Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers and industry news and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

June 16, 2016

Tate Publishing & Enterprises Slapped with $1.7 Million Lawsuit

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Readers of this blog may be familiar with Tate Publishing & Enterprises--an Oklahoma-based publisher that describes itself as "a Christian-based, family-owned, mainline publishing organization with a mission to discover and market unknown authors."

Tate takes pains to depict itself as a selective traditional publisher that accepts "only a single-digit percentage of authors who submitted manuscripts for publication" (a claim that's a little hard to credit from a publisher that, if Amazon is to be believed, pumped out 3,000 titles in 2015). In fact, authors must pay nearly $4,000 to publish with Tate, with even more due if they choose to buy any of Tate's array of extras, such as "personalized author websites" and video book trailers. Tate also incentivizes author book-buying, by promising to refund the original fee once 2,500 books are sold and allowing author purchases to count toward the total--though only if made in bulk quantities of 300 or more.

There is no mention of any of this on Tate's website or in its videos. Tate doesn't disclose its fees until authors either submit a manuscript or request more info. For that reason, as well as the very large volume of complaints we've received about the company (many of them from writers who approached Tate in the belief that it was a traditional publisher), Tate is included on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publishers List. (For this and other comments we made, Tate claimed in a 2008 blog post to be suing us, but no lawsuit was ever filed.)

You don't have to take my word about the complaints, by the way. In 2015, Tate was the second most complained-about company to the Oklahoma attorney general. Many more complaints--not just about Tate Publishing, but about its vanity recording subsidiary, Tate Music Group--can be found online, including at the Better Business Bureau--where, despite 102 complaints over the past 3 years and what the BBB acknowledges as "a significant pattern of complaints", Tate has an "A" rating. (How do you get an "A" rating from the BBB despite more than 100 customers complaining about your service? Sign up to become a BBB accredited business and make sure you respond to everything.) (UPDATE: Sometime between me putting this post online and June 24, the BBB removed its rating for Tate and added this comment: "Based on BBB files, this business has a BBB Rating of No Rating. The reason is as follows: BBB does not have sufficient information to issue a rating on this business.")

Tate got some unflattering news coverage in 2012, when CEO Ryan Tate fired 25 production workers in retaliation for an anonymous email about rumored layoffs at the company (the rumors were sparked by Tate's decision to outsource some of its work to the Philippines). Ryan Tate's nearly 20-minute rant, recorded secretly by an employee, went viral after it was leaked online. (You can listen to it--if you dare--here. You can also marvel at Tate's Employment Agreement, here.)

Now Tate may be in bigger trouble. Xerox Corporation, which leases some of the equipment Tate uses for its 24-hour-a-day printing facility, has filed a $1.7 million lawsuit against Tate Publishing and Ryan Tate, alleging defaults on re-structured lease and service agreements and on a promissory note executed to address previous debt, and seeking re-possession of $450,000 in leased equipment as well as a money judgment of $463,786.90 against Ryan Tate personally, as Guarantor on the promissory note. The full petition can be seen here.

The suit has spurred some local media attention, and Ryan Tate isn't taking it lying down. To The Journal Record (sorry--paywall) he characterized the lawsuit as intimidation. "[Xerox is] just positioning and posturing, trying to force us to sign some different long-term contracts we’re not interested in." To he downplayed the impact of the suit, describing Xerox as "really a small part of our manufacturing process.” To the Mustang News, he claimed that "We are in the process of filing our counter suits and Xerox is trying to force us to use their equipment for our shop on a long-term basis as well as they have failed to deliver on some major contractual elements in regards to service, maintenance, and equipment purchases." (Worth noting: according to this glowing 2011 "case study" on Tate's partnership with Xerox, Tate has been working with Xerox since at least 2007, and its production facility is set up with "all Xerox digital equipment.")

That's not the only lawsuit Tate is fielding at the moment. One of its authors, Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks, has filed suit for breach of contract, deceptive trade and marketing practices, fraud, and several other causes of action, alleging that she paid over $12,000 for a book that was published full of errors (twice) and never marketed. She's asking for her money back, as well as attorneys' fees and damages. Her amended complaint, which includes pages from her book showing the mistakes, can be seen here.

Summonses in both suits were issued on the same day, May 27. Tate has 20 days to respond. Stay tuned.

June 9, 2016

BookLife Prize in Fiction

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I've been getting some questions about the BookLife Prize in Fiction, a new award for unpublished and self-published novels. Prizes include a "brief critical assessment" from Publishers Weekly reviewers for all entrants (BookLife is owned by PW), a book blurb from "a bestselling or award-winning author" for semi-finalists, and a grand prize of $5,000 for a single winner.

BookLife claims to "[tap] the experience, integrity, and authority of Publishers Weekly to help indie authors achieve their goals." It offers a free submission portal for writers who want to submit self-published books for review, along with "editorial content—success stories, interviews, author profiles, how-to pieces, news, and features". There's also a Service Directory, whose DIY entries--some of which are paid ads--are subject to restrictions via BookLife's Terms & Conditions, but otherwise appear to be unvetted. For instance, there are listings for Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency (on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down List and long the subject of an Alert on Writer Beware) as well as SBPRA's "marketing" subsidiary, Author Marketing Ideas. As "endorsed" listings, they receive preferential placement. Problem is, in both cases, the "endorsements" are from SBPRA employees.

I've been skeptical of BookLife since its inception, in part because of the failings of the Service Directory, in part because much of its content is generic info widely available on the web, or else reprints from industry bloggers or PW itself. Also, although BookLife is free, the site promotes PW Select, which charges $149 for a listing in PW and "featured" presence on BookLife.

With its multiple judging rounds and the participation of PW reviewers and editors, BookLife's Prize in Fiction is reminiscent of Amazon's (now-discontinued) Breakthrough Novel Award, which was also done in partnership with PW--though the crowdsourcing element is missing (judging in the ABNA was partly based on votes from the public), and there's no publication offer waiting for the winners.

