Author Complaints at City Limit Publishing

From Writer Beware:

I first heard of City Limits Publishing (CLP) in September 2020, via a question about author-unfriendly guidelines in a contest it was running (simply by entering, writers granted “a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish”). At the time, CLP had published just eight books, all by the same two authors . . . and was calling for submissions. 

To me, CLP looked like a self-publishing endeavor that was trying to expand into traditional publishing. This doesn’t always work out well, since not all self-publishers have a solid knowledge of publishing (or, necessarily, any business experience) and may unintentionally disadvantage writers with nonstandard business practices, or author-unfriendly contracts, or both. And indeed, CLP’s original contract had some problems. It included a transfer of copyright, a major red flag in a non-work-for-hire contract…

…that was directly contradicted by a clause stipulating the printing of copyright notices in the author’s name (not the publisher’s, as would normally be the case with a copyright transfer), as well as an extremely generous termination clause allowing authors to cancel their contracts post-publication at will for any reason. This kind of internal contradiction is something I see not infrequently in small press contracts, and is a red flag all on its own: it suggests that the publisher has a less than perfect understanding of its own contract terms.

CLP appears to have recognized this at some point, because the copyright grab disappeared from its contracts in September or October 2020 (the generous termination provision remains). CLP’s catalog has ballooned to over 40 titles, including those original eight, and it has big ambitions for 2021, with plans to publish more than 50 books in total. That’s a very large list for a small press–something that can (and often does) lead to trouble if staff and resources aren’t adequate to handle the load.

. . . .

UPDATE: Robert Martin, CLP’s owner, contacted me after this post went live to say that CLP has “never moved or delayed a publishing date. Ever.” The dates on the CLP website listings, he explained, are actually “pre-sale” dates [I assume this is the date the book goes live for pre-orders]; the reason they’re labeled “publish” dates is because “[t]he Shopify theme we purchased automatically uses the date we put the product into our online store as the Publish date.” CLP’s web developer is apparently working to change this.

When I asked why, if the books are available for pre-order on the CLP website, they aren’t also available on Amazon and other retailers, he told me “As for why they aren’t all on retail sites yet, we put them up as we are able and as projects come to a close, but I don’t feel like we have to explain ourselves for every little thing we do.”)

Also of concern: the multiple documented complaints I’ve recently received from CLP authors. These include late royalty payments, missed editing and other deadlines, difficulty getting CLP staff to respond to questions and concerns, free author copies and books ordered at author discount not received or received months late, books ordered by readers not received or received months late, formatting and other errors in finished books that authors struggled to get corrected (for instance, the author’s name spelled wrong on the spine), substandard editing and proofing, and copyrights not registered as required in contracts. Some writers reported problems with CLP’s heavily hyped online author portal–confusingly named AuthorCentral–which they said suffers from frequent crashes. I also heard from an audiobook narrator who told me that they weren’t informed when CLP lost the rights to a book the narrator was in the process of recording, posing payment issues for the narrator, who was working on a royalty-share contract.

Authors also highlighted issues of transparency: being told that copyright registrations had been filed and later discovering they had not been, claims that print runs of thousands of copies were being done when in fact CLP uses on-demand technology to produce books in much smaller batches as ordered.

. . . .

I contacted CLP’s founder, Robert Martin, for comment on all of the above. He gave me the following statement, which I have edited to remove mention of an individual author (not by name, but likely recognizable even so). 

When I started City Limits Publishing, I committed to full transparency and I’ve tried to provide that from the very beginning. Through our bi-weekly author newsletter to frequent direct updates and notices from me to all of our authors, I’ve kept them appraised of shipping issues related to COVID, updates to our financial systems, implementation of our new author intranet system that would provide them greater access to information and updates, as well as any challenges we’re facing as an organization. And, being a new, small press, there are many. The authors who have stuck with us have been absolutely amazing and their support is inspiring. Together, we’re building something great here. Many of our authors have emailed me thanking me for the transparency they’re getting and have been so encouraging even when receiving direct, unsolicited messages from a handful of authors on a war path.

