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 15, 2021

Pay-to-Play as Pedagogy? The Creator Institute and New Degree Press


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

A few months ago, I began getting questions about a self-described hybrid (read: fee-charging) publisher called New Degree Press (NDP). Reported fees were in the $5,000 to $8,000 range, which paid for a suite of publishing services including editing, formatting, and publication via KDP and IngramSpark.

So far, so unremarkable. But there's something that sets NDP apart from more familiar pay-to-play publishing ventures: although it presents the appearance of an independent publisher on its rather sparse website (including soliciting submissions), NDP is in fact the publishing arm of The Creator Institute, an entrepreneurship course created by Georgetown University professor Eric Koester.

THE PROCESS AND THE PUBLISHER


Likened to a master's degree or MBA, the Creator Institute (CI)--dubbed the bSchool Program (for Book School)--enables students to "learn-by-doing--enabling you to discover your passion, develop your expertise and establish your credibility through the creation and launch of your very own book." Both the CI and Prof. Koester have won awards for innovation, and there are offshoots of the program at colleges across the country.

Primarily targeting college and high-school students, the bSchool Program proceeds in two phases, per the Creator Institute's (rather confusing) FAQ, taking a total of around 10 months. The first phase consists of lectures, group discussions, and work assignments geared to producing a complete book manuscript. The second phase focuses on publication of the ms. via NDP.

Publishing with NDP is not compulsory; students who complete the first phase don't have to move on to phase two. It appears, though, that most people do.

Co-founded in 2017 by Prof. Koester and Tucker Max of Scribe Media, NDP is prolific. To date it has issued 540 titles, according to Amazon, more than half (311) published in 2020 alone. In 2021, projected output will nearly double, according to Creator Institute's Spring 2021 Program Overview (page 10). Many of the books are under 200 pages--NDP mss. average 25,000 words for a rough draft and around 30,000 words for a finished manuscript--and the vast majority are nonfiction, with a small number of fiction titles scattered in.

Three author "cohorts" sign up with CI annually, each consisting of well over 100 writers. Georgetown University students can attend in-person sessions--or at least they could; I don't know what impact the pandemic might have had on this--but the bulk of the learning is virtual, via an open version of the course. Writers receive one-on-one attention from editors and designers, and there is a roster of outside speakers, but much of the instruction appears to come in the form of recorded lectures and workshops, as well as weekly meetings and community discussions between the writers themselves. Class materials are template-heavy, based on examples I saw, an approach that I imagine is helpful for non-writers, but for creative writing, including creative nonfiction, not so much (this was acknowledged by NDP editors who contacted me).

CI/NDP promises that "All the developmental editors working with the program are professional editors who have worked on numerous books" (Overview, page 10). Neither Creator Institute nor NDP identify their staff, so it's difficult to assess this claim. I have managed to glean the names of several editors, however, and while some do show substantial experience, others have much less (in some cases, per their LinkedIn bios, they don't seem to have worked as editors at all prior to being hired by NDP). Brian Bies, Head of Publishing, does not appear to have had any professional publishing or writing experience before assuming his position, other than going through the CI program and publishing his own book through NDP. (Here's his explanation of economies of scale in publishing, aka "batching", which he compares to dining at Benihana.)

Writers are expected to do a lot of heavy lifting over the course of the publishing process--from drumming up support for their crowdfunding campaigns (see below), to providing ideas for cover design (including creating mock covers), to doing some of the work of layout. Authors get assistance in developing "a 3-4 month automated marketing plan" (Overview, page 6) but must handle the actual implementation (and expense) themselves. Authors are also encouraged to write back cover blurbs for each other, and are responsible for ordering books to mail out to campaign backers (NDP reimburses them for this).

The final work of uploading and publishing the finished books to KDP and IngramSpark is entirely done by authors.

THE MONEY

Participants in the manuscript-creation phase of the program pay just $249 ($499 for non-students) to cover the cost of their developmental editors. The big bucks don't kick in until the publishing phase.

Last spring, NDP's publishing fee options were laid out as a flat $5,000, $6,000, or $8,000. They've been re-formulated in the Spring 2021 Program Overview to include cost breakdowns (page 6), but the basic amounts remain the same.


There's also a $300 deposit to cover production of a promotional video (refundable if you choose the $8,000 option and make your goal).

To defray these hefty fees, writers can choose to "self-fund", or they can raise the money through a crowdfunding campaign. Most choose a campaign.

Conducted on Indiegogo, the campaigns all follow a similar template (a cookie-cutter approach that has been noted by observers), featuring pre-orders (suggested softcover price: an eyebrow-raising $39) and other perks, such as "become a beta reader". The goal is to engage in a prelaunch effort to sell 125-250 books, in order to "build your audience in advance of a formal book launch" (Overview, pages 7-8). While any professional writer will tell you that building an audience involves getting people you don't know to buy your books, for NDP, pre-sale audience-building primarily relies on people to whom you are already connected. This isn't emphasized in the 2021 literature, but it's explicit in last year's Overview ("Most presales come from friends, family, coworkers, classmates, alums, and people you’ve interacted with through your book-writing process" [page 13]) and was confirmed by writers who contacted me, some of whom said they found this leveraging of relationships uncomfortable.

