, that is saying something. 

July 2, 2021

Alert: Scammers Impersonating Major Motion Picture Studios


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I've written a number of posts about scammers impersonating literary agents and publishers. Writers should be aware that they're also impersonating major motion picture studios. 

Here's one example, from a scam that does business under at least three names: Orions Media Agency, Fox Media Studios Agency (note the way these scam names reference real companies), and PageTurner Press and Media. Despite their apparent US addresses and phone numbers, all are based in the Philippines (you can read more about the huge proliferation of overseas scammers here). 

This is the initial pitch--which arrives, as always with this type of scam, out of the blue:


This is not the way things work: literary agents aren't "assigned" to represent you without your knowledge, and major film studios don't randomly stumble on books and reach out to agencies you never heard of, which then cold-call you. In fact, real agents only very rarely reach out to writers directly. For scammers, on the other hand, it's their main recruitment method. 

Any out-of-the-blue solicitation or offer should be treated with suspicion.

If the writer bites, they receive this. 



Note Allison's email address, which doesn't match Universal's email address protocol. It's always a good idea to search on this, and also on the email address itself; you can discover interesting things, such as that the universalpicturesacquisition.com domain was only registered this past March--not very plausible, given Universal Pictures' long history. In another revealing discrepancy, Allison Gray is a real person...but she works for Paramount.

Allison doesn't mention money. This is strategic: as any scammer knows, it's harder to say no when an offer is (purportedly) on the table. And money is definitely involved. The writer who responds with excitement to this INCREDIBLE OFFER learns that the "cinematic trailer" will cost them $3,500 (a cost the scammer may promise to share), and the "relicensing" of the book (there's no such thing) requires a further $1,099. 

I shouldn't need to say--again--that this is not how things work. If a film studio is interested in your work, they will pay you, not the other way around. Plus, the demand for your driver's license and passport suggests that it's not just your cash that will be stolen.

Here is the promised "pre-production agreement" (this time from another dba of this scam, Fox Media Studios Agency). "David Benson" does not appear to be an employee of Universal--or any film company. Allison Gray is cc'd, though at a different, and equally bogus, email address. Note also the identical scary pseudo-legal language at the bottom, which is likely intended to discourage writers from contacting people like me:


The money grab in this one is for the "Director's professional fee" as well as the supposed permits and clearances, which no doubt amount to several thousand dollars. Keep in mind that the writer has already paid nearly $5,000 for a (likely crappy) book trailer and the mythical book re-licensing.

Yet again, this is not how the industry works. Authors are never asked to bankroll their own films (at least, they're never asked to do so by reputable film companies). To the contrary: if a film of your book has been greenlighted, you will previously have received a considerable sum of money.

A final word. It's every writer's dream to have their book made into a movie. But the hard truth is that this is among the rarest of all outcomes of publishing a book. The vast majority of books--even very successful ones--never sell or option film rights. Where they do, it's via real, reputable agents or entertainment lawyers with track records that can be verified--not unknown parties who contact you out of the blue. 

Remember: solicitation is the number one sign of a scam. And there are more scams aggressively soliciting authors than ever. Be careful out there.

June 25, 2021

Eli Bear Company, Star Alley Press: Two Writer Beware All-Stars Return With New Ventures


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Among the interesting phenomena of the universe of failed and dodgy people in and around writing and publishing (at least, interesting to me) is how often they just can't quit it. 

Agents outed for scammery start new agencies under new names. Ditto for disgraced publishers. This is one of several reasons why it's so important to know who owns and works for publishers and agencies, and why it's problematic if that information isn't present on company websites.

Here are two individuals previously covered on this blog who appear to be attempting a comeback.

WID BASTIAN
Formerly: Genius Media
Now: Eli Bear Company

Wid Bastian, aka Widstoe T. Bastian, was the founder of Genius Media, which--among other activities--recruited writers to participate in various themed box sets. In exchange for a buy-in of $750, writers were promised placement on the USA Today bestseller list plus a pro-rated share of sales income, the bulk of which was to go to charity. 

