Friday, September 21, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- And You Thought Kickbacks Were Just For Scammers

I had to read this article from Newsweek magazine twice before I could believe it.

According to the article, Chronicle Books, a sizeable commercial publisher, is teaming up with Blurb, a self-publishing service, in what Chronicle calls a "mutual referral deal." Chronicle, which accepts unagented submissions, will refer rejected authors to Blurb. If they buy Blurb's services, Blurb will pay Chronicle an "undisclosed cut" of the revenue.

Yes, you read that right. Blurb will pay a kickback to Chronicle for sending authors its way.

What's wrong with this picture?

Well, first of all, it's a conflict of interest. If someone can make money by recommending a service, how can you trust that the recommendation is in your best interest? This is exactly the way the Edit Ink book doctoring scam operated--agents and publishers sent rejected writers to Edit Ink in exchange for a percentage of whatever the writer wound up paying for (overpriced, unskilled) editing. The agents and editors who profited from Edit Ink referrals didn't reveal the relationship, nor did Edit Ink. Will Chronicle inform the writers it sends to Blurb that it gets a cut of what they spend? Will Blurb let writers know it paid to get their business?

Secondly, Blurb is among the most expensive of the self-publishing services. The book-creation software is free; it's when you order books that things get costly. The justification for this is that Blurb's books are "bookstore quality," which, let's face it, books from self-pub services aren't always. Still, if Chronicle is going to send writers to a pay-to-publish company, wouldn't it have been kinder to pick a cheaper one?

Last but not least--Chronicle's referrals to Blurb will come with the weight and reputation of an established commercial publisher behind them. A reputable publisher won't tell you to do something that's not in your best interest, right? It's likely, therefore, that authors will take the recommendation seriously. This is bad enough for books that aren't publishable. But what about the books that don't fit Chronicle's list, but might be a good match for another reputable publisher? What if those books get sidelined into Blurb? Again, Chronicle will not be doing authors any favors.

(Note that I don't intend to imply that Blurb is in any way disreputable. But it's a self-publishing service, with all the limitations that implies. Great for some books in certain circumstances. Not so great for most.)

So what about the "mutual" in "mutual referral deal?" According to Sarah Williams, Chronicle's executive director of business development (quoted in the article), the program will provide "an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us." Note the use of "might." Even if she's serious, the resemblance to Edit Ink is again uncanny. Agents and publishers who made Edit Ink referrals promised to reconsider manuscripts once they were edited--which of course increased writers' motivation to buy Edit Ink's services (in most cases, the promise was a lie). Also, not for nothin', but haven't we gotten past the whole farm team thing? I thought that idea died back around the turn of the century, when Random House acquired a stake in Xlibris.

And speaking of Xlibris...some of you may remember the trouble it got into a few years ago, when it contacted agents and editors with an offer of a 10% kickback for each rejected author who purchased Xlibris's services ("Now find out how your slush pile can actually become a source of revenue," the letter said). Uproar ensued (back then, the Edit Ink scandal was fresher in people's minds), Xlibris hastily backtracked, and the program got the kibosh.

Chronicle, Chronicle. You've got a great publishing program--in fact, you published one of my very favorite books of the past few years. I'm really disappointed in you.

28 comments:

'drew said...

This is annoying news, and I hope not a trend. It bothers me because it suggests that Chronicle, while accepting unagented slush, is generally acting under the assumption that those writers are amateurs and dabblers. The type of writers more likely to self-publish, just to see their work in print.

When we make submissions to legitimate agents and publishers, we're proposing a business relationship. It's unprofessional to reply to that kind of proposal with a pitch for a service to sell. If I had been shopping for a self-publisher, then I'd already be looking for one that fits my needs. If I'm out looking for a business partner, someone who will benefit from my book as much as I will benefit from their publishing house, then I'd be a little resentful at the suggestion that, after one rejection, I should head for Blurb.

Anonymous said...

That's at least one publisher I won't be querying. A stunt like that means they don't deserve even the slightest amount of my time.

