Implosion of a house of cards

For the past seven months I’ve been watching a publisher implode in a most grand scale. Unlike the huge spectacles Vegas puts on when they implode a dead casino, this implosion is deathly quiet, something I’m sure the publisher appreciates as he continues to claw his way through the mounting disaster of his own making.

Over the past couple years, I read all the articles that christened them The Next Big Thing. Wow, they all cooed. Gee, they all marveled. This publisher is soooo amazing! But I was skeptical. After all, where did they come from? Who were they?

As the proverbial Cinderella story, they had it all; the little spuds from nowhere established great distribution and great reviews. Authors and agents queried them in droves. Books flew off the warehouse shelves into the genre buyers’ hands. It was every publisher’s dream – Instant Success. The fabo Goliath beats David at their own game! Yay! Power to the little spuds! But I was skeptical.

I never bought into the hype because if I know anything, it’s that there is no Instant Success. Oh sure, a book might hit the big time and put a publisher on the map. But they gotta stay there, and that takes smarts and experience – something this publisher lacks. A publisher cannot fake any part of their existence or raison d’être because there are too many checks and balances in place that make exposure not a matter of “if,” but “when.”

The reasons for their impending demise are many, but I think it comes down to arrogance, having an agenda, and abject inexperience. I can’t think of a deadlier combination for a publisher. Money alone does not guarantee success. We have to always keep our ears open, our opinions flexible to change, and be willing to learn. Doesn’t matter how long we’re in business, we never stop learning.

Why should I care about this publisher? I don’t. Not one whit. They splashed money around like the beagle does after one too many beers and didn’t bother learning how the industry works. They acted as if their money and splashy countenance would counter the boogeyman. Well, the boogeyman is very much alive in this business and is always ready to pounce, and if this publisher’s walls are made of cardboard, then let them fall flat on their face, right?

Problem is, my heart is with the authors and, as one who always yammers on about the pitfalls to avoid, I’m trying to define the red flags of this particular beast so authors can, in a literary sense, recognize margarine from butter. This publisher was Country Crock all the way, but their packaging said God’s Finest Butter; it was pristine and perfect. They gave the appearance of doing everything right, so how would anyone know different?

Here’s what I know:

  • Looky at me! I don’t know of any new publishers with zero publishing experience who made a giant splash when they first opened their doors. People just don’t climb out from under a rock and spend their way into the hearts of the industry without having some warts on their feet. Advice: be wary. Looks can be deceiving.
  • Confidence is very good for business. However, arrogance is like fingernails on a chalkboard. I’ve had the good fortune of being mentored by some top people in the business, and not one of them is arrogant. I have learned that people use arrogance to mask their inferiority complex. People with issues make lousy publishers. Advice: Avoid arrogant people because they are achingly difficult to work with. They will always be right, and you will always be wrong.
  • Agendas are bad. If a publisher has ulterior motives, they’re going to be unearthed at some point, and it’s going to get very ugly very fast. I’ve seen a few publishers whose expanding lineup was nothing more than a false front, designed to conceal the fact that they wanted to publish and promote their own books. As a result, the authors’ promotional efforts became less and less important to the publisher as they spent more time and money on their own projects. Advice: If a publisher is also a writer – which many of us are – check to see how much time they are spending on their own promotion compared to their authors. If they are less and less available to their authors, yet they are all over the place, this could smack of an ulterior motive to the reasons for their company.
  • Abusive publishers have something to hide. Whether it’s fear or frustration, publishers can’t take it out on their authors. If sales are tanking, the publisher must assume responsibility. If they suffered massive returns, they have only themselves to blame for overselling the books. They cannot send threatening emails out to their authors and browbeat them into engaging in useless self-promotion that has zero hope of selling a single title. It is not the author’s job to save the publisher’s ass. Advice: news like this will come out eventually, so keep your ears close to the ground. Talk to the publisher’s authors. If they’re unhappy, they’ll be pretty forthcoming about it. If you hear the same story over and over again, you can pretty much take it to the bank and cash the check.
  • Publishers do not piss off agents. Ever. The converse is equally true. This is the most gossipy industry because it’s small, and news travels fast. Publishers who anger agents are just begging for a quick bullet to the brain, and any publisher with a firing synapse knows this. It’s true that problems sometimes arise, but there is always an equitable, satisfactory solution. You never, ever risk soiling the relationship – especially if that agent is well-known. Advice: find out what agents say about a publisher. This is your best ally. If agents don’t like them, there is always a solid reason.