But it was all a bait-and-switch. Via creative accounting, the projects were made to show a loss--so there were no donations and no royalties, and the only person who received any money was Bastian himself. This was not out of character: Bastian, it turned out, was a convicted felon, with a long history of embezzlement, money laundering, and bankruptcy fraud. 

You can read my December 2019 writeup of all of this here

Fast forward to today. Thanks to a tip from an alert Writer Beware reader, I learned that Bastian has started a new writing-focused business: Eli Bear Company, which provides copywriting and content writing (examples of its stylings can be seen here). Bastian lives in Utah, but it's no accident the business is incorporated in Wyoming. 


The company was initially incorporated in November 2019--just before the sh*t with the box sets hit the fan--as Genius Publishing Inc. (note the similarity to Genius Media, Bastian's box set promo company), and switched to its current name in March 2020. The Eli Bear domain name was registered shortly thereafter, in May 2020. 

It's interesting timing, given that Bastian filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January 2020...


...and received a bankruptcy discharge in May 2020, releasing him from personal liability for most of his debts. Creditors included a number of box set participants.

Bastian is nothing if not a multi-tasker: in addition to the writing-focused Eli Bear Company, there's the real estate management Eli Bear Company, which promises to buy your crappy house for cash and solve all your annoying landlord problems.

Not surprisingly, Bastian's name doesn't appear anywhere on any of these websites. There is, however, a bear.

MYRA FIACCO
Formerly: Filles Vertes Publishing
Now: Star Alley Press

Myra Fiacco started Filles Vertes Publishing in 2016 or 2017. As is often the case with small press founders, she didn't have an abundance of relevant professional experience. 

FVP managed to publish just 18 books over the course of four years, with big, irregular gaps between pub dates. While you don't want a small press to bang out books willy-nilly, author mill-style, a slow and irregular publishing schedule can also be a warning sign. And indeed there was trouble at FVP, as the author complaints I began to receive in 2020 indicated: non-payment of royalties (of long standing), multiple missed pub dates and deadlines, poor communication, contract breaches, and more. 

Authors began demanding their rights back (for several, Fiacco attempted to impose onerous liability releases and confidentiality terms). FVP staff departed en masse (some were asked to sign multi-page NDAs). I unpacked the whole saga in this blog post in August 2020. Less than three weeks after my post went live, FVP closed for good.

Fiacco wasn't done, though. As I recently learned via a tip from another Writer Beware reader, she has started a new publishing venture called Star Alley Press. Star Alley's focus is "Hollywood, film, TV, stage, and other performing arts", and its business plan is unusual:


Fiacco's name doesn't show up on Star Alley's website, domain registration, LinkedIn page, or the press release for the single forthcoming book (and there's no reference to Star Alley on Fiacco's own LinkedIn page). But Star Alley's business registration tells the tale:


Worth noting: Star Alley was incorporated just a month after FVP closed down--allegedly without paying staff or authors the salaries or royalties they were owed. Star Alley's current book offering was originally contracted to FVP; according to former staffers, work had already started on it when FVP folded.

June 11, 2021

Author Complaints at City Limits Publishing


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I first heard of City Limits Publishing (CLP) in September 2020, via a question about author-unfriendly guidelines in a contest it was running (simply by entering, writers granted "a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish"). At the time, CLP had published just eight books, all by the same two authors (you can take a peek at that version of its website courtesy of the Internet Archive), and was calling for submissions. 

To me, CLP looked like a self-publishing endeavor that was trying to expand into traditional publishing. This doesn't always work out well, since not all self-publishers have a solid knowledge of publishing (or, necessarily, any business experience) and may unintentionally disadvantage writers with nonstandard business practices, or author-unfriendly contracts, or both. And indeed, CLP's original contract had some problems. It included a transfer of copyright, a major red flag in a non-work-for-hire contract...


