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.

July 19, 2016

WriteIndia Writing Contest: When a Contest Sponsor Changes The Rules

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

NOTE: This post has been updated.

I harp a lot here on how important it is to read the fine print--in your publishing contract, on websites that host user content, in literary contests. Sure, it's tedious, especially if couched in lengthy legalese--but skipping this step can result in unpleasant surprises.

What happens, though, if the contest sponsor changes its guidelines while the contest is still in progress?

Last year, the Times of India--one of the world's largest English-language newspapers--launched the WriteIndia contest. Each month for eleven months, a well-known Indian writer provided a passage or a prompt for contest entrants to develop into a short story. Eleven winners were awarded a Kindle, attendance at an exclusive writing camp, and publication in a compilation of winners' stories published by TOI's publishing imprint, Times Group Books.

Major newspaper, eminent writers, publication--what's not to like? Thousands of writers entered the contest. The final slate of winners was announced July 15 on Twitter, prompting this question from one of the non-winning entrants:
To which the response was:
Wait, what? shocked writers demanded. How could that be?

When I put this post online earlier today, here's how the next few paragraphs read.
Well, because of the fine print of WriteIndia's Terms & Conditions:
7. OTHER TERMS AND CONDITIONS:

a. Participant acknowledge and agrees that [Times Internet Limited] shall have irrevocable, worldwide, exclusive right to publish and commercially exploit the story/content submitted with TIL, through any medium and channel for the period of two years from the date of completion of campaign. After two years exclusivity period, TIL shall have non- exclusive right to publish and commercially exploit the story, worldwide and in perpetuity. TIL shall have the right to adapt, edit or modify the story as solely determined by TIL. TIL shall not be required to take any further approval or to notify the participant or to pay any additional consideration for the grant of aforesaid rights.
Simply by entering the contest, writers granted TOI perpetual rights to their stories, whether or not they won--and not just nonexclusively, but on an exclusive basis for a full two years. TOI doesn't have to pay writers whose work they use, or even notify them.

I've rarely seen such a greedy rights grab in contest guidelines. If anyone had contacted me to ask about this contest, I would have advised them not to enter. On the other hand, TOI didn't attempt to hide or obfuscate the rights grab--it was right there in black and white for anyone to read. Problem is, lots of writers apparently didn't read it. So now, basically, they're stuck.
In fact, the above is not quite correct, as I discovered late this afternoon when I checked into what's claimed in the first comment on this post. When most writers entered the WriteIndia contest, the T&C were different from what they are today. Here's a screenshot from April 19 of this year, courtesy of the Internet Archive.


As you can see, the rights grab is still there (the last sentence in the shot), but in vague language that's much easier to miss or misinterpret, especially since there's no mention of irrevocability, perpetuity, or exclusivity. As the contest was coming to an end, TOI must have decided it needed something more precise, so it completely re-wrote the T&C--which it was within its rights to do because of this paragraph:
The Times of India reserves the right at any time without prior notice to add, alter, modify, all or any of these terms and conditions or replace, wholly or in part, this Offer by any other Offer, whether similar to this Offer or not or to withdraw it altogether.
It's not unusual to find such language in contest guidelines, but it's rare for a contest sponsor to make such wholesale changes while the contest is in progress. While writers who ignore or miss plain language in a contest T&C have only themselves to blame, and the mention of "commercialisation" in TOI's original T&C should have been a red flag, it seems to me that WriteIndia entrants were substantially misled by rights language that TOI's own alterations of its T&C acknowledge weren't nearly clear or comprehensive enough, and didn't adequately convey its intentions for the entries. In my opinion, this is pretty shameful.

TOI has attempted to allay one concern--that the stories might be published without writers' names:


Sounds good, but I have to point out that since neither the original nor the revised T&Cs mention the issue of moral rights at all, writers have no recourse if this pledge isn't honored.

In response to the flap, TOI's Director, Vinita Nawra Nangia, is now saying that "anyone who does not agree to the said terms and conditions, is free to withdraw from the campaign." (Contact info: writeindia@timesinternet.in.) TOI should go farther. It should formally relinquish any and all rights to any and all non-winning entries.

July 15, 2016

How Publishers Abuse Termination Fees: Sky Warrior Books

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


I've written before about termination fees in publishing contracts: why they are bad not just for authors, but for publishers, and how publishers can abuse them. Here's another case study in how termination fees can become a tool for retaliation.