Technically, writers who reach their crowdfunding goals don't have to pay out of pocket--something CI makes sure to emphasize throughout its literature. And indeed, a large number of campaigns do succeed in raising or even exceeding the desired amount of cash.

What about those that don't, though? CI encourages writers to believe this is unlikely: "96% of authors reach their campaign targets" (Overview, page 13--an estimate that's a step down from the prior year's Overview, which assured students that "Creators Program alums have, to date, all succeeded in their targets." [page 12]). But in fact it's very easy to find campaigns that have missed the mark, in some cases by quite a considerable amount of money.

Might there be substantial incentive for writers to chip in themselves to make up the difference? I've heard from NDP writers who say they did just that. So did this writer. Even a brief survey of NDP writers' campaign pages indicates that self-contributions are not at all uncommon. (Writers seem to be encouraged to help fund campaigns by other NDP authors as well--a practice that appears to involve a certain amount of quid pro quo.)

Another question: suppose writers who don't reach their goal decide to walk away, rather than making up the difference. Work on editing and other tasks is concurrent with campaigns; would writers have to reimburse NDP for the cost of those activities? Here's what CI has to say about that (Overview, page 13):


I find this explanation far from clear. No, authors aren't responsible for costs, period? Or no, authors aren't responsible for costs "beyond those from their pre-sales and applied to publishing activities"--which would seem to add up to "yes, you are responsible for costs"?

Indiegogo is one of the few crowdfunding platforms that allows participants to keep the money they raise whether or not they make their goals. But remember, the campaigns are for pre-orders, and if there's no published book, backers will want to be compensated. If indeed there are financial repercussions to walking away, authors could be faced with a quandary: refund backers and pay NDP out of pocket? Or pay NDP with campaign funds and find some other way to reimburse backers?

This absolutely needs to be more fully explained. It should really be included in the contract. Which brings me to...

THE CONTRACT

Here's where things get really murky.

NDP repeatedly identifies itself as a publisher (specifically, a "hybrid publisher"). NDP titles carry NDP ISBNs; Amazon and other retailers list it as publisher, and its name is printed inside the books and on back covers.

It also issues a Publishing Agreement. That agreement, however...well...here's one from September 2020.
Almost nothing you'd expect to appear in a publishing agreement is present here. Grant term? Nope. Copyright? Nada. Warranties and indemnities? Absent. Termination or cancellation? Never mentioned. Publisher's signature? Apparently not deemed necessary. As for rights and royalties, there's only this...


...which merely affirms a basic truth about intellectual property (unless they surrender copyright, authors always "retain full ownership rights"; it's what allows them to grant publishing rights in the first place), and doesn't explicitly license any rights to NDP or say how or when royalties will be collected.

Of course, NDP doesn't need to license rights, because it doesn't actually publish anything. Writers themselves upload their finished books to KDP and IngramSpark, at which point they agree to those platforms' rights licenses and payment terms. Presumably that's why there's no license language in NDP's agreement, and no payment stipulations other than confirmation that authors keep all platform income (NDP does not take a share of sales income).

But do you see the problem here? Publishing agreements should not require you to presume. More to the point--if NDP leaves it to authors to do the actual publishing, why have a publishing agreement at all? Surely a service contract--which NDP's agreement in fact resembles far more than it does a publishing contract--would be more appropriate.

As it is, NDP's publishing agreement leaves important issues unaddressed, protecting neither the author nor NDP itself, and potentially setting everyone up for awkward outcomes.

For instance, suppose an NDP writer decides they want to seek a different form of publishing. They can unpublish their book from KDP and IngramSpark, per the terms of those licenses--but what about the NDP publishing agreement, which has no stated term and no provision for cancellation by the author (or even by NDP)? Presumably (that word again) the author could ask NDP to cancel it--but if NDP refused, or became unreachable, what then? How would a potential new publisher, or even another self-publishing platform, feel about an existing interminable publishing agreement, even one as vague as NDP's? At the very least, it would be a complicating factor.

Or suppose it turns out that an NDP writer plagiarized portions of their book, or included content that someone deems defamatory, and lawsuits are filed against NDP as well as the author. With no author warranties, and no indemnity language, NDP is totally exposed. Might it claim that it wasn't actually the publisher, since there was no explicit license of rights? Courts might be skeptical of that argument, given NDP's repeated identification of itself as a publisher, not to mention its ISBNs and the presence of its name inside its books. Self-publishing service provider AuthorHouse did not do well with a similar argument when it was sued for libel (and now includes extensive disclaimers in its service agreement). For a publisher that touts its entrepreneurial focus, this does seem a bit short-sighted.

These scenarios are not far-fetched. The odds they'd happen might be slim--but they aren't zero.

CONCLUSION

Despite its name and claims, NDP is not much like a publisher, in the traditional sense of a company that takes on the entire work of producing, distributing, and marketing a carefully curated catalog of books.

