Last year, I published a post about a growing problem for self-published writers who’ve bought into a “re-publishing” offer (always received out of the blue) from a company that promises it can do a better job, or provide more marketing, or facilitate a transition to traditional publishing.
Such offers can seem attractive, especially to writers trapped in the Author Solutions ecosystem, where customer service is poor, book prices are often non-competitive, and low sales and obscurity are all but assured. Often the offer is reasonably priced (as a loss leader to get writers in the door so they can be pressured to buy more expensive services), or includes tempting features like marketing campaigns or (supposed) literary representation.
Unfortunately, most of these companies are scams (see this list), and signing with them carries serious risk–from relentless upselling pressure, to substandard services, to fake trad pub or movie rights proposals involving enormous fees, to simply taking the cash and running.
There’s another danger, too, that in many ways is even more serious. From my post:
Suppose your book gets re-published, but you realize you aren’t receiving royalties or royalty reports. Or there are errors that need to be corrected, or services you paid for that aren’t being delivered, or you have concerns about quality. Suppose, when you start asking questions, your re-publisher stops responding. Suppose you discover that the email address you’ve been using no longer works, and the phone number you’ve been calling has been shut off. Suppose you look for your re-publisher online, and find that its website has disappeared.
These are common situations. Re-publishing scammers routinely ghost writers they decide are inconvenient (or tapped out financially), and frequently shut down under one name as complaints accumulate, only to start up under another. Meanwhile, your book is still for sale all over the internet.
Suppose, then, you decide to terminate your service agreement or publishing contract, get your rights back, and have your book removed from sale. Maybe there’s language in the agreement or contract that lets you cancel–but how do you cancel if phone numbers are dead and all your emails bounce? Maybe there’s no provision for termination by the author, something you didn’t worry about at the time because you didn’t think there would be an issue…but that means you have way less leverage to argue to retailers like Amazon that your book should be removed from sale, even if there are egregious breaches of contract.
Or maybe you never had a contract to begin with. Maybe your sales rep from the company that originally re-published your book moved to a new company and took you with them, claiming that a new contract wasn’t needed even though your re-re-published book now carries the new company’s name. (This really happened).
What do you do?
I’m hearing more and more often from writers who are trapped in this situation: ghosted by their re-publishing scammers, desperate to get free, but not knowing what to do or where to turn. Following, therefore, are some suggestions for taking matters into your own hands, and trying at least to get your book removed from sale.
(Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, so what follows isn’t legal advice. Any legal types reading this, please feel free to weigh in, and offer corrections if necessary.)
If you have a contract or service agreement:
1. Check it to see if you have the right to terminate the contract by notifying the company. If so, follow the instructions for sending notification (usually, an email to a designated address).
2. What if the contract allows you to terminate but doesn’t provide instructions for how to do so? Send the email to the most recent address you have (or multiple addresses if you’ve been dealing with multiple people).
3. What should the email say? You don’t need anything fancy, or to explain why you’re terminating. Just state that you’re terminating all contractual arrangements per the provisions of your contract (you can quote the relevant section if you want). There’s often a grace period (for instance, 30 days) before termination becomes effective–but if that isn’t mentioned, you can set your own grace period or say that you’re terminating as of the date of the email.
4. Make sure you keep a copy of the email for your records. You aren’t sending the email because you hope for a response: you’re sending it so you can prove later on that you took the contractually-required steps for termination.
5. Wait, either for the grace period to end or, if you’ve canceled with immediate effect, a couple of weeks (since it can take that long for online retailers to remove listings at publisher request). Your scam re-publisher has ghosted you, so it’s unlikely they will reply–though I have heard from authors whose termination emails shook a response loose (anything from excuses blaming others, to hard luck sob stories, to threats and insults, to simple refusals), so it’s not impossible. If you do hear back, stand firm: don’t be intimidated, or fooled by new promises or offers.
6. If the company hasn’t removed your book from sale by the time the grace period or the couple of weeks have expired, they are now violating your copyright by continuing to sell it. It’s time for the next step: sending copyright infringement notices in an effort to get your book listing removed from retailers’ websites.
For websites hosted in the USA, these notices fall under the purview of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and by law must include specific elements and language. Many overseas websites will also comply with DMCA notices. There’s a good primer on all of that here, including instructions on creating a notice in the proper format.
Some retailers make things simpler by providing copyright infringement reporting forms you can fill out online. If you do you need to create a notice from scratch, SFWA provides a handy DMCA notice generator that lets you fill out a form and then emails you a notice in the proper format that you can copy and paste. You’ll need to add the details of the infringement: you properly invoked the termination clause of your contract but the grace period has expired and the publisher has not removed your book from sale. State that proof is available on request (your contract with the termination clause, and the termination email you sent).
- Many re-publishing scammers use Ingram Spark to produce books, so that’s a good place to start, even if you don’t know for sure that’s where your book is being printed. Ingram Spark’s copyright infringement report form is here, and allows you to provide details of the infringement.
- Amazon’s copyright infringement report form is here. You can ignore the “Name of Brand” box (or just enter your own name). Provide the details of the infringement in the Additional Information box.
- Barnes & Noble’s infringement report process is detailed here. (Be sure to use the email address provided, not the snail mail address.)
- Walmart’s intellectual property claim form is here.
- Waterstones’ contact form is here. It’s general purpose, rather than specifically for copyright infringement.
- Book Depository’s contact form is here. Like Waterstones, it doesn’t appear to have a dedicated copyright infringement report form or policy.
- Flipkart’s infringement reporting policy is here.
- Other sites and retailers: check the Terms & Conditions, or do a websearch on [retailer name] + copyright policy, or [retailer name] + copyright agent, or [retailer name] + infringement.
7. This is just the start of the process. You’ll have to respond, and make your case, to each retailer individually. Also be aware that even if Amazon removes your book from sale, it may not take down the listing, and that even if you can get all the major retailers to stop selling your book, listings may survive on the websites of overseas retailers (where actual sales are extremely unlikely).
You may also continue to see your book listed by third party sellers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In most cases, they don’t actually have your book on hand: they are just listing ISBNs, figuring that if someone places an order, they can they try to get hold of a copy.
What if your contract doesn’t allow you to cancel at will?
Send a termination email anyway, but in this case you’ll be doing so for cause. Inform the publisher that you’re terminating as of such and such a date (again, you can terminate immediately or set your own grace period) and list the reasons why. If they’ve breached the terms of the contract, say so. Then follow the remaining steps.
You face a higher bar for success here, because the absence of the contractual ability to terminate makes it easier for the retailer to refer you back to the publisher.
What if you don’t have a contract, or had one and can’t find it?
Send a termination-for-cause email, and follow the remaining steps. (It’s worth checking the publisher’s website: a few post their contracts there, or include them in the Terms and Conditions section.)
If your contract is non-exclusive, couldn’t you just go ahead and re-publish on your own?
You could, of course.
But if you do, and an edition of your book is still available for sale from your re-publishing scammer, that puts you in competition with yourself, and can confuse potential readers. It also raises the possibility that your new edition might trigger Amazon’s plagiarism algorithms, which are meant to spot infringement but often entrap innocent books.
What about unpaid royalties?
Sometimes, non-payment can be explained by a payment threshold: for instance, your contract may say that the publisher doesn’t have to pay you unless royalties due are more than $100.
Regardless, if your re-publishing scammer has ghosted you, it probably won’t be sending you any royalties. As infuriating as that is, it’s likely that any amounts owed are small, since re-publishing scammers provide no meaningful marketing or other support whatsoever for the books they publish, which all but guarantees tiny sales, even with your own marketing efforts.
Will any of this work?
Honestly, I don’t know.
The more solid your evidence for infringement, the better your chances. I have heard from authors who had clear proof of copyright violation due to publisher breach (including not honoring termination clauses, or continuing to sell books past the contract’s expiration date) and were able to get their book listings removed from Amazon, or to get Ingram to unpublish their books.
But Amazon is notoriously hard to deal with, and although I’ve heard, anecdotally, that Ingram is more sympathetic and accessible, you may just be told to work things out with the publisher (which of course is the whole problem).
Even so, with your re-publishing scammer incommunicado and no other tools to work with, it’s at least worth a try.
If you do try this, let me know how you fare.
If you’ve signed with a small press (as opposed to a company like the ones described above) and are looking to get free for cause, there are suggestions for that here.