Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Word To The Wise

Recently, there's been more than the usual anxiety and turmoil in the e-publishing world.

In April, Venus Press--an e-publisher specializing in romance since 2004--abruptly closed its doors. Although there had been rumors about the company for some time, the closure still came as a surprise to many people.

On May 21, I posted a blog titled "Print versus e-Book" here. I referenced comments by executives of some of the most popular e-publishing houses who pointed out that, in order to attract authors, they found themselves obliged to provide print books as well as e-books.

Angela James, Executive Editor of Samhain, a relatively new e-publisher, summed the subject up nicely when she said, "Adding a print program provides another source of revenue and, as I said, access to a new market of readers and buyers, but it also adds another layer of cost, commitment and responsibility . . ."

Not all e-publishers have managed to balance the dual responsibilities of e-books and print books. In recent months, several e-publishers have announced they would be slowing down the timetable by which they took e-books to print.

Among the e-publishers who changed their print schedules was Triskelion, a RWA-approved publisher. Despite the fact that a guarantee of print publishing wasn't in their contracts, a number of Trisk authors became disaffected at the news that their books would not be coming out in print as soon as they'd anticipated.

I can see both sides of this issue: the publisher has a fiduciary responsibility to make responsible decisions, but--at the same time--any author who has been gearing up for a print release (and perhaps spending money to publicize the book) would certainly be angry.

Unfortunately, the problem snowballed as authors began complaining about late royalty payments. In a statement here, Triskelion acknowledged some problems were caused by a new accounting system and by authors' failure to understand that if royalties didn't exceed $25, checks would be cut on a quarterly basis rather than on a monthly basis.

We've all played the game "Rumor" and know how easy it is for things to get twisted and blown out of proportion. I'm sure there were legitimate complaints, but I'm equally as sure the rumor mill scared some authors into anticipating *future* problems.

Some Triskelion authors went to RWA and complained. RWA, no doubt feeling the burden of having named Triskelion a RWA-approved publisher, went out of its way to explain that this label was NOT an endorsement of a publishing house.

RWA's Executive Director, Allison Kelley, sent a statement to the RWA membership in March that said in part:

RWA standards for publisher recognition determine which publishers will be allowed to attend RWA’s annual conference and listed in RWA’s Market Update to solicit works written by RWA members. Unfortunately, the standard has been construed as a “stamp of approval” by RWA. That was never the purpose in setting the standard.

A publisher’s recognition by RWA is not a guarantee of an author’s publishing success. RWA’s standards merely indicate that the publisher pays royalties, is not a subsidy or vanity press, has been in business a minimum length of time (1 year) and has sold a minimum number of copies of one romance title (1500 hardcover or trade paperback or 5,000 in any other format). Each author must evaluate the company, carefully read the individual publisher’s contract and decide if they are willing to accept the conditions put forth in the contract.

In a statement posted on the Dear Author site two weeks ago here, Allison Kelley confirmed that "due to the ongoing problems authors are reporting with Triskelion Publishing, and the company's latest announcements regarding print titles, changes in editorial staff and management, the invitation for Triskelion Publishing to participate in workshops and editor appointments at RWA's 2007 conference in Dallas has been rescinded."

Of course, this news is very disappointing to all the RWA members who had editor appointments scheduled with Trisk at the upcoming conference. A number of happy Triskelion authors were also very angry at what they saw as Triskelion being unfairly targeted in a way that other publishers had not been.

To compound and complicate the matter, Gail Northman--Triskelion's highly respected Editor-in-Chief--resigned over the Memorial Day holiday. Gail, who was scheduled to become Triskelion's publisher on June 1, has admitted to being under a lot of pressure from a lot of directions. However, the timing of her resignation did not help Trisk, and the company found itself besieged by authors with long memories of other houses going belly-up and who are now demanding their rights back.

I'm going to stop here and get to the point of this post.

Life doesn't come with guarantees. The man who seemed like Prince Charming when you were eighteen may look more like Homer Simpson when you're thirty-five. The used car that ran like a top will die on the highway ten miles from the lot where you purchased it.

Because life has no guarantees, it's incumbent upon us to do as much as we can to lessen our risks. That's why we have insurance, warranties and contracts.

I spent a fair amount of my previous life reading contracts and making decisions about what was an acceptable level of risk for the companies that employed me. I've learned--to my regret--that if a contract is not carefully written, it can have very ugly consequences.

I have been astonished at the cavalier approach some writers take to signing contracts with agents and/or publishers.

When I was considering signing with an agent (as much as I love and respect her), I had my attorney vet the contract. When I sold the rights to my first book to a publisher, even though my agent and her contracts person vetted it, I still read and asked questions about the contract.