It more closely resembles a self-publishing services provider, with an added element of coaching and community interaction. With its focus on entrepreneurship, NDP seems a better fit for people who want to use a book as a calling card or a line on their resume, than for those with ambitions of authorship. In particular, it seems a bad fit for novelists and other creative writers.

Regardless, anyone who decides to sign up with NDP should be aware that to all intents and purposes they are self-publishing, that crowdfunding success is not assured, and that--as with any self-published book--the burden and expense of marketing will fall to them.

Most of the authors I heard from had positive things to say about their CI/NDP experience, and were happy with their finished books. But all expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of the program and/or business model, from concerns about the quality of editing and copy editing, to doubts about the usefulness of the seminars, to disappointment with the lack of marketing support. These concerns echo those expressed by Clare Marie Edgeman, who lays out in a detailed blog post why she regrets publishing with NDP (see especially the section titled "The Red Flags I Ignored").

I'm also troubled by the ethics of the CI to NDP pipeline. CI students don't have to publish their books with NDP. But what about alternatives? CI/NDP literature paints a discouraging picture of traditional publishing, claiming it offers few chances for first-time authors "unless the author has a built-in audience that can purchase 10,000 copies of a book", and gobbles up "90-95% of all the profit" (Overview, pages 11 and 12). According to a previous Overview, trad pubbed writers "give up their rights" and "typically end up owing the publisher money" if they don't meet sales targets (page 11). Similarly misleading claims are made in a CI video lecture I viewed, including the common false meme that the "average" trad pubbed book sells just 250 copies over its lifetime.

Of course, for most CI authors, trad pub is moot, since 30,000-word manuscripts are unlikely to interest bigger houses unless they're for the juvenile market, and the low word count eliminates many smaller presses as well. What about self-publishing, then? That's portrayed as too expensive: "the average self-published author reports spending $4,450 on publishing costs" (Overview, page 14--it's worth noting that this is just $550 less than NDP's lowest fee level). According to the video lecture, first year sales for most self-pubbers are 50 copies or fewer. (I'm sure there are many successful self-publishers who can attest to spending far less--and selling more, too.)

The inevitable conclusion: "Hybrid publishing...offer[s] the best combination for first-time authors" (Overview, page 12). Essentially, it's a closed loop: the CI program produces manuscripts that, for word count and possibly other reasons, have limited publishing options, and NDP is there to publish them.

Prof. Koester is NDP's co-founder. This fact isn't exactly hidden, but it is also not disclosed on NDP's website or in its literature, which describes the relationship between CI and NDP as a "partnership" (as though NDP hadn't been created specifically to service the CI program) and only acknowledges that Prof. Koester "worked" with NDP to "design this innovative, group-based, hybrid publishing experience" (Overview, page 2).

For me, this raises a question: is NDP a profitmaking entity? NDP's cost breakdown for its services does suggest that it's break-even, more or less, for CI students--but NDP also calls for unsolicited submissions from non-CI participants, and does "custom" publishing where costs are higher.

I sent this question, along with a number of others, to Prof. Koester several weeks ago. He has not responded.

January 8, 2021

Writer Beware: 2020 in Review (Not That Anyone Really Wants to Review 2020)


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

It's time again for Writer Beware's annual look back at the schemes, scams, and assorted crazy sh*t we encountered in 2020 (and I'm not even talking about the pandemic).

WHAT'S IN A NAME? THE NEWEST SCAM TREND

Scammers lie, cheat, and misrepresent. They may claim credentials they don't have, or professional relationships they don't possess. But this is a new trend: multiple scammers impersonating real, reputable literary agents and publishers in order to defraud writers. 

The Impersonation Game A scammer posing as Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency attempts to cheat an unsuspecting writer out of $1,400 (which of course the real Jennifer Jackson would never do).

A New "Beware": Scammers Impersonating Reputable Literary Agents It's not just Jennifer Jackson. In a scheme that traces back to two Philippines-based publishing and marketing scammers, several other agents' names have been appropriated.

Alert: Scammers Impersonating Major Publishing Houses Fake publishing offers, supposedly from HarperCollins (which of course involve large fees), courtesy of another overseas scammer.

Dissecting a Scam: The Literary Scout Impersonator Publishing/marketing scammer Chapters Media--which is also impersonating a roster of agents--steals the identity of Clare Richardson of Maria B. Campbell Associates in an unusually elaborate scheme that cost one writer $13,000.

PUBLISHERS IN TROUBLE

Sadly, there's never a shortage of stories like these.

Mass Contract Cancellations at Mystery Publisher Henery Press Out-of-the blue cancellations trimmed Henery's list by dozens of authors and books. Though the cancellations were a surprise, the publisher had been showing signs of trouble for a long time.

Small Press Storm Warnings: Lethe Press, Seventh Star Press Multiple complaints about payment problems, contract breaches, and toxic culture from authors at these two small presses.