There's another difference as well. Entering the Breakthrough Novel Award was free. Entering BookLife's Prize in Fiction requires a whopping non-refundable entry fee of $99.

A big entry fee like this, as many of you know, is one of the signs of an awards profiteer--an organization that runs writing awards and contests not to honor writers but to make a buck (I've written a lot about such organizations on this blog). So I contacted BookLife to ask why the fee was so high. I quickly heard back from BookLife President Carl Pritzkat, who confirmed what I suspected: part of the fee goes to cover honorariums for the PW reviewers who'll be providing the critiques. But he also told me that "in terms of the entry fee we were modeling it after prizes like Forward Magazine's INDIES ($99 with an early-bird rate of $79), IndieReader's Discovery Awards ($150 for the first category of entry) and IBPA's Benjamin Franklin Awards ($95 per category for members; $225 for non-members)."

I don't suspect BookLife of being an awards profiteer. Apart from the huge entry fee, other warning signs aren't present. But honorariums or no honorariums, $99 is a lot of money, and in light of the large number of cynical awards schemes that seek to profit from aspiring and self-published writers' hunger for recognition and exposure, I have to wonder why BookLife would choose to model itself after IndieReader and its ilk.

The grand prize is a nice chunk of change, and given how much writers have to struggle to obtain worthwhile feedback, author blurbs and reviewer critiques are certainly tempting. But I'd suggest that writers who are considering  this contest do some serious thinking about whether it's worth handing over nearly $100 for a few sentences of feedback and the slim possibility of winning $5,000.

June 3, 2016

Back From Hiatus: Why I Went Away

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I don't often post about personal stuff here. But I wanted to let you all know why I vanished abruptly at the beginning of May (which is also why, for the past couple of years, this blog has been idle for weeks at a time). My mother, Alice Fellows, died on May 14, after a long illness.

Probably taken in the early 1950s,
when she was in her 30s
Who was my mother? There are many ways I can answer that question. I can say that she was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1926 (or possibly 1928--she was famously cagey about her age) in a house that is now on the National Historic Register. That she attended Hudson Strode's famous creative writing class while at the University of Alabama; that the novel she began there, Laurel, was published by Harcourt Brace when she was just 22, to praise from the New York Times and Kirkus, among others. That, eager to escape the South, she moved to New York City in the early 1950s to attend graduate school at Columbia University, where she met and married my father. That in the succeeding years she gave up writing fiction, but earned a masters degree and did much of the work for a PhD. That when my parents divorced in 1977, she moved back to New York and, not having held a job for more than two decades, landed a secretarial position at a publisher and eventually worked her way up to Senior Editor with Frommer's. That in her later years she returned to fiction writing, completing a historical novel about the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

The historic Tuscaloosa home where she grew up
I can say that my mother was one of the most intelligent people I've ever known, and also one of the most stubborn, independent, self-absorbed, secretive, and fearless. That she loved to travel more than anything (in her 70s, after retiring from Frommer's, she landed her dream job: freelance travel book writer). That for most of my life she was my closest friend, the person I could share everything with and tell anything to, my best-of-all-time movie-museum-concert-shopping buddy. That she never really forgave me for writing genre fiction ("When are you going to write a real novel?"), but even so was my go-to beta reader, with a sharp editorial eye that shaped all my books. That I regret the semi-estrangement that grew between us in the last decade of her life, as she became increasingly obsessive and bitter about the state of the world and the indignities of aging--and more and more angry with me for the worry I couldn't hide about her obviously declining health. I tried once to tell her that the people who love you are going to worry about you whether you want them to or not, and you really need to just forgive them. She didn't want to hear it.

On the birthday she claimed as her 90th,
though it may actually have been her
87th or 89th
I can say that her final illness--a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer in 2013--changed everything (our semi-estrangement vanished as if it had never been) and nothing (see stubborn, independent, self-absorbed, and secretive, above). This nearly three-year ordeal was extraordinarily difficult not only for her, but for family and loyal friends, as we banded together to make it possible for her to go on living independently in her home, as she wished. Because we honored her, we honored her decisions, even where we felt they were bad ones. Not until the very last week of her life, for instance, did she finally yield to our pleas to accept in-home and hospice care.

I can say all these things. But they don't really add up to a picture of my mother, or help me figure out how I feel now she's gone. I'm sure that many of you reading will be familiar with the tangle of relief and grief that comes at the end of a loved one's drawn-out illness, especially where there is suffering. I still catch my breath every time the phone rings. When I forget that her struggle and ours is over, I'm still stalked by the worry and dread that, over the past three years, have been my daily companions.

I do know that I am not yet able to imagine the world without her. In my mind she's still in her New York apartment, reading or writing or researching, attending operas and concerts and dance recitals, going to lunch with friends, planning that trip to India she always wanted to make--living a life that was lone but not lonely, always full, and always, always on her own terms.

May 9, 2016

Writer Beware Blog on Hiatus (Again)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Due to a family medical emergency, the Writer Beware blog will be on hiatus for at least the next few weeks. We're not going away; we're just suspending for a while.

I had several posts in process, which I probably won't be completing now since by the time I'm able to get back to blogging, they'll no longer be timely. I apologize to everyone who was expecting to see an issue featured here.

I will still be answering email, and posting occasionally on Twitter and Facebook. So please don't hesitate contact me: beware [at]

See you soon, I hope.

April 29, 2016

Spam, Spam, Spam Spam: Inkitt and the Grand Novel Contest

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you're a writer and have even a smidgeon of online presence, you've probably been emailed or messaged or tweeted by Inkitt, a Berlin-based company that allows writers to post stories and get reader reviews and votes. A prolific spammer, Inkitt also conducts a lot of contests with titles like Vendetta Thriller/Adventure Contest, along with fanfic contests like Star Wars Sci-Fi Writing Contest  (does George Lucas know?). Winning gets you badges on your profile page, and, occasionally, publication.

Tales of Inkitt spam can be seen here or here or here (I've gotten my share, as well). Vote-shilling by contest participants won a temporary ban on Inkitt posts on Reddit a few months ago.

