Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news and commentary, and a focus on the weird and wacky things that happen at the fringes of the publishing world.

August 25, 2015

Author Solutions Class Action Lawsuit Settled

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A class action lawsuit against Author Solutions Inc. has been settled and discontinued.

Filed in April 2013 by law firm Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart, LLP against ASI and its parent company, Penguin Group, the suit alleged breach of contract, unjust enrichment, various violations of the California Business and Professional Code, and violation of New York General Business Law. Penguin was later dismissed from the case, along with some--but not all--of the claims against ASI.

The case proceeded to discovery, and in February of this year Giskan Solotaroff filed for class certification. On July 1, Judge Denise Cote denied certification. The parties then proceeded to settlement, which apparently has been reached, becuase on August 12, Judge Cote ordered the case to be discontinued.
It having been reported to the Court that this case has been settled, it is hereby ORDERED that the above-captioned action is hereby discontinued without costs to any party and without prejudice to restoring the action to this Court's calendar if the application to restore the action is made within forty-five days.
The terms of the settlement have not been released. PW has more.

ASI is not clear of legal actions, however. Another lawsuit was filed in Indiana in March of this year, also by Giskan Solotaroff, with similar claims of fraud and unjust enrichment. According to Sarah Weinman, writing in Publishers Lunch (subscription required), this suit has been consolidated with another into a single case. Weinman notes:
Back in April, after the second suit was filed in Indiana, Oren Giskan told us the Indiana cases were filed "because we came to understand that all of the claims we wished to have resolved could only be done in the State of Indiana," where ASI has their headquarters.

August 20, 2015

Beware Social Media Snake Oil

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This week I've got another great guest post for you, from marketing expert Chris Syme.

We writers have all heard that we "have" to be on social media, which is presented to us--both by experts and the not-so-expert--as the Holy Grail of marketing and self-promotion. But apart from the thorny questions of which platforms to use (Twitter? Facebook? Pinterest? Some of them? All of them?), and how to use them (How often should we post? What's the proper mix of friendly interaction and self-promotion?), there's the problem of "services" that want to exploit our confusion to rip us off.

Read on for solid advice on how to separate the worthwhile from the worthless, and warnings about some common social media scams.

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Social Media Snake Oil Comes In All Shapes And Sizes
by 
Chris Syme

Authors want to sell books. But most indie authors know very little about how to promote their books. And when it comes to social media, authors everywhere are throwing up their hands. Is it a waste of time? Do I need to be on Twitter? How often should I post on Facebook?

I get email from authors who are frustrated. They see social media as a minefield and don’t want to step in for fear they will never come out. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is just buy that package of hundreds of tweets for twenty dollars and cross your fingers hoping that somebody will buy your book. After all, everybody says you have to be on Twitter, right? We hear words like platform, brand, discoverability. How can an author break through the firehose of noise on the Internet and decide what, if anything, to do?

Separate The Wheat From The Chaff

My husband is a grain farmer. Every year we pull out the massive combine and dust it off, getting ready for the magic of harvest. Gone are the days when workers had to beat the grain shocks by hand to separate the wheat from the chaff. These days, those big expensive machines cut the wheat and feed it through a mechanism that separates the grain from its stalk The stalks are chewed up into chaff and spewed out the back of the combine to be absorbed back into the soil.

In marketing, we need to do the same. We have to learn how to separate the snake oil from the good stuff. Authors should want to learn how to spot a worthless marketing scheme. But there’s a learning curve. And sometimes that Facebook ad that worked for your friend isn’t going to work for you. This is where education comes in. The book marketing sector, more than any I have ever worked in, is full of bad marketing advice. My objective here is to help you separate the wheat from the chaff -- to be able to spot snake oil when you see it.

It’s The Principle Of The Thing

Every business sector has best practices. It’s possible to circumvent those and get a modicum of success, but that is an anomaly. Social media marketing has basic principles of success. They aren’t rocket science, they are based on data. Take this example on hashtags.

In early 2014, Dan Zarella, a social media data researcher for HubSpot, found that if hashtags are used in a tweet (# -- a pound sign -- followed by a phrase of reference that is followed by many people), that tweet is 55 percent more likely to be retweeted than one with no hashtags. His results were based on mining data from over one million tweets. So, people jumped on the hashtag band wagon. The more, the better, or so people thought.

In 2014 Buffer, another reliable social media research company, published data that showed that after two hashtags, engagement of a post actually goes down (graphic courtesy of Buffer).

This is a principle that most savvy marketers take for granted now. But there are some unethical snake oil salespeople out there telling authors that the more hashtags the merrier. They didn’t get the memo on too many hashtags tanking engagement. And, for a mere $19, you can buy a day’s worth of tweets loaded with hashtags from beginning to end that promise to hike your books sales. Here is a sample ad:


Not a day goes by that I don’t see this scam retweeted by several authors, maybe because they promised to help promote the service for more free tweets that will “reach millions of people generating a truly astonishing amount of traffic.” All these hashtag-laden tweets do is annoy people. To the savvy social media user, they reek of stupidity. The outlier may sell a few books, but I wonder how many more books that person could have sold if they had used their money wisely.

Another popular Twitter scam offered by more than one company offers authors hundreds of thousands of followers worth of exposure for your tweet for a fee. I experimented with one of these snake oil outfits recently just to test it. I knew I was blowing my money, but it was a mere twenty bucks to prove my thesis.

This company boasts three different Twitter accounts with 375,000 followers. I want to add that it is fairly easy to amass Twitter followers if you know what you are doing. For instance, this particular company is supposedly followed by LeBron James, according to the report I ran on their followers on Simply Measured. But the real LeBron James only follows 184 people. So, on a whim I looked through them all. This company was not there. And, their fake LeBron James has only three million followers while the real King James has 23 million. This LeBron James page is a fake account built to fool people into following. It has been followed by millions of people who think it’s the real thing. These fake accounts automatically follow back so other unscrupulous people can amass large follower counts. It’s a well-known racket in marketing circles. Fake follower companies search diligently for these auto-following accounts to increase their fake reach. (Did you notice I use the word fake a lot?)

Also, an analysis of this company’s top 20 influencers did not produce one account that would be in the market for my books. My $19 produced zero sales and zero new Twitter followers. Maybe I should have spent more money. But alas, here’s a review of their service from an author who purchased five days worth of tweets. Also no sales.

Scam artists know what they are doing. They are playing on peoples’ pain points and ignorance. They can build fake followings completely on accounts that follow back automatically. Keep in mind that all you need to start a Twitter account is an email address. It’s an ugly, dark business. There is no verification to make sure that real people are setting up accounts. These companies abound on the internet. Hint: if the website looks rinky-dink and boasts of millions of daily impressions from loyal fans, beware.