Small Press Storm Warnings: Filles Vertes Press Long-standing problems--late payments, missed publication dates, missed production deadlines, and serious communications issues--spurred a flood of staff resignations and author rights reversion requests, and ultimately the publisher's closure.

SAVE YOUR CASH

The shady underbelly of the publishing world is chock-a-block with schemes to take authors' money, by fair means or foul. Here are some especially foul examples.

Junk Book Marketing: Pay-to-Play Magazines Compilations of ads, interviews, and "feature articles" sold to writers at enormous prices, these faux magazines are not distributed or circulated to the public in any meaningful way.

Should You Pay to Display Your Book at BookExpo? The short answer: no, because such offers at best are useless, and at worst are scams. BookExpo no longer exists, and most book fairs have gone virtual during the pandemic, but this is something to keep in mind once the world goes back to an approximation of normal. 

CAREFUL WITH CONTRACTS

The good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself How writers get screwed: by making assumptions about a publisher's intentions, letting their emotions overrule their business sense, and forgetting that, in the author-publisher relationship, the publishing contract is the bottom line. This post offers some suggestions for changing damaging ways of thinking.

Bad Contract Alert: EMP Entertainment and A&D Entertainment These Singapore-based companies are just two of many that are actively soliciting writers with offers to distribute their work to reading platforms like Webnovel, or to publish on their own mobile reading apps. Beware: their contract terms are terrible.

HOW TO USE A PANDEMIC TO LEGITIMIZE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY THEFT

The Internet Archive's Open Library Project--a huge repository of scanned print books available for borrowing in various formats--justifies its existence with a novel (and disputed) legal theory called Controlled Digital Lending, which it claims allows it to create new digital editions of in-copyright books without seeking owners' permission. 

In March, as the coronavirus pandemic was taking off across the world, the IA abandoned one of the key provisions of CDL to create the National Emergency Library--basically, the Open Library with restrictions on borrowing removed--in order to address what it described as "unprecedented global and immediate need for access to reading and research materials" (never mind that such materials are already widely available for borrowing online via local, state, and university libraries). Publishers and authors' groups responded with outcry, accusing the IA of "using a global crisis to advance a copyright ideology that violates current federal law and hurts most authors" and ultimately initiating a lawsuit. 

Copyright Violation Redux: The Internet Archive's National Emergency Library  Controlled Digital Lending, what it is and why this theory--and its practice--is harmful to writers.


CONTESTS TO AVOID

If you've been reading here for a while, you'll know that I'm no fan of contests--not just because they often involve big entry fees (even the legit ones), but because they so often have author-unfriendly rules and guidelines. Although all these contests are past and closed, the "bewares" they represent are fairly common, and you may encounter them elsewhere.

Contest Scam Alert: Legaia Books Online Book Competition When is a literary contest not a literary contest? When its purpose is to make money for the contest sponsor, or to assemble a list of likely customers.

Contest Beware: "Lovecraft Country" Short Story Contest From HBO and The Root (a publication that should know better), a writing contest with egregious rights grabs.

Bad Contest Terms: T.A. Barron's "Once Upon a Villain" Flash Fiction Contest This contest features another inappropriate rights grab--what happens when you let lawyers loose on contest guidelines.

VANITY, VANITY

Vanity publishing--and the misinformation and deceptions vanity pubs use to ensnare writers--never seems to go out of style. Unfortunately.

Pay to Play Alert: Europe Books / Europa Edizioni / Gruppo Albatros Il Filo To all appearances a traditional publisher, Europe Books actually requires writers to buy 200 copies of their own books, at four-figure costs. It is currently heavily soliciting authors.

James Paul Amstell: A Vanity Publisher By Any Name Also actively soliciting for submissions, Mr. Amstell's vanity outfit calls itself Book Publishers London...the third in a procession of shifting names.

AGENCY ALARMS

Agencies in Turmoil Threats of legal action from Red Sofa Literary, mass firings at Corvisiero Literary Agency.

Attack of the Fake Literary Agencies: West Literary Agency, Stellar Literary Press and Media Unlike the agent impersonators, these "agencies" aren't assuming others' identities--but they're still fake as hell.

Dissecting a Scam: Fact & Fiction Literary Agency In which I uncover the facts of this "agency's" many fictions.

Beware: Pigeon House Literary / Druella Burhan Scammers hurt writers...but so do incompetents.

GENERAL BEWARES

Be careful out there!

Audiblegate: How Audible-ACX Returns Policy Penalizes Writers Audible-ACX allows some customers to make unlimited returns, encouraging cheating, and doesn't report returns on authors' sales statements, resulting in an inaccurate picture of sales. Thanks to writers' activism, both practices have recently come to light.

Spooky Phishing Scam Targets Traditionally-Published Writers Someone is stealing contracted but not-yet-published manuscripts, and nobody knows who or why.

AND FINALLY, A SALUTE TO THE CRAZY

Sometimes, writing for this blog is hard (I often cover complicated issues). Sometimes, it's a lot of work (I research all my posts, but some need more than others). Sometimes, though, it's just plain fun.