Most recently, Inkitt launched its Grand Novel Contest (for which, no surprise, it is energetically spamming on Twitter):
Win a publishing offer from Inkitt! No submission fees!

Submit your finished novel, 40,000 words or more – no fan fiction, no other limitations on genre! It’s time for you to bring your manuscript into the light and show it off to the world. We are looking for tomorrow's best-sellers!
So why would you want to win a book publishing offer from Inkitt? really kind of wouldn't.

Inkitt was co-founded by programmer Ali Albazaz, who was inspired by the success of E.L. James's 50 Shades of Grey, in particular the idea of crowdsourced editing: "Don’t publish in two years when you’re finished. Publish as you go, get feedback from other writers and improve." Albazaz claims he has developed an "intelligent" algorithm that uniquely distinguishes Inkitt from similar sites like Wattpad:
We’ve developed an artificially intelligent algorithm that analyses the behaviour of readers on our website. We measure their engagement and build statistical models to forecast the positioning of a book in the real world market even before it is published.​ Once we have found a potential blockbuster book, the next step is working with publishers to get these stories to print.
(He also claims that "Moby Dick was refused [by publishers] because it had ‘dick’ in the title," so take that as you will.)

Inkitt details its publishing philosophy here (in a nutshell, goodbye elitist editors and snooty publishers, hello democratization via the "objective" opinion of readers and Inkitt's magic algorithm). If that floats your boat, you may also be impressed by Inkitt's four-stage publishing process:
Step 1: We design your cover and edit your manuscript.

Step 2: We pitch your book to A-list publishers (e.g. Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan and HarperCollins), and negotiate the best terms for licensing.

Step 3: If the publishers don’t pick your book, we publish you and run a marketing campaign to sell as many books as possible. If we can’t sell more than 1000 books within 12 months then you can get all your rights back.

Step 4: But if your book sells well, we go back to the A-list publishers, exhibit your success and ask them if they want to print your book.
If you know anything about publishing, you know how well this is likely to work. Melville House sales manager Chad Felix, who has also blogged about Inkitt, has it right:
We’ve seen it again and again: non-expert or reformed expert approaches industry with ideas about how to make money (Inkitt creators Ali Albazaz and Linda Gavin have backgrounds in sales and corporate design, respectively), non-expert builds algorithm, non-expert tries to sell newfangled, guaranteed-to-work thing back to the industry of bad experts.
I could find nothing on Inkitt's website to indicate what the terms of its publishing contract might be, although the Grand Novel Contest guidelines indicate that if Inkitt publishes, "the author will receive 50% of Inkitt's net earnings. Apparently Inkitt has already signed and published the first book in the series Sky Riders by Erin Swan, though there's no sign of the book anywhere except on Inkitt.

I think this guy's got the right reaction.

UPDATE: According to this press release, Tor has signed Erin Swan's novel:
Bright Star, the young adult novel by up-and-coming author Erin Swan, was discovered using predictive data with Inkitt’s artificially intelligent algorithms unearthing the highly-addictive book based on an analysis of reading patterns on the platform. The novel is expected to hit bookshelves in summer 2017.
I haven't been able to find any independent confirmation of the deal. Per the Grand Novel Contest guidelines, Inkitt appears to be claiming an agent's 15% commission. On Inkitt, Swan's work appears to be a series, and Bright Star is actually Book 2, so it's not clear to me whether Tor has bought the series or just the one book.

I remain skeptical of Inkitt's "data driven" approach...but congratulations to the author!


I also have to say that this, recycled by Inkitt on its website and in nearly all its PR materials, is one of the most annoying memes ever--
We have built a platform that is cutting out the middleman in the publishing industry: the acquisitions editor. There is a long list of books whose authors faced rejection at the hands of publishers. That list includes everything from Moby Dick to Harry Potter. Why? Because individual editors and literary agents make decisions that are subjective – often based on their gut instinct – and this means they sometimes get it wrong.
--because it's totally self-refuting: all these books did eventually get published.

April 22, 2016

Small Press Storm Warnings: Pegasus Books, Realmwalker Publishing Group, Spectral Press, Tickety Boo Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A roundup of publishers about which I've recently received serious complaints (all of them documented).

Pegasus Books

Pegasus Books of California (not to be confused with indie publisher Pegasus Books of New York or UK-based vanity publisher Pegasus Elliott Mackenzie or any of the several bookstores by that name) is the subject of serious complaints by authors.

Complaints include referrals to a paid editing service (Rumpelstiltskin Editorial Services) that's presented as an outside contractor, but is actually owned by Pegasus's publisher, Marcus McGee; poor quality editing/copy editing (one writer reports that editing consisted mostly of "the addition of hundreds of italics, em dashes and commas and correcting a few instances of passive voice"); various fees including fees for cover art (even though Pegasus's website presents the company as "a medium-sized traditional publisher" that does not charge fees to authors); pressure to buy finished books (authors are told that marketing is dependent on how many copies they purchase); missed pub dates; broken marketing promises; and unpaid royalties. Pegasus also offers a contract that's substantially based on the old PublishAmerica contract.

Here's one former Pegasus author's account of his terrible experience. Also, for your amusement, check out Pegasus's convoluted screed on why the bad old days "when savvy literary agents 'gifted' respected book reviewers with box seats at the Met and exotic family vacations in exchange for consideration and favorable quotes in newspapers and magazines" are gone, and it's fine for publishers to push authors into paying for editing.

Several Pegasus authors are banding together to try and bring suit against the company for fraud, despite the presence in the Pegasus contract of an arbitration clause. In the meantime...beware.

Realmwalker Publishing Group

In mid-2015, shortly after Realmwalker Publishing Group began publishing books by authors other than its owner, James Drake (who writes under the pen name Lee Aarons), I had a chance to see its contract. I don't often have the opportunity to say that a publishing contract is too author-friendly, but this one was, to the disadvantage of the publisher, with a huge royalty percentage (60% of net), a clause that allowed the author to terminate at will any time after publication, and a four-figure advance--way above average for most small presses.