You live or die by the language of your contract. Unless you want to be surprised later, you need to know exactly how you'll be paid, when you'll be paid and what will happen if your book is bumped from the publisher's schedule. You also need to understand the language pertaining to the reversion of rights, and what will happen if you and your publisher/agent get crossways. How will those disagreements be resolved? WHERE will they be resolved? If the contract doesn't include language about audits or about quarterly reports, add it. Everything is negotiable.

There are lots of writers out there whose books are in limbo because their publishers went under.

Act defensively. Don't wait until your agent or editor is in trouble to read your contract and find out what will happen if they go belly-up.

I've heard good things about Triskelion from my friends who write for them. I hope that all this uproar will soon settle down for all concerned.


David Roth said...

Once upon a time you could take a person's word 'as their bond' as Robin Williams Peter Banyon kept saying in the movie Hook. Not true any more. I recently learned the truth of what you've written.

I met a local publisher who promised me the moon. She was going to serialize my Mag-7 childrens stories in the writers magazine she publishes. She was going to re-publish my book of poetry and actually promote it, something that is not included in LuLu's free package. She was going to publish my Greenbrook Park story, and my cookbook.

Then she got an offer to sell her company. It was a good deal for her. Bad deal for me. She stood me up at several meetings, stopped returning my calls, emails and letters, and pretty much the only people whe told about the pending sale were those who she had under an actual contract. Anyone like me who wasw made word of mouth and handshake promises got screwed. The new publisher, Lachesis, agreed to pick up anyone under contract to the old company, LBF (Lets Be Frank) Books. Anyone not having a contract was left out in th cold. Her attitude? "How dare you criticize me for screwing you!"

You've hit it on the head, Maya - get a contract, and have someone who knows contract law read it for you.

Maya Reynolds said...

I'm sorry, David, but I'll bet this will never happen to you again.

I saw my company burned once because, when business got tight, our contractor--who had done business with us for years--backed off to the "letter of the law." If it wasn't in the contract, they didn't have an obligation to perform--even though they had done so for many years under former management.

You need to understand what you are obligating yourself to and what your agent/publisher is obligating himself to. If it's not on the paper, it is not real--no matter what is said verbally--because in court it becomes "he said/she said."

I'm sure Triskelion agreed to go to print with the best intentions in the world. However, conditions change, and a responsible CEO does what is best for his company. Unfortunately, in this case, several unrelated things got rolled into one big, ugly snowball. It would probably be impossible to tell today who was right and who was wrong.

Although I've never seen an actual run on a bank, I know the awful consequences that can happen when depositors suddenly lose confidence. As more and more people take their money out, they create the very thing they are trying to insulate themselves from.

I hope Triskelion is able to stop the madness and get started re-building confidence.

Marie Tuhart said...

I've been following the Trisk fall out along with a lot of other things happening within RWA these past few weeks.

But you hit the nail on the head, people don't read their contracts. The first thing a published author told me was "read your contract, you don't understand it find a laywer, call me, put out a call for help to other published writer, but never ever sign a contract you don't understand."

It's such a shame that some many authors want they're book in print that they don't bother to read their contracts.

And years ago, a publisher was allowed into the RWA conference. I'd already met the couple at another conference, where they asked me outright if I thought they're offer was too good to be true and I told they yes. What you're offering as a start up without the capital or the distribution makes me back off until you have a track record.

Low and behold, several authors signed up with them, some it was over 3 years before they saw their book in print. There was no distribution, it was sign your friend up for our book club type of thing. Those who got tired of waiting, had a fight on their hands to get their rights back.

This is one of the reasons the RWA started vetting the publishers at their conference. I understand it, just don't agree with their methods.

Maya Reynolds said...

Marie: Thanks, as always, for your insight.



Ciar Cullen said...

I wish the authors who have decided to stay at Triskelion the best, of course. There are what I will call "quality of partnership" issues that don't get written into contracts, however, aren't there? I'm not talking about the "my editor is mean" talk. I think both authors and publishers must work hard to ensure that their word, written or not, is meaningful. Of course the business changes, and print schedules change, or what an author "hopes" will happen does not necessarily appear in the contract.

The carrot-stick syndrome has been my big red flag in recent years. If a publisher says "do x (usually sell so many copies), and we'll make sure y happens (usually meaning the book will go to print)" (noncontractually), my tail fur fluffs up and I back away. If it isn't in the contract, I don't believe it. If you're not willing to PUT it in the contract, don't use it as a lure for new writers. I believe that is how bad reputations are earned--the deal keeps changing.

Maya Reynolds said...

Ciar: And once that bad reputation has been earned, it's hell getting your good reputation back.

Reputations are such tender things. They are easily affected by both truth and lies. As Mark Twain said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."