Since this publisher was so glamorous on the outside, I feel inadequate suggesting that an author’s best defense is to give all new publishers at least a year just to make sure those warts don’t exist. After all, flash and zing are attractive features, and I know of many authors and agents who got caught up very early in this nightmare.

There are few words to express the sorrow I feel over the authors who are involved with this house of cards. My biggest hope is that the publisher implodes quickly to avoid taking any more authors down with them. I have no confidence they will suddenly see the error of their ways. That ship has long since sailed.

Advice: It’s a tough world, my dear authors. Be careful, and ask tons of questions. Network.  Get to know people in the industry so you can ask their opinion. It doesn’t matter how great a company may look on the outside – and I mean stellar, hoo-ha, off-the-charts, gonzanga amazing – it’s the inside that will reveal whether a company has the stuffing to survive.

Be suspicious of dichotomies. An unknown, new publisher who spends money like water, yet has no previous ties to the industry or experience presents a pretty big bull’s eye on the industry dartboard.  Lastly, don’t jump too quickly; you might land in a frying pan, and you’re the butter.

18 Responses to Implosion of a house of cards

  1. I feel so out of it because I can’t imagine who this publisher is.

    But it sounds like I’ll hear all about it soon.

  2. Jane Smith says:

    David, I think I know which publisher Lynn is referring to here: but whether my suspicions are right or wrong there are several that she COULD be discussing. What Lynn describes here is by no means an isolated event, and the advice that she gives is, as usual, spot-on.

    Behind every publisher of the sort that Lynn describes there are several authors whose books have been badly published, or lost entirely. It’s a dreadful shame.

  3. lynnpricewrites says:

    I’m betting someone’s sphincter is so tight right now they could eat a lump of coal and pass a diamond.

  4. I’d love to steal that sphincter-diamond line.

  5. Ann says:

    I’m dying of curiosity now…

    aaaaaaarrrrrggghhh!!!!

    where, pray tell, should I be looking for this news?

  6. Karma says:

    Lynn, like you, I have felt this sense of implosion. It was written in the cards a long time ago. (Pun intended.) It’s been a long time coming, and not anything that anyone really wanted to see happen.

    You have hit everything on the nail in your article. How do I know? Because I believe I know exactly which publisher you’re talking about. I am one of the authors this publisher sucked in.

    It’s not easy to admit that. I’m a very smart, savvy person who always advises other authors to ‘do your homework’. In my defense there wasn’t much available on the 3 main principals in this company, and they had no real track record of sales. Like you said, they just popped up, created a big splash, then scrabbled around trying to maintain their appearance.

    Looks are very deceiving in this case.

    Why did I sign with them? Because like many writers, I wanted to be traditionally published and they offered me the most glorious carrot–a whole field of them in fact. I could become an author in this sensational new publishing house and jump on the literary bandwagon with huge publicity and great opportunities. What author doesn’t want that?

    I am always a bit of a sucker for the ‘underdog’ and I championed this publisher for about 6 months before I started seeing what it really was–a company set up so that the head guy and some of his writer friends could publish their own books. And a way for the publisher to make money. Who cares about the authors?

    Now in case you or anyone else is thinking I’m just a jealous writer, I’m not. I always celebrate my fellow authors’ successes. I have had my own success. But when your own publisher’s hefty ambitions get in the way of him doing his job professionally and efficiently, there’s a huge problem.

    Somewhere on the Internet is an interview where he states he and other principals will each only publish one book of their own a year. The publisher has about 7 of his own titles now listed since April 2007. How much time does that leave him to be our publisher when he’s busy writing, researching, editing and promoting his own books? I’m not bad at multi-tasking but I couldn’t do both.

