Not Worth the Paper it’s Written On

Wow, it’s been 6 months since my last post when I was struggling with personal issues that were sapping my time and energy. But time moves on and circumstances change, mostly for the better, except …

For a while I had been updating the release date of my first book on this site. It’s a children’s book I wrote with the help and encouragement of a writing mentor who is also an international best-selling children’s author. As the manuscript neared completion, my mentor asked if I would be interested in being published by her boutique publishing company. In the few years of its existence her company had published a number of great books by some wonderful authors. I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t?

In the past the publisher had signed authors under a traditional publishing model. When I signed up with the publisher I was told that they had a new model – one that would better benefit me, the author. For a substantial, initial outlay I would join the first ‘publishing program’, receiving 6 months of teleconference training on all aspects of publishing, alongside a group of fellow authors. At the same time my book would go through all the stages of preparation for publishing. It would be released both digitally and through bricks and mortar booksellers, with all the associated marketing and distribution you’d expect from a traditionally published book. As the books sold, I would receive higher royalties than under a traditional publishing contract. I could continue working with the mentor I had grown to like, respect and trust.

With friends and family encouraging me, I signed up.

Six months passed, and I received the training that was promised. Alarm bells rang when my mentor unexpectedly moved overseas. Contact became less frequent. The first estimated publication date came and went and I hadn’t seen a cover design. Then the second date passed. I was becoming increasingly worried. Eventually a cover turned up, and my book and others in the publishing program were released as ebooks on the publisher’s website. A couple of days later they were taken down again due to errors. More time elapsed before the books were released again, this time on Amazon in both ebook and print-on-demand versions. I kept the news quiet while I ordered a print copy. When it arrived, boy was I glad I hadn’t told anyone. The quality was awful: blurry cover image, printing to within millimetres of the page, back cover a different design to the front. The tears I shed weren’t joy at seeing my book in print for the first time, they were tears of bitter disappointment.

What brought the situation to a head was the book launch. All the authors expected a launch event similar to those the company had done in the past – glitzy affairs at the Auckland Stardome with press attending (see here for a write up by a prominent NZ book commentator of a previous launch) but it became increasingly obvious that the publisher was not planning to organize a launch event, or even to provide print books for launches we organized for ourselves.  I expressed my dissatisfaction.

The result was an email in which myself and all the other authors in the group were ‘sacked.’ The publisher refused to provide the rest of the services under the contract. She also declined to refund any of the money the authors had paid upfront, even though there were unfulfilled services (print books, author websites, and marketing collateral – not to mention the promotion and sales of the books outlined in the contracts). Contact was severed as the publisher deleted her email accounts and websites and effectively disappeared. With no other recourse, I lodged a claim with the Disputes Tribunal for a refund and was awarded the full amount claimed for. The adjudicator took only half an hour to decide there had been a simple breach of contract. I’ve never recovered a cent of what is owed.

Another disgruntled author began to investigate, learning that the publisher owed many tens of thousands of dollars to suppliers from the publication of previous books. It now appeared that there had been little chance of the publisher ever fulfilling her obligations to the group of authors who had paid to be on her publishing program.

Later in the year, a journalist got a hold of the story and two articles appeared in the largest New Zealand newspaper surrounding the collapse of the publisher. You can read the first one here and a subsequent one here. In the resulting hype and commentary, a lot of assumptions were made: the authors who joined the publishing program were naïve, didn’t do their homework, had substandard books that had been rejected by every other publisher imaginable. None of it was true. The publisher had previously released some great books that were stocked by high street book stores; she was a respected fellow author who was personally known and trusted by those who joined the program; there was no way anyone could have known about the debts – these only came to light later.  And were our books rejects? Definitely not! My book (and many of the others) have never been submitted to other publishers. Ever.

A couple of people in the literary industry who have read my book have suggested submitting it for a national award for middle grade fiction by an unpublished author, and this is what I have done. The outcome won’t be known until next year.

My brief flirtation with publishing has cost me a lot of time, money and heartache and all I have to show for it is a contract that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. If there are lessons I could share from the experience, I’m not sure what they are. Others who weren’t there, and can’t know the full circumstances, have been quicker to judge and extract conclusions, all with the benefit of hindsight. But if you personally know and trust a publisher, you’ve checked them out and can see the books they’ve published sitting on the shelves of good bookstores, and you have a signed contract stipulating both parties’ rights and obligations, then what more can you do?

The conclusion I’ve reached is that sometimes in life we have to take a chance and no matter how hard you try to mitigate the risk, things don’t always work out.

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11 thoughts on “Not Worth the Paper it’s Written On

  1. Definitely an example of where things can go wrong despite doing our homework. And, also, an example of what this contract did and didn’t let you do. For one, it couldn’t have protected you from the financial mistakes of another party.

    Yes, you can press charges in the event that one of the parties breaches the contract. No, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.

    • Those comments are completely accurate. I wish I could save other authors the same pain with some hard and fast rules they could follow but the danger is that in doing so it would cut out a number of schemes that might in fact work out very well for an author. The publishing industry is in a state of flux and there are a lot of people trying a lot of different setups. It’s hard to say what will prevail but in the meantime I suspect a lot of people are going to get burned.

  2. I am so sorry to read your sad story. All your hard work, time and money wasted by a dishonest person. That has really saddened me. Chin up and I hope things will work out. Good luck with your submission for the award.

    • Thanks! It’s hard to express just how disappointing the whole experience was, on so many levels. It has taken me the better part of the year to move on from it which I am happy to say I am now doing.

  3. I read this post with such a sinking feeling. We go into all of this with a simple hope – that our writing will touch people, that our stories will make a difference in a reader’s life. To get out there and have that opportunity we have to take chances. You did your homework, you were wise in your business dealings and yet this still happened. My heart goes out to you! I am so glad to read that you are able to put this behind you and move on. Best wishes and thank you so much for sharing your experience.

    • Hi there Francis! Believe it or not you are a part of this story! I had to estimate for the courts what I felt they should award me as a refund, and I knew you had a good experience with the business that published your book, so I looked up your blog, and from that their website, and used their costs as the basis for my claim.

  4. Pingback: Happy Endings | Diary of a Novel

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