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April 25, 2018

Author Complaints Mount at Curiosity Quills Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I first started hearing about Curiosity Quills Press in 2016, because of its unusual early termination fees. Not that early termination fees themselves are unusual (unfortunately): I see them fairly often in contracts I'm asked to evaluate (and they are always a red flag; here's why).

What makes CQ's fees unusual is that they're part of an annual event. This is outlined on CQ's website, and also in its contract:


On the surface this may seem like a publisher being flexible and author-friendly--a get-out-of-jail-if-not-exactly-free procedure that authors can follow in a guaranteed and orderly manner. In fact, such provisions often work to the detriment of both authors and publishers--publishers because escape clauses may incentivize early departure, including by authors they'd rather keep; and authors because the costs can be enormous (not to mention unverifiable, if the publisher charges a flat fee or provides no supporting invoices). Plus, publishers can and do abuse termination fees--for instance, by terminating the contracts of writers who've pissed them off and demanding the fee even though termination wasn't the writer's decision.

I have never heard that CQ does anything like that. But, based on documentation I've seen--and also by CQ's own admission in correspondence with me--CQ's termination fees can top $700 per book, which, for authors requesting multiple terminations, may add up to several thousand dollars. Also, because CQ charges the entire production cost back to the author--even though, in most cases, some of that cost has been recovered through book sales--the fees yield not just reimbursement for unrecouped expense, but some degree of profit...especially where the fees compensate cash CQ never actually had to lay out in the first place, such as design and editing work done by CQ's owners, Eugene Teplitsky and Alisa Gus.

I've also gotten complaints about inconsistent editing (there are some public posts about this as well). In general, though, complaints about CQ were few through most of 2016, and many authors reported being happy with the publisher.

In late 2016, however, things started to change. A trickle of reports of additional problems began to appear online: errors introduced into proofs, missed deadlines (CQ's contract includes an elaborate set of deadlines for editing, proofing, cover art, etc.), poor communications, and a lack of marketing support (reportedly a change from CQ's early days when it had an active marketing department).

By 2018, the trickle had become a flood. Authors began reporting not just the troubling issues mentioned above, but a host of others: revisions that never made it into published books, books published with uncorrected errors, typos on the covers of printed books, cover art received just days before the pub date, unanswered emails, book shipping problems, and late royalty payments, with some authors reporting that they hadn't been paid in months. A number of these authors had been with CQ for years and were reluctant to criticize it, but felt compelled to speak out because of the decline they perceived in quality, timeliness, and responsiveness.

Via email, CQ's co-owner and CTO, Eugene Teplitsky, told me that he was aware of the problems, which he attributed to "an overambitious release schedule and small, dedicated, but overloaded team". He says that CQ is working to improve things by hiring a new staff member and scaling back its new releases (based on a search at Amazon, CQ has averaged 73 releases a year for the past few years--a lot for a small press).

Eugene acknowledged the late royalty payments, but denied that they were tardy by more than a few days. When I mentioned that I've seen documented complaints of royalties that were late by months, he responded that "I can only go by what I see in our ledger," and invited authors to reach out to him for resolution. (Several authors who contacted me indicated that they had done this, and were not satisfied with the results.) To make accounting easier, Eugene plans to shift CQ from a monthly (!) royalty payment schedule to a bi-annual one (though I've been told by authors that other CQ promises to re-vamp its contract have yet to come to fruition).

I also asked why, when calculating termination fees, CQ bills authors for their books' entire production cost without factoring in money made on sales. Eugene gave me a couple of responses--most of the authors exercising the escape clause have low sales so production costs "were not even close to being recouped", the chargeback is less than what authors would pay if they commissioned the work themselves (!)--but didn't really address my question.

The potential for a secret profit isn't the only concern here. If an escape clause can make money for a publisher, the publisher may be tempted to encourage its authors to use it. For instance:


The screenshot above is from one of CQ's updates about its mysterious WishKnish project (more on that below). Authors are being told that they will be expected to shoulder a major amount of marketing for this project--and if they aren't happy about that, are being invited to leave. Which, of course, they cannot do without handing over quite a lot of money. Either way, CQ benefits: enthusiastic author-marketers or cash payouts. For authors, the advantages are less clear.

So what is WishKnish? It seems to have begun as an effort by CQ's owners to establish a non-Amazon marketplace for CQ sales, but has morphed into an e-commerce website where sellers of all kinds, including CQ authors, can establish storefronts and make "coin-agnostic" (i.e., cryptocurrency-friendly) sales and purchases (the "knish" is WishKnish's own currency token). There are also social media and crowdfunding components.

If you look through the jargon-heavy website, it's clear this is a major project for CQ's owners--and equally clear that it has nothing to do with publishing. Many of the CQ authors who contacted me fear that the problems they're experiencing are at least partly a result of WishKnish eating up CQ staff time (seven of eight CQ team members--including Eugene and his wife--are also listed as Wishknish team members). Eugene denies that this is the case. While his wife is working full-time on WishKnish, he says, "the vast majority of my time is dedicated to CQ," and CQ staff are not double-timing. They're only listed at WishKnish "because eventually we will be operating both sides of the coin jointly."