We’re aware of the situation and some of the issues a small group of former authors have brought up. First, with regards to late royalty payments, we were delayed in sending out payments as we both moved to a new system and I had a personal matter that required my attention and took me away from work for a bit. The payments were made up in full with tracking and confirmation of receipt, along with my sincerest apologies, and a promise that our next payout, July 20, would be made in full and on time, with the exception of authors who have entered into final accounting after requesting to be released from their agreements. Their final payments are being made this month as agreed during termination discussions. We’re in the process of hiring a Business Manager that will take help ensure we are not late in the future. Our royalty statements were delayed in April as we made the transition to RoyaltyTracker (MetaCommet). Their implementation schedule caused us delays in sending out statements. We made a major investment in this new system so that going forward everything would operate more smoothly. With progress comes growing pains.

With regards to author copies, we have committed to making sure that our authors receive at least half of their author copies in the weeks leading up to their release, and half within 90 days of release. Author copies are a large expense for the company. We’re a small business trying to get started during a global pandemic. As for ordering problems, we admit that during our early months we faced many delays, especially with our original printer and our transition to the IngramIgnite program. Still, all orders were fulfilled, and we’re now shipping out daily with no delays.

With copyright registration, we did drop the ball on some of our earlier titles. Before we brought on a full team, I was working mostly on my own with operations. I’m human and did make mistakes with copyright registration of some of our earlier titles. Now, we have a system in place to make sure registration happens within 90 days of publication, as outlined in the agreement. And, we have made steps to help educate authors on the copyright registration process. It’s not a fast process, so we’ve made sure to provide information to authors on timelines and how that process works.

Other complaints mentioned: Our early editing process was not as refined as it is now. We were just getting started, and we really learned a lot. We’ve even gone back through older titles for extensive checks and proofing to ensure we’re putting out the highest quality of work. Authors complained about books going to print with errors, but we do require all of our authors to initial the bottom corner of every page of their book before it goes to print. So, respectfully, that’s a shared mistake, and one we’ve worked extremely hard to rectify, now having four sets of eyes on all works published. Additionally, we do still have a contract with ACX and with Audiobook Universe. We were temporarily suspended from ACX for a contract mix-up where exclusive rights were selected when non-exclusive was intended. We removed the book from our website (it had not sold any copies) and our contract was reinstated. With regards to our printing, we originally used an up-front printing method, but were approached by Ingram’s IngramIgnite program (a program specifically for small presses) about using their system. We transitioned to their system, but still process upfront orders of copies of books and fulfill them to bookstores in the US and Canada that are ordered directly from us through our marketing efforts. Additionally, we make sure our wholesale pricing is competitive to get our books listed with as many retailers as possible, and we’ve enjoyed great success with the help of our partners at Ingram.

Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Are we learning from our mistakes and putting in place processes to ensure they don’t happen again? Absolutely.(I’m not familiar with IngramIgnite; websearches don’t turn up any information.)

To his credit, Martin admits mistakes. But fostering an us-and-them mentality (hints of this come through in the statement, and it’s clear from my communications with Martin, as well as what CLP authors–both pro and con–have shared with me, that the complaining authors are being badmouthed internally), and blaming writers, if only partially, for mistakes such as poor proofing (authors certainly owe their publisher the duty of checking their proofs, but ultimately it’s the publisher’s responsibility, and not the author’s, to make sure books are error-free), doesn’t seem like the most positive way forward.

. . . .

Good intentions are all very well. But most of the publishers I’ve featured on this blog had good intentions, at least to start. Writers need to keep in mind that good intentions–like responsiveness, enthusiasm, praise, and all the other non-publishing-related things that so often entice writers into questionable situations–aren’t a substitute for knowledge, experience, qualified (and adequate) staff, and working capital–all of which are far more important factors in a publisher’s success. Just as new writers can get into trouble if they set out to get published without taking the time to learn about publishing, inexperienced publishers can run into difficulties if they start up too quickly and attempt to learn on the fly. 

In effect, such publishers are using their writers as subjects in a kind of science experiment. Sometimes the experiment succeeds, against odds and errors. Sometimes it doesn’t. But while unwary writers’ screwups harm only themselves, a publisher’s screwups harm its authors.

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

PG noted the following in the publisher’s comments about the problems reported in the OP:

Author copies are a large expense for the company.

For PG (who may be wrong), this statement caused a large flashing sign to appear in his mind’s eye:

Undercapitalized

Once the presses start running for publication of a hardcopy book, a few extra copies are pretty cheap.