Space Kadet: The Twisted Tale of a Sad, Sad, Internet Troll To writers who frequent Twitter, especially #WritingCommunity and #amwriting, Gary Scott Kadet will need no introduction. A vitriolic and insanely prolific troll, he has used a dizzying array of sockpuppet accounts to stalk, harass, and obsessively demean writers, agents, and editors. When, quite accidentally, I had my own encounter with him, the results were...interesting.

December 31, 2020

James Paul Amstell: A Vanity Publisher By Any Name


A quick "beware" as we bid a glad goodbye to 2020.

A guy called James Paul Amstell (aka J.P. Amstell or James Amstell) is madly changing the name of his recently-launched vanity publishing operation, likely in order to evade online warnings (mostly from me).

The first iteration, Heart and Goldman Book Publishers, has been wiped from the web. I have one of its contracts, though, which gives authors the option of paying between £1,000 and £4,000, depending on what level of service they choose. Other traces remain:


The second iteration, J.P. Amstell Book Publishers, has also been erased, though Google has cached some of its website and I saved some as well. See the image at the top of this post.

Though Mr. Amstell changed the name of his publishing venture, he didn't bother to change the website. Other than substituting "J.P. Amstell Book Publishers" for "Heart and Goldman", the sites were identical. Sometimes, though, search-and-replace lets you down. 


This past September, I tweeted a warning about the name switcheroo:


I also posted a warning on Facebook. A few days later, this landed in my personal inbox:


You can imagine my (non-)response. Ditto for the identical threat Mr. Amstell sent three days later. 

I've heard nothing further. However, possibly because websearches on J.P. Amstell bring up my warnings on the first page, Mr. Amstell appears to have felt the need for yet another name change.


Notice any similarities? 

Once again, apart from "Book Publishers London" in place of "J.P. Amstell Book Publishers", BPL's extremely wordy site content--which includes serious misinformation about traditional publishing and does not disclose the fees--is identical to that of the previous two. For instance:


This time, though, Mr. Amstell has managed a better job of name replacement. 

Mr. Amstell is currently soliciting manuscript submissions as Book Publishers London (that's how I became aware of the latest name change):


Mr. Amstell doesn't seem to have actually published any books to date, under any of his company names. Since his first foray into vanity publishing kicked off over a year ago, that does make one wonder. Also, contrary to his claim of maintaining a "staff who previously worked deep inside the traditional system at senior levels with important positions in power throughout the entire traditional world," Mr. Amstell seems to plan on outsourcing much of the work--judging, at least, by the several author services providers who contacted me after Mr. Amstell sent them identical proposals for book formatting.

More evidence of the interconnection of the three publishers, from Companies House:


Mr. Amstell appears to have been associated with two additional companies, both dissolved. Note the identical birth dates and also the creative deployment of different versions of his name, which (with the exception above) avoids more than one company showing up on a search on any one version.

December 22, 2020

Spooky Phishing Scam Targets Traditionally-Published Writers

 
Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

The New York Times has published the story of a strange international phishing scam: unknown actors targeting traditionally-published writers, posing as their agents or editors to obtain copies of their unpublished manuscripts.
Earlier this month, the book industry website Publishers Marketplace announced that Little, Brown would be publishing “Re-Entry,” a novel by James Hannaham about a transgender woman paroled from a men’s prison. The book would be edited by Ben George.

Two days later, Mr. Hannaham got an email from Mr. George, asking him to send the latest draft of his manuscript. The email came to an address on Mr. Hannaham’s website that he rarely uses, so he opened up his usual account, attached the document, typed in Mr. George’s email address and a little note, and hit send.

“Then Ben called me,” Mr. Hannaham said, “to say, ‘That wasn’t me.’”

Mr. Hannaham was just one of countless targets in a mysterious international phishing scam that has been tricking writers, editors, agents and anyone in their orbit into sharing unpublished book manuscripts. It isn’t clear who the thief or thieves are, or even how they might profit from the scheme. High-profile authors like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan have been targeted, along with celebrities like Ethan Hawke. But short story collections and works by little-known debut writers have been attacked as well, even though they would have no obvious value on the black market.
The phisher, or phishers, employ clever tactics like inserting or transposing letters in official-looking email addresses (like "penguinrandornhouse.com" instead of "penguinrandomhouse.com") and masking the addresses so they only show when the recipient hits "Reply". They know how publishing works and appear to have access to inside information, utilizing not just public sources like acquisition announcements in trade publications, but details that are harder to uncover: writers' email addresses, their relationships with agents and editors, delivery and deadline dates, even details of the manuscripts themselves. 

And they are ramping up their operations. According to the Times, the scam began appearing "at least" three years ago, but in the past year "the volume of these emails has exploded in the United States."