We Will Promote Your Book…For A Price

There are more bad promotion sites out there than you can shake a stick at. How can you tell the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly? Many of them have slick websites, Facebook pages, and multiple Twitter feeds boasting of thousands, maybe millions of followers. Here are a couple pointers to help you make up your mind.

1. Good sites: There are many sites out there that are based on good marketing principles and have a large audience of both authors and readers. They validate their expertise with blog pieces, authentic peer recommendations, podcasts, books they write, webinars, speaking engagements, and they can prove success by numbers over a long period of time. Not everyone in this category is spot on when it comes to social media strategy, but most are trying. The resource may be membership-gated such as Jim Kukral’s Author Marketing Club (I am a member), Where Writers Win, and others. They usually offer a subscription at a reasonable yearly price and offer a large variety of tools to help authors succeed. The large variety of marketing tools is a key.

There are also many knowledgeable marketers that cater strictly to authors such as Penny Sansevieri’s Author Marketing Experts, Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer, and Book Marketing Tools.

In the good category are also author forums like Writers Café (KBoards) and The Alliance Of Independent Authors (I am a member). Forums like these are populated by authors and are a good place to get recommendations and reviews for everything from editors to marketing services.

There are also a number of authors out there that share their validated expertise with other authors through a combination of free resources and pay-per webinars and classes. Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman come to mind.

2. Questionable sites (the bad and the ugly): It is impossible to list all the suspect author marketing services out there but I do write about them often on my agency’s blog for authors. These sites ask for money for their suspect services. There is no information on their “about” pages that validates their expertise or existence, just blabbing about the reach of their audience. They are not published authors or even legitimate marketing services. They are product-only.

Beware of offers like this one from Contentmo. Besides the fact that their website design is a red flag, their claim that they have 23 million impressions a month on social media is irrelevant. There is no explanation or proof of who or where those impressions come from other than a list of their interconnected Twitter feeds and low-volume Facebook pages. Another red flag here is the absence of real people’s names in the About section of their site, a Gmail address as a contact, no address or location information, and their testimonials are suspect. I am also wondering why a company that brags 23 million impressions a month has only 167 likes on their Facebook page.

Many sites in this category have some free services. If you want to give them a try, keep track of your results. I recommend recording results with every marketing strategy you try. If they are free, give them more than one try so you can make sure your initials results were correct. Free is okay but you often get what you pay for…nothing.

The world of social media marketing is a quagmire for many authors. If you’re just not sure what to do, I would recommend starting with self-education. I have a list of resources (mostly blogs) on my website that I personally recommend. The more educated you become, the easier it will be for you to spot snake oil when you see it.

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Chris Syme has over 25 years experience in the communications industry and is principal at CKSyme Media Group. Her agency specializes in social media marketing, virtual assistant services, and digital communication services for self-published authors and higher education. She is a former university media relations professional. Chris is a frequent speaker on the national stage and the author of two books on social media: Listen, Engage, Respond and Practice Safe Social 2.0. Her agency won the 2014 SoMe Award for Social Media Agency Of The Year. Her new book, SMART Social Media For Authors, will be released in fall 2015.

Contact: Chris Syme | email chris@cksyme.com | phone 406.599.6079 | website: www.cksyme.com

August 6, 2015

Guest Post: Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As I explained in my last post, I'm still mostly M.I.A., but I've lined up some terrific guest posts that will appear over the next few weeks.

Today's guest post comes from author and writing teacher Barbara Baig, who reveals how the path to productive writing may sometimes be, paradoxically, to put your writing on hold for a while.

#

Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.
 by

These days, aspiring writers are told constantly that, to attract the attention of agents and editors, they must develop a platform and learn to promote themselves. But just about every article or post offering such advice also includes this reminder: First, you must write an excellent book.

But how do writers achieve this excellence?

Certainly not by following another piece of writing advice, very prevalent these days: Just keep writing, you’ll get better. Really? Can you imagine a hitting coach saying to a kid who wants to be a professional baseball player, Just keep swinging the bat, you’ll get better?

Aspiring writers can’t walk a path to excellence by repeatedly doing what they already know how to do; like aspiring major-leaguers, if they want to become professionals, they have to learn and develop professional-level skills.

This isn’t easy: there are a large number of skills to learn. For instance, can you reliably come up with and develop ideas and materials for pieces of writing? Do you have a writing process that works for you? Do you know how to establish and maintain a natural relationship with readers? These are some of what I call “content skills,” the ones writers must have to come up with material for stories or poems or nonfiction pieces.

Then there are the “craft skills” we must also have. Everyone knows about the importance of mastering genre—being able to shape a mystery or a romance or a memoir. But what about the “small craft”--the craft of choosing words and arranging them into powerful sentences that take hold of a reader’s mind and won’t let go? When you’re working on a draft or a revision, does your mind give you the words, the sentence structures, you need to accomplish this? And, if not, why not?

The default answer to this last question is “talent”: Some people have it; others, less fortunate, do not.

But the default answer, happily, is not true. Researchers in the scientific field of expertise studies have for years been studying experts in various fields, to answer the question, “What makes certain people really good at what they do?” They’ve discovered that innate talent has very little, if anything, to do with expertise. Instead, they’ve learned that what creates experts is a particular approach to learning: They call it “deliberate practice.”

This approach requires (among other things) breaking down a complex skill--like writing--into its component sub-skills, then practicing each skill separately until it’s mastered, then putting them all together. This is the approach professional athletes and musicians have been using for decades; they spend much more time practicing and training their skills than they do in performance. Writers can--and, I believe, should--do the same thing. Oh, sure, you can struggle through the writing of five novels, learning things about the craft each time, and finally make the sixth one work; lots of successful writers have taken that path.

But you can also learn your skills much more efficiently: by identifying the ones you need to learn, and practicing them. This is especially true in the realm of craft. Many aspiring writers have good ideas for stories, but they don’t know how to use the English language with precision and power. Many of them have been told this doesn’t matter: ”Just write. Some editor will fix your writing later.” This, too, is bad advice. Excellent writers are people who have mastered the power of language, who know how to use words and sentences to communicate, to move their readers, to keep them turning pages. You may not believe that you can ever get to their level; but you can.

Through practice, you can train the part of your mind that comes up with words to work more effectively, so that, as you’re writing, it gives you exactly the words you need. Through learning and practice you can acquire a large repertoire of sentence constructions, so that, as you write, you can choose the ones that will give your prose energy, focus, phrasing, rhythm, and other qualities that hold and keep the attention of readers.

Naturally, you need time to learn these things, time to practice them. Many aspiring writers have been advised that, if they just get those five hundred (or two thousand) words on the page every day, they can call themselves real writers. But what if their daily words have no power? How is this kind of unproductive writing helping them move towards excellence?

