When publishing relationships go bad, the writing was often on the wall long before the author signed on the dotted line. Perhaps there were nonstandard business practices, such as a hidden fee or a book purchase requirement. Or there might have been a large body of author complaints, easily found by doing a basic websearch. Maybe there was an association with an unsavory parent company, or a name change to escape bad press. Or the publisher may simply may have been too new to have proven itself--a major risk for small-press writers, given the high attrition rate for new small publishers, especially if the owners don't have a professional writing or publishing background.
Other times, though, those obvious red flags aren't there, or, if they are, they're offset by apparent mitigating factors. Either way, the real problems don't become clear until after the contract has been signed, and it's too late for second thoughts.
That's what Rhonda Frost says happened to her and her daughter/co-author, Shanae Hall.
Frost and Hall found their publisher--Farrah Gray Publishing, an imprint of well-established Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher Health Communications Inc.--serendipitously, through a series of chance encounters. When "the call" came,
We listened and waited for the offer of a royalty advance, [but] there was none. We jumped for joy nonetheless, we were about to be published authors! This was a dream come true.It wasn't long, though, before things started to go wrong. According to Frost, she and Hall never received a properly executed contract. Requests to the publisher to sign and send one went unanswered. Then, a few months before the publication date,
this Publisher would call and ask us for 100K to market and publish our book....We were taken aback. He told us, if we didn't, he wouldn't be able to get us "programs" or otherwise market our book.This despite the fact that the contract--which I've seen, and which is nonstandard in several respects, including a life-of-copyright rights grant with no provision for reversion by the author--includes no specific mention of publicity or marketing fees due from the authors. (For regular readers of this blog, I hardly need to say that expecting writers to pay for their publisher's marketing efforts is not exactly typical practice in the trade publishing world.)
Frost and Hall couldn't pay the $100,000, and told FGP so. Nevertheless, publication proceeded, and their book, Why Do I Have to Think Like a Man? appeared in October 2010. Then came the first royalty statement--which, Frost told me, showed that $33,000 in royalties had been withheld to pay for publicity, and that she and Hall owed FGP an additional $66,000 in marketing expenses. When Frost and Hall challenged the charges, FGP sent them a bill for $93,230 (I've seen the bill; you can see it too, along with other supporting documents), listing such publicity strategies as Twitter tweets and Facebook updates, but failing to supply any details of the marketing campaigns or any breakdown of individual costs. A subsequent payment demand by FGP in June (which I've also seen) upped the amount due to $78,320, and threatened litigation if Frost and Hall didn't pay.
Frost and Hall also have questions about their royalties, since, according to Frost, "we can't seem to get accurate statements from FGP. We have no idea how many ebooks we have sold, or what our numbers actually are."
As a result of all this, Frost and Hall are taking legal action. They've filed suit against FGP for fraud and breach of contract in Los Angeles County Superior Court, and have subpoenaed sales records from HCI. FGP, meanwhile, continues to publish. Its latest is a memoir from CNN anchor Don Lemon.
At the end of Frost's blog post, there's a series of red flags and suggestions for new authors, all offered in hindsight. Good advice--but was there anything Frost and Hall could have done differently, going in? There were warning signs--no advance, even though FGP is an imprint of a large commercial publisher; FGP's newness (Frost's and Hall's book was only the second FGP had signed); and a nonstandard contract, with language and clauses an experienced literary agent would certainly have questioned. But Frost and Hall were new to publishing, and had no real literary agent to advise them--and even if they had, there was no way for them to anticipate the gigantic marketing fee, since the contract made no mention of it. And then, of course, there was the HCI name. Surely, reason to trust that their book would be in good hands.
That's the hard truth of publishing: in the end, and with every possible precaution, what looks like a duck will sometimes turn out to be a turkey.