So what's the endgame? Publishing people are stumped. Manuscripts by high-profile authors have been targeted, but also less obviously commercial works: debut novels by unknowns, short story collections, experimental fiction. The manuscripts don't wind up on the black market, as far as anyone can tell, and don't seem to be published online. There have been no ransom demands or other attempts at monetization. 
One of the leading theories in the publishing world, which is rife with speculation over the thefts, is that they are the work of someone in the literary scouting community. Scouts arrange for the sale of book rights to international publishers as well as to film and television producers, and what their clients pay for is early access to information — so an unedited manuscript, for example, would have value to them.
I heard about the scam a couple of months ago, from an author who was targeted after their forthcoming book was announced on Publishers Marketplace. What they reported to me tracks with the information above, including the credible approach by what appeared to be the writer's own editor or agent (complete with authentic-looking email signature), a credible excuse for why they wanted the writer to send the manuscript again, and the altered sending address. The writer did send the ms., and didn't discover until they talked to their agent that they'd been tricked.

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster have sent out warnings, as have agents, one of whom offers this helpful advice:
If you receive an email requesting sensitive information or items (manuscripts, contracts, etc.) to be sent via email, or to follow a link to sign a document, please consider the following steps:

1. Carefully inspect the sender’s email address. Ensure the person’s name is spelled correctly and, most importantly, that the company’s domain name (which is located after the @ symbol in an email address) is spelled correctly.

2. Call the supposed sender to verify that the items/information requested in the email are legitimate.

3. Do not reply to the email. Message headers can look real but have hidden text triggered when “reply” is hit. Instead, start a separate email chain with the sender asking if they did, in fact, request that item/information from you.

4. Carefully look at the email header, which contains detailed information about the email – where it came from, who it was sent to, date, time, subject, etc.
To be clear, there's no connection here with the crude agent and publisher impersonation scams I've been writing about for the last year or so. This is a sophisticated scheme by a person or persons familiar with the publishing industry (including its lingo) who understands the ins and outs of acquisition and production and has access to inside information. There's also no obvious monetary angle--unlike the impersonation scams I've previously reported, where the whole point is to screw as many thousands of dollars out of unsuspecting writers as possible.

More reporting at Jezebel.

December 8, 2020

Attack of the Fake Literary Agencies: West Literary Agency, Stellar Literary Press and Media


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Scroll down for updates

Much of what I'm going to talk about in this post, I think most of my readers already know. But I'm getting so many questions about these two scam "agencies"--both of which seem to be super-active right now with solicitations--and providing so many warnings about them, that I think a broader warning is in order.

First, though--because it's relevant to what follows--some tips on evaluating a literary agency's website.

1. There should be a website. A pretty basic starting point.
2. It should be grammatically correct, and free of spelling errors and typos. Also very basic points, but as you'll see from what follows, their lack can be an important clue.
3. It should feature recent sales (this is how you can tell whether an agency is successful), with verifiable info (title, author, publisher) so you can assure yourself that the publishers are reputable (no vanity presses or "hybrids") and the sales really are recent (you want an agency that's selling books right now, no matter how successful it's been in the past).
4. Not all reputable agencies' websites include a client list, but many do; it's an additional way to verify bona fides.
5. The agents should be named--with bios, so you can verify their backgrounds and experience. 
6. There should not be any kind of upfront fee. 
7. Also helpful: an agency history, including how long it's been in business; clear submission guidelines; disclosure of commissions (standard is 15% for domestic sales, 20-25% for overseas and film [the extra is for co-agents' commissions]); and recent media coverage.

WEST LITERARY AGENCY

West Literary Agency appears to be blanketing the internet with solicitations (at least, judging by the number of questions I'm receiving). "Agent" names--no doubt fictitious--include Rachel Williams and Celine Meyers.

Here's one of West's solicitation emails:


Pretty much all the warning signs you need are in this email:

- Out of the blue solicitation (not always suspicious, but much more likely to be than not).
- Reputable agents are highly unlikely to advance-shop the work of writers they don't represent. 
- As noted above, the overwhelming standard for commissions on domestic sales is 15%, not 10%. Bogus agencies sometimes offer lower commission rates, to encourage writers to believe they're getting a better deal (a safe offer, since such agencies never actually sell any books).
- Reputable agents don't double as PR people. (The "help" West offers involves large fees--the only kind of selling bogus agencies do.)
- No reputable agent charges a "$95 fee to sign you up" or indeed any other kind of upfront fee.

The contract attached to the solicitation presents additional issues. For instance, the solicitation indicates that commissions are 10%--lower than standard. But in the contract,


See the problem? Plus, if the 10% commission for subrights sales "includes" 10% for co-agents, West would be getting zero for those sales. Just saying.

Also, didn't the solicitation mention a $95 fee? But in the contract,

$2 isn't much of a discrepancy. But what does it say about a company that it can't get its written materials to agree?

Last but not least, West Literary Agency's website. (You should ALWAYS check an agency's website before engaging with it.) 

Other than the fact that it exists, the website fails every test mentioned above. Telltale grammar and proofing errors (like so many of the scams I've written about this year, this one is based in the Philippines and staffed by people for whom English is a second language). No sales. No client list (other than one featured author whose book, sadly, has been published and re-published by two notorious scammers). No agent bios--no named agents at all, or any verifiable information about the agency itself (though if you check its domain registration, you can see that it did not exist until 46 days ago). 