So, consider this approach instead. Stop writing. Figure out what skills you need to learn, and develop a routine for practicing them. If you don’t know where to begin, try this little experiment: Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half. On one half, write down all the things you can do well as a writer (for example, “I can come up with great ideas for stories”); on the other half, write down all the things you don’t do so well, or can’t do at all (for example, “My sentences are clunky.”) If you have a hard time thinking of things you can’t do, consider your favorite writer: What can he do on the page that makes you love his work? Can you do those things? Can you do them as well? Add those items to your list. (Do not include on your list any skills you have in promoting your work; we’re talking about writing here.)

What you’ve done is the first step towards becoming a better writer: You’ve assessed your skills. Perhaps you’re happy with where you are now; perhaps you’re appalled at how feeble your skills appear. Or perhaps, if you are just getting started as a writer, you are like beginners in any field: You don’t know what you don’t know. In any case, you now have, however tentatively, a starting point for your learning. You’re ready to embark on what I like to call The Mastery Path for Writers Seeking Excellence, a path whose focus is practice.

Now choose some skills to practice--let’s say, for example, the “small craft” skills ofwriting short, simple sentences, then elaborating them with bound and free modifiers,appositives, nominative absolutes and other techniques. Practice one technique everyday until you feel you have mastered it, then try another; in the process you will betraining your brain to use these various techniques without thinking about them.

When you’ve mastered a repertoire of skills, return to your work-in-progress or to one of your story ideas. Now your “small craft” skills, well-honed through weeks or months of practice, will give you a solid foundation from which to produce work that approaches the excellence agents and editors in the book business yearn for.

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Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher, who is passionate about showing writers what can be done with the English language. She is the author of two books from Writer’s Digest: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. She offers free writing lessons at WhereWritersLearn.com.

July 26, 2015

Writer Beware Blog on Temporary Hiatus

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last Sunday, my elderly mother, who's fighting cancer, fell in her apartment and broke three ribs. Cue nightmare scenario: 911 call...12 hours in the emergency room...confusion over hospital admission...fighting the massive hospital bureaucracy that wanted to discharge her ASAP despite the fact that she couldn't even get out of bed unassisted...it was the week from hell.

Stubbornly independent, my mom still lives alone, with a ton of assistance from me and my husband, my brother, and family friends. But as much help as she's needed over the past two years, now she's going to need even more. So the Writer Beware blog has to take a back seat. You may see a guest post or two (I have a great one scheduled for the first week in August), and Michael Capobianco may stop by with a post. But I'm going to be scarce around here for a while, and you won't see me much on Twitter or Facebook, either. 

I will still be answering email, so please don't hesitate to write to me: beware [at] sfwa.org.

Thanks, and see you (hopefully) soon.

July 15, 2015

Pay-to-Play Alert: #WORLDCLASS Magazine

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


Authors: have you received an unsolicited email from a "talent scout" at #WORLDCLASS Magazine pitching an interview and/or cover feature? Here's what you need to know in case you do: it's pay-to-play.

Here's a sample pitch, sent to me by a wisely wary author (emphasis added, and all errors courtesy of the original):
Dear [name redacted],

You were selected by our talent scout to be featured in #WORLDCLASS magazine as an author of [book title redacted].

We interview and feature top achievers in all areas of lives: entrepreneurs, world-class athletes, bestselling authors, top doctors, celebrity plastic surgeons and dentists, life coaches and icon experts in other areas.

Just a few names: Dr. Bill Dorman (ABS “Extreme Makeover”), Bill Walsh, David E. Stanley (Elvis Presley’s step brother), Dr. Raj Kanodia (World’s Leading Plastic Surgeon), Michael Irvin – NFL, Matthew Hatchette – NFL, Bryon Russel-- NBA, John Assaraf (Featured in movie Secret), Loren Ridinger (MarketAmerica.com) just to name a few. You can view them here: http://worldclassmagazines.com/interviews/

We are so passionate about inspiring and empowering people to get empowered and live the lives they deserve: from an outstanding energy and health, to passionate relationship and financial success.

Here are just some examples of the interview we have conducted: http://worldclassmagazines.com

We would love to interview you and feature on a COVER of #WORLDCLASS magazine. Our guest features had great success working with us. The exposure and credibility brought hundreds new leads as well as other media sources picked up and featured our guests in major media sources which led to thousands in sales on a front end and high ticket sales in a back end.

You can check our testimonials here: http://worldclassmagazines.com/testimonials/

We do charge to produce each interview and magazine feature to cover some of our crew and editor expenses. Investment is only $950 for the whole feature. You will get 4-page article with full color pictures of yourself and your featured services in addition to a COVER feature. This exposure will add tremendous value to your credibility and authority. (Just to compare our 2 page ad-spread runs between $5-$7 K)

Currently we have 2 more prospective experts interested in next month issue. Let me know if you want to take on this opportunity.

And if you have any questions, please ask away.

All best, and thank you for all that you do,

[name redacted]
Senior Talent Scout
E-mail: [email redacted]
Office: 888-580-5532
http://worldclassmagazines.com
Note the semi-illiterate writing (whoever created the email is allergic to plurals and pronouns), the "What a deal!" price comparison, the "act now or someone else will get your spot" pressure tactic. And while for pay-to-play interviews, $950 doesn't seem all that bad--at least, not compared with some of the other interview schemes I've featured here (Close-up TV News, for instance, which charges between $3,000 and $5,000, or The Balancing Act, which charges $5,900)--there's an associated YouTube talk show. What do you bet that it's pitched to anyone who takes the email bait, at the cost of some serious extra zeroes?

Either way, interviewees will wind up more than $950 out of pocket. You might assume that those "full color pictures" will be courtesy of the magazine, but you would be wrong: you will have to provide the photos yourself.

#WORLDCLASS Magazine is owned by Katrina Starzhynskaya, a.k.a. "Katrina Starz," a self-described bestselling author and "serial entrepreneur" who "is known as an ambitious woman building businesses, creating high-end brands and getting celebrity endorsements all while saving the environment on 6-inch Louboutin stilettos." #WORLDCLASS is only the tip of the Starzhynskaya iceberg: she also offers health retreats, book launches, "publicity and branding", Amazon bestseller campaigns, and more.

If you're going to spend money on promotion, don't waste it on pay-to-play interviews (or reviews, for that matter). There are better ways to get a bang for your buck.

July 10, 2015

Alert: Don Semora, "Professional Designer and Author"

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Making money from authors can be good business, which probably explains why so many of those who exploit them return again and again to the trough. Case in point: Don Semora, whose brand-new website styles him a professional designer of book covers, games, websites, and more.  

