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August 31, 2018

De Montfort Literature: Career Jumpstart or Literary Sweatshop?


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I was planning on writing about De Montfort Literature myself, but Alliance of Independent Authors watchdog John Doppler beat me to it, with this excellent warning post.

Started by hedge fund manager Jonathan de Montfort  (I have some questions here; see the update below), DML promises to help writers kick-start their careers by paying them an annual salary of £24,000, plus royalties, to write novels that will be published under the DML brand. DML also promises to provide a pension and "all computer equipment and software necessary." As with Inkitt, there's an algorithm. It also looks like the company wants to create its own proprietary e-reader software (a risky move, unless you're Amazon).

What must writers agree to in return? Not much. Just surrender copyright (per its FAQ, DML claims copyright not just to novels, but to ideas--despite the fact that copyright does not cover ideas)*, write only for DML, accept net profit royalties (always a huge red flag), and give up their day jobs (yes, you read that right). Early versions of the DML FAQ described a punitive non-compete provision barring authors from writing for other publishers for two years after leaving DML; that appears to have been re-thought, however, and is no longer mentioned on the website.

*(John Doppler has updated his post with new information provided by Mr. de Montfort, including the claim that "Technically, the author retains ownership of the copyright, but licenses the content and all rights, subrights, and options exclusively to DML..." However, as of this writing, DML's FAQ clearly states that DML takes ownership of copyright.)

(Update: As of early November 2018, the FAQ has been revised to state that authors retain their copyrights. See below for details.)

To even have a chance of joining this venture, writers must submit to a mysterious application process involving multiple NDAs and a "psychometric test." (Interested writers are well-advised to carefully read DML's Privacy Policy, which among other things discusses what the company can do with the psychometric data.) Per DML's Twitter feed, response has been overwhelming. This seems to have resulted in multiple delays (the delays were confirmed to me by a participating writer).

I don't doubt that there are good intentions here. And any beginning writer (and even many established ones) can appreciate the appeal of a steady salary to practice their craft. But there are also obvious problems, as noted above--and even beyond those, as John Doppler points out, hedge fund experience does not equal publishing experience:
Jonathan De Montfort, the individual behind this venture, is a successful hedge fund manager who credits his firm’s success to “a mathematical system based partly on the Fibonacci sequence”. He claims this system has successfully predicted financial markets, the 2008 crash, and Brexit, and other events, and now believes it can be applied to literature. “I have taken what I know about hedge fund management and applied it to literature,” reads a quote on the company’s website.

However, De Montfort’s experience with publishing appears to be extremely limited; his first novel, Turner is scheduled to be published on August 31st of this year.

In a June 1 interview with The Guardian, De Montfort’s view of publishing becomes more apparent. He says, “The traditional publishing models for fiction writers are littered with obstacles. Securing a literary agent is a lottery, and self-publishing is costly and time-consuming.” DML’s website positions their approach as a “new, alternative route to the traditional agents and publishers” which will “make being a novelist a valid career choice…”

The thousands of career authors who are earning a living wage from their “invalid career choice” may take exception to those comments.
Lack of experience and untested concept aside, could De Montfort Literature succeed? Could it maintain good and ethical working relationships, establish excellent distribution and marketing networks, and parlay a stable of books and authors into a profitable business for all concerned? It's certainly possible. But writers need to also consider less rosy scenarios, one of which Doppler lays out as follows:
1. The author passes DML’s screening and is accepted into the program.
2. The author quits their day job to pursue their passion, writing.
3. The author collects a steady paycheck.
4. DML’s algorithms decide that steamy vampire detective thrillers have high profit potential.
5. DML assigns the author a steamy vampire detective thriller project very loosely based on the author’s original historical romance idea.
6. DML requires six steamy vampire detective novels per year. Writer’s block is not allowed.
7. The author has an idea for a fascinating book on a topic that has captivated their interest. DML declines to pursue the project. The idea now belongs to DML, and the writer is prohibited from authoring similar works.
8. Although the author is entitled to 50% of the steamy vampire net profits, DML claims that marketing, production, and salaries have resulted in a net loss.
9. The author quits in disgust… or DML informs the author that they are no longer needed and dismisses them.
10. DML retains the rights to use the author’s name, branding, ideas, and books.
11. The author is prohibited from writing or publishing anything for two years.
12. Meanwhile, DML markets a series of horrendous steamy vampire detective thriller under the author’s name, ghostwritten by an overworked amateur.
13. When the author asks DML to stop, the company invites the author to buy back the rights to their intellectual property for $20,000.00.
Doppler notes that further information from Mr. de Montfort qualifies some of these projections: for instance, the algorithms will be used only for writer selection, not to choose book genres. Still, I can't resist proposing my own alternate scenario: DML disappears without ever putting out a single book other than de Montfort's own.