And then there's this:


I guarantee that when you look at a reputable agency's website, you will not find a late night TV advertising-style LOW, LOW PRICE pitch like this. 

STELLAR LITERARY PRESS AND MEDIA

Stellar Literary appears to be soliciting at least as energetically as West Literary Agency, if not more so. 

Here's an example of what you might receive from "Senior Literary Agent" Charlie Dunn or Aaron Williams.


Red flags: 

- Solicitation.
- Grammar lapses and typos.
- Pengiun. Need I say more? 
- It's HarperCollins Publishers, not Harper Publishing. Not a mistake you'd expect a real agent to make.
- Note how the solicitation defaults almost immediately to a pitch for re-publishing the recipient's book. You hire an agency to get you published, not to publish you itself. Also, as I've said in other posts about scams that push re-publishing offers, re-publishing an already-published book so that another publisher can publish it a third time makes absolutely no sense (and is not how things work, in any case). 
- What recommendation? Who made it? Here's Stellar's nonsensical reply to one writer who asked:


Note the ongoing problem with the spelling of Penguin.

Like West, Stellar offers an author-agent agreement, which looks fairly standard until you get to this:


I'm imagining all the subagents lining up for that 3% commission.

On Stellar's website, the whole "literary agency" pretense comes crashing down. There's nothing there that you'd find on a real agency site: no word on who is actually part of the "team with a vision", no sign of the "countless" writers the team has supposedly guided "from query letter to published book for over 20 years." No sign of the books, either. In fact, from the fractured English...


...to the pay-to-play publishing packages...


...to the gigantic markups on marketing services (a Kirkus Indie review will cost you $575 at most if you buy it yourself)...


...it's the very portrait of a scam. 

Stellar has been around a bit longer than West, but not 20 years longer. Its domain was registered just this past August. 

SOME FINAL WORDS

For many of my readers, all of the above will seem very obvious, and these warnings may seem redundant because you've heard them so often. 

But I'm hearing from an awful lot of writers who've been solicited by these two scammers, and sense that there's something off (at least enough to contact me) but are tempted enough, or unwary enough, to believe West and Stellar just might be real. I worry that there are many more who won't smell a rat. 

Some tips to protect yourself:

- Be an informed writer. Understand how literary agents (and publishers) really do things--preferably before you start trying to get published (I provide some suggestions for that here). It's a step that too many eager new writers skip.

- Be suspicious of direct solicitation. It's not always a scam. But it's a scam often enough that it should always prompt caution.

- Don't take anything at face value--not solicitations, not offers, not websites. Research. Do some digging. See if you can verify any claims (and if there's no way for you to verify them--no staff names or book sales to back up claims of success and expertise--be suspicious). You can contact me at Writer Beware, and I'll tell you if I know anything: beware@sfwa.org

- Don't ignore warning signs like the ones identified above. I'm constantly amazed, for instance, at how many writers overlook the glaring English-language errors in scammers' emails and websites (a product of the scams' overseas origins: most are based in the Philippines). If an agent purports to be able to rep your English-language work, they should be able to speak and write correct, grammatical English. This isn't bias: it's professional competency. 

- Beware of shortcuts. If you're a celebrity, you may be able to skip the intervening steps between a completed manuscript and a publishing deal. But for regular people, there's no sure-fire way to shorten the process or jump the line. Don't trust anyone who tells you that there is. 

For lots more information on literary agents, including how to vet them, whether you need one, and links to helpful resources, see the Literary Agents page of Writer Beware. 

UPDATE 12/16/20: These agency scams are like cockroaches: if you can see two, you know there are dozens more you can't.

Case in point: Authors Legacy, which has no website or Facebook page (as of this writing, at any rate) but is busily soliciting writers with transparently bogus offers (among other things, there's no such thing as a "Literary Agency License").

Bogus offer 1

Bogus offer 2

November 20, 2020

#Audiblegate: How Audible-ACX Returns Policy Penalizes Authors


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

Do you have audiobooks on Audible, either through your publisher or via ACX? If so, you'll want to head over to author Susan May's blog.


What follows is a long, detailed account of how Audible-ACX has been, in effect, hiding the volume of audiobook returns from authors by lumping them in with sales. 

Here's how it works. Audible-ACX records audiobook sales on a daily basis--but it shows them as an aggregate figure: the total of books sold less books returned. Returns are not broken out separately, and only show up on authors' sales statements if they exceed the number of sales. 


Why is this a problem? Well, returns strip authors of income, since authors' accounts are debited for those returns. Of course, returns are a fact of life in the book biz. But Audible-ACX's Premium Plus program--a relatively new membership category that allows readers to make unlimited returns (for books not finished) and exchanges (for books fully read), no questions asked--aggressively promotes returns and exchanges as a reader benefit, likely incentivizing readers to do so.