Semora offers a smorgasbord of services for authors, from book layout to map design to a "self-marketing pack." His fees start at $60, with rates varying depending on the project. As you can see, the man's got mad skillz, at least in his own opinion:


Of course, mentioned nowhere on Semora's website is the fact that he's the former owner of Michigan-based pay-to-play publisher 2 Moon Press (now defunct), which was the focus of a police investigation based on dozens of author complaints of unpaid royalties, unfulfilled book orders, and breaches of contract (examples can be seen at the Better Business Bureau website, where 2 Moon Press has an F rating).

While Semora denies being the source of 2 Moon's problems (blaming them on Melinda Lundy, to whom he sold the publisher shortly before its 2013 demise), he has a prior history of fraudulent activity (including a 2004 conviction for Conspiracy to Commit Larceny by Conversion and Fraud), and has admitted to using 2 Moon Press funds for personal expenses, including vacations for himself and his wife.

Semora is being sued by 2 Moon author Bernard Zeitler for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion, and fraudulent misrepresentation, among other charges. Semora's attorney recently petitioned to withdraw representation, citing as one of several causes Semora's failure to pay his bill.

This is at least the third business venture that Semora has established since his departure from 2 Moon Press. Others include an LLC called Fall River Publishing and Graphics, and another called Lightning Forge Games.

It's my understanding that an investigation of Semora, Lundy, and 2 Moon Press by the Calhoun County prosecutor remains open.

July 8, 2015

Amazon's "Personal Connection" Review Policies Are Nothing New

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of today's most popular pastimes, in the writing world at least, is demonizing Amazon (or sanctifying it, but that's not the subject of this post). Latest flashpoint: Amazon's review policies.

The flap seems to have begun with blogger Imy Santiago, who wrote about her attempt to post a review of a self-published book she'd just read. She received an automated response from Amazon indicating that she was "not eligible to review this product," and when she contacted Amazon to ask why, she was told:
We cannot post your Customer Review for (book title deleted) by (author name deleted) to the Amazon website because your account activity indicates that you know the author.
According to Santiago, she does not know the author; she's simply a reader and a fan. She contacted Amazon again, and was refused again; Amazon also refused to disclose "how we determine that accounts are related" because that information is "proprietary". Santiago was outraged.
I pay for my eBooks. I take the time to read and review books I love. The Big Brother mentality Amazon is employing is appalling, and crosses an ethical line of unfathomable proportions. They are not God, and are censoring my passion for the written word....This is wrong, and it has to stop. It is censorship at its finest.
Santiago's post was quickly picked up by other bloggers and news outlets, which echoed the Big Brother theme with ominous titles like Is Amazon Using False Information to Censor Book Reviews? and Amazon's Review Policy is Creepy and Bad for Authors and Amazon is Data Mining Reviewers' Personal Relationships.

Well, yeah. Amazon is data mining everything (including your reading activity, if you use a Kindle). This is not news. Nor is the fact that Amazon has long engaged in a policy of deleting or refusing reviews where it deems that the reviewer and the author are related in some way. A similar flap erupted in 2012, when Amazon began denying or getting rid of reviews "on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product." For Amazon, this included not just friends and fans and third-party merchants, but authors, who suddenly found themselves barred from posting reviews of fellow authors' books.

It's not as if there are legions of Amazon minions in cubicles poring over every customer review. Amazon uses automated systems--and while its secrecy about exactly how it makes determinations is frustrating, it's not surprising that it considers that information proprietary (plus, as TeleRead's Chris Meadows points out, providing individual explanations in response to every question would involve massive amounts of paperwork). Also, automated systems often get it wrong--as in the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, where books that did not violate Amazon's anti-smut guidelines were removed along with books that did. This is a problem of Amazon's enormous scale. But the ongoing culling of reviews exists in the larger context of Amazon's battle to quell rampant review sockpuppetry (against which it recently took action outside its own ecosystem, launching a lawsuit against three alleged fake review websites). It's hardly censorship, as in a practice of systematic, deliberate suppression.

Chris Meadows also wonders what Imy Santiago isn't revealing
I just want to re-emphasize we have no way of knowing how close Santiago and this other person she tried to review are. They could be almost complete strangers, or they could be on each others’ Christmas card lists. Santiago isn’t saying. She’s just objecting to the whole premise on principle. This seems a little suspicious to me, because as far as I’m concerned, the premise does make sense. If Amazon determines that you and the author of the book you’re reviewing do know each other, honestly, it should be keeping you from reviewing their book.
I tend to agree. Yet it's also true that Amazon's focus on review abuse is one-sided: while it makes active war on false positives, it largely ignores the problem of false negatives (for instance, one-star review campaigns). And its policies may sometimes hit some groups harder than others. In a long blog post, author Lori Otto makes a case for why, in a networked world where authors and readers are more connected than they've ever been, self-published authors are disproportionately affected by a ban on reviews from personal contacts:
As an Indie author, I can’t NOT become friends with many of these readers. Through these friendships, I reach more people… not because I ask them to share my books, but because they genuinely want to share them! It’s an organic process that isn’t motivated by greed or by threats or by anything negative.
A petition to "Change the 'You Know This Author' Policy" makes similar points. As of this writing, it has gathered over 9,000 supporters; I don't think any of them should be holding their breath, though.

July 3, 2015

Author Solutions Lawsuit Update: Class Certification Denied

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In April 2013, the law firm of Giskan Solotaroff Anderston & Stewart filed a lawsuit against Author Solutions Inc. and its parent company, Penguin, alleging fraud, unjust enrichment, and violation of various statutes and consumer protection acts. Penguin was later dismissed from the suit.

In February 2015, having completed discovery, Giskan Solotaroff filed for class certification with a lengthy Memorandum of Law that unpacked a lot of information about ASI's business model and internal operations.

That certification has now been denied, in a decision handed down by Judge Denise Cote on July 1.
From what I can tell on an initial reading, the decision seems to boil down to the fact that in one of the subclasses they were seeking to certify, plaintiffs weren't able to meet certification requirements; and in the other, weren't able to demonstrate a clear pattern of deception on the part of AS that could apply to everyone in the proposed class.

Judge Cote's decision can be read in full here

I'm guessing that Giskan Solotaroff will appeal. In the meantime, their second lawsuit against AS is ongoing, and has been consolidated with another lawsuit brought by two individual plaintiffs, Everette et al. v. Author Solutions LLC.

June 24, 2015

Almond Press Short Story Competition: Writing for "Exposure"

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In my last blog post, I discussed how to recognize and avoid profitmaking writing awards--fake awards that exist not to honor writers, but to enrich sponsors. If you're looking to win writing awards and enter writing competitions, though, the profiteering fakers aren't the only risk you face.