...that was directly contradicted by a clause stipulating the printing of copyright notices in the author's name (not the publisher's, as would normally be the case with a copyright transfer), as well as an extremely generous termination clause allowing authors to cancel their contracts post-publication at will for any reason. This kind of internal contradiction is something I see not infrequently in small press contracts, and is a red flag all on its own: it suggests that the publisher has a less than perfect understanding of its own contract terms.

CLP appears to have recognized this at some point, because the copyright grab disappeared from its contracts in September or October 2020 (the generous termination provision remains). CLP's catalog has ballooned to over 40 titles, including those original eight, and it has big ambitions for 2021, with plans to publish more than 50 books in total. That's a very large list for a small press--something that can (and often does) lead to trouble if staff and resources aren't adequate to handle the load.

CLP's online presence appears professional, from covers to web design--but on a closer look, there are some oddities. As of this writing, all four books shown on CLP's homepage as "coming soon" appear to have missed their original pub dates by weeks or months. (See my Update, below.) (NOTE: CLP's website is no longer functional, and there's no archive of the version that was current when I wrote this post, but an older version can be seen here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.)

Google Books shows pub dates for three of these books in June and July (the fourth, Love is Not Tourism, doesn't show up anywhere)--but as of this writing, only one of the titles has an Amazon listing





Multiple other books appear to show a May 5 pub date on CLP's website but are still listed for pre-order (you can see examples here and here). Again, these titles can be found on Google Books with upcoming June and July pub dates (examples here and here), but have no Amazon listings--including this one, which Google Books says was supposed to publish on June 10:


(UPDATE: Robert Martin, CLP's owner, contacted me after this post went live to say that CLP has "never moved or delayed a publishing date. Ever." The dates on the CLP website listings, he says, are actually "pre-sale" dates [I assume this is the date the book goes live for pre-orders]; the reason they're labeled "publish" dates is because "[t]he Shopify theme we purchased automatically uses the date we put the product into our online store as the Publish date." CLP's web developer is apparently working to change this.

When I asked why, if the books are available for pre-order on the CLP website, they aren't also available on Amazon and other retailers, he told me "As for why they aren’t all on retail sites yet, we put them up as we are able and as projects come to a close, but I don’t feel like we have to explain ourselves for every little thing we do."

It's worth noting that CLP authors dispute this statement based on their own experiences, and there's also the example of the book pictured above, which as of this writing has clearly missed its pub date.)

Also of concern: the multiple documented complaints I've recently received from CLP authors. These include late royalty payments, missed editing and other deadlines, difficulty getting CLP staff to respond to questions and concerns, free author copies and books ordered at author discount not received or received months late, books ordered by readers not received or received months late, formatting and other errors in finished books that authors struggled to get corrected (for instance, the author's name spelled wrong on the spine), substandard editing and proofing, and copyrights not registered as required in contracts. Some writers reported problems with CLP's heavily hyped online author portal--confusingly named AuthorCentral--which they said suffers from frequent crashes. I also heard from an audiobook narrator who told me that they weren't informed when CLP lost the rights to a book the narrator was in the process of recording, posing payment issues for the narrator, who was working on a royalty-share contract.

Authors also highlighted issues of transparency: being told that copyright registrations had been filed and later discovering they had not been, claims that print runs of thousands of copies were being done when in fact CLP uses on-demand technology to produce books in much smaller batches as ordered. (I've seen supporting documentation on all of this.) 

Several authors have taken advantage of CLP's generous termination clause, and canceled their contracts and reverted their rights.

