Earlier this month, Lisa Kessler, a paranormal romance author, logged into Kindle Direct Publishing to check her earnings from the previous month. On her publishing dashboard, she saw something she had never seen before in her 11 years as an author: a negative earnings balance.
The reason for the negative balance? Kindle e-book returns.
Authors are protesting Amazon’s e-book return policy, a system they say allows readers to “steal” from self-published authors. Amazon’s current return policy for e-books allows customers to “cancel an accidental book order within seven days.” But, for some readers, seven days is more than enough time to finish a book and return it after reading, effectively treating Amazon like a library.
When an Amazon customer returns an e-book, royalties originally paid to the author at the time of purchase are deducted from their earnings balance. Authors can end up with negative balances when customers return books after the author has already been paid by Kindle Direct Publishing, an Amazon spokesperson said.
. . . .
Authors and readers want to change the policy
Reah Foxx, a book lover from Louisiana, started a petition to change the policy after seeing “life hacks” circulating on social media that teach readers to abuse the Amazon return policy and read for free. To date, the petition has garnered almost 70,000 signatures.
Kessler said prior to the “read and return” trend, she would normally have one or two book returns a month, something she attributed to genuine accidental purchases. Now, she sees entire series of hers being returned.
“It really rattled me,” she said. “You think, ‘Can I still make a living if this continues?’ and that’s very disheartening.”
Kristy Bromberg, a romance author, said she’s had more returns in the past two months than she had in the entire eight months before that combined.
Those suggesting the read-and-return practice think they’re “sticking it to Amazon,” but in reality are only harming the authors, said Eva Creel, a fantasy writer who publishes under the name E. G. Creel.
“I have my book available at the library. If somebody wants to read it for free, they can,” Creel said. “But reading it and making me think that I’ve made an income and then that income being taken away from me, that feels like stealing.”
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.
Paperback specification: black ink with 110-828 pages
0.85 USD per book
0.012 USD per page
1.11 CAD per book
0.016 CAD per page
0.70 GBP per book
0.010 GBP per page
Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.it, Amazon.es
0.60 EUR per book
0.012 EUR per page
2.17 AUD per book
0.0215 AUD per page
175 YEN per book
2 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:
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.
A task force has now been set up to tackle Disney’s attempts to weasel out of paying its genre authors of their promised/contracted royalties.
The organisations behind the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force include the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), the Author’s Guild, the Horror Writers Association, the National Writers Union, Novelists, Inc., the Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.
The task force includes members such as Neil Gaiman, Tess Gerritsen, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Chuck Wendig.
“Writers must be paid or given missing royalty statements; these contracts must be honoured,” said Mary Robinette Kowal, President, SFWA. “We urge all authors to review their statements to make certain they are in order.”
SFWA has told us that Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation payments have now been resolved. But about a dozen additional authors contacted SFWA with a request for help, including the authors of Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones, and multiple other properties. SFWA has provided Disney with the names of authors who are similarly missing royalty statements and payments going back years.
Fox had licensed the comics rights to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dark Horse. After Disney purchased Fox, they withdrew those rights from Dark Horse and granted them to Boom! Comics. When one Buffy author contacted Boom! about missing royalties, they were told that “royalties don’t transfer.” Disney is the owner of Boom! Comics.
So, basically, if this is allowed to legally stand, any publisher can just sell their books’ rights internally in a shell game, voiding any further author royalty payments at all.
Disney is now being reactive rather than proactively working with the SFWA to address the significant issue they have brought to their attention. While in talks for Alan Dean Foster’s Alien novels, Disney was told that Alan was also missing statements and royalties for his Star Wars novelisations. They would not begin the process or resume royalty statements until Alan contacted them with a formal claim.
“SFWA wishes to create a cooperative relationship with Disney, but the corporation flatly refuses to work with us,” added Kowal. “They say they are committed to paying the authors, but their actions make it clear that Disney is placing the onus to be paid on the authors, while at the same time attempting to isolate the authors from receiving counsel from their professional author organisation.”
. . . .
There are now many verified reports of missing statements and royalties from LucasFilm (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.); Boom! Comics, and Dark Horse Comics (Licensed comics including Buffy the Vampire Slayer); 20th Century Fox (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alien, etc.); MGM (Stargate); Marvel WorldWide (SpiderMan, Predator); Disney Worldwide Publishing (Buffy, Angel).
Link to the rest at SF Crowsnest and thanks to Stephen for the tip.