Friday, March 28, 2014

The Short Life and Strange Death of Entranced Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

When Entranced Publishing (its website is now gone, but a recent archived version can be seen here) opened to submissions in 2012, it looked like a promising small press, with a number of imprints, a sizeable staff, and a commitment not to churn out books, author-mill style.

However promising-seeming, though, authors always need to be wary of brand-new small presses, because there's such a high attrition rate for such ventures. Even if the staff are very experienced (which often isn't the case in the small press world), it's wise to watch and wait until the press has been publishing books for at least a year. This demonstrates some stability; it also makes it possible to evaluate things like quality and marketing. And--just as important--it allows time for problems and complaints, if any, to surface.

In the case of Entranced, that caution would have served authors well.

Entranced planned to start publishing in 2013, and its first books came out around April of that year, with attractive covers and decent sales rankings. The company drew the interest of reputable agents, a number of whom placed authors with Entranced. From the outside, things looked pretty good.

But inside the company, trouble was brewing.* In the summer of 2013, editors began leaving, citing lack of payment and general unprofessionalism. Orphaned books were left to languish, with no new editors assigned. Authors didn't receive marketing support; books weren't getting contractually-promised ISBNs or making it into the promised distribution channels. Authors were discovering major mistakes and formatting errors in published books.

And then there were the money problems. Bounced echecks. Late and missing royalty statements. In many cases, no payments at all--either of author royalties or staff fees.

To authors' increasingly anxious questions about the missing money, Entranced's owner, Ashley Christman, offered various excuses. She was out of the country and having bank troubles. Vendors were late with their own payments. The contract's 45-day payment window actually meant 45 business days. She was sick and hadn't been able to tend to business affairs. According to authors, she always had an explanation...but the money never arrived.

Then, on March 10, 2014, authors were stunned by this announcement from Christman:
As many of you know, I’ve been dealing with a prolonged personal illness. This illness has not been easy and is not going to resolve anytime soon. These next few months will involve therapy for me and require me to devote my focus on getting better. I’ve known for a while that this is not an illness that one can overcome overnight and as such began the search to find a new publisher for Entranced.

As of 1030AM CST today, I am no longer the owner or publisher of Entranced Publishing.

The new owner, Robert Oknik, comes from a background in contract law specializing in publishing. He has previously worked for Meredith Media in addition to a number of other companies. I have no doubt that he is what’s best for Entranced.
Christman supplied no other info about the new owner, and neither she nor Entranced staff would answer questions about his background or experience. Doing their own research, authors discovered that, apart from a skeleton profile on Google+, Oknik had no web presence whatsoever--quite surprising for someone who'd worked for a firm as prominent as Meredith. Putting this together with the continued problems and lack of communication, some authors began to wonder whether Oknik existed at all.** Had the supposed sale of the company been just another smokescreen?

On March 18, Entranced authors received an email from their new publisher:
Let me explain a little bit about how I'm prioritizing things: My initial goal is to go through author and staff accounts and make sure those are tied up and taken care of. After that, I want to look at other avenues of revenue, any reorganization, and re-branding, etc.

For now, releases will still be moving forward on their release dates. I will handle those temporarily while I learn the process from Ashley....Please bear with me and realize that none of these things will happen overnight. I'm still settling in and learning things.
Not surprisingly, authors' fears weren't much assuaged by this vague message. Some continued to ask questions; others requested reversion of their rights. By this point, also, I was looking into Entranced. I sent an inquiry to Oknik, requesting his comments on the reported problems and asking what he planned to do to fix them.

A company in disarray; unruly authors; curious watchdog. Apparently it all became too much. On March 24, authors received another bombshell, in the form of this terse message from Oknik***:
To our Authors,

Today, I regret to inform you that a decision has been made that Entranced Publishing will be exiting the publishing business.

We are not insolvent, we are not going bankrupt, we simply have decided that we no longer wish to be in the business and therefore we will be exiting this business in a professional, orderly fashion.

Over the next 30 days, we will remove all books for sale through all sales channels.

We will compile finalized statements for all titles and pay all royalties owed once all vendor payments have been collected. We anticipate that this could be as soon as June, but we do not completely control third party sales.

This means that your rights will automatically revert to you per your contracts and at the end of the thirty day period. If after this period you still find your title available, please email me and I will promptly have it removed. If your title has yet to be released, this reversion is immediate.