Turner is DML's first (and so far only) publication. With a release date of August 31, it will provide an interesting test case for DML's marketing, distribution, and sales strategies (that it is initially being released only in print, and currently appears to be available only on UK retailers' websites, are not encouraging signs). If you're thinking of applying to become a DML writer, I'd suggest you consider holding off until Turner has been out for a while, and you can assess its performance.

UPDATE 9/7/18: I've been doing a bit of research into Mr. de Montfort and his investment firm, De Montfort Capital (DMC). What I'm finding is...odd.

The firm's current website states that the company was founded in 2013. And indeed, DMC's web domain was registered in that year. However, from 2013 through at least early 2018, DMC's website was basically a placeholder, complete with non-working links and fake Latin text fillers (not to mention typos). Here it is in January 2018, courtesy of the Wayback Machine:


Three team members are listed: Jonathan de Montfort, James Turner, and Richard de Montfort. It's worth noting that Jonathan de Montfort's middle name is Richard.

DMC's business address at that time--145-157 St John Street, London--was a virtual office address sold by Companies Made Simple. Companies Made Simple also sells company formation services.


DMC's website was re-vamped sometime after March 2018 to provide a more stylish and fully functional (if curiously bare) web presence. Its business address also changed, to 20-22 Wenlock Road, London--really just a cosmetic shift, because that's the new address of the very same Companies Made Simple, which moved to the new digs in early 2015.

Co-working space is available for rent at the Wenlock Street address, so DMC's address may not be completely virtual. Even if it were, there's nothing wrong with that. But it's not what you'd expect of a successful hedge fund company--nor is the long period of time following the company's founding date during which DMC's web presence was a mere placeholder.

DMC's filing history, available at Companies House, makes for interesting reading. It's classed as a micro-company (as of 30 April 2017, its total net assets were under £10,000). Through 29 April 2018, its SIC code (Standard Industrial Classification, used in the UK for classifying industries) was 82990, or "other business support service activities n.e.c.", which includes a range of activities, such as meter reading and repossession services, that aren't typical of hedge funds.

Then, on 15 May 2018, just a few days after the launch of De Montfort Literature, DMC added three new SIC codes: 47610 (retail sale of books in specialised stores); 58110 (book publishing); and 64303 (activities of venture and development capital companies).

That an investment firm founded in 2013 should only classify itself as such in May 2018 seems (to put it mildly) rather peculiar. There's also very little on DMC's website, or findable online, to support its claim of success--no investment history, no fund descriptions, no staff names (at least on the website's current version) or bios other than Mr. de Montfort's own. The only investment that's actually named (besides DML) is Minds.com, a cryptocurrency-focused social media network that describes itself as "an open-source and decentralized platform for internet freedom" and has attracted some buzz as a potential Facebook competitor.

Around the same time he incorporated De Montfort Literature, de Montfort established two additional companies: De Montfort Media and De Montfort Technology.

There may be important information that I've missed, or that isn't publicly available, that casts a different light on all of the above. As of now, though, something about these De Montfort ventures isn't adding up for me. If nothing else, it's another reason to be cautious about De Montfort Literature.

UPDATE 10/4/18: On its Facebook page, DML has announced that it has inked distribution deals with Macmillan Distribution in the UK and Consortium in the USA. I was able to confirm that DML is listed on Macmillan's website, but as of this writing there's no mention of it at Consortium.

That would seem to be good news for a fledgling publisher. However, DML's Facebook page is gathering numerous questions from authors who are wondering why their applications have received no response, and at least one author who was persistent in their questions has been blocked from the page. From August 30:


From October 2:


In another possible sign of trouble, the pub date for Turner has been pushed back to October 22.

UPDATE 11/8/18: DML's FAQ has been revised to state that authors do retain their copyrights.


I'm guessing that by "own all of the derivative product and format rights", DML means that authors will be exclusively granting those rights to DML for exploitation and licensing. At least I hope that's what it means, because "own" means something different. I guess we'll have to wait for an actual contract to know for sure.

I've also heard from a couple of authors who've finally received responses to their applications, so maybe the logjam there is shifting. And Turner has finally been released.

14 comments :

Michael Capobianco said...

As of right now, on publication day, Turner is temporarily out of stick on both Amazon and Amazon.uk.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1912770016

Victoria Strauss said...

It's not available on Amazon.com at all, as far as I can tell. Just on UK retailers' websites, and it's listed as out of stock on all of them. Out of stock, no US retailers, no ebook version, and on Amazon UK, no Look Inside. It's not a good start.

Anonymous said...

De Monfort seems to give out promises rather than assurances. Considering he is selling his book in limited form, I doubt De Monfort (or anyone else for that matter) will see DML as a legitimate publishing house. It will be interesting to see the results. Great write up, Victoria!

Unknown said...

Victoria,
Thank you for your work.
Luther

katz said...

There's always a magic algorithm, it's always somehow going to predict the next bestselling author, it never takes into account the author's experience, platform, or knowledge of the industry, and it's always proprietary so we have no idea how it works. This time the algorithm is so super secret that there's a separate NDA specifically to protect it.