Amazingly, when I saw another Realmwalker contract a few months later, the company had made things even worse for itself, increasing the author's royalty share to a truly insane 85-95% of net. Even many self-pub platforms don't provide that kind of payment. For added spice, it had created copyright confusion as well--a grant of rights that "exclusively grants, assigns, and otherwise transfers to the Publisher and its licensees, successors, and assigns, all right, title, and interest in and to the Work"--in other words, a copyright transfer--yet, later in the contract, a clause ensuring that copyright notices "in the name of the author" would be included in published books.

After noting all these problems to the author who'd contacted me with questions about the newer contract, I wrote:
All in all, this contract is a recipe for disaster, and I will be surprised if Realmwalker is still in business a year from now. Usually I hear about publishers that greedily try to cheat authors of rights and income, but in this case the publisher is cheating itself. In the long run, though, that works out just as badly for authors.
I mention all of this just to highlight the bizarre mixture of cluelessness and (I believe) genuine good intentions behind Realmwalker--a mixture I see all too often in the small press world, and that all too often leads to doom. I don't take any pleasure in being right.

In December 2015, James Drake posted a rambling YouTube apologia (to which I'm not linking, to spare Drake embarrassment beyond this blog post) for the ongoing logistical and financial problems at the company. When, on March 14, Drake announced the formation and development of six new imprints, authors might have hoped things were getting better--but this apparent sign of health was misleading, because by late March Drake had begun to discuss dissolving the company.

Realmwalker issued its last book on April 5. On his blog, author James Minty discusses the confusion, snafus, and excuses that accompanied release. Other Realmwalker authors report similar experiences, as well as royalty money owing. At least Drake seems to be doing the proper thing and reverting rights--cold comfort to authors who believed their books would be carefully published. Likely authors who contributed stories to Realmwalker's anthology, The Legacy, are similarly high and dry.

As of this writing, there's nothing on Realmwalker's website to indicate that it's out of business, and the webpage for the anthology is still calling for submissions. Writers be warned.

Spectral Press / Tickety Boo Press

I haven't received direct complaints about UK-based Spectral Press, but several Writer Beware readers alerted me to this long, documented blog post from author Simon Bestwick, which describes substantial, long-standing problems with the company. (Several other authors have also blogged about the difficulties at Spectral.)

Apparently, "it has emerged that Spectral is in debt to the tune of between £8,000 - £10,000 GBP. A good part of this consists of monies owed to their authors; in addition to this, many customers had paid for orders that had still not been received." The personal problems of Spectral's owner appear to have substantially contributed to Spectral's decline.

As an attempted fix to the troubles, it was announced in early January that Spectral would be taken over by a friend of Spectral's owner, Gary Compton of Tickety Boo Press. Just one problem:
Meanwhile, this article about Gary Compton had been brought to light [revealing that Compton, whose day job is as a designer/contractor, was the subject of a number of complaints of non-performance]. As was this link, which reveals he actually went bankrupt in 2015. And this link, according to which [Tickety Boo Press] has neither assets nor turnover.
The Tickety Boo info has been confirmed to me in private email; I've also seen a Tickety Boo contract, which includes some iffy provisions. Apparently, Compton has responded to authors' questions and concerns with anger, insults, and social media blocks.

What a sad fate for a once-respected publisher.

March 23, 2016

PublishAmerica / America Star Books Lawsuit Against Writer Beware Settled

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I'm finally getting to post about something I've been keeping under my hat for quite some time.

On March 18, 2014, America Star Books, formerly PublishAmerica, filed suit against me, Michael Capobianco, Rich White, and Writer Beware in the Circuit Court for Charles County, MD.

The lawsuit alleged defamation per se on the basis of two posts from this blog: one from March 2013 covering the second class action lawsuit filed against PublishAmerica, and one from January 2014 covering PublishAmerica's new name and services as America Star Books. A total of $800,000 in punitive and compensatory damages was demanded, plus interest and attorneys' fees.

The lawsuit also alleged a conspiracy by me, Michael, and Rich to disparage PA and ASB. However, both of the allegedly defamatory posts were written by me, with no input from anyone else--and despite Rich's and Michael's inclusion in the suit, I was the only one ever served with a summons and complaint.

After a long delay by the Maryland court, the case reached the discovery stage. Shortly after my attorneys sent interrogatories and discovery requests to ASB, ASB's attorney, Victor Cretella, contacted us to discuss the possibility of a settlement.

A final settlement was signed by all parties in January of this year. In exchange for agreement by myself, Michael, and Rich not to seek recovery of legal fees, ASB agreed to release all claims asserted against me, Michael, Rich, and Writer Beware, and to stipulate to Dismissal With Prejudice. ASB does not admit any lack of merit, nor do I and the other defendants admit any liability.

There you have it. I hope you'll all forgive this very dry recital--as well as my decision to close comments on this post.


Writer Beware is a service of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), run by SFWA's all-volunteer Committee on Writing Scams, chaired by Victoria Strauss. SFWA aggressively defends the mission of Writer Beware and its volunteers.

March 18, 2016

How Do Freelance Editors Get Paid?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A couple of weeks ago, I received this question:
I'm desperate for some good information here. I'm dealing with an editor who is asking me to sign a contract with a percentage of my future sales as part of the deal. I have never heard of this. Is this actually legit? She's asking for 10%.
Further questioning revealed that the editor was also asking for $75 per hour.

My instinct, based on everything I've read and heard: No, this is not legit--for editing work, anyway--and it's pretty damn greedy, too.

For one thing, $75 per hour seems steep, even for heavy developmental editing (my correspondent didn't say what kind of editing was being proposed). For another, while ghostwriters sometimes ask for a royalty stake in addition to a fee, freelance editors typically charge only a fee for the work they do.

See, for instance, what the Editorial Freelancers Association, a professional organization for US-based freelancers, deems common editorial rates. The UK's Society for Editors and Proofreaders also suggests minimum editing rates. Writers' Market provides an in-depth look at editing rates, and here's what the Editors Association of Canada has to say. Whether they suggest that editors charge by the hour, by the word or page, or by the project, none of these resources advise freelance editors to demand a share of the author's future sales.