Sky Warrior Books, "a press dedicated to publishing quality SFF, mystery, historical fiction, paranormal, nonfiction, and other genres", is run by publisher and author Maggie Bonham (who also writes as MH Bonham and Margaret H. Bonham). Among the lesser-known authors on its list, there are several books and anthologies written/edited by established SF/fantasy authors.

Sky Warrior's contract--which is problematic in a number of respects, including vagueness in the royalty language--has not one, but two early termination fee provisions:
12.a.ii.: Prior to publication, the Author may terminate this contract for unspecified reasons by reimbursing the Publisher for costs incurred, plus a termination fee of $500. Examples of costs incurred include expenses such as editorial and cover art.

12.f.ii.: Post Publication: In the event that the Author is terminating the agreement in order to sell the Work to another publisher, individual or company for publication, the Author shall pay a termination fee of 10% of the advance and royalties earned on the Work to the Publisher, plus purchase all remaining inventory at cost +15%, with no royalties paid on copies purchased under this clause.
Sky Warrior also appears to have issues with timely royalty accounting. Complaints can be seen at the Absolute Write Water Cooler and at Ripoff Report; I've gotten some as well. Two of the authors who contacted me challenged the lack of payment and pressed for answers, whereupon Maggie Bonham terminated their contracts and reverted their rights, without asking for money. A third author--the one who's the subject of this blog post--also got her rights back. From her, however, Bonham demanded termination fees.

The author--who has asked that I don't use her name, so I'll call her Eve--signed a four-book contract with Sky Warrior in early 2013. Book 1 was issued in late 2013. Sky Warrior has two royalty periods--January-June and July-December--with the publisher required to make "all efforts" to issue payment within 120 days of the period's close. But it wasn't until September 2014, nearly nine months after the close of the July-December 2013 royalty period, that Eve even got a royalty statement for her 2013 sales. As for payment, Bonham indicated, without explanation, that she wouldn't be doing that until December 31. (Here's where the vague royalty language I mentioned comes back to bite: if a publisher isn't contractually required to pay within a stated timeframe, but only obliged to make "all efforts" to do so, it can argue "circumstances beyond our control" and do pretty much whatever it wants.)

Meanwhile, Book 2 had been published in early 2014. Eve says she wasn't given notice of the pub date until 24 hours prior, and never saw page proofs, despite the stipulation in her contract that she be able to review and approve them (according to Eve, the book included many errors). Royalty statements and payment for Book 2, due by the end of October 2014, didn't materialize--nor did royalty statements and payment for the same period for Book 1.

By December 2014, Eve was fed up. She hired a lawyer and demanded contract termination and rights reversion for all four books, citing multiple breaches of contract. In response, Bonham categorically denied breach, and defended the absence of royalty payments by claiming that, because vendors take up to six months to pay, the contract's 120-day royalty payment window actually began to run six months after the end of a royalty period (even though there is no wording whatsoever in Eve's contract to support this). She admitted she didn't make even that extended deadline for Eve's 2013 royalties. It wasn't her fault, though: it was due to--wait for it--"circumstances beyond our control".

On the up side, Bonham did agree to revert Eve's rights--but on the down side, not for free. For Books 1 and 2, she invoked Clause 12.b.ii., levying a fee of $56.13, which she claimed was 10% of royalties for the first half of 2014 (an additional 10% of royalties for the second half of 2014 would be due "when calculated"). For Books 2 and 3, which hadn't yet been published, she invoked Clause12.a.ii: $500 for each book, plus $317 for assorted costs including editing. The total of $1,373.13 was due within 60 days; any royalties accrued and owing would be applied to this "outstanding balance." As the cherry on top, Bonham warned Eve that "any libelous or slanderous statements by her, her family members, or her associates" would result in legal action.

In my opinion, it's debatable whether Bonham was entitled to invoke the termination clauses, since Eve wasn't seeking to terminate the contract for "unspecified reasons" (she cited specific breaches) or "in order to sell the Work to another publisher, individual or company for publication" (she had no competing offer; she just wanted out). Be that as it may, for Bonham this is a win, whichever way it goes. She gets rid of a pro-active author, and if Eve pays up, she also gets some extra cash. If Eve refuses, Bonham gets to hold onto royalties she otherwise would have been on the hook for paying (in Eve's case these amount to several hundred dollars).