I contacted CLP's founder, Robert Martin, for comment on all of the above. He gave me the following statement, which I have edited to remove mention of an individual author (not by name, but likely recognizable even so). 
When I started City Limits Publishing, I committed to full transparency and I’ve tried to provide that from the very beginning. Through our bi-weekly author newsletter to frequent direct updates and notices from me to all of our authors, I’ve kept them appraised of shipping issues related to COVID, updates to our financial systems, implementation of our new author intranet system that would provide them greater access to information and updates, as well as any challenges we’re facing as an organization. And, being a new, small press, there are many. The authors who have stuck with us have been absolutely amazing and their support is inspiring. Together, we’re building something great here. Many of our authors have emailed me thanking me for the transparency they’re getting and have been so encouraging even when receiving direct, unsolicited messages from a handful of authors on a war path.

We're aware of the situation and some of the issues a small group of former authors have brought up. First, with regards to late royalty payments, we were delayed in sending out payments as we both moved to a new system and I had a personal matter that required my attention and took me away from work for a bit. The payments were made up in full with tracking and confirmation of receipt, along with my sincerest apologies, and a promise that our next payout, July 20, would be made in full and on time, with the exception of authors who have entered into final accounting after requesting to be released from their agreements. Their final payments are being made this month as agreed during termination discussions. We're in the process of hiring a Business Manager that will take help ensure we are not late in the future. Our royalty statements were delayed in April as we made the transition to RoyaltyTracker (MetaCommet). Their implementation schedule caused us delays in sending out statements. We made a major investment in this new system so that going forward everything would operate more smoothly. With progress comes growing pains.

With regards to author copies, we have committed to making sure that our authors receive at least half of their author copies in the weeks leading up to their release, and half within 90 days of release. Author copies are a large expense for the company. We're a small business trying to get started during a global pandemic. As for ordering problems, we admit that during our early months we faced many delays, especially with our original printer and our transition to the IngramIgnite program. Still, all orders were fulfilled, and we're now shipping out daily with no delays.

With copyright registration, we did drop the ball on some of our earlier titles. Before we brought on a full team, I was working mostly on my own with operations. I'm human and did make mistakes with copyright registration of some of our earlier titles. Now, we have a system in place to make sure registration happens within 90 days of publication, as outlined in the agreement. And, we have made steps to help educate authors on the copyright registration process. It's not a fast process, so we've made sure to provide information to authors on timelines and how that process works.

Other complaints mentioned: Our early editing process was not as refined as it is now. We were just getting started, and we really learned a lot. We’ve even gone back through older titles for extensive checks and proofing to ensure we’re putting out the highest quality of work. Authors complained about books going to print with errors, but we do require all of our authors to initial the bottom corner of every page of their book before it goes to print. So, respectfully, that’s a shared mistake, and one we’ve worked extremely hard to rectify, now having four sets of eyes on all works published. Additionally, we do still have a contract with ACX and with Audiobook Universe. We were temporarily suspended from ACX for a contract mix-up where exclusive rights were selected when non-exclusive was intended. We removed the book from our website (it had not sold any copies) and our contract was reinstated. With regards to our printing, we originally used an up-front printing method, but were approached by Ingram’s IngramIgnite program (a program specifically for small presses) about using their system. We transitioned to their system, but still process upfront orders of copies of books and fulfill them to bookstores in the US and Canada that are ordered directly from us through our marketing efforts. Additionally, we make sure our wholesale pricing is competitive to get our books listed with as many retailers as possible, and we’ve enjoyed great success with the help of our partners at Ingram.

Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Are we learning from our mistakes and putting in place processes to ensure they don’t happen again? Absolutely.
(I'm not familiar with IngramIgnite; websearches don't turn up any information.)

To his credit, Martin admits mistakes. But fostering an us-and-them mentality (hints of this come through in the statement, and it's clear from my communications with Martin, as well as what CLP authors--both pro and con--have shared with me, that the complaining authors are being badmouthed internally), and blaming writers, if only partially, for mistakes such as poor proofing (authors certainly owe their publisher the duty of checking their proofs, but ultimately it's the publisher's responsibility, and not the author's, to make sure books are error-free), doesn't seem like the most positive way forward.

