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

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.

April 1, 2015

Naughty-No-No! E-reading App Keeps Young Minds Pristine

Posted by Michael Capobianco for Writer Beware

If you follow publishing news, you're probably aware of the recent controversy over Clean Reader, a reading app that scrubs ebooks clean of curse words and profanity.

Now, in a step toward the future of interactive digital media, bold start-up Inkadinkadu has partnered with a number of major ebook distributors to produce and distribute a new reading app, called Naughty-No-No!.

Starting where censorship app Clean Reader leaves off, Naughty-No-No! allows readers to make any ebook capable of being read and enjoyed by pre-schoolers down to the age of three. “If they can read, they can read with Naughty-No-No!,” said Inkadinkadu head honcho Jimmy Duranceville, “and, if they can’t read yet, the app will read the book to them in a voice modeled after the legendary stage and screen actress Shirley Temple Black during her famous child actor years."

Not only does it substitute baby-language for those words that parents have rightfully banned from their children’s vocabulary, Naughty-No-No! simulates the simplified grammar that young children use before they’ve fully developed their language skills. References to bodily parts and functions in the text are altered to those words that every child learns to say first, such as pee-pee, poo-poo, hoo-hoo, fooey, and the rest. Any of the other words that children shouldn’t see or hear are replaced with “no-no!” When heard in the precocious voice of Shirley Temple, these passages are simply irresistible to a child of any age. Religion-based curse words are transformed into the inoffensive gol-darnit, krikey, gosh, h-e-double-hockey-sticks, and crimeny.

Inkadinkadu anticipates that if their product can be distributed widely, an entire generation of young readers will grow up to be untainted by corruption. Internet and real-world versions of the app are in the works, so stay tuned.

The app will be available as soon as authors stop whining about having their precious writing ruined.
 
Design by The Blog Decorator