There's nothing like getting information directly from the source, though. So I posted a question on Twitter:

I quickly received replies. Several of the editors I heard from didn't want to be publicly quoted, but their responses were similar to these:

There you have it. If you run across a freelance editor who wants to stake a claim on your future sales, run away. (And watch out for overcharging, too.)

March 11, 2016

Publishers Weekly Features Vanity Publisher Morgan James...Again

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Once again, Publishers Weekly's annual overview of fast-growing independent publishers features not only innovative indies, but a publisher whose business model is largely built on author fees: Morgan James Publishing.

Billing itself as "The Entrepreneurial Publisher", Morgan James requires its authors "to commit to purchasing, during the life of the agreement, up to 2,500 copies [of their book] at print cost plus $2." (Reports Writer Beware has received indicate that writers are asked for a "deposit" of up to $5,000 on contract signing; we've also had reports that additional fees may be due for editing and PR, with a potential for conflict of interest in MJP's "approved" PR firms, one of which, Media Connect, was founded by MJP's Publisher, Rick Frishman.)

To make this sizeable outlay of cash seem more palatable, MJP falsely claims on its "compare" page that "Many major houses require authors to purchase 5,000 copies, or more, of the book upon its release", and that even with self-publishing, "[the a]uthor is expected to purchase however many copies required to sell to the general public."

Despite all of the above, MJP declares--also on its "compare" page--that "No Publishing Fee [is] charged, hidden or otherwise."

MJP has made PW's fast-growing indie publisher list several times, including last year, 2013, and 2008 (when another pay-to-play publisher, Greenleaf Book Group, was also featured). At least this year, PW mentions MJP's purchase requirement, though it doesn't go into detail about amounts:
Morgan James has always specialized in publishing entrepreneurial authors, offering small advances and higher royalties, and having authors commit to buying a certain number of books at an author rate.
In previous lists, this outlay of cash got no mention at all.

There's no doubt that MJP has published some successful books. Clearly it puts marketing and distribution muscle behind certain of its titles. But of the 150 or so titles it releases each year, the majority don't appear to receive that kind of support (and at longer lengths, many of its print editions are uncompetitively priced, bespeaking MJP's reliance on print-on-demand). I suspect it's the exception, rather than the rule, for authors to recoup their "investment."

I think it's a shame that PW, once again, is helping an expensive pay-to-play publisher to present itself as an innovative independent press.

March 2, 2016

New Authors as Shark Bait: Steve Alten's A&M Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

UPDATE: Shortly after publication of my and Chuck Wendig's posts about A&M Publishing's New Author Program, all information about the program was removed from the A&M website, and replaced with a submission form that makes no mention of fees. For a limited time, you can see a cached version of the original A&M New Author Program page here.
A Writer Beware reader alerted me recently to A&M Publishing, a new venture from author Steve Alten. Alten is best-known for his bestseller Meg, about a prehistoric shark menacing modern-day waters.

How about sharks menacing modern-day writers? A&M's list so far consists of three of Alten's own books (one written under a pseudonym). The company is clearly hoping to add to its author roster, though, via its New Author Program--but, authors, don't get too excited, because this is pay to play. Big, big pay.

For a suite of services that will be familiar to anyone who has ever investigated a self-publishing service--story and copy editing, interior and cover development, ISBN assignment, and ebook setup and distribution--A&M charges a truly jawdropping fee: $7,995.

And that's not all. If you want to see your book in print, you must order and pay for it over and above the basic fee. ("Average Printing Costs: Paperbacks $2.25. Hardbacks $3.85. Prices do not include shipping and handling.") What if you want your print books distributed? Well, A&M doesn't exactly seem to work with a print distributor, but it will "attempt to leverage Steve Alten’s presence in bookstores in order to place the new author’s books." Now, there's a novel distribution strategy! For full disclosure, A&M kindly reminds you that "no publisher can guarantee this service."

A&M has your back with marketing, too: book trailers, press releases, social media campaigns. Trailers cost between $1,000 and $1,500 (check out the examples at Alten's website and draw your own conclusions). A month of press releases "used to garner radio, TV, press and reviews" will set you back $1,000 (unless they're aggressively followed up on, press releases are among the least effective of all book marketing strategies). Other publicity services can be accessed, billed to you directly by either of two PR firms, one of which is owned by an A&M principal (can you say "conflict of interest"?)

It's A&M's example of authorial success that really says it all, though.

This is a lot like the "Potential Profit" sheets that old-fashioned print vanity publishers used to give out, intended to convince nervous authors that, by selling a completely unrealistic number of books, they could make a profit on the huge amount of money the publisher was demanding. (Though I can't quite figure out A&M's revenue calculation, which appears to assume a hardcover price of $6.80 and a bigger ebook royalty than the 75% of net A&M promises.)

Should you beat the odds and manage to sell more than a handful of books, A&M's got you covered there too. "In the event your book takes off and you’d prefer to work with a big publishing house, we’ll be happy to represent you as a literary agent to negotiate the best deal possible." For a commission, no doubt.

A&M reminds me of Jerry Jenkins' expensive pay to play venture, Christian Writers Guild Publishing, which made a similar play for beginning writers, with similar scary warnings about the difficulty of getting published and similar promises of unique and special nurturing. Jenkins' experiment closed down less than two years after launching--in part, I'm guessing, because of its $10,000 price tag. The problem isn't a lack of rich suckers--there are plenty of those, not to mention naifs who are willing to pauperize themselves for a shiny promise--it's that by offering only a single high-priced option, you narrow your customer pool in a potentially unsustainable way. Especially since, somewhat paradoxically, there's a lot of competition at these high price points. To survive at this level, you need to provide a really premier service.

New authors, if you want to pay to publish, there are many far more cost-effective options (see Writer Beware's Self-Publishing page for a full discussion and links). And don't forget that when you purchase publishing services, you are not an author contracting with a publisher, but a customer buying a product. Be a smart customer: shop with your head, not your heart.