I did hear from some authors who said they are happy with their CLP experience so far. Though all acknowledge mistakes, they feel these have been addressed to their satisfaction, and that CLP is well-intentioned and "trying to do its best".  

Good intentions are all very well. But most of the publishers I've featured on this blog had good intentions, at least to start. Writers need to keep in mind that good intentions--like responsiveness, enthusiasm, praise, and all the other non-publishing-related things that so often entice writers into questionable situations--aren't a substitute for knowledge, experience, qualified (and adequate) staff, and working capital--all of which are far more important factors in a publisher's success. Just as new writers can get into trouble if they set out to get published without taking the time to learn about publishing, inexperienced publishers can run into difficulties if they start up too quickly and attempt to learn on the fly. 

In effect, such publishers are using their writers as subjects in a kind of science experiment. Sometimes the experiment succeeds, against odds and errors. Sometimes it doesn't. But while unwary writers' screwups harm only themselves, a publisher's screwups harm its authors. The nature of CLP's problems suggest that lack of experience is at fault, rather than ill-will or deliberate malfeasance. But to the authors who experience these things, there is little difference.

UPDATE 6/21/21: Writer Beware has learned that three senior staff members have recently left City Limits Publishing. So it isn't just authors. I'll post more info as I receive it.

UPDATE 6/25/21: The City Limits website is offline.

UPDATE 7/6/21: Today, CLP authors received emails from Robert Martin announcing that CLP will be closing its doors as of July 21, just over a year after starting up. 

For authors whose books were not released, the email serves as notice that their contracts have been voided. For authors whose books were published, the picture is a bit more complicated.


The email also promises that orders of books that haven't been released will be refunded, and orders of books that have been published will be shipped.

Authors and staff who are owed royalties and salaries, please let me know if you receive payment.

A final note: City Limits' story is a common one in the small press world: inexperienced person starts a publisher, tries to learn on the fly, gets in over their head logistically and financially, resorts to obfuscation and deflection to keep things going while staff and authors get ever more dissatisfied, and finally goes out of business (sometimes without any warning or rights reversions; thankfully that does not seem to be happening in this case, but it's early days).

I wish I didn't hear this story so often. But as an object lesson, it points up how important it is for a would-be publisher to have experience--not just publishing experience, but business experience (and even then there are no guarantees)--and also why it's a bad idea to sign on to a new publisher with a limited track record. This is why I advise writers to wait at least a year before submitting to new small presses. 

CLP authors and staff, please keep me updated on whether you're receiving payments and rights reversions, either by emailing me or commenting below.

UPDATE 7/20/21: Apparently City Limits isn't the first failed business associated with Robert Martin. Under the name Robert Coles, he co-founded a web design and social media agency in 2013 called Coles & Colomy, which collapsed after a short time under similar allegations of non-payment and misrepresentation.

May 14, 2021

Two Scams to Watch Out For: Writers' Conference Phishing Scheme, Goodreads Extortion Scam


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

"We are Seeking Qualified Writers and Poets for our Conference"

Back in January, I heard from a writer who'd received a conference participation solicitation that looked to be a scam.

Although the company named in the solicitation, Crown Castle, was real, it had nothing to do with publishing, and the poor phrasing and lack of detail--such as the conference's name--was equally suspicious. The writer contacted the company to ask, and, unsurprisingly, was told that they had no employee named James Gilbert and were not planning any conferences, let alone one for "qualified writers and poets."

Deciding to lead the scammer on for a bit, the writer pretended interest. They got this reply:

Presumably this is some sort of phishing scheme, and if the writer had provided their name and address they would have been asked for bank account information or some other financial disclosure.

I received no other reports of the fake Crown Castle solicitation, and couldn't find any references to it online. Although it was clearly a fraud, I didn't quite know what to make of it. Was it a one-off? A recurring ripoff scheme, like this long-running speaker scam?