Gregory Ludwig said...

There's one important difference between the likes of Edit Ink and this Chronicle/Blurb arrangement. Edit Ink did not make its kickback structure publicly known. That was part of its fraud. Some were taken in by Edit Ink (I received some of its mail in about 1996 and thought it looked cheesy), and others weren't. (For those unfamiliar with the Edit Ink mess, see writer Matthew Warner's website on it--I don't have the URL.) In Chronicle's case, the arrangement with Blurb is in the open (see Newsweek article), and there is no issue of fraud. Recipe: take the relative pig of the business model; add the lipstick of openness about what's being done, with references to the new opportunities and challenges posed by the Internet, and bingo! Business legitimacy.

freddie said...

This is disappointing, to say the least. Thank God I read it here first.

Judy Thomas said...

Thanks for the heads-up on this. It's good to have a place to come for warnings.

janeyolen said...

I am astonished, appalled, and any other A words you can think of, and that's just starting on the alphabet of shame.

Jane Yolen

Victoria Strauss said...

I'm appalled too, Jane, and the more I think about it, the more appalled I am.

It was the negative public response to its kickback plan that caused Xlibris to re-think it. I urge everyone who is disturbed by what Chronicle is planning to do to blog about it, link to this post--whatever it takes to get the word out.

Christine Lorang said...

I've bought books from Chronicle in the past. Well, I won't be buying any from now on. And I'm writing a letter to tell them so.

Gregory Ludwig said...

As I read the Newsweek article, it would seem that authors who are referred to Blurb are told they are being sent to a self-publishing firm, and perhaps they are told about the "kickback" element. Anyway, as I said earlier, since it is public knowledge with the announcement in Newsweek, it is not fraud in the Edit Ink sense. Also, Victoria notes the way the imprimatur of a name-brand publisher affects the arrangement; I would suggest that it doesn't seem Chronicle would dupe naive, undeveloped writers into buying publication for downright unpublishable work in a self-publishing arrangement. Rather, it seems Chronicle would not refer *everyone* to this arrangement but just those with more promise, if not enough promise (or market-adaptability) for Chronicle to publish them. It would hurt Chronicle to refer grossly unpublishable work (Edit Ink, on the other hand, made promises to bad writers--see Matt Warner website), so there is some incentive for Chronicle to be at least somewhat honorable about who they refer. Not that I am fully approving of this arrangement.

To me what is more interesting is how the African American writer is listed first as a good candidate for this--going to show that this is all about assessing risk, and especially measuring potential market size. Really, assessing likely return on investment is what many big publishers are doing, but here the attention to risk is just more obvious and rather crassly linked to a mechanism to earn a few bucks for Chronicle and Blurb.

bjh said...

If it looks like a scam, waddles like a scam, quacks like a scam...

Public notice or not, writers "with promise" promises or not, Chronicle has found another line of profit that follows in the footsteps of scammers. Both Chronicle and Blurb may have sound reputations, but they have both seriously damaged them.

And Chronicle will find themselves sending more and more writers Blurb's way; it's inevitable, no matter what their intentions are now. It's revenue, and they will increase it. You simply don't take that first step - but they did. It's a shame.

Victoria Strauss said...

Gregory Ludwig said,

Rather, it seems Chronicle would not refer *everyone* to this arrangement but just those with more promise, if not enough promise (or market-adaptability) for Chronicle to publish them. It would hurt Chronicle to refer grossly unpublishable work (Edit Ink, on the other hand, made promises to bad writers--see Matt Warner website), so there is some incentive for Chronicle to be at least somewhat honorable about who they refer.

Greg, if Chronicle did pick and choose the people it referred to Blurb, it should be just the opposite to what you're suggesting. The publishable work is what shouldn't be sent to Blurb. Self-publishing can work in some circumstances, or for people who don't care about commercial success, but for most writers it's an expensive recipe for obscurity. Authors with marketable books that might get a publication offer if only they continued to submit are the ones worst served by a referral to a self-pub service.