I wish to thank all of you who have been good partners with us and wish everyone nothing but the best.

Regards,
Bob
And just like that, Entranced was dead, less than a year after releasing its first books.

While I don't think authors should be holding their breath for the promised royalty payments, I'm glad to report that Entranced seems to be fulfilling its promise to issue reversion letters, and that, as of this writing, most Entranced books have been removed from retailers' websites. It sounds awful to say it, but in situations like this, that's about the best result that can be hoped for. Many small presses not only take their authors' money with them when they go, they fail to relinquish rights as well.

So what really happened here? Is the story of Entranced a sadly familiar tale of a well-intentioned but inexperienced publisher who got in over her head, began to lie to get authors and creditors off her back, and eventually decided to cut her losses and run?

Or, as many Entranced authors are convinced, was something more sinister going on? Authors tell me that Entranced's street address and phone number seem to have been fake, and point out that Christman seems to be trying to delete herself from the web: her Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook accounts are gone, and she is reportedly now calling herself Ashley Michele. Entranced also seems to be erasing itself, though for the moment, a Tumblr and a Pinterest page are still live.

I doubt we'll ever know for sure. In the meantime, Entranced is a useful object lesson on the risks of the small press market--and on the wisdom of letting a publisher mature before trusting it with one's intellectual property. No comfort, I know, to the authors who were exploited by this publisher, and then so callously kicked to the curb.

*************

* The information in this post comes from the reports of Entranced authors and staff who contacted me directly, and also from the Entranced discussion thread at the Absolute Write Water Cooler.

** Does Robert Oknik exist? Christman appears to have lied about a lot of things in order to get out from under her troubles at Entranced, so it's certainly plausible that she made him up too. Sleuthing by Entranced authors further suggests this. Here's Robert (Bob) Oknik's Google+ profile...


...but his picture is identical to one on Facebook for a man named Robert Mate...


...who is currently a Senior Student Support Specialist at Purdue University (if you click on his name on this list you can see his photo, which matches both the photos above)...

...and while there's no trace of a connection between Robert Oknik and Meredith, the company where Ashley Christman said he worked, there is a connection between Meredith and Robert Mate...

...but that Robert Mate, who is currently CEO of a company called Tabbed Media, is not the same Robert Mate who works at Purdue and whose image appears in "Bob Oknik's" Google+ profile.

Confused yet?

*** I can't quite find the words to express how unprofessional--and cruel--I think this message is. First the bombshell: we're closing. Then the "screw you": we aren't in trouble, we're just bored with book publishing, so we're packing up our toys and going home. And finally, the brushoff: Thanks, losers! See ya! No apology for running the company into the ground; no acknowledgment of the devastating impact Entranced's death spiral has had on its authors. Disgusting.

24 comments:

Karen Sandler said...

Thanks for posting this, Victoria. So many writers are obsessed with that magical idea of being published, so grateful for the opportunity a new small press can offer, they just can't wait to submit their manuscript. But there's so much more to a viable career as an author than finding a publisher that says yes. The wrong "yes" can be worse than a "no."

Anonymous said...

Can I add that the sale announcement was made via a Facebook group for Entranced authors that several authors were repeatedly denied admittance to? And that the closing announcement was made via a Google Group that, again, many authors were denied entrance to? Neither of these were communicated directly to all authors/staff.

Linda Carroll-Bradd said...

I appreciate having more of the facts and a timeline of events. I had one release with Entranced but was part of the group that never received direct communication from the publisher, which in my mind is unprofessional.

Anonymous said...

It did seem like a lot of the staff had no idea either as they had questions too that went unanswered. Just so it doesn't seem like they were misleading authors.

Heather said...

I was also an editor and author with Entranced, and our questions to Ashley/Bob went unanswered. It was frustrating not to be able to tell my authors what was happening, and was just as sad to see my own book go off the market. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Have a lawyer send a subpoena to Google or any other social media site that were created by the old owner and new. Compare subscriber information for the accounts to determine if the IP address connections are from the same address. Same address, high probability of the same person (new owner being fake).

Tiffany Johnson said...

I was a senior editor with Entranced for ten months and wasn't paid a dime for the five books I edited, and I would bet that none of my lovely and talented four authors were paid any of their royalties either. "Bob" did not tell the staff that Entranced was closing, and the only way I found out was through two of my panicked authors.