A couple of days ago, I got the answer, via a Twitter post from a writer who received this:


The scammers have switched up some stuff--the solicitor's name, the subject line, the company name (like Crown Castle, Smart Asset is also a real company), and the remuneration--but otherwise this solicitation is nearly word-for-word identical to the one I saw in January. 

So it's obviously an ongoing phishing scam that changes its details from time to time to evade discovery, and borrows genuine company names so that anyone who does a websearch will turn up a real website (and hopefully won't be too concerned that the companies have nothing whatever to do with writing or publishing). 

The email addresses look authentic also--at least, to a quick glance. Look closer, and you'll notice discrepancies. "Nora Droste's" address has an extra "t" (smarttasset.com rather than the company's real email address, smartasset.com), and "James Gilbert's" has an extra word (crowncastlelogistics.com, as opposed to the authentic email format, crowncastle.com).

This scam is a bit more difficult than some to immediately recognize, because while reputable agents and publishers are highly unlikely to solicit new writers with too-good-to-be-true offers, authors do legitimately receive requests from conference organizers. Be on your guard, do your research--and if you're unsure, contact Writer Beware.

UPDATE 6/23/21: According to additional reports I've received and also this comment below, if you indicate you're interested in participating, you receive a contract requiring you to send a $450 money order for the "high quality" camera and other equipment. Supposedly this will be reimbursed after you pay it. In reality, of course, once you send the $450 you'll never hear from the scammers again. 

UPATE 7/24/21: Here's the latest iteration of the scam, which as you'll see, is even more deceptive:


There really is a Kristen Pecci who works in HR at Macmillan (though her title isn't Manager), so a quick websearch could lend credibility to this email (if you don't think too hard about why an HR professional would be recruiting for a writers' conference). However, dig deeper and you'll spot what is often a clue to a scam approach: the email protocol is not what Macmillan uses. Nor would a real email address mis-name the company (it's Macmillan Publishers, not Macmillan Publishing).

The Goodreads Extortion Scam

Recently I received an email from a writer who described an extortion scheme that had targeted them on Goodreads. The scammers threatened to post a blizzard of one-star reviews and ratings if the writer didn't hand over money to "buy our paid review offers". Here's the first email the writer received. (Apologies to anyone who's sensitive to bad language; this apparently is typical of the scammers' communications.)


When the writer refused to play, they got this:


The scammers then made good on their threat and bombed the writer's books with 1-star reviews. Fortunately, the writer was able to get Goodreads--which is not always overly responsive to author complaints--to remove the reviews, along with the profile that had posted them. 

It's been a long time since I gave much thought to Goodreads. I largely quit interacting there after Amazon acquired it, at which point the already toxic atmosphere increased while the responsiveness of the people running the site underwent an equivalent decline. I too have been 1-star bombed--more than once, actually, including just recently, as I discovered when I visited Goodreads for the first time in forever to research this post and found that a profile called Photography had left1-star ratings on all my books (including a non-existent book that I've tried repeatedly to get Goodreads to remove, and a book to which I contributed a single chapter):


All of Photography's ratings are 1-stars (a classic sign of a fake profile), and all 12 of them are for me. In other words, this is a profile set up for the sole purpose of trashing my books. That's a not-uncommon tactic on Goodreads, where review-bombing is a known hazard. I never got any demands for money, though (mostly, I figure attacks like this are a result of my work with Writer Beware), and I'd never heard of an extortion scheme like the one the writer described. Was their encounter with cyber extortionists unusual? Or was this something that happened more often?

Apparently, the latter--though it does seem to be a fairly new phenomenon. This blog entry posted in January lays it all out--not just the "pay up or we'll trash your books" threat, but a more sneaky scheme where the 1-star reviews appear first and then after a few days the writer is contacted by someone who claims they will get rid of them...for a fee. There are several threads on Goodreads discussing this, with posts from writers who've been targeted:


Here are the kinds of reviews that get posted:


And here's the kind of response writers get from the scammers if they push back, or if they manage to get Goodreads to remove the reviews (apologies again for language):


In January, Goodreads claimed to be "working with our engineering teams to investigate possible solutions to prevent this from happening in the future." It's now May, and it's still going on. 

I imagine this is a difficult problem to police, and Goodreads does seem to be fairly responsive in replying to authors' complaints and removing reviews and scammer profiles. Clearly, though, this is an ongoing problem, and if you're active on Goodreads, you should be aware of it.

UPDATE: SFWA has issued a statement on Goodreads harassment, and is working with Goodreads to address it. If you're a SFWA member, you can report harassment or extortion using this form

April 30, 2021

#DisneyMustPay: Authors' Groups Join Forces to Advocate for Writers Owed Money by Disney



Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Last November, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) published a letter from author Alan Dean Foster detailing his struggles to get Disney to provide unpaid royalties and missing royalty statements for multiple novels and novelizations that he'd written for several media properties whose rights Disney had acquired.
You continue to ignore requests from my agents. You continue to ignore queries from SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You continue to ignore my legal representatives. I know this is what gargantuan corporations often do. Ignore requests and inquiries hoping the petitioner will simply go away. Or possibly die. But I’m still here, and I am still entitled to what you owe me. Including not to be ignored, just because I’m only one lone writer. How many other writers and artists out there are you similarly ignoring?

Disney's argument was that they'd purchased the rights of the contracts they'd acquired, but not the obligations (such as paying royalties). After SFWA took the matter public, a resolution was reached, and Mr. Foster's payment issues were resolved. However, SFWA reports that a number of other authors have contacted it about similar issues, also across a wide range of Disney properties, and that Disney has refused to work with the organization.

SFWA has now joined with other writers' groups to form the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force. Members of the task force include Authors Guild, Horror Writers Association, National Writers Union, Novelists, Inc., Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime, along with individual writers representing each of the organizations, such as Neil Gaiman, Tess Gerritsen, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Chuck Wendig. 

The group has issued a press release urging Disney to address these key areas:

  1. Honor contracts now held by Disney and its subsidiaries.
  2. Provide royalty payments and statements to all affected authors.
  3. Update their licensing page with a FAQ for writers about how to handle missing royalties.
  4. Create a clear, easy-to-find contact person or point for affected authors.
  5. Cooperate with author organizations who are providing support to authors and agents.

According to the press release, when presented with these steps, and offered the opportunity to provide a statement to the task force organizations' members, Disney declined.

The task force is asking for contact from affected writers, who can report their experiences using this form hosted by SFWA (anonymity is guaranteed). How do you know if you may have been affected?


To raise awareness, and to get the word out to writers who may need the task force's help, the task force is urging people to use the #DisneyMustPay hashtag on Twitter (it offers several suggestions for possible tweets) and to discuss the issue on social media generally. It also asks that the public not boycott, as that could penalize Disney writers who are being paid.

I'll update this post as I receive more information.

April 23, 2021

The Case of the Purloined Blog Post: How a Fake DMCA Notice Failed to Silence Writer Beware



Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

I have a gmail account. I hate gmail, so I don't use it for correspondence and rarely check it. But one day a couple of weeks ago, I did, and to my surprise I found a takedown notice for one of my Writer Beware blog posts, alleging that I'd infringed someone's copyright.


The post in question discussed the 2018 implosion of small publisher Fiery Seas Publishing, about which I received a flood of author complaints following owner Misty Williams's abrupt announcement of "re-structuring" due to poor sales. A couple of months after my post, Fiery Seas closed for good.

I checked, and the post had indeed been taken down (though I was able to view it thanks to the Wayback Machine). For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to have infringed. Maybe Misty Williams's announcement email, which I'd reproduced in full? 