Hiding returns under sales also prevents authors from getting an accurate picture of how their books are doing in the marketplace. If your sales figure is zero, you can't know if it's zero because you've sold no books or because sales and returns cancel each other out. If your sales figure is ten, how many returns--if any--are included? If your sales figure is -5, does that mean five returns total, or were there even more returns that were offset by sales--sales you'll never be able to count because of the aggregate accounting? All of this is information authors need to assess and plan important things like marketing strategies. 

More generally, an unlimited returns policy lends itself to abuse. Readers can, for instance, use the monthly credit they receive with their Audible memberships to download and return multiple audiobooks--without paying for any of them. For example, an author who joined Audible as a new customer in order to test the system was able to download and return more than 20 audiobooks in just three days, using the same customer credit. Readers can also load up their devices with multiple books, and then return those books en masse, without penalty, when they don't have time to read them. 

In the Facebook group where Audible-ACX authors have gathered to share information and experiences, there's discussion of these and other abuses.

Because of the way Audible-ACX treats returns, authors weren't aware of the scale of the problem until this past October, when a technical glitch caused three weeks of returns to be recorded in one day. Suddenly, the returns that had been largely camouflaged by sales when reported on a day-by-day basis sprang into glaring view.  

Since then, authors have been emailing Audible-ACX to ask for their returns data, to request that returns be broken out separately from sales, and to request that at least some limits be imposed on returns. "Twenty or thirty odd percent of a book is enough to know if you like the narrator and want to continue," May writes. "This is the return policy we want implemented." 

Reportedly, Audible-ACX has responded only with "cookie-cutter" replies that ignore the requests. Amazon and its companies are famously black boxes, and frequently take unilateral actions they decline to explain. So this is about what you'd expect. But that doesn't make it right. 

Susan May and others are advising writers to put their audiobook projects on hold until Audible addresses the problems. In the meantime, the Authors Guild and the Alliance of Independent Authors are going to bat for Audible-ACX authors. ALLi has received a "we take your concerns very seriously" response from Audible, saying that they are "actively reviewing this policy with the feedback under consideration." Per a media release on November 19, ALLi has downgraded ACX from an "approved" service to "pending", until a satisfactory answer is provided.

For more reporting, see this post from Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader, this YouTube video from writer Daniel Greene, and this post from writer Kyle West. Or check out the #Audiblegate hashtag on Twitter.

Authors are welcome to join the Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators Facebook group, where Audible-ACX authors and others have come together to try and work for change. Authors aren't the only ones who are affected: narrators who've accepted a profit share as payment are also losing income. 

Returns aren't the only issue with Audible-ACX, by the way. Susan May indicates in her post that there are substantial delays on approval of finished audiobooks (pre-dating the pandemic), and last year I wrote about problems with rights fraud and inexplicably withdrawn promotional codes. 

UPDATE: Authors Guild, SFWA, RWA, ALLi, Novelists Inc., and Dramatists Guild have jointly issued a letter to Audible’s CEO Bob Carrigan and General Counsel Stas Zakharenko, demanding that Audible end its practice of encouraging easy returns and exchanges. "This is not an exchange policy, but an unauthorized audiobook rental arrangement supported by authors’ reversed royalties, and it must stop." You can add your name to the letter here.

UPDATE 11/25/20: Audible has responded to authors' and narrators' concerns by announcing that as of January 1, 2021, ACX will begin paying royalties on titles returned more than 7 days after purchase. 

Notably, there's no mention of the accounting concerns outlined above, and the announcement includes a lengthy justification of the returns policy, along with a claim that returns abuse by customers is "extremely rare". 

The Authors Guild has updated its letter to Audible to respond to the policy change. 


At Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson has more responses from authors' groups, including ALLi and the Society of Authors.

UPDATE 11/27/20: Multiple members of the Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators Facebook group are reporting that they've received this email from ACX, removing their titles from sale for "suspicious free trial activity":


Has ACX decided to deal with customer abuse by penalizing authors? If so, that would make absolutely zero sense, and be massively unfair. 

Stay tuned.

UPDATE 12/7/20: ALLi reports that it has gathered the following evidence, as part of its advocacy in this situation:
  • Proof that a listener can return 9 books using the button on the app with no interaction or oversight by Audible/ACX. After that, it is a simple matter to return more using email, chat, phone—all actively encouraged by Audible (and why not, when it doesn’t cocst them a penny). 
  • Recording of an Audible UK phone support where the first choice is PRESS ONE to exchange a book they haven’t enjoyed. It’s pretty bold. 
  • Folder of 49 return emails done on one credit. (This is the highest we’ve seen, to date, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others who’ve done more). 
  • Correspondence between Audible and authors who have queried returns data showing threatening emails and account closures. Multiple authors have reported this happening. They have no right of reply and the emails are aggressive. 
  •  Reports from authors of being under investigation for “fraud" or "suspicious free trial activity" with their royalties withheld for months. They keep getting told that the investigation will end the following month and they’ll be paid but on it goes. One is reported to be owed since August, another owed $12K was never paid and has given up. In these cases, Audible is retaining the authors’ payments' on all books, not just the ones being “investigated".
 
Design by The Blog Decorator