I'll close with Alten's own explanation of A&M's pricing rationale.
So why do we charge you?
We’re charging you for services required to launch an unproven author – services that I still pay out of my own pocket. For every novel I hire the same editor, P.R. person, book trailer guy – that’s the cost of success. My job is to teach you the business of being an author so that you ACCOMPLISH your goal; the other guys are more interested in selling you a package of ACTIVITY. Lots more activity in that Diamond package!

Pass the bullshit repellent.

UPDATE: Chuck Wendig has also blogged about A&M, and Steve Alten has responded--you can see his comments starting here.

UPDATE 3/8/16: When I put this post online, A&M's "Our Team" page included Michelle Colon-Johnson, owner of 2 Dream Productions, one of the PR services to which A&M authors apparently are referred (see the screenshot below). Following my post, in which I pointed out the conflict of interest inherent in such referrals, Ms. Colon-Johnson's bio was removed from A&M's website. I very much hope this isn't part of an effort to conceal the connection, and that authors who are referred to 2 Dream Productions will be informed that one of A&M's owners will benefit from their purchase of services.

February 19, 2016

Kickbacks, Opportunism, and Fake Awards, Oh My: Three Solicitation Alerts

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


You may or may not have heard of Bookfuel, a self-publishing services provider with a unique (as far as I know, anyway) twist: you don't pay upfront, but over time, with a monthly fee. Your fee gets you a basic suite of services; there are additional services you can buy a la carte. There's nothing unique about any of them, and Bookfuel is definitely on the high end, costwise: between $2,500 and $4,100, all told, depending on which package you choose.

Like any self-pub service provider, Bookfuel wants customers, and one of the way it apparently hopes to get them is by referral. To sweeten the deal, it's offering something many people find hard to resist: a kickback. A freelance editor forwarded me this solicitation she received:

Do I need to say that it's unethical for an editor (or any other professional) to refer a client to a paying service in exchange for money? Especially if she doesn't disclose the fee?

10% of $4,100 is not chump change. I wonder how many editors will say "yes."

Encircle Publications

Recently, Five Star Publications, a division of Gale/Cengage Learning, decided to discontinue its mystery fiction line. This week, some Five Star mystery authors received a solicitation from Encircle Publications, a publishing services provider:
We’re contacting you because we were recently informed of the upcoming demise of the Five Star Mystery line. You might be wondering who Encircle Publications are. If you look on the back covers of the books you’ve had published with Five Star, you’ll notice that the cover design credit reads: ENC Graphic Services. That’s us! So yes, we are also affected by your publisher’s (our client’s) move to end this genre line. Yet, when one door closes it's time to open another...

We wanted to reach out to you to let you know that we can be a valuable resource to you as you consider your next steps. Many authors (perhaps you or your Five Star Mystery peers) are choosing to go independent and become their own publishers, and why not? The advantages are obvious: greater control over the finished product, and 100% ownership and rights, which also means 100% of the profits from sales of your books. But how do you make it happen? Without the expertise of editing, book layout/pagination, eBook conversions, cover design, and marketing, how are you supposed to make yourself stand out and look as good as the traditional publishers do?

That’s where we come in. We’ve been publishing journals and books for over 20 years as Encircle Publications. In 2014 we re-branded to bring ENC Graphic Services under the full umbrella of Encircle Publications and began offering publishing services to independent authors and small publishing houses. Should you choose to go the self-publishing route you can feel confident in looking to us for the same kind of professional design and layout services you've enjoyed with the traditional model. What’s more is that we can up your game and your marketing profile even higher by offering services such as website development and marketing materials.
I don't see anything red flag-ish at Encircle's website, and, compared to similar service providers, its costs are in the midrange. However, one wonders how Encircle got all these writers' email addresses. If Five Star enabled this solicitation, I think it's pretty poor form.

Five Star authors who are considering going the self-pub route should be aware that they have a plethora of options, and that careful research is in order. Writer Beware's Self-Publishing page provides a full discussion, plus links to helpful resources.

Book Excellence Awards

I've heard from several authors who have been solicited by an apparently brand-new awards program: the Book Excellence Awards (BEA for short--get it?), which bills itself as "a global celebration of literary excellence".

All the markers are present for an awards profiteer (an awards program that's intended not to honor writers, but to make money for the sponsor): a hefty entry fee ($65 for one category, more if you want to enter multiple categories), an absurd number of entry categories (over 130), unnamed judges ("a librarian, bookseller, publisher and an author"), unnamed sponsors ("The awards were started by executives who have valuable experience in the publishing industry"), non-prize prizes (a "commemorative certificate", website and social media listings, and unspecified "marketing and promotional opportunities"), and the option--no doubt heavily promoted--to buy more stuff (stickers for your book cover).

There are many of these profiteering awards programs (I've written about a number of them), which prey on writers' hunger for recognition and exposure but offer little or no benefit despite their grand promises and high fees. Don't fall for these cynical attempts to make an easy buck.  

February 16, 2016

Solicitation Alert: RPI Publications, a.k.a. Raider Publishing International

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Raider Publishing International, the focus of numerous author complaints over the past few years and one of the companies on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publishers List, is trolling for victims under a sort-of new name: RPI Publications.

I know this thanks to an alert Writer Beware reader, who forwarded Raider/RPI's solicitation email:

Note the email address. Further evidence of the connection: while RPI's website never mentions Raider or its owner, Adam Salviani, the packages it offers are basically identical to those offered by Raider. Ditto for the two companies' "Why Work With Us?" pages. Here I have to laugh at Salviani's unintentional honesty in predicting the wretched sales that authors who use his services can expect:

This isn't the first time Salviani has attempted to dodge widespread online complaints about his companies (Raider currently has an "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau) by creating alternate names and websites. Other names he has used include Purehaven Press, Parmenides Publishing, and, most recently, the UK-based Green Shore Publishing, which was censured by the Advertising Standards Authority for false advertising.

Salviani filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in 2014. There is a long (long) discussion thread about him and his various businesses at Absolute Write. Beware!