After some permissions applications, I was able to work my way to the actual DMCA complaint. 


Say what? Who the hell was Bella Andreas, and why was she claiming that she'd written my blog post? Navigating to the "Original URL" link on what purported to be Bella's blog, I found a large portion of my post reproduced verbatim:


Note the date. I published my post on September 28, 2018. Bella's post is dated September 3, 2018. In other words, she'd stolen the bulk of my post, backdated it to make it look as if she were the original author, and gotten my post taken down with a fake DMCA notice.

I was stumped. Fiery Seas is dead. The authors who were caught up in the publisher's collapse have moved on. So, presumably, has Misty Williams, who, if she objected to what I wrote about her, has had plenty of time to protest. What purpose could this fakery possibly serve? 

Bella's blog struck me as odd in general, even beyond the stolen blog post, with its peculiar name (Comusa: blog you deserve), motto ("Blog about the thuth [sic] Not for everyone. For you."), lack of info about Bella herself, and random-seeming array of other posts over what appeared to be a period of several years--most of them about financial fraud, but also consumer issues and scandals of various kinds. 

Digging into the posts themselves, I discovered something interesting. Every single post had been stolen and backdated, just like mine. For instance, here's Bella, with a purported date of 1/5/2020:


Here's the original article, dated 2/4/2020:





Original article, dated 3/21/19:


I could go on. Every post is like this. Every. Single. One. Moreover, the date fakery isn't limited to backdating. Posts are dated as far back as 2014, yet Bella's domain name didn't exist before October 2016. And regardless of their apparent publication dates, source code indicates that all of the posts were in fact published between early December 2020 and late March 2021.

My stolen post falls right in the middle of that brief time period. Bella published it on January 26, 2021--the same day she filed the DMCA notice. That's additionally confirmed by the date on the image upload:


I filed a counter-claim with Google on April 5, providing all of the information above, and received the usual "we'll get to it when we get to it" response. In fact, they got to it much more quickly than I expected.


The post has been re-instated in its original location.

******

So what the hell was it all about? 

Who is Bella Andreas, and what's her beef with my blog post? Could she be someone I pissed off somehow? A disgruntled author? An outed scammer? But she doesn't show up in any of my email or other Writer Beware records. And websearches on her name and variations of it are inconclusive. She doesn't appear to be a writer (you'll probably have noticed, as I did, the similarity of her name to that of bestselling author Bella Andre). I can't find any indication that she's associated with any part of the publishing industry. Assuming that "Bella Andreas" is a real name at all.

And what's the deal with Bella's blog, with its weird typo-ridden motto and its bizarre collection of plagiarized, backdated posts? Could it have been created solely in order to take down my post? I know that sounds farfetched, but consider. All of Bella's blog posts were created in a short span of time, which her DMCA claim falls exactly in the middle of. Also, apart from the various news articles Bella plagiarized, for which she couldn't plausibly claim infringement, several of her posts have been stolen from blogs like Writer Beware. For instance, this one (here's the original post) and this one (original post) and this one (original post). If fake-DMCA'ing was her game, she could easily have had them taken down based on the same pretext she used for mine. But all are still online. Mine is the only one that was (if only temporarily) removed.

Finally, why that post? Fiery Seas and its collapse are old news. And why now, more than two years after the post was published?

It all seems completely, weirdly random. Except...

At the end of my post is a postscript, in which I mention A Certain Agent who is known for his efforts to get references to himself removed from the web. Last spring, he contacted me to demand the takedown of certain of my tweets, a discussion on the Writer Beware Facebook page...and my Fiery Seas blog post. 

I did not comply. You can't DMCA tweets and Facebook threads, but you can DMCA blog posts. And remember I mentioned that Bella stole most of my post, but not all of it? She omitted the intro, which linked back to Writer Beware. But she also omitted the postscript.

Coincidence? You be the judge.
 
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