Here are Amazon’s published printing costs for KDP books:

Paperback specification: black ink with 110-828 pages
Amazon.com0.85 USD per book0.012 USD per page
Amazon.ca1.11 CAD per book0.016 CAD per page
Amazon.co.uk0.70 GBP per book0.010 GBP per page
Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, Amazon.es0.60 EUR per book0.012 EUR per page
Amazon.com.au2.17 AUD per book0.0215 AUD per page
Amazon.co.jp175 YEN per book2 YEN per page

That works out to $3.85 for a 250-page trade paperback on a print-on-demand basis. Twenty free copies cost $77.

The OP says the publisher’s catalog totals 40 books. That’s a total expanse of a little over $3,000 for all the author copies in the publisher’s catalog at the price Amazon calculates its POD cost is.

If $3,000 is a “large expense” for the publisher, PG wonders how much working capital the publisher has available to pay its employees, rent, advertising and promotion costs, printers bills, etc., etc., etc., and afford all the other things any business has to pay for if it’s going to be successful.

From The Free Dictionary:

handwaving

Actions, words, or ideas that are meant to impress or appear convincing but which are in reality insubstantial or inconsequential.The governor has been doing a lot of political handwaving over the issue of immigration lately, but few suspect that anything will actually be accomplished in the coming year.

. . . .

See also:

  • airy-fairy
  • run on fumes
  • run on empty

Link to the rest at The Free Dictionary

4 thoughts on “Author Complaints at City Limit Publishing”

  1. On one hand, PG forgot to include shipping costs in the cost to the publisher of the authors’ copies — both from the printer to the publisher, and the publisher to the author. (Any publisher who allows something fulfilling a contract term with the author to be shipped third party to third party without going through the publisher’s fingers for inspection is “intellectually undercapitalized.”)

    On the other hand, if this publisher is using more-traditional printing arrangements (hey, guys, “traditional” isn’t always a dirty word for publishing!), which is sort of implied on the publisher’s website, the POD per-copy costs significantly overestimate the per-copy costs on any print run of over 1200 or so… and the per-copy shipping cost from the printer to the publisher is lower, too.

    But the key point is that if this is a significant expense to the publisher that prevents other aspects of the publisher’s business from having adequate capital, “undercapitalized” is the least of the problems. It also means that the publisher screwed up its own contracts (which, from Victoria’s description of the history of the publisher’s contracts, is a vast understatement), its own schedules, its own entire process. None of which is a good thing for anybody.

    “New publishers” remind me very much of the old progression in talking about military affairs:
    Amateurs talk about the cool hardware
    Dilletantes talk about tactics
    Politicians talk about operations
    Statespeople talk about grand strategy
    Professional military officers talk about logistics
    During all of the time I’ve been fussing about with publishing, that seems just about right for publishing, too.

    • Good points, C. I didn’t include shipping.

      In the US, Media Mail (which includes the old book rate) is $2.80 for a 1 pound package. After 1 pound, the price increases by just $0.53 per pound.

      I’ll let someone else calculate how much it would cost to mail 20 author’s copies of a typical POD trade paperback.

      • PG, media mail now cuts off at five pounds, so ten copies or fewer per package. (This is thanks to lobbying of Congress and the Postal Service, first and foremost; it’s an ugly, ugly tale straight out of Leverage (“A congressman is one of the best investments a corporation can make!”).) Thus, at least two packages for trade paperbacks — the weight of the carton counts, too — and probably three.

        Which is all part of thinking about logistics… and until you’ve had to both plan for and implement the no-notice shipment of an aircraft maintenance squadron, with all tools and equipment and supplies and personnel and the personnel’s needs, halfway around the world, you really don’t understand how the Butterfly Effect should have been popularized through failures in logistics (like, say, failing to account for the weight of the pallets and tie-down straps, which fortunately we caught in time to prevent aircraft overloading because the model of aircraft we actually used was different from that in the three-year-old deployment plan, and ended up requiring an additional aircraft to do the entire job once it was applied to everything). Applying this to a cross-country shipment, with the destination not having a loading dock (it’s a garage), of forty-seven cartons of books, is left as an exercise for the prospective small press entrepreneur.

        • Leverage was fun.
          Happy to see Amazon bringing it back.
          It’s not the only source pointing out how cheap politicians are to buy, though.

          Once upon a time the FBI policed corruption and the media even reported it instead of helping cover it up or just ignoring it.
          Past cases had congressional reps going for as little as $30k. These days the few cases that eke out suggest $100K which is basically flat from 1980 to today.

          Too much competition for them to raise tbeir rates: more supply than demand.

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