February 12, 2016

Termination Fees in Publishing Contracts: Why They're Not Just Bad for Authors

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In the course of my work with Writer Beware, I see a lot of publishing contracts (for the most part, these are from small presses). One of the red flags I'm encountering more often these days is early termination fees: a penalty that must paid by the author if s/he wants to get out of a contract early.

A few examples of early termination clauses, taken from contracts in my possession:
The Author may terminate this agreement before the end of the term by means of a contract buyout....The Author will pay to the Publisher the sum of $500.00 (five hundred dollars) to exercise this contract buyout option. This fee must be paid to the Publisher by the Author at notification of intent to exercise the buyout option. The Author will be responsible for full payment of damages and customary legal fees as a result of legal action stemming from failure to pay this buyout clause.
The Author may petition the Publisher to terminate the Publishing Agreement at any time during the term of the Publishing Agreement, but it will cost the Author $350 fee for editing services and $100 fee for cover art services, formatting time and publishing costs, making the total fee Four Hundred Fifty dollars ($450.00).
Once a work has gone into editing and forward and the Author wishes to terminate this contract prematurely, a penalty shall be charged to the Author to cover costs of staff and artists for work already performed. This fee shall be at a minimum of $50.00 to a maximum of $1000.00 to be determined by the time spent on preparing the work for publication and money recovered from sales of the work.
Why are termination fees a red flag? Obviously they are onerous for authors, who might have good reason to want to end a contract early, and can't do so without opening up their wallets.

Of more concern is the fact that publishers may employ them abusively, holding them over the heads of unhappy writers, attempting to use them as an extra income source by offering to jettison dissatisfied authors at the slightest provocation (one publisher I know of even provides an annual "get out of jail free" period where writers can request an invoice), or terminating the contracts of writers who've pissed them off and demanding the fee even though termination wasn't the writer's decision.

I've gotten complaints about all of these. For instance, last year I heard from an author who was quoted an early release fee in the low four figures, described as a reimbursement for production costs--despite the fact that the book had been in circulation for some time and the publisher had likely made back its investment.

EPIC, an association for epublished authors, identifies termination or kill fees as a red flag contract clause--one that authors should absolutely avoid:
Most of these clauses refer to pulling a book during the middle of the contract, but some even require a kill fee paid to the publisher by the author for failing to renew the contract at its natural end. This last requirement isn't acceptable.
But termination fees aren't just bad for authors. They're bad for publishers, too.

Sure, from an honest small publisher's perspective--a publisher that isn't planning on browbeating its authors with termination fees, or using the fees to try and make an extra buck--a termination fee may seem to make good business sense. "We don't want to hold onto an unhappy author," the publisher might reason. "But we invest a lot of work in editing, designing, marketing, etc. So if we can't maximize our investment by selling the author's book for the full contract term, it's only fair that we should get some reimbursement if she decides to leave early."

Problem is, if the unhappy author can't afford the fee, the publisher is stuck with her anyway--along with, possibly, the extra resentment produced by the author's knowledge that she could have escaped if only she'd had the cash. (I've gotten many, many complaints from writers in exactly this situation.) Alternatively, if the author can afford the fee, he may see it as an easy exit, and jump ship without giving the publisher the chance to address whatever problems the author has identified--thus losing the publisher a book it might have retained if it had been able to work things out.

For publishers willing to let their unhappy authors go, it's far easier--and far more author-friendly--simply to allow authors to terminate the contract at will, without the potential complications and bad feelings of a termination fee. To protect its investment, the publisher can require a waiting period, such as one or two years, before the termination option can be invoked. Even better, for publishers that are willing to try and resolve any problems that may arise: don't include an early termination provision at all. Impose a reasonable contract term, and stick to it. This allows the publisher the best chance of recovering its investment in a book (and hopefully making a profit), while ensuring that the author can eventually regain their rights without opening up their wallet. (Though authors take note: if the contract is life-of-copyright and not limited-term, you should always be able to revert your rights once sales fall below a stated minimum).

January 29, 2016

The Fair Contract Initiative

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I write a lot about publishing contracts on this blog, and questions about publishing contract terms make up a large portion of my Writer Beware correspondence. Unfair and even outrageous contract terms are a major problem in the publishing industry, whether they stem from a traditionally one-sided relationship that's being challenged by developing technology (Big Publishing) or the plague of ignorance, inexperience, and greed that afflicts the small press world.

Last year, the US-based Authors Guild announced its Fair Contract Initiative, whose goal is "to shine a bright light on the one-sided contract terms that publishers typically offer authors and to spur publishers to offer more equitable deals."
Why do publishers insist on offering their newest partners more than a hundred conditions so dubious that they’ll quickly back down on them if asked? It largely boils down to unequal bargaining power and historic lethargy. Anxious to get their works published, authors may wrongly believe that the contract their editors assure them is “standard” is the only deal available, take it or leave it. And much of that “standard” language has been around for years thanks to institutional inertia; as long as somebody signs an unfair clause that favors the publisher, the firm has no interest in modifying it.
The Authors Guild's primary focus is Big Publishing, but the paragraph above applies to any publisher, large or small, established or inexperienced.

The Guild is advocating eight principles for fairer publishing contracts. Whatever your opinion of the Authors Guild (and I know many writers think it's reactionary and behind the times; I myself can't quite forgive it for its hand in the failed Google Books Settlement), these are important principles with which every writer should be familiar.

- Half of net proceeds is the fair royalty rate for ebooks. Big publishers typically offer 25% of net; small presses may offer 30% or even 40%. That's not enough, says the Authors Guild: it advocates a 50/50 split. (A caveat: there's some inconsistency here--sometimes the Guild says "net proceeds" and sometimes they say "net profits." There's a significant difference, as anyone who has ever seen a net profit royalty clause can attest. My own preference here would be for net income.)

- A publishing contract should not be forever. The "standard" contract in Big Publishing, and many small press contracts also, is life-of-copyright--the author's lifetime plus 70 years. This is unfair, says the Authors Guild: "There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright."

