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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.


Anonymous said...

CQ is definitely not for me!

Lucinda Preston said...

I knew I couldn't trust that place. I do hope the authors who are owed money get it and that they don't have to pay it all back, plus more, to get out of their contracts.

Jennifer R. Povey said...

I have a friend with CQ. He tried to get me to submit to them. I took one look at the contract and told him I wasn't submitting to them and that he had made a mistake. It was a different red flag for me. Their contract? They wanted the movie rights so they could negotiate options and take a cut...potentially cutting the author out altogether.

I should probably drop him a note and see if he's okay :/.

Anonymous said...

I'm fine, don't worry. I don't have any contracts with them at this point, so it's a moot point for me.

Anonymous said...

As a current author trapped in contract with this company, I can say that the whole thing has been a very stressful, discouraging, and upsetting process for me. The marketing for my novel was pretty much nothing, and my emails and pleas for assistance went largely ignored--both literally in terms of unanswered messages but also figuratively in terms of CQ staff basically blaming my apparent marketing ineptitude for the lack of sales. Did I mention though that they actively hindered all marketing ideas I brought forward?

When all was said and done, the only sold units of my novel were to my family, friends, and through my own efforts. Not to mention, when I wanted out, the kill fee was another nail in the coffin. My only consolation is that the contract is only auto-renewed for 48 months, and I'm well into the auto-renewal period now. I made myself a promise that I would NEVER publish with this company nor pay them a cent of a "kill fee", and though it has been a long journey, once my contract "expires", I will finally be free.

I am glad, however, that other authors at the company are waking up. In communications with CQ authors, the mood is tense, and in my opinion, the relationship CQ has built with its authors is irreversibly damaged.

Anonymous said...

Another former CQ author here. CQ is an absolute disaster. One of the owners seems to have established power over the company. He's a computer scientist, and is using the publishing company as a platform to launch a cryptocurrency/online marketplace that, somehow, is expected to be competitive with Amazon. Even when the focus was solely on books, the place was a total mess. Covers came out only days before launch with typos, misspelled author names, and illegible fonts. Editors and proofreaders feuded with one another, and made significant changes without consulting authors. Emails from authors to staff were either unanswered, or answered with obvious untruths. Marketing was non-existent - in fact, with my book they actually forget to schedule any events or contact any reviewers until a week before launch. Then there's the issue or royalties, which they will not pay out unless an author hounds them for weeks on end. They're hopelessly incompetent and disorganized and, due to the way they are constantly trying to deflect blame off themselves and onto third parties, unethical.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the former authors who complained about their kill fee in 2016. I ended up paying it for three of my titles, because I figured the lost royalties while waiting for my rights to revert after the contract expired would be a bigger waste of money. They are incompetent at best, predatory at worst. I wish I never paid them a cent. It would be nice to have the kill fee refunded, though I suppose success is the best revenge. My titles have done phenomenally better in my own hands, despite them blaming me for "not loving my books enough" to market them. Ha, losers.

Anonymous said...

Another former author here who had to pay a few thousand dollars to extricate my books from them. No invoices were ever supplied to justify the "kill fee" and it was punitive and made up. I have on going issues with them giving away free copies of my ebooks to anyone who asks, despite the fact they have no legal right to do so. My paperbacks are still for sale and they won't pull them down. I also have serious concerns about their reporting and suspect sales have been grossly under reported to authors for years, based on what I now know about rank:sales.

Anonymous said...

The trickle of authors leaving in recent months has become a flood. The staff people that I've dealt with have been marvelous—but the ownership has been mismanaging a promising small press into the ground. I was warned off of the company last year by an agent and I'm sorry that I did not listen to her.

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