For instance...the short story competitions run by Scotland's Almond Press.* Almond's output is tiny--founded in 2012, it has published just three anthologies of stories collected from its annual competitions--but it boasts some impressive sponsors, including Booktrust UK and the University of Stirling, as well as a nice website and attractively-designed book covers. Its contests have no entry fees, and there's a 100 GBP prize for the winner, who is also promised "Exposure and publicity via our online presence".

Its Terms and Conditions, however, stink.

Simply by submitting a story to the competition, writers grant "the following licences free of charge and irrevocably":
  • The right to translate an excerpt from the work submitted (no more than 15% of its total length)
  • The non-exclusive right to reproduce and publish the work submitted on the websites and platforms controlled or authorized by Almond Press, both in the original language and in translation
  • The non-exclusive right to reproduce and publish the work submitted in trade paperback format, both in the original language and in translation
  • The non-exclusive right to record by means of any existing or not-yet-invented technology, to distribute and broadcast readings of excerpts from the work in the original language or in translation, on Almond Press networks and websites/platforms controlled or authorized by Almond Press
For the winner, these licenses become exclusive for a year and non-exclusive thereafter. In addition, winners must grant Almond the right "to edit, abridge or excerpt the work for the purposes of publication or broadcast. The author will be consulted if significant edits are necessary." (My bolding. "Significant" is a pretty flexible standard.)

What this boils down to is a publisher that is obtaining nearly all of the material for its anthologies for free. The only possibility of compensation is the one-time fee paid to the single winner--and even that is not guaranteed, since "If a prize cannot be awarded as described in these rules Almond Press reserves the right to substitute one or more prizes or prize components with another of approximately equivalent value."

Almond does say that all anthology proceeds go toward running its competitions--presumably to fund the prize and possibly to pay honorariums to the judges (who aren't identified--according to the Terms and Conditions, this is "to ensure the judging process remains blind", even though a blind judging process usually involves keeping entries anonymous, not judges).

Even if Almond isn't reaping a secret profit from free stories, though, this is yet another example of the increasingly prevalent writing culture that urges authors to work for exposure, rather than for fair monetary compensation. Sometimes, exposure may be indeed be worth it--if Tor were to run a similar competition (not that it would), it might be worth entering. But where exposure is the main or only compensation for publication, you really need to parse its meaning. Does publication in an anthology from an obscure small press with Amazon sales rankings in the hundred thousands constitute "exposure?" If so, is it an equitable tradeoff for being paid for the exploitation of your intellectual property?

The writing world needs its own Taylor Swift. Until she comes along, think twice before buying into the promise of "exposure." (And be sure to read--and fully understand the implications of--the fine print of any writing competition you may be tempted to enter.)

* Thanks to the reader of this blog who contacted me about Almond Press.

June 9, 2015

Awards Profiteers: How Writers Can Recognize and Avoid Them

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you may have guessed that I'm not a big fan of writing contests and awards.

Partly this is because so many are a waste of time, with minimal prizes, negligible prestige, and zero cachet on your writing resume. Why not spend your energy on something that can get you closer to building a readership--submitting for publication, or publishing on your own?

There's also the risk of bad things in the entry guidelines--for instance, the Emerging Writer Awards, where simply submitting constituted a grant of publishing rights. Writers who don't read the fine print carefully enough may find themselves trapped by such provisions.

And then there are the contests/awards with a hidden agenda: making money for the sponsor. Such awards aren't really about honoring writers at all.

There's a complex of red flags that identifies profiteering contest and awards programs.

- Solicitation. To maximize entries, profiteering awards and contests solicit entries. An out-of-the-blue email urging you to enter a contest or awards program should always be treated with caution.

- High entry fees. Profiteers charge $50, $60, $75, or even more. There may be "early bird specials" and multiple-entry discounts to tempt authors with the illusion of a bargain.

- Dozens or scores of entry categories. To maximize income, profiteers create as many entry categories as possible, and encourage multiple entries.

- Anonymous judging. Profiteers promise expert judging by people with standing in the publishing field, but don't reveal who those experts are. In fact, the judging may be done by the profiteer's staff, who may simply pick winners out of a hat.

- Non-prize prizes. To avoid cutting into their profits, profiteers offer prizes that cost them little or nothing: press releases, media announcements, database and website listings, features on satellite websites or in self-owned publications. Some offer little more than the supposed honor of winning the award.

- Opportunities to spend more money. Profiteers' profits don't just come from entry fees. They also hawk stickers, certificates, critiques, and more.

Profiteers may deviate from this template to some degree: some do provide money prizes, for instance, and not all solicit. But if more than four of these red flags are present in a contest or awards program--especially if there's a big entry fee--you should think very carefully about entering.

What about prestige? Profiteer awards and contests don't typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you'll be able to tag your book as an "award-winning book" and yourself as an "award-winning author." How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers' increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.

Profiteer awards and contests, which overwhelmingly target and ensnare small press and self-published authors, are a cynical play on authors' hunger for recognition and exposure in an increasingly crowded marketplace. In my opinion, they are never a worthwhile use of writers' money.

###

Some examples of awards/contest profiteers:

JM Northern Media runs more than 20 literary "festivals" and conventions. JM Northern is a ferocious spammer; if you're a writer, you've probably been solicited for one or another of its festivals.

Unlike many other profiteers, JM Northern offers actual money prizes. But it can afford to. According to this article, its Hollywood Book Festival received 2,740 entries in 2012. At $75 per entry, that's a gross of $205,500. Let's assume that the other 20 festivals, most of which have a lower fee of $50, also get a lower number of entries--say, 1,500 (I'm lowballing to demonstrate how insanely lucrative this scheme is). Altogether, that's over $1.5 million just in entry fees. A year. When you add in revenue from the critiques and merchandise (likely provided by JM Northern's own Modern Media Publicity), it wouldn't surprise me to learn that JM Northern's annual festival gross is well over $2 million.

- i310 Media Group sponsors the USA Best Book Awards, the International Book Awards, and the Bookvana Awards. Entry fees are $69-79, and each program has scores of categories (more than 100 for the International Book Awards), fancifully-described prizes that boil down to website features and press releases, and the "opportunity" to purchase award stickers and certificates.

The Jenkins Group, a costly self-publishing services provider, runs at least five awards programs: Moonbeam Awards, Axiom Awards, eLit Awards, Living Now Awards, and the IPPY Awards. Entry fees range from $60 to $95, and there's the usual raft of entry categories and non-prize prizes. Even among profiteers, however, Jenkins is unusual in the amount of extra merchandise it hawks to winners. Check out the options for Moonbeam Award winners--no fewer than 29 items, ranging in price from $7.50 (for a Moonbeam Certificate) to $130 (for a Moonbeam Gold Medal--not even a real medal, just an image).