Karen Myers said...

I don't find his Turner book to be listed in Ingram's iPage service, which makes me wonder how broadly he is distributed.

And, then, his book description is clumsy, never a good sign for an author...

"Turner is a dark, layered, mildly supernatural thriller about what it means to be human, pure love and the sacrifices people make for those things."

Alex Dook said...

This whole thing sounded bizarre to me, so I went to the site for the "hedge fund". Their address is what a residential block of flats in Hoxton. It's one of those addresses you can pay to use as a mailing address, making it seem like you have an office in somewhere like Central London.

I don't know a lot about the hedge fund industry, but I would think an uber successful one would have a real office. So, based on that, its a no from me.

Anonymous said...

Interesting update. I didn't think there was possibly more to De Monfort and his "business ventures", but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; it seems that some of these upstart publishing houses have some skeletons in their closets. Great digging, Victoria!

Anonymous said...

Jonathan De Montfort is starting to sound like Jonathon De CONfort, Yeah! who's with me?

Heidi Cieciura said...

I believe Mr De Montfort genuinely believes he is a publishing hero - however, having gotten through to the psychometric test, voicing my concerns (and agreeing with other comments) I was blocked and 'punished??' by being kicked out of the application process. This does not surprise me because in a previous conversation I mentioned I didn't believe publishers would want to work with authors who had given the license to the copyright of their ideas away and was told that although I should be worried about these things, DML would not look kindly on me for thinking them. The Board were right when they determined that I had no faith in the company. Their marketing team isn't very good; the book they have out doesn't have the best cover nor has it been written to a high standard - all things I look for when researching a publisher/agent.

Even if it does get off the ground, with so few authors making decent money, how long will it be until DML has to close it's doors. And if it does close it's doors, or removes authors from contracts (the get out time is now 1 month I believe, for authors, and for them?? I don't know)writers will be left rebuilding their careers from scratch. DML might have the secret formula to writing a bestseller but if the Big Five publishing houses, and just about every other publishing house who are all made up of people passionate about books, don't have it, I'd be surprised if DML does. Repeatedly insisting that the author owns their ideas doesn't actually make it so. On paper, it might be the license to the copyright you have given away, but considering the whole 'salary' thing is actually nothing more than a loan that is to be repaid (and so not a salary at all) with the costs of marketing, production etc added to that, it is doubtful many authors would actually be able to buy their license back (and they will also have to buy back the license to their books). The worlds and characters we create is where the value is. DML clearly knows this and is caught up 'looking for the next JK Rowling or Stephen King'. I wonder how successful they would have been if their publishers/agents didn't really know what they were doing but owned everything they had created? You lose ownership of your characters and the worlds you build, the things that readers love and come back to us for, and you have to start from the begining, with someone who has claimed they will 'monetise authors unapologetically' if they leave before their books have made a profit in charge of all that you have worked to create.

My biggest concern though is the idea that DML are going to go into schools and sponsor children to study writing at university. Will this mean their writing careers - ideas etc - will be the property of DML before they have even begun - before they even understand the true value of what they have? I hope not. Although the idea of writing for a salary in exchange for your ideas sounds great to a lot of aspiring writers, I do believe that there is an element of exploiting vulnerable people in DML's model. I don't think this is the intention, but it is the nature of offering money to people who don't expect to get paid for their work.

Promises, promises, backed up with grand claims that have no visible grounding, is all we seem to hear from DML. I'm going to have a little more faith in myself and the time and effort I have put into learning my craft and the business aspects that go with it.

Victoria Strauss said...

Heidi,

Thanks so much for your comment. I'd love to know more about the psychometric test, the terms of the salary--there's nothing in the DML FAQ to suggest it's a "loan" rather than a straight walary--and DML's plans to sponsor kids. Please feel free to contact me, in confidence. beware@sfwa.org . Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Every new idea or project is always confronted by multitudes of naysayers. People just don’t like change. This idea hasn’t even gotten off the ground yet and you are all out there playing FBI convicting and seeking to tear down a business before it has even started. Shame on the lot of you.

Anonymous said...

A rejection letter sent to a friend.
The writing is . . . bad . . .


Thank you for your application to be an author with De Montfort Literature.
We are sorry to inform you that you have not been selected for the next round of the process at this time.
We are currently prioritising applicants with many commercially viable ideas as we are looking to support them through the next 10 years or more and looking to build them as wide an audience as possible. We felt that your application did not have enough commercially viable ideas at this time.
You are welcome to reapply in the future once you have developed more.

Regards,

De Montfort Literature.

Anonymous said...

Interesting decline in assets for another company he owns, De Montfort Capital Ltd: Net Assets, circa £10K https://suite.endole.co.uk/insight/company/08508842-de-montfort-capital-ltd

It's difficult to see him as a successful entrepreneur. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't.

 
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