When I joined, the company had a great reputation and a promising future. What a disappointment for all of us, but most especially for the authors! I do want to vouch for the staff, however, none of whom had any idea about anything. This is all in Ashley's hands; the staff was left more in the dark than anyone, it seems. I'm actually glad to be able to read this article and now feel like I finally know what's going on and can give my (ex)authors some answers!

Heather said...

Right there with you, Tiffany. I worked there for 12 months and never received a check, although I assumed it was because I'd opted not to be paid through Paypal and there was a threshold to cross. I knew nothing of Ashley's doings and felt so bad for my authors.

T C Mckee said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Suzannah said...

I regret trusting this woman Ashley and Entranced Publishing. I am a professional graphic designer and I got stung like all the staff at Entranced for not getting paid for our hard work. I feel bad for all the authors and us the staff who trusted This publisher. A lesson learned the hard way.

Victoria Strauss said...

I deleted the comment from T C Mckee because it amounted to a recruitment effort for another small press. Well-meant, I'm sure, but not appropriate in this context.

I appreciate the comments from Entranced editors and designers. I know you were kept in the dark, just like the authors. One of the things that many of the authors who contacted me said was that they loved their editors and cover artists. You're victims in this mess too.

Maria said...

I'm stunned to read comments of people who worked for this publisher for 10-12 months without getting paid. I'm sure if the authors knew their editors were not getting paid, they might have been less enthused about signing contracts.

SM Johnston said...

I was the marketing director briefly. I left for a number of reasons, including what I was promised in the role not eventuating. I felt like my efforts were blocked regularly and that I wasn't given the support I was promised. I signed up to be setting the strategic direction for marketing and ended up feeling a bit like a Girl Friday in publicity. Turns out my pay for the first two months work (which I haven't been paid for) was less than what I make in an hour at my day job.

I was offered on my book prior to taking up the position as MD. I felt like my publicist was doing her best with some poor decisions around when to release my book. What I didn't know was that she also had received no pay and how could I expect her to be enthusiastic about her role when she had worked for more than 6 months with no compensation, and was unlikely to see a red cent from my sales either.

She left and no new publicist was assigned to me. My book never reached all the platforms I was promised and my support post launch was really really low.

I have received no money from Entranced as an employee or as a writer.

I don't blame any of the staff for what happened. I hope they know and understand that I appreciate the efforts they went to when they were getting no money for their work.

I feel for anyone new coming into publishing. I put my faith in Entranced as I thought it would be like Entangled and grow. But you need the right person at the helm.

Anonymous said...

One thing to remember about some of the staff that worked for several months with no pay is that no one expected royalties before the books were released. No books were released before Spring 2013. But editing and such began several months before release. So the editors for those early releases had no reason to suspect pay issues for several months.
I was an Entranced author, not an editor, but I know some of the original editors had no reason to expect money before late summer (the pay date for the first Quarter that Entranced had books for sale) and at that point they'd already edited multiple books over a period of several months. That was when we started seeing lots of staff resign.

Vincent Morrone said...

Hi, my name is Vincent and I'm an ex Entrancie. (Feels like an AA meeting)

When I first came on board, I was thrilled with the professionalism of those who I had contact with. The managing editor, my personal editor and many of the other authors were and in fact continue to be the best there is. I want that made very clear. Many of us would be thrilled to work with the staff. When the person in charge on my blog tour was getting ready to leave, she made sure she took care of me and did everything I needed for the blog tour. I had no idea at the time that she hadn't been paid.

It makes zero sense, btw that someone would buy an Ebook publishing company and then turn around and decide not to publish ebooks. What does the person get out of the deal? No office space or equipment.

Last but not least, I think I speak for all former Entranced peeps when I say that as bad as things got and as suddenly as they ended, I forever grateful that I've connected with such wonderfully talented and amazing people.

Anonymous said...

I worked as an editor for Entranced and I can say the whole thing was poorly set up from the beginning. At first I figured it was just growing pains. However, I had trouble keeping in touch with the authors assigned to me because emails went missing, dates were changed and it was impossible to actually understand the database we were supposed to be using to keep track of things.

I, for one, don't believe Bob exists.

Laura Toeniskoetter said...

I was a publicist for a few months with them, and I left because I realized it was only a matter of time. It was very hard to set up anything for authors because no one knew who we were.

While the people in the marketing department were all fantastic, I don't think any of us really knew what we were supposed to do in this new company. Every company is different.