- WILDsound, another prolific spammer, runs continuous monthly contests and "festival events" for screenplays, books, poetry, short stories, and more. Fees range from $20 ("$15 OFF regular submission") for a first scene to $170 for a full novel, but average around $45. Judging is done by the usual cadre of unnamed "Professional Writers and Writing Consultants"; prizes are readings by--it's claimed--professional actors. You can sample these poor-quality videos here.

- Other profiteers include Readers Favorite ($89 to $109, depending on when you register; over 70 categories; plenty of adjunct merchandise and services for sale); the Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards ($90, over 50 categories, stickers and certificates for sale); Literary Classics (relatively inexpensive at $45, but the usual unnamed judges and hawking of adjunct merchandise); and the Global Ebook Awards ($79, over 100 categories, with winners"eligible to purchase Global Ebook Award certificates attesting to their honor").

April 23, 2015

Finding Authors: The Importance of Establishing an Online Licensing System for Copyrighted Works

Posted by Michael Capobianco for Writer Beware

The U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently held a public meeting on “Facilitating the Development of the Online Licensing Environment for Copyrighted Works.” The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the National Writers Union, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors submitted a paper for consideration listing what, in our estimation, are the points that any online licensing system must recognize if it is to be effective.

“Discoverability” is a key component of any such system, which requires not only that works must have unambiguous identifiers, but that the identifiers point unambiguously to the authors of the works rather than to publishers. Any such system must also recognize that the author is the best, and in many cases only, source of information about the ownership of rights. More and more books are self-published; publishing companies aren’t involved at all, and any system that relies on them will be incomplete. A publisher-centric system will also assign rights incorrectly, especially considering that publishers have begun to claim ebook rights for works even though the contracts for those works do not mention them.

SFWA has been interested in developing a way to find authors for a long time. The failed Google Books Settlement and subsequent developments call into question what an orphan work is. If a defining characteristic is that the author can’t be found, clearly, then, a system that facilitates finding authors is necessary before works can definitively be declared orphans.

SFWA has made recommendations concerning orphan works to the Copyright Office several times now, focusing on the creation of a national Author Information Directory (AID), a database that would function as the source of unambiguous identifiers for authors as well as provide contact information for negotiations about licensing rights. SFWA feels that creating this database should be left to government rather than for-profit entities, and that a database that allows direct updates from the authors themselves would be well within the Copyright Office's capabilities.

As nice as it would be to let Google and Amazon worry about providing discoverability for works and then the authors of those works, it’s clearly not part of their business plans. Amazon in particular has shown no enthusiasm for adopting the ISBN as a standard, and its proprietary identifier is unlikely to be used by other book distributors. Tellingly, there were no Amazon representatives at the USPTO meeting.

Right now, the primary international database of author identifiers is the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI), about which Writer Beware has blogged before, and the primary book identifier is the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). There is also the Digital Object Identifier (DOI), which theoretically could be used as an identifier for short stories, blog posts, and other text not covered by ISBNs.


While these databases are theoretically expandable to be the comprehensive system of databases that would “facilitate the development of an online licensing environment,” none of them incorporate author contact information to the degree necessary to unambiguously identify specific rightsholders; and each has problems that discourage authors, especially self-published authors, from participating. Most obvious is cost. ISBNs, for example, are quite expensive when purchased in the quantity needed by many self-published authors. And while many traditionally published authors have been automatically included in the ISNI database, those who have not--including almost all solely self-published authors--are required to pay a fee. It is obvious to us that any system that requires authors to pay a fee for an unnecessary service will fail. At the very least, we feel that authors’ groups such as SFWA, ASJA, and NWU can act to facilitate author participation and greatly reduce or entirely eliminate those fees.

Our groups will continue to represent authors at meetings of this kind, where it often seems thta authors’ and other creators’ concerns are treated as an afterthought.

###

AUTHORS MUST BE INVOLVED IN ANY SYSTEM OF STANDARD IDENTIFIERS AND RIGHTS DATABASES

Submission of American Society of Journalists and Authors, National Writers Union, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to USPTO’s public meeting,“Facilitating the Development of the Online Licensing Environment for Copyrighted Works,” April 1, 2015.

All rights ultimately derive from the author of a work.

1. The author is the best source of bibliographic metadata about his or her works.

2. The author is the best, and in many cases only, source of rights-related metadata about his or her works. In many cases, publishers do not know what rights have been assigned where or may be interpreting their contracted rights too broadly, especially concerning electronic rights.

3. Any database of identifiers and/or rights must allow the input of the authors or it will be inadequate and contain many errors and omissions.

4. An identifiers/rights database that charges authors a fee for inclusion is counterproductive, and will not include the majority of self-published works.

5. Because an ISBN identifies an edition, not a work, the status or availability of the ISBN says nothing about the status of the work in other editions. Many works are out of print in the original paper editions with ISBNs, but available in non-ISBN self-published digital editions. A consistent system for identifying works, not editions, is needed.

6. A growing percentage of e-book licensing transactions (often erroneously referred to as "sales") and e-book "best-sellers" (ditto) are not only self-published but also self-distributed. Only the authors can report information about these licenses.

7. In the U.S., the current systems for creating identifiers for works and authors (ISBN and ISNI) charge fees. In the case of ISBN, the fee can be quite substantial. As a result, many new books, especially self-published e-books, are not included.

8. In many other countries, the cost of creating ISBNs and ISNIs is borne by the government, and that should also be the case in the U.S. In Canada, by comparison, ISBNs are free for Canadian citizens.

9. The cost of creating an Internet-based database that allows authors to register their works and provide metadata would be relatively small. The result would be a considerable improvement over the current system. Such a database would help in the search for the authors of potentially orphaned works, among its many other benefits.

10. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has proposed the structure for an Author Information Directory (AID) as part of its Orphan Works White Paper that could serve as a template for such a database. (The white paper can be viewed here; the AID is discussed starting on page 4.) Rights-related data fields could easily be added to the AID.

10. Writers’ groups can not only act as intermediaries with such a system for their members, but already maintain lists of contact information for their members, and in some cases, contact information for the estates of authors in their genre. Groups such as SFWA, National Writers Union, and American Society of Journalists and Authors stand ready to assist in any effort to formalized the identifier/rights databases proposed here. A large number of creator organizations can be contacted via the Authors Coalition of America.

April 16, 2015

Warning: Raider Publishing International

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


In 2012, I posted a warning about Raider Publishing International. Founded by former (and disgruntled) PublishAmerica author Adam Salviani, and presenting itself as an independent publisher, Raider is basically a self-publishing service in the Author Solutions mold, with some added (and highly dubious) bells and whistles.