I don't think there's any nefarious intent involved here, on either side. I just think that Chronicle hasn't fully thought through the ethical implications of the program. Hopefully they'll reconsider--especially if bloggers and people in the industry really get talking about this. Can we all please summon up some of the passion we vented on the Sobol Award? IMO, this is a much worse precedent.

Samuel Tinianow said...

This would be much less of a problem for me if Chronicle weren't taking a kickback. That's what shows that they're not doing it out of goodwill to writers, but out of the desire to ease their own profit margin.

Like the Sobol Award, all Chronicle would have to do to stop my out-and-out disapproval would be to remove that one malicious element (the "must sign" clause in Sobol's case, the kickback here). Which they undoubtedly won't. As long as there's that conflict of interest, I'll call it a scam whether they're honest about it or not.

Anonymous said...

I hope someone writes to the Newsweek reporter to set 'em straight about the scam angle on this devil's deal.

AND to that poor writer who's blown a fortune getting a book in print.

This is just sickening.

Gregory Ludwig said...

Victoria (re your Sept. 24 10:06 a.m. entry):
I don't disagree that this Chronicle/Blurb arrangement is not especially great. For just one thing, the potential for Chronicle to be seen as in a conflict of interest with the "kickbacks" (since in conflicts of interest, the perception counts as much as the actual reality) is a problem. And I personally wouldn't go for this arrangement (accepting a referral to Blurb). But one problem with your analysis is that just because a work is "publishable" in and of itself doesn't mean it's marketable--i.e., likely to bring in sales. This seems to be the logic behind Chronicle's talking about an African American market. There could be some Ralph Ellisons writing about some African American issues who submit to Chronicle or others, yet the audience will be small at first till the writer has a solid book-buying constituency. It's the same logic as behind some agents' saying they won't take on a nonfiction writer unless that person already has a platform.

Austin said...

What does a person's skin colour matter, as long as they're a great writer? Are black people only supposed to read books like those that "Zane" writes? Are they only supposed to read Malcolm X and Huey Newton?

Not only do they have to make a dodgy deal with a self-publishing firm, but now they've admitted that they take race into consideration when deciding whether to publish an author. Both racist and scammers. Well, these guys won't be getting any purchases from me...

Samuel Tinianow said...

I think gregory is referring to the fact that, discomforting though it is, African American demographics don't buy many books.

While the numbers speak to this, though, I'm inclined to believe that it's something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most publishers, based on the idea that black people don't read, don't publish books that are of interest to the black population, and they don't seem interested in trying to change that.

The fallacy here becomes evident in the success of the urban fiction genre, especially authors like Vikki Stringer and Sister Souljah. Jabari Asim's The N Word is a more literary example.

And besides, the fact that any market is relatively small doesn't stop publishers. Science fiction is a small market, you just wouldn't know it because the pros in the field have made themselves experts on how to put it out there. If a publisher thinks a manuscript is publishable, but isn't sure about the size of the market, they can publish it as a B, C, or D-list book in their catalog to test the waters.

The problem is that most publishers would rather sit back and click their teeth over how hard it is to market to African Americans that to buck up and actually do it. Which is descriptive of many elements of race relations in America right now, really.

In any case, Chronicle still fails the legitimacy test on this one.

Austin said...

Samuel -

You still have to admit that that view on publishing Black-interest literature is still pretty racist...

jamiehall said...

Basically, there are going to be three harmful lines of thought that will be caused by this:

1) A legitimate publisher has referred me to this other service. Of course this other service must be good!

2) OMG a legitimate publisher thinks I'm so bad that my only hope is a vanity press. Maybe my writing is total crap and I should just give up right now!

3) Maybe this is Chronicle's way of telling me that my work might be good enough but they want to test it first. Let's shell out the cash and see if I can pass the test!

All of these concepts are quite damaging to authors, especially #3 since it is probably a tease (though occasionally a new author might be selected that way, just to keep the wheels greased by more hopefuls).

--E said...

There is no iteration of this that isn't harmful to the clueless nor pointless to the informed.

If you are with clue, you will never accept Chronicle's recommendation; I doubt any regular readers of Writer Beware would give it a second thought.

If you are without clue, you will likely believe the authority attached to a recommendation from a real publisher--the folks at Chronicle must know what they're talking about, right?

Which leads to the clueless (a) self-publishing when they almost certainly shouldn't, and (b) overpaying for that priviledge.

This is despicable. The bean-counters at Chronicle need to be shot with the Clue Gun, or at the very least clobbered with the Frame of the Big Picture.

Samuel Tinianow said...

Austin-

Oh, it's absolutely racist. People don't realize that it is, because it's an "I'm Not Racist But..." form for racism, the kind of inertial discrimination that happens because people don't think about the way they do things and aren't interested in doing so.

It seems that, like most publishers and booksellers right now, Chronicle would rather avoid risk-taking and continue to slowly go the way of the dodo. It's probable that their willingness to resort to taking shifty kickbacks is a symptom of that same laziness; it's easier to play on the gullibility of inexperienced writers than to expend efforts on maybe actually accomplishing something positive.

~Nancy said...

Linked to post and blogged about it this morning.

I don't think Chronicle or Blurb are nefarious about this, but I think, like Victoria, they didn't think this all the way through.

~jerseygirl

Deb said...

Yet another way to make sure money flows from the author, rather than the right direction: TO the author.

If I want to self-pub my stuff, I certainly don't need Chronicle's or anyone else's imprimatur to do so.

T2

Garrett said...

I'm a new reader here and have been going through some of the recent posts to get a little acclimated, and I want to extend my gratitude that you're doing what you're doing.

I don't think that I can add a lot to the conversation that's been taking place, as a lot has already been covered, but needless to say this entire ploy by Chronicle smells really bad, and it's offensive to me because, assuming my writing gets finished, I'm more or less a member of exactly the kind of naive, beginner's demographic that this is specifically designed to take advantage of.

I assume (hope) Chronicle will get wind of this kind of discontent, and do what it can to save face in the situation (at least remove the kickback), but in the event that they don't, color me somewhat more jaded.

Thanks again, btw. I'm really enjoying everything here.

April said...

Drew said..."unagented slush" I hope he did not mean to infer that all unagented material is slush. I hope he was using those words more to describe Chronicle than anyone else.

I will add Chronicle to my list of publisher to NOT query. Good to know, even though it sucks. It seems pretty unfair, and everyone seems to win - except for the author.

bjh said...

April - Slush is simply the term for unagented ot over-the-transom manuscripts. There's nothing derogatory in it. And you're right about "except the author". Sigh. When even the legit ones go bad...

Joseph Ternes said...

The information in the Newsweek article was incorrect. Chronicle Books will not receive a referral fee for recommending Blurb.com to aspiring authors or artists.

Just as from time to time our editors refer authors or artists to other trade houses, Blurb.com presents another option if they consider it an appropriate choice. This option will not be part of our response to every author submissions. There are many self-publishing options in the marketplace, though far fewer for illustrated book authors and artists. As an independent illustrated book publisher in San Francisco, Chronicle Books felt an affinity for the locally based Blurb.com and the quality of the product it is offering the public.

Chronicle Books

Victoria Strauss said...

Mr. Ternes, thanks so much for your comment. I'm relieved to know that the Newsweek article was in error and that Chronicle won't be accepting referral fees from Blurb--and also that a Blurb referral won't be a standard part of Chronicle's response to rejected authors.

Thanks again.

Anis said...

thanks for the heads up. Thought they were a reputable company, but with this up their sleeve you've got to wonder.

Staggering if you consider how much money they stand to make through the deal. Say they get $100per recommendation. If they tab up only 100 a year that's $10,000 easy cash.

Of course they will wind up losing out in the end as good authors will gradually veer away from Chronicle.