I don't know how comforting--or convincing--CQ authors will find this.

The complaints I've received and seen leave me in no doubt that there are serious problems at CQ. It's also clear that Eugene is aware of the complaints, and his responses to me indicate a willingness to address them--but he and authors aren't completely in agreement on the nature of the problems (for instance, on the late royalties issue), and I'm skeptical that WishKnish is as minimal a distraction as he claims. I'm also--as I have been since 2016--concerned about what I consider to be the exploitative nature of one of CQ's core business practices, the escape clause and early termination fees.

I hope CQ can turn things around. In the meantime, writers who are thinking of submitting to CQ need to carefully consider the issues outlined above.

UPDATE 9/26/28: Months after putting this post online, I'm continuing to receive complaints from CQ authors who say they haven't been paid their royalties and are experiencing ongoing communications problems. It's disappointing to see that these issues are continuing.

April 13, 2018

Publishers Weekly Includes Two Vanity Publishers in its List of Fast-Growing Independent Presses

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Once again, Publishers Weekly's annual overview of fast-growing independent publishers features not only innovative indies, but publishers whose business model is largely built on author fees: Morgan James Publishing and Austin Macauley. Seriously, PW? Why do you  keep doing this?

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Billing itself as "The Entrepreneurial Publisher", Morgan James Publishing requires its authors "to commit to purchasing, during the life of the agreement, up to 2,500 copies [of their book] at print cost plus $2." (Reports Writer Beware has received indicate that writers are asked for a "deposit" of up to $5,000 on contract signing; we've also had reports that additional fees may be due for editing and PR.)

To make this sizeable outlay of cash seem more palatable, MJP falsely claims on its "compare" page that "Many major houses require authors to purchase 5,000 copies, or more, of the book upon its release", and that even with self-publishing, "[the a]uthor is expected to purchase however many copies required to sell to the general public." (It also--again falsely--suggests that "old school traditional publishers" take possession of authors' copyrights.)

Despite all of the above, MJP declares that "No Publishing Fee [is] charged, hidden or otherwise."

MJP has made PW's fast-growing indie publisher list several times in addition to this year, including 20162015, 20142013, and 2008 (when another pay-to-play publisher, Greenleaf Book Group, was also featured). Of all those articles, only the 2016 one mentions MJP's book huge purchase requirement.

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I've written before about Austin Macauley--and I'm not the only one: others have called AM out on its business model as well.

AM bills itself as a "hybrid" publisher*, and does reveal on its website that it offers "contributory" contracts. However, it presents itself as an "innovative independent trade publisher" and states that "we look at every new manuscript with a view to offering a traditional mainstream publishing deal." This certainly encourages authors to believe that they have a good chance of a traditional offer. But Writer Beware has heard from just four authors who were offered contracts they didn't have to pay for, while we've gotten 60+ reports from authors who received fee-based offers. Obviously this represents just a fraction of those who've submitted to AM; still, the proportion of non-fee to fee-based offers certainly suggests that the bulk of AM's business is fee-based.

Fees in AM contracts Writer Beware has seen range from £1,275 to £7,700 (the heading of fee disclosure section is "Advances," except that this is an "advance" the author has to pay the publisher). In my (non-legal; I'm not a lawyer) opinion, the AM contracts I've reviewed are substandard; there's no stated term for the grant of rights, and discontinuance of publication is "entirely at the discretion of the publisher." In effect, this is a life-of-copyright grant, with completely inadequate provisions for rights reversion. (I've written before about the vital importance of having a good rights reversion clause in a life-of-copyright contract.)

I've also viewed a number of AM's acceptance letters. There are differences, depending on the rationale for offering "contributory" contracts (new author, can't take the risk; previously published author, not successful enough) but other than that it's clearly cut-and-paste, with whole passages used verbatim in multiple letters.

You can see manymanymanymany manymanyauthor reports of Austin Macauley's fees online. AM is on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publishers List, and the Alliance of Independent Authors gives AM a red-flag advisory. Glassdoor.com features multiple one-star reviews from current and former AM staff with headlines like "Exploitative and Irrational" and "Not a Real Publisher." Also check out AM's extremely professional response (snark) to my blog post about it, in which it claims that I should be disbelieved because I'm a liar and a bully, and also because "Writer Beware are [sic] part of an organisation littered with racism, sexism and child molestation."

Recognition by PW will give AM a serious PR boost, doubtless drawing in many more unsuspecting authors. Predictably, AM is already making hay with it. But given the very large amount of online information to counter Austin Macauley's sunny claims about itself, PW clearly didn't do its due diligence in including AM on its annual list.

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* In part to counter the wide abuse of the term "hybrid publisher" (which is extensively employed by vanity publishers in an attempt to sanitize their business practices), The Independent Book Publishers Association recently issued a set of professional standards for hybrid publishers. While these standards are urgently needed in the Wild West world of independent presses, they also illustrate how easily a dishonest vanity publisher can present itself as a legitimate hybrid just by making public claims about its business model. 
 
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