The higher up you went for clarification on anything, the cloudier it all became. So sad that no one is receiving payment for the hard work they put into this company.

misty Williams said...

I was a publicist for Entranced for 6 months and never received anything. I worked with many of the authors and share their frustration. It made it worse because I couldn't answer their questions when I couldn't get answers myself.

Communication with Staff and Authors was not professional and lacking. Learning the company was closing via email, I have no words to express the dread I felt for the Authors and Staff when I read the email.

chris said...

I hold the staff completely blameless in this fiasco. They were up and above board and willing to really make a successful launch of this tiny house. So many things started out so right but ended up so wrong. I had high hopes for Entranced because it looked so promising from the start. I feel deeply for the staff and authors

Chris--grand prize winner of the contest who declined early on.

Anonymous said...

As one of the victims (an author), I have to add my comment that the staff was beyond wonderful in every way. I personally never dealt with the owner (I prefer not to mention names), and at this point consider myself lucky.

I did all the right things when I signed with Entranced: I had my lawyer check my contract, I checked all the industry sites (Publishers Marketplace, this site, and many, many more) and was sure Entranced was an up and coming publisher. We were all fooled by someone who's only real vocation was as an exceptional con.

I've met wonderful people and am preparing to publish and re-release my book(s) independently. I'll be working with many of the extraordinarily professional, kind, generous staff I worked with as an Entranced author, and I will not let the perpetrator behind this drag me into the sewer with them. Karma and my own success will be all the justice I need.

Jennifer at WriteKidsBooks said...

It is heart-warming that, in the midst of such scummy business, so many people here are speaking up for (and from!) the staff of the company. I truly believe the staff were excellent, and just as messed-up as the writers were by one woman's shady business dealings. Hope she's never able to take advantage of anyone else again.

Tucker McCallahan said...

I have to say, when I saw this article, I cackled like a sick crow. I was approached by Ashley to be the acquisitions editor for Entranced and after several brief email communications that raised *great big red flags* I went running for the hills. For example... She emailed me in 2012 that she intended to take on a staff of nearly 20 people, but only planned to publish 4 books in 2013. That red flag was the size of Greenland. I remember asking her, "You do realize each of your books will have to sell a minimum of 4000 copies for you to just break even and pay everyone? And the average author sells between 500-1000 copies?" She told me she was "confident in her business model." Boy, am I glad I said NO THANKS! My heart goes out to the staff and authors whose time and energy was misplaced. Do not consider it wasted; use this as a valuable experience and charge forward, bigger and better.

Be Well,
Tucker McCallahan
EIC for RFP 2012-2014

Stephanie Golden said...

I'm surprised that so many staff did work on the expectation of being paid months later in royalties. After many years in the publishing industry as both an editor and writer for hire, I've learned never to count on royalties. Always get paid for your time: royalties are gravy. And if a company isn't capitalized well enough at the start to pay staff for ongoing work, that's another big red flag.

Starla Huchton said...

So, I had a bit of insider info on Entranced, which made me leery of them in the first place, but I can't vouch for what I heard about the founder and her reasons for starting up Entranced so I won't repeat it.

What I do know is that when they put out a call for graphic designers, I sent an inquiry. A week later I got a reply giving me the info on what they paid for covers ($15 per cover + a % of royalties) and if I was interested to let them know. I don't think I stopped laughing for a week over the paltry payment. I didn't even reply. ONE MONTH LATER, I got a contract from them, as though they just assumed I was on board with it I guess. The contract was easily one of the shoddiest documents I've been asked to sign, and didn't so much as outline responsibility of who paid for stock elements, what rights they wanted (or if I was allowed to display the work in my portfolio), and they couldn't even be bothered to include the correct dates on the contract (they had it as March and this was sometime in summer). I sent an email asking for clarification, figuring if nothing else my questions would prompt some sort of revision of the contract for the person after me. Nope. I got an email saying "oh, it's this and this and this". No new contract outlining these things or anything. It was enough to tell me these people clearly had zero clue what they were doing, and, as such, my likelihood of getting paid was slim to none. As if the ridiculous payment rates weren't awful enough, I immediately felt horrible for their authors, as I could only imagine the craptastic contracts they were being given and signing.

I can't say I'm overly surprised by this news, really. I'd love to root for new small presses when they appear, but it's things like this that dash my hopes to bits. Very glad I listened to my gut on Entranced.