As it happens, Eve is an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She turned the matter over to SFWA's Grievance Committee, which has a good record of mediating disputes between authors and publishers. Bonham, however, refused to cooperate, doubling down on her denial of wrongdoing and reiterating her her demand for money. She also accused SFWA and Writer Beware of a dastardly conspiracy:
After all, if we are harmed, you will have participated in the further erosion of independent, small presses, and I can't believe the rumor that SFWA and Writer Beware are cooperating with the Big Five publishing houses' efforts to destroy the independents once and for all. Although I did find it curious that Writer Beware's publisher avoid list is populated exclusively with small presses, often based in rural areas, far from the New York in-crowd.
Damn. And we thought we were being so discreet.

Seriously, though, I think Eve's experience illustrates how publishers can use termination fee clauses to retaliate against authors who displease them. The other authors I heard from who complained about nonpayment had their rights reverted without any demand for money. It's hard not to conclude that Eve was being punished for having the temerity to hire legal assistance.

The other takeaway here is the importance of taking contract language seriously. No matter how good a publishing relationship looks at the start, things don't always go on as they begin. Never assume that provisions in your contract won't at some point apply to you--no matter how unlikely that seems--or that your publisher, who right now seems so responsive and enthusiastic, won't invoke onerous clauses if things go south. To quote author and editor Jane Friedman, contracts aren’t there for when times are good and everyone is well-intentioned--they need to work for you when things go to hell. (For more on the danger of making assumptions, see my 2014 blog post, Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself.)

Bonham is now threatening to turn Eve's "debt" over to a debt collector.

July 8, 2016

"Cutting Lists Isn't New": Q&A With Month9Books Founder Georgia McBride

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


Last week, as I was researching my blog post on the troubles at YA publisher Month9Books (which recently reverted rights to 40-50 authors amid allegations of non-payment and other problems), I reached out to owner Georgia McBride with some questions. Her responses are below. (You can also read McBride's interview with YA Interrobang, which published a long article on author and staff allegations.)

--------------------------

VICTORIA STRAUSS: Your email to authors [about the rights reversions] mentions that you fired an accountant who created problems for Month9, including missing and incorrect payments. Can you tell me more about what happened, and what steps you're taking to address the problems and ensure that staff and authors receive payments due them?

GEORGIA MCBRIDE: I can't say more than I have already said about the accountant, and really, I prefer not to focus on him. What I can tell you is that I am working to get everyone caught up and paid in full who is owed a payment. From the many books ​we've published, there are only about 7 or so outstanding payments actually due at this time. We've managed to get mostly everyone paid since the author email was sent.

VS: Communications I've received from both authors and staff indicate that payment problems go back at least to 2013. I've heard from staff who say they were never paid at all. Can you comment?

​GM: I can't comment on what you've heard, since I am not privy to it. ​I'm also not aware of any freelancers who have never received payment for satisfactory work. There are however, several freelancers who delivered work extremely late or work that was not up to the standard and had to be redone by someone else in order to meet that standard who have not and will not be paid.

When we first started, I paid on a "commission" type basis where the freelancers income was tied to the book's performance. It was a good idea to motivate and encourage people, but I later realized that sometimes a book simply does not sell. And, even if it does, after distribution, printing, marketing, etc., there is little left to pay the editor. So, for those people, who may have worked on projects for little to no payments through 2014, I paid them all--even though I did not have to. Even though they signed contracts stating they would get paid only after the author is paid. In some cases it took almost 2 years to pay them all--but it was important to me to do it, even though I did not have to. Of course, no one is talking about that.

VS: Initially Month9 planned a small publishing list--8-12 books a year is what I've been told--but both acquisitions and the release schedule seems to have very quickly increased far beyond that, and in your Q&A with YA Interrobang you acknowledge that an overcrowded publishing schedule was the source of some of the problems authors are reporting. Why did Month9 ramp up its publishing schedule so quickly, and in hindsight, would you do anything differently?

​GM: A publisher needs content to grow. It baffles my mind how anyone who understands the business and what it takes to launch a publishing company could question this. ​I have said many times that a good publisher not only has awesome books. But a good publisher must have reliable and qualified staff and a solid business foundation that includes accounting and legal counsel. At various points in our short life, Month9Books struggled in all those areas.

Acquiring books and publishing them is not just about the cover. If the compliance isn't there, or there is a lot of turnover in staffing, and or the accounting is lacking; you are going to have a BIG problem. This is where we faulted. And, because I have a habit of not wanting to micromanage, I got into a situation where we simply had too many titles to manage with the resources we had. The right thing to do was to put the brakes on, make some hard decisions regarding which books to release and take steps to solidify the business foundation before moving forward.

Cutting lists isn't new. I didn't invent it. In fact, we do it annually in October. Anyone who has been through it with us can tell you. That said, when my blood clot happened (I had been having bouts of Vertigo earlier in the year), I knew it was way past time to bite the bullet and do what had to be done. Not only were we understaffed in the areas that mattered the most, but now, I was not going to be able to work as much as I had. It would have been unfair and very selfish of me to try to keep all the books. Believe me, I wanted to. I wanted to because I hated disappointing the authors. I was sick to my stomach for weeks because of what I was about to do. But the thing that got me through it was knowing it was ultimately the best for everyone involved, even if it hurt like hell while going through it.

VS: I know this is a tough question, but...many of the authors who've contacted me describe an atmosphere of intimidation at Month9, and have told me they fear reprisals for going public. Does this concern you, and do you have plans for addressing this perception going forward?

​GM: Not at all, but then again, I can't comment on what you have heard since I have no idea what you were told. That said, I am not at all concerned about these comments since many authors naturally feel scared about saying anything derogatory about their publishers or future publishers or agents, etc. This isn't anything new. But here's the thing, I have rights too. It's my right to protect myself, my family, my staff, my authors and my partners from anything that could potentially negatively impact my business. I have every right to defend myself and my company against libel and defamation. I will continue to assert that right, no matter who it upsets.

VS: What's next for Month9Books?

​GM: You know what? We've been busy working! I have announced 4 audiobook deals in the last couple of weeks, a new reading club license with Scholastic, and we have our first China release coming in a few months! China! In the immediate future, we have an amazing slate of Fall books and are looking to publish our very first young reader series in early 2017. Thanks so much!

July 1, 2016

Month9Books Scales Back Its List Amid Allegations of Nonpayment

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


On May 20, Publishers Lunch broke the news that Month9Books, a well-regarded and apparently successful publisher of young adult and middle-grade fiction, was scaling back its list and reverting rights to "40-50 authors across all imprints". In an email to Month9 authors sent the same day, company founder Georgia McBride cited her own health problems, along with staffing issues and the company's "substantial growing pains" over the past six to nine months.
The announcement set off a small flurry of conversations about the publication and about small presses overall, with many wondering how McBride could afford to acquire new works if authors were complaining about loyal or absent royalty payments.

McBride ignored speculation and turned her attention towards working – even as authors on Twitter began to discuss how lack of payment was a recurring problem for the company.
The quote above comes from YA Interrobang (an online magazine focusing on the YA market), in a long and detailed article by editor Nicole Brinkley published a few days after McBride's announcement. The article focuses on reports of serious problems at Month9--not just lack of payment (for staff as well as authors), but delayed pub dates, broken marketing promises, overcrowded publication schedules, communications breakdowns, problems with royalty accounting, and alleged harsh treatment and/or bullying by McBride. According to authors and staff quoted in the article--most of them anonymous--these problems are not new or even recent, but have been ongoing for a long time.

From questions sent to Writer Beware by authors considering submitting to Month9, I know that rumors of nonpayment were floating around as early as mid-2013. But apart from one nonpayment report in 2015, I didn't receive any complaints about Month9 until the mass rights reversion and the YA Interrobang article opened the floodgates. Since then, I've heard from Month9 authors and staff who've shared their experiences and provided me with documentation--amply confirming Nicole Brinkley's reporting, and also adding additional data: rapid turnover of editorial and PR staff, problems coordinating ebook and print releases, an official (and non-standard) policy of not paying or accounting royalties until the year following publication, no accounting for books entered into Kindle Unlimited, and more. (Several complaints from Month9 authors can be seen in this thread at Absolute Write, starting on Page 5.)

What I've heard from authors and staff also suggests why the troubles at Month9 haven't really come to light--publicly at least--until now. I've reported on a lot of publisher problems over the years, and it's normal for authors to feel conflicted about coming forward, or to worry about repercussions--but I've never encountered a situation where authors expressed such a level of fear and intimidation.

Nearly every author who contacted me described domineering, brusque, bullying, and even threatening behavior by McBride, and said they feared reprisals and/or damage to their careers if they revealed too much or let me use their names. They also pointed to the draconian non-disclosure agreements included in Month9 contracts, which bar authors from discussing the terms of their agreements "in person, online, verbally or in print, in public or in private except and only with officially documented legal and or agency representatives" and promise legal action if they don't comply. Even Month9's reversion letters include an NDA, requiring authors to keep reversion terms confidential for a full five years (something that could pose problems for an author seeking to re-publish her reverted book).

As one individual told me, "It’s astounding to see the difference between the public perception of this pub and the reality."

------------------------

When it started up in 2012, Month9 looked really promising. McBride had a long involvement with and many contacts within the YA publishing market, and she seemed to be making all the right moves--employing qualified editors and designers, planning a conservative publishing schedule, signing up well-known writers for Month9's debut anthology, snagging real-world distribution through Independent Publishers Group. Although some agents were wary of Month9 as a new and untried small press, others were willing to work with it on the strength of what seemed a solid start.

So how did things go wrong? In her May 20 email, McBride mentions health problems that have made it difficult for her to manage her workload (obviously, something that can happen to anyone and can't be helped if it does--but also a cautionary reminder of the risks of contracting with a publisher that's essentially a one-person operation). She also blames late contracts on Month9's legal counsel's departure "a few months ago", and "late and often erroneous payments...made to staff and some authors" on a fired accountant, who "made some pretty damaging transactions". (Some of the authors who contacted me disputed these statements, claiming that the lawyer had actually been gone for closer to a year and confirming that payment issues go back almost to Month9's inception.)

McBride also cites "substantial growing pains." And I think that's really the crux of it, because Month9 did grow--and grow. Authors who signed on in the beginning were told that the company planned to publish 8-12 books a year--a reasonable output for a new small press--but that conservative publishing schedule seems to have quickly fallen by the wayside. In 2013 Month9 released 23 books (figures based on Amazon listings), an expansion due in part to the addition of a new imprint, Swoon Romance. Another new imprint, Tantrum Books, was added in 2014, helping to balloon the list to 71 titles. 2015 saw just over 50 releases--a considerable drop, but still more than quadruple the original release plan. 2016 looks to be about the same, with 47 releases scheduled through November.

On its website, Month9 proudly confirms this rapid growth: "Since [2012], we have announced 182 book deals and published over 100 books." But if you plan for 8-12 books a year, yet almost immediately double and quadruple and even quintuple that, you are going to encounter--at a minimum--logistical problems, especially if you suffer (as multiple authors allege Month9 does or did) from high staff turnover. At which point you'll either have to try and do it all at the risk of things falling through the cracks, or cut vital services such as marketing--or, as appears to have been the case for Month9, both. You'll also have to decide how to deal with the questions and complaints that will inevitably start rolling in, especially if you are having trouble cutting checks. Will you be candid? String people along with excuses? Put the blame on troublemakers? Just stop communicating? Will you even acknowledge to yourself how bad things are?

Over-acquisition is a rock on which many small presses have run aground (one example is Permuted Press, which actually had to stop publishing for a while when its hugely inflated production schedule got out of hand). Faced with an abundance of good manuscripts, an ambitious publisher's eyes can easily outstrip its stomach. But as much as running a publisher may be a labor of love, it's also a business. You have to balance ambition and growth with sensible business practice--which means, among other things, maintaining a disciplined release schedule and making sure that your workload and your staffing are a match. More and more, it seems to me that many small presses fall apart not just because their owners lack publishing savvy and expertise, but because they simply don't know how to run a business.

----------------------

How things will go from here is anyone's guess. Both in her May 20 email and the interview that accompanies the YA Interrobang article, McBride indicates she is continuing to make acquisitions--which in the circumstances hardly seems wise--though she notes that there have been "significant changes to both our submissions and acquisitions process."

She also dismisses the negative information that has surfaced in the past few weeks as social media-fueled "personal vendettas or campaigns against me." But even if that's the case--and based on the volume of  complaints, as well as their consistency, I don't believe it is--there are, by McBride's own admission, serious problems at Month9 that need to be addressed.

I hope McBride does address them--including taking a hard look at the culture of fear authors have described. And I hope Month9 survives. But I think that's going to require more than just a change in the company's submissions and acquisitions process.

I invited McBride to comment for this article. Our Q&A can be seen here, in a separate post. (The Q&A is accumulating comments from Month9 authors and staff; those are worth reading as well.)

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 suspended Tate's accreditation and removed its rating.)

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 KFOR.com 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.

UPDATE 7/1/16: More trouble for Tate. Local news station KFOR reports that staff have been laid off from Tate's printing plant, and author complaints of non-payment are surfacing (Writer Beware has received similar complaints).

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] sfwa.org.

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? Well...you 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.
Do.

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.

 
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