    If he had just done his job–like getting review copies out on time, making sure books were at our events on time, being available by phone or email or returning our phone calls and messages–then we wouldn’t be where we are now.

    Many authors struggle to reach him. His phone numbers change almost as much as he probably changes his socks. He ignores emails, especially if we aren’t happy with him. We’re not allowed to voice our displeasure or disagree with him. If we do, he makes us pay–one way or another. Our questions are being answered with excuses and we no longer trust anything he says. We suspect financial problems. None of the authors have been paid for the past 9 months–except maybe him and the other two partners.

    We all had high expectations based on the publisher’s high expectations. Now we’re fighting just to get paid. We have yet to be paid on time. The dates in our contracts mean nothing to him. Checks average 2-3 months late. All we get is excuse after excuse. And it’s never his fault. It’s ours, or the distributor’s, or the reviewers’, or the bookstores’ fault every time.

    I could tell you stories of how he treats his authors, how he bullies them, how he has verbally abused some, how he constantly nags at us to review each opther’s books and give 5 star reviews whether we agree or not. How he wanted us to do the same with his first book published by another publisher. Many of us refused to do this and boy did we hear about it. We were told we weren’t team players. PRESSURE! That is the one thing this publisher knows how to do–apply constant pressure.

    I would like to be the one to publicly name this Kompany but I won’t yet. The news is about to hit anyway. The literary world is very interested in this story of a publisher gone bad. I’ve already been contacted by 2 reporters who got wind of something smelly.

    There is a group of over 20 dissatisfied authors, and that grows every season. Many authors are now starting to talk–after we all gave him fair warning to follow through with his promises or face the consequences of his own actions.

    House of cards? Maybe. But I can tell you my time with them has been more like being aboard the Titanic. We all just keep waiting for the iceberg to hit, and small ones already have. One more iceberg–maybe even an ice cube–might sink them. It’s sad.

    It’s NOT what any of us wanted. We wanted to be loyal to our publisher. We would have given anything to have been treated with respect and decency, and we would have done the same in return. If the publisher had just done his job, we’d all be happy right now instead of wanting to jump ship.

    To any writer thinking of going with a publisher that has created a big splash and makes big claims, think twice. If they’ve published anything, contact their authors. Some might be wary of talking, after all, with this publisher some of the authors are actually silent partners. We never really knew who we could trust. And keep your eye on the publishing news. I am sure my publisher will be named in the future and everyone will Know exactly who and what they are.

    Karma

  7. Oooh. Aaah.

    Sounds like a certain publisher I was somewhat interested in until I started getting an uneasy feeling from their Web site.

    You have my sympathies, Karma, and I hope it will work out OK for you with someone else.

  8. He reaps what he sowed says:

    I am one of the Kompany’s authors too and I vouch for everything Karma said. After 11:59 tonight if the promises made to my agent have not been fulfilled, I’ll be able to name myself publicly, and I will do so.. proudly and loudly.

    Watching the harvest come in and enjoying every minute.

  9. Kompany dupe says:

    Thank you, Lynn, for this fair and logical assessment of unfair, illogical business practices. I am another of this publisher’s unhappy authors and I couldn’t agree more with what’s been written.

    When a publisher treats its authors like serfs, he needs to be prepared for the inevitable uprising.

  10. DA says:

    What a bunch of sneaky backstabbing supposition. Nobody even has the balls to mention Kunati overtly because you’re all a bunch of sniveling cowards.

    Sounds like a pack of failed authors bemoaning poor sales and then looking for a scapegoat.

    Lynn, I would have expected better from you, but from the looks of your catalog, maybe not.

  11. lynnpricewrites says:

    Derek, it’s not my normal style to beat up other publishers because we do not engage in eating our young. I’ve been watching a situation from afar for a long time and felt compelled to discuss it in order to help authors avoid falling into bad situations. It’s not about the publisher as much as it is about looking for warning signs – no matter how small they may be.

    I will say that you appeared to have it all. You were the poster boy for all that’s good about independent enterprise, and I applauded you from my darkened cave. You’re making it sound as though this situation has changed, and I’m very sorry for your authors and you.

    I have to say that blaming your authors in a public forum is quite unseemly, don’t you think?