Raider began to become a problem in 2012, with mounting author complaints. Here's what I wrote at the time:
Over the past few months, I've begun receiving a steady trickle of complaints about Raider, where before I only received questions. I'm not the only one; as a result of the negative feedback he's gotten from Raider authors, Mick Rooney of The Independent Publishing Magazine has revised his once-positive review of Raider to "not recommended." Other complaints can be found online--at Ripoff Report, for instance, and Scam Informer (I always take websites like this with a grain of salt, but in this case the complaints are quite consistent, and the problems reported reflect the reports I've been getting).

Author complaints received by Writer beware include publication delays of up to 18 months (according to Raider's FAQ, books are published six to eight months after contract signing, unless you pay for a fast-track option; several of the authors I've heard from are still waiting for publication and fear their money is lost); quality issues (poor editing, poor design, finished books full of errors); trouble getting royalty statements and/or payments; communications problems (being shuffled from email address to email address within the company, or not being able to get any response at all; several authors say that as soon as they sent in their fees, communication ceased); and broken promises (repeatedly missed publication dates, author copies never received, promised marketing services not provided, substantial delays despite payment of the fast-track fee).
Since then, negative information has continued to accumulate. If you take a look at the comments on my 2012 post, you'll see many examples, leading right up to this year; another 55 complaints appear at Scambook, and there are more at Absolute Write. There's a Facebook page devoted to warnings about Raider. Raider now has an "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau. At least one petition has been filed with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. In 2014, the BBC Radio 4 program You & Yours did an expose of Salviani and Raider, featuring an interview with Salviani himself in which he denied the allegations of defrauded authors.

In 2014, Writer Beware added Raider and related operations to our Thumbs Down Publishers List.

In true deadbeat fashion, Salviani has made several attempts to escape his reputation, as well as to resolve his own financial issues. He established several new publishers with different names: Purehaven Press and Perimedes Publishing (both defunct), and purportedly UK-based Green Shore Publishing, about which I posted a warning last year. (GSP is still active, but as a result of an investigation by the UK's Advertising Standards Authority, Salviani was forced to remove numerous fake testimonials from its website.) In September 2014, Salviani declared personal bankruptcy.


He also put Raider on publishing hiatus toward the end of 2013. However, possibly as a result of resolving his bankruptcy case, he appears to be ramping it up again. Last December, Raider pumped out 12 titles in quick succession, and has published one title so far in 2015.

Given this renewed activity, it seems a good idea to post a second warning. Writers, beware of Raider Publishing International.

April 13, 2015

Amazon Takes On Fake Review Services

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

The actual impact of four- and five-star reviews on Amazon and other retailers' websites is a matter of ongoing debate, but their perceived importance is not.

Which explains why, if those reviews aren't accumulating on their own, there's a quick fix--as long as you're willing to hold your nose and open your wallet. Throw a virtual rock these days, and you'll probably hit a service that, for as little as five dollars, will create a glowing review of your product and post it online--even if the reviewer has never used or even looked at your product.

Authors are as vulnerable to the lure of the quick publicity fix as anyone else (perhaps even more so, given the crowded book marketplace and the struggle for discoverability). One of the most infamous examples of book boosting by dubious means is self-publishing superstar John Locke, who, as one of his publicity strategies, bought hundreds of book reviews from a service called GettingBookReviews.com. And Locke wasn't the only one. According to the New York Times, GettingBookReviews sold over 4,500 reviews in its relatively short career.

For retailers, fake reviews are a nuisance, not just because they violate Terms of Use but because they degrade the value of real reviews. Partly as a result of fake review scandals, consumers are far less trustful of reviews than they were a few years ago (there's even a website called Fakespot that purports to analyze Amazon reviews for veracity). Amazon has periodically tightened its review guidelines and purged reviews its algorithms identify as fake--sometimes deleting real reviews in the process

Now Amazon is taking more direct action. Last week, it filed suit against three websites it accuses of selling fake reviews. According to The Seattle Times,
The suit, filed Wednesday in King County Superior Court, accuses Jay Gentile of California and websites that operate as buyamazonreviews.com and buyazonreviews.com, among others, of trademark infringement, false advertising and violations of the Anticyber­squatting Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Consumer Protection Act.
Additional websites named are bayreviews.net and buyreviewsnow.com. As of this writing, only buyamazonreviews.com and buyazonreviews.com are still online.

From the full complaint, which can be seen here:
A very small minority of sellers an d manufacturers attempts to gain unfair competitive advantages by creating false, misleading, and inauthentic customer reviews for their products on Amazon.com. While small in number, these reviews threaten to undermine the trust that customers, and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers, place in Amazon, thereby tarnishing Amazon’s brand. Amazon strictly prohibits any attempt to manipulate customer reviews and actively polices its website to remove false, misleading, and inauthentic reviews. Despite substantial efforts to stamp out the practice, an unhealthy ecosystem is developing outside of Amazon to supply inauthentic reviews. Defendants’ businesses consist entirely of selling such reviews....

Defendants are misleading Amazon’s customers and tarnishing Amazon’s brand for their own profit and the profit of a handful of dishonest sellers and manufacturers. Amazon is bringing this action to protect its customers from this misconduct, by stopping Defendants and disrupting the marketplace in which they participate.
Amazon is asking that defendants be ordered to hand over their profits, pay damages and attorneys' fees, and cease using Amazon's trademarks and services. It's also asking that they be required to "Provide information sufficient to identify each Amazon review created in exchange for payment, and the accounts and persons who paid for and created such reviews." Not good news, if you ever used one of these services.

I'll be following this case as it unfolds. Regardless of the outcome, it will be interesting to see whether it has a chilling effect on the business of selling fake reviews.

(Of course, you don't have to pay someone else to create fake reviews for you. If you're enterprising, unscrupulous, and willing to invest a lot of time in self-aggrandizement, you can do it all on your own.)

April 9, 2015

The Strange and Twisted Tale of Peter Senese, Serial Con Man

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

On March 31, 2014, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York field office of the FBI announced charges against Peter Thomas Senese, founder and director of the I CARE Foundation, which billed itself as a group combating the crime of parental child abduction. From the press release:

Since at least 2013, SENESE allegedly defrauded parents whose children were victims of international abduction by falsely representing that he, working with the worldwide resources of I CARE, could rescue their children and return to them to the United States in exchange for money for his purported rescue operation expenses.

Senese allegedly conned over $50,000 from one parent of a lost child, and is charged with one count of wire fraud (the criminal complaint can be seen here). He was arrested and arraigned March 31. He's currently free on bail.

Okay--but what, you may be wondering, is Peter Senese doing on Writer Beware? Well, before he started preying on desperate parents, he ran an elaborate literary scam.