Instead, the AG advocates for limited-term contracts (as well as for a limited period in which publishers must either exploit subsidiary rights or give them back) and, just as important, for getting rid of "the entire outmoded concept of 'out of print'" as the standard for when rights reversion should take place.
Instead, the contract should define when book rights are being “inadequately exploited” and therefore available for reversion to the author when the book fails to generate a certain amount of income—say, $250–$500—in a one-year period. Using income as the yardstick, not a specific number of sales, is essential: Publishers might otherwise be able to game the clause by offering one-cent e-books the way they’ve gamed existing clauses by using e-books and print-on-demand..
 - Authors, keep your copyrights. This doesn't need explaining. Requiring authors to surrender copyright is a particular problem in the academic world, but it happens in the trade publishing world, too.

- Delete the non-compete. Many--in fact I would say most--publishing contracts include non-competition clauses that are overly vague, overly sweeping, or both.
Authors are routinely asked to agree not to publish other works that might “directly compete with” the book under contract or “be likely to injure its sale or the merchandising of other rights.” Even more broadly, they may be asked not to “publish or authorize the publication of any material based on the Work or any material in the Work or any other work of such a nature such that it is likely to compete with the Work.”
Clauses like this can bar authors even from self-publishing. If non-compete clauses can't be eliminated entirely, the AG advocates limiting the non-compete period to one year after publication, and, for fiction, specifically excluding prequels, sequels, and characters. (I'd add that it's also a good idea to limit the non-compete to books on the same subject or in the same genre.)

- Option clauses shouldn't hold authors hostage. It's a rare publishing contract that doesn't contain some sort of option clause giving the publisher the right to consider new work from the author. But option clauses can be greedy (I've seen many that give the publisher the right to consider two or three or even four books, or let the publisher pick and choose until they find a book they like) or unduly restrictive (the author can't refuse an offer if one is made--beware "first refusal" clauses--or must give the publisher the right to match any competing offer).

The AG recommends that option clauses should cover only the author's next work in the same subject or genre, and give the publisher a limited period to make an offer or release the book with no strings attached..

- Publishers' payment and accounting practices need to keep up with the times. Semi-annual royalty payments are standard in Big Publishing, with publishers allowing themselves long lead times in which to pay. The AG advocates for contracts that "specify quarterly payments of income received by the publisher no more than three months in the past." There need to be limits on reserve against return clauses, too: "any fair reserve clause must include limits, both for the dollars that may be withheld (no more than, say, 20% of royalties) and the length of time the clause may remain in force (say, one year)."

Many small presses pay royalties more often than quarterly. But many also account and pay royalties only when income from sales is actually received--which can make it very hard for authors to to tie sales to payments. Small presses also rarely maintain reserves against returns, since most don't distribute to physical bookstores--be wary of a small press contract that does include a reserve clause. And make sure that your contract requires the publisher to provide royalty statements for each payment period, whether or not payment is due. I've seen a number of small press contracts that do not oblige the publisher to provide royalty statements at all.

- End the discount double-cross. The AG calls out "deep discount" clauses, which reduce authors' royalties either by allowing publishers to sell to retailers and wholesalers at gigantic markdowns, or to slash royalty percentages on discounted sales. This is a problem mostly for authors with bigger publishers (some publishers have been caught selling books at steep discounts to subsidiaries, which then turn around and sell them at the regular rate)--but I've seen unfair royalty reduction clauses in small press contracts as well.

- Stop forcing authors to take unlimited financial risks. Warranty and indemnity clauses put writers in financial danger by requiring them to make a series of promises about their work--such as that it doesn't violate any laws--and to accept financial liability if those promises are found to be untrue, or if lawsuits arise from them. But how many writers are legal experts, or can afford to defray huge legal expenses?

The AG identifies elements of fair warranty and indemnity clauses--which will help you identify better ones, but probably won't be of much use if you encounter a bad one, since publishers are rarely willing to negotiate (and, especially in the small press world, may not even understand) these clauses.

January 15, 2016

Profit Engine: The Author Solutions Markup

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As most of you already know, Penguin Random House dumped Author Solutions at the end of 2015, selling it to a private equity firm for an undisclosed amount. ("A Penguin Random House Company" has already vanished from Author Solutions' logo.)

The sale received quite a bit of media coverage, at least some of which acknowledged AS's troubled reputation--something else that won't be new to you if you're a regular reader of this blog.

One of the areas that I and others have often criticized is AS's huge range of marketing services, which are aggressively pitched to authors who sign up for publishing packages. Most of these services are dubiously useful (email blasts), jawdroppingly expensive (book signings at book fairs), or both (cinema advertising). Basically, they're the equivalent of liquor at a restaurant: relatively inexpensive to deliver, but extremely profitable because of the enormous markup at which they can be sold. (AS executives have actually admitted, in depositions related to class action lawsuits brought against AS, that selling books is not one of the goals of AS's marketing services.)

What's the actual markup, though? How much difference is there between the price for which AS sells a service, and AS's cost to deliver it?

Here's an example. One of my readers drew my attention to this recent ad on Craigslist, in which Author Solutions seeks "freelance coverage writers" to "read self-published books and provide detailed, coherent coverage on the work's potential for film/television/digital adaptation."

The basic pay rate is $110. What does AS charge the idealistic author with Hollywood stars in his or her eyes? $859. Even assuming that pay rates may go higher for some freelancers, and that there's some level of administrative cost involved in getting the coverage from the freelancer to the customer, that's a hell of a markup.

I could go on--AS's genre-specific advertising packages, for instance, some of which are marked up more than 300%, or its Trifecta Review service, which offers three pay-to-play reviews for well over double what you'd shell out if you bought them on your own--but you get the picture. Author and blogger David Gaughran has also looked into the huge profit AS makes from its marketing services.

Now that AS has been sold, might its new owner (which hasn't as yet made any statements about its intentions for AS, apart from continued expansion) take a hard look at these practices? We can hope, but I fear there won't be a lot of incentive to tamper with such a major profit engine.
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