    And, hey, I have a lovely catalog filled with lovely and talented authors. Just like you.

  12. Peter Mc says:

    “I’m betting someone’s sphincter is so tight right now they could eat a lump of coal and pass a diamond.”

    Wild applause!

  13. Yesterday, I finally received a letter that reverted to me all rights to my novel, Courage in Patience. I am now free to move forward and seek a new publisher. In celebration of this victory, I would like to share an excerpt of my favorite poem, Still I Rise, by the American treasure, Maya Angelou. Visit the site, http://www.poemhunter.com/still-i-rise/ to read the poem in its entirety.

    Still I Rise

    You may write me down in history
    With your bitter, twisted lies,
    You may trod me in the very dirt
    But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

    Does my sassiness upset you?
    Why are you beset with gloom?
    ‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
    Pumping in my living room.

    Just like moons and like suns,
    With the certainty of tides,
    Just like hopes springing high,
    Still I’ll rise.

    Did you want to see me broken?
    Bowed head and lowered eyes?
    Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
    Weakened by my soulful cries.

    Does my haughtiness offend you?
    Don’t you take it awful hard
    ‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
    Diggin’ in my own back yard.

    You may shoot me with your words,
    You may cut me with your eyes,
    You may kill me with your hatefulness,
    But still, like air, I’ll rise.

  14. Beth, I salute you! The poem is perfect and fitting, and I commend you for the immense courage you possess. It’s not easy dealing with a difficult publisher, and no author wants to have to ask for their rights back. And it’s certainly not an easy decision for an author to come forward and speak out against their publisher.

    To everyone here, I am also an ex-Kunati author. I could not wait to get my rights back, and like Beth, I celebrated when I did. I wanted out because the publisher, Derek Armstrong, did not keep his word or pay us on time, and because I found him extremely difficult to work with. I’ve saved emails that show this.

    I can confidently tell you that some of his most successful authors are not happy with him. I am one of them. I have the emails from him and checks to prove it.

    Signing with Kunati was a learning experience. While I appreciate that Derek took a chance on me and my book, I took a chance on him and his promises. I know he was well rewarded by my decent sales, the marekting expertise I brought into the company and shared with him and all his authors and my willingness to trust a brand new company run by people who had never been publishers before.

    If Derek takes this as a wake up call and starts fulfilling his promises then Kunati will have a chance to grow and be something people can be proud of. As it is now, I wasn’t proud of what he and this company was beginning to represent.

    As always, Beth, I wish you continued success.

  15. lynnpricewrites says:

    I’d like to reiterate that the intent of my post wasn’t to focus on any particular publisher because there are a number of them who fit the general description. The purpose of my post was to help authors look for very, very subtle clues for any new publisher who has the appearance of being the absolute bee’s knees. It’s a reminder that what may be diamonds on the outside may be paste on the inside.

    Abuses abound in the publishing industry, and our primary intent for this blog is author education.

    This post was written

  16. You’re very right, Lynn. I’ve heard horror stories from other authors about other publishers. This isn’t just one publisher’s issue. Whether you meant Kunati or another company, this definitely struck a nerve for Derek, and for some Kunati authors.

    Everything you said in your post is solid advice that authors should take to heart. Unfortunately if the publisher is brand new, there’s often not much to go on, making them more difficult to research. I doubt I’ll ever go with a new publisher ever again, and certainly not one that publishes so many of the publisher’s own titles.

    I admire how you’ve done things, Lynn. Your authors really like and respect you and have great things to say about you. Yes, I researched you a long time ago (and was disappointed that you publish primarily nonfiction and not suspense novels.) Sure, you have a book published too, but I don’t get the feeling that it’s your prime directive.

    I think the one thing I learned is that sometimes it’s not best to be first, to dive in with a publisher that is so bold in his promised and so new and inexperienced. It’s just too stressful.

    Wishing you much more success with your company!

    Cheryl

  17. Cheryl, it’s a venerable old saying in the software biz that you should never buy version 1.0 of any software package.

  18. David Mink says:

    *gulp*

    I’ve got a degree. Let the real education commence!

Tell me what you really think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: