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

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware



THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think this guy's got the right reaction.


UPDATE: According to this press release from Inkitt, Tor has signed Erin Swan's novel:
Bright Star, the young adult novel by up-and-coming author Erin Swan, was discovered using predictive data with Inkitt’s artificially intelligent algorithms unearthing the highly-addictive book based on an analysis of reading patterns on the platform. The novel is expected to hit bookshelves in summer 2017.
Publishers Marketplace confirms:


Per the Grand Novel Contest guidelines, Inkitt appears to be claiming an agent's 15% commission. On Inkitt, Swan's work appears to be a series, and Bright Star is actually Book 2, so it's not clear to me whether Tor has bought the series or just the one book.

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

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

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UPDATE 3/3/17: In the ten or so months since I wrote this post, Inkitt doesn't seem to have placed any more manuscripts with other publishers, but it is still sending unsolicited email.

It has also ramped up its own publishing efforts. As of mid-February 2017 it had issued twelve books, according to Amazon. Its publishing contract is now posted online, helpfully annotated with plain-language explanations in little speech bubbles. Authors who are considering a publishing offer from Inkitt might, however, want to consider a few things the speech bubbles don't mention.

- The contract requires authors not just to waive their moral rights, but to assign them to Inkitt, and to the extent that they can't be assigned (as, in some countries, they can't be) to agree not to assert them "at any time". (Clause II.1.) Moral rights, which include the right of attribution and the right to the integrity of the work, are only partially recognized in the USA but are important in other countries. I'm not a lawyer, but as I understand it, this wording would prevent authors from asserting their moral rights in countries where moral rights are recognized--which could be an issue with subsidiary rights sales.

- The contract requires authors to "execute any and all documents and papers reasonably requested by Publisher to evidence the transfer of the Work´s rights to Publisher, including, but not limited to, documents and papers relating to the assignment of copyrights." (My bolding. Also Clause II.1.) Yikes. To be clear, Inkitt does not demand a copyright assignment. But if it doesn't, why is this language included? Might it also suggest that Inkitt is willing to negotiate a subsidiary rights deal that does demand copyright assignment? (The contract claims just about every subright in existence.)

- The contract gives Inkitt first refusal on works in the same series, but binds the author to "the same conditions as the ones established herein for the first work." (Clause II.3.) This is great for Inkitt if a series takes off. It's not so great for the author, who under other circumstances could use a previous book's success to negotiate a better deal.

- Per Clause XV, the term of the contract is 15 years (a bit confusing, since Clause II takes rights for the life of copyright--but let's assume the 15-year provision prevails.) That is super-long for a digitally-based small press. Authors do have the right to terminate if Inkitt fails to sell 1,000 books within the first year of publication--but if sales exceed 1,000, the author is on the hook for the full 15. Again, this is great for Inkitt, because it gets to hold rights for a really long time, even if the book in question is selling in tiny quantities (low-selling books can be profitable if the publisher has a large enough catalog); but possibly not terrific for authors, who, once sales decline, are usually better off reverting their rights and exploiting them on their own.

- Royalties for Inkitt-published books are 25% of net (a drop from the 50% initially promised). (Clause X.) Inkitt also promises to "allocate a minimum of six thousand (6,000) dollars marketing budget into the Work for an initial marketing test". (Clause VIII.2.) Authors should be aware that editing and design costs are considered part of this budget, per a post from Inkitt founder Ali Albazaz in this discussion thread.


There are other issues, including an overly broad non-competition clause, but these are the highlights.

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UPDATE 3/24/17: I spoke today with Ali Albazaz, Inkitt's owner. We talked about Inkitt's business model, and agreed to continue to disagree on whether technology and Big Data can make the process of discovering new authors more efficient and less subjective, or whether, by publishing novels selected by algorithm, Inkitt is really doing anything to revolutionize the basic process of selecting and publishing books.

I asked whether, given the company's active publishing program, they plan to continue trying to make deals with traditional publishers. Ali indicated that they are now focusing more on publishing (though the website still presents Inkitt as an "agent"). He also told me that he is seeking wider (offline) distribution for Inkitt-published books, including bookstore shelf presence. My impression is that he is genuinely committed to supporting the books and authors he publishes.

We discussed some of the issues I raised in this post. Ali will be consulting with Inkitt's lawyer about the contract clauses I flagged above (I will update this post if anything changes). While I appreciate Ali's willingness to look into my concerns, I'm worried at what seemed to me like an incomplete understanding of his own contract language. I also wonder what response he'll get from his lawyer. For instance, Ali said that he was told by the lawyer that it was standard practice among Big 5 publishers to require authors to waive or agree not to assert their moral rights. It is not.

Ali also expressed concern about my (and others') criticism of Inkitt's prolific program of unsolicited emails and tweets; he said he feels this was "a mistake" and that the company plans to move away from this practice.

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UPDATE 4/25/17: In private conversation with me, Inkitt founder Ali Albazaz claimed that Inkitt is moving away from spamming as a promotional tactic. That may be true (I don't know)--but even if it is, Inkitt is still using questionable promotional methods. Namely, paying for referrals. 

Inkitt affiliates advertise Inkitt's contests on their websites or blogs, or by direct mail to their subscriber lists, using the possibility of publication as an incentive. If someone submits their book using the affiliate link, the referrer gets a small fee (between $5 and $15). 

I first heard of this program from two people who were approached to become affiliates, and I've confirmed its existence with Ali Albazaz, who says that Inkitt has signed up more than 500 "partners." Affiliate links currently lead to this page, which invites writers to submit their books and "join the circle of Inkitt's bestselling authors." On a quick spot check, most affiliates disclose their affiliate status, but not all: this one doesn't, nor does this one, which embeds repeated Inkitt affiliate links in a long article about book promotion sites. Of those that do identify themselves as affiliates, not all reveal the fee. 

I can only guess that the Inkitt folks are not aware of the seamy history of paid referrals in publishing.

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UPDATE 5/23/17: In our March conversation, Ali Albazaz informed me that he'd be consulting Inkitt's lawyer about the contract issues I've highlighted above. He emailed me on April 18 to tell me that the contract had been updated to address the issues, and to promise that I'd receive the final version "in the next few days." 

I've heard nothing since. And on a check today of Inkitt's contract page, the contract language I was concerned about, along with the incomplete and/or misleading "plain language" explanations, had not changed. 

Disappointing. 

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