I first heard of Senese in 2007, when I began to get questions about a project called Bookbeat--a supposedly  in-development TV show featuring books and authors. Despite a cheesy-looking website full of ungrammatical text, Bookbeat purported to be affiliated with major players in the entertainment industry. No staff were named on the website, but a fairly easy-to-trace trail led to Senese, who claimed to head the impressively-titled Orion Entertainment Group, and to have authored a bestselling blockbuster novel called Cloning Christ.

All of this, of course, was much less than it appeared. Orion Entertainment was not (as its plagiarized logo suggested) in any way connected with defunct production company Orion Pictures, but was Senese's own venture. The execrably-written Cloning Christ was also a self-venture, though the name Senese gave his publishing company--Orion Publishing & Media, so close to the name of the real, UK-based Orion Publishing--certainly seemed designed to suggest otherwise.

I blogged about Bookbeat...and immediately began hearing from people who'd had encounters with Senese. Individuals told me that they'd auditioned in 2005 and 2006 for Bookbeat jobs that never happened (names dropped included Laurence Fishburn, who supposedly would serve as host), were hired to provide services for Bookbeat (for instance, a line of sportswear with Bookbeat logos) and were never compensated, were promised Bookbeat prizes and publishing contracts that never materialized, and were paid for Bookbeat-related services with checks that bounced. Here's a typical story, one of the few that still remains online (Senese was skilled at getting negative info about himself removed from the Internet).

It was becoming clear to me that Senese was more than just the creator of a literary scam: he was a prolific and habitual con artist--and a pretty effective one, too, at least in the initial stages. Nearly everyone I communicated with told me how charismatic, warm, and convincing they found him at first. It was only after they'd been involved with him for a while that the illusion began to thin, eroded by those never-arriving payments and bounced checks, along with missed appointments, mysterious postponements, and claims that were just too grandiose to believe or not quite consistent enough to ring true. When things got hot, Senese would do a bunk. One of his often-used excuses was his son, Tyler, whom he claimed had been abducted by his ex-wife and taken overseas (in reality, Senese and his wife shared custody of Tyler, and though she did take him to New Zealand at one point, it was with court permission). Tyler would suddenly need rescue, or there would be new information, and Senese would have to rush off to deal with it.

As I've mentioned, Senese was good at getting negative information about himself redacted. He got wind of my post soon after I put it online, and went to court to obtain an order for its removal (a scan of the order can be seen here). The order was contingent on personal service, which he wasn't able to accomplish (he attempted service via my publisher, which sensibly refused to accept). Nevertheless, Blogger yanked the post without an attempt to investigate, and I wasn't able to get them to reinstate it. Luckily, I was able to preserve a copy of the post, along with the 96 comments it accumulated, many from Senese's victims (and some--anonymously--from Senese). You can see it here.

Though my post was gone, a call for contact I'd put out on a thread about Senese on the Done Deal Pro message boards remained. As a result, over the years that followed I received a steady trickle of contacts and questions from people who'd encountered Senese. Here's the gist of what I heard and learned:
  • In 1997 in Suffolk County, NY, Senese was sentenced to five years' probation on one count of felony grand larceny for posing as a health care venture capitalist. (I spoke with the arresting officer.)
  • In California in 1998, Senese was sentenced to 9 months in jail and 3 years' probation on one count of burglary with intent to commit grand larceny, for writing bad checks. (I've confirmed this via news articles like the one reproduced here.)
  • In 2003, following the release of Cloning Christ, Senese contacted Christian booksellers across the country to set up signings. He told the booksellers that his novel was about to be made into a major motion picture starring Viggo Mortensen and John Malkovich, and promised that the stars would attend the signings. Senese then failed to show up for the signings, leaving booksellers stuck with large quantities of unsalable, unreturnable books. This scheme was the focus of an article in a 2004 issue of Christian Retailing magazine; though I've been unable to obtain a copy, I've corresponded with one of the booksellers Senese conned.
  • Around 2008, I started hearing from people who'd met Senese in his guise as a child advocate, or through his I CARE Foundation (I CARE's website is gone, but here's a cached version) and had become suspicious enough to do a websearch on him. On the other hand, Senese was convincing enough to attract the support of reputable professionals, and in 2010 got legit public attention as a child advocate when he appeared as a witness in support of a Florida Senate bill to combat parental child abduction. That appearance also attracted some less welcome attention--namely, a long article in the Tampa Bay Times that detailed his checkered history. Like my blog post, the article gathered scores of comments, many from disillusioned parents.
  • I've also heard from: a national literacy organization to which Senese gave an elaborate presentation about Bookbeat; a woman to whom he offered a job on a project supposedly connected with the Vatican Archives; a producer he met at a party in LA and tried to involve in an unnamed film project; a writer whom he solicited to write a comedy script for him; a group of friends whom he wined and dined and then stuck with the $700 bill; a costume designer he solicited to work for his Orion Entertainment production company; an actress who contacted him as a result of a casting call, but got suspicious when she met him; an Italian production services company he was in talks to hire for a movie of Cloning Christ; an Italian filmmaker who was approached by a friend on Senese's behalf for the same (nonexistent) project; a man to whom Senese promised a production assistant position if the man would move to LA (names dropped included Johnny Depp); people from whom he solicited donations for a movie of another of his books, Chasing the Cyclone; staff at hotels where he claimed to be planning to conduct events, and more. All these individuals and organizations smelled a rat, went looking for information online, and found my call for contact.
It may seem amazing that Senese could get away with his shenanigans for so long. But those who prey on others' deepest vulnerabilities often go unmolested by the law for considerable periods of time, in part because their victims are so reluctant to speak out or to give up the last shred of hope. Also, a number of the people who contacted me seemed to be afraid of Senese. He did sue one parent who spoke out publicly about his doubts (the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction).

The other thing that's fascinating about this case is that for Senese, it seems to have only partly been about the money. Yes, he's charged with obtaining funds under false pretenses. Yes, many of the people who contacted me spent serious cash on things like travel and materials as a result of Senese's enticements and promises.Yes, he bounced checks and failed to pay for services.

But only a handful of the dozens of individuals I spoke or corresponded with said that they were directly asked for money. What many of them remembered most was Senese's relish for the roles he chose--the big producer, the bestselling author, the hero child advocate--and the sincere conviction with which he played them. Did he actually believe in these identities, at least while he was inhabiting them? There's no way to know. But several of his victims told me they were certain some degree of mental illness was involved.

I've seen some strange things in my years with Writer Beware, but the spiraling tale of Peter Senese, serial con man, is definitely one of the strangest. I'm almost going to miss those every-now-and-then emails that bring me news of his latest bizarre doings.

Senese's content has started disappearing from the web, but you can still see cached versions of his several websites. His Amazon author page is still there, as is his Twitter feed, at least for now; you can sample his self-aggrandizing tweets, which he was making right up to the day of his arrest.

 
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