This post has been updated.
I first started hearing about Curiosity Quills Press in 2016, because of its unusual early termination fees. Not that early termination fees themselves are unusual (unfortunately): I see them fairly often in contracts I’m asked to evaluate (and they are always a red flag; here’s why).
What makes CQ’s fees unusual is that they’re part of an annual event. This is outlined on CQ’s website, and also in its contract:
On the surface this may seem like a publisher being flexible and author-friendly–a get-out-of-jail-if-not-exactly-free procedure that authors can follow in a guaranteed and orderly manner. In fact, such provisions often work to the detriment of both authors and publishers–publishers because escape clauses may incentivize early departure, including by authors they’d rather keep; and authors because the costs can be enormous (not to mention unverifiable, if the publisher charges a flat fee or provides no supporting invoices). Plus, publishers can and do abuse termination fees–for instance, by terminating the contracts of writers who’ve pissed them off and demanding the fee even though termination wasn’t the writer’s decision.
I have never heard that CQ does anything like that. But, based on documentation I’ve seen–and also by CQ’s own admission in correspondence with me–CQ’s termination fees can top $700 per book, which, for authors requesting multiple terminations, may add up to several thousand dollars. Also, because CQ charges the entire production cost back to the author–even though, in most cases, some of that cost has been recovered through book sales–the fees yield not just reimbursement for unrecouped expense, but some degree of profit…especially where the fees compensate cash CQ never actually had to lay out in the first place, such as design and editing work done by CQ’s owners, Eugene Teplitsky and Alisa Gus.
I’ve also gotten complaints about inconsistent editing (there are some public posts about this as well). In general, though, complaints about CQ were few through most of 2016, and many authors reported being happy with the publisher.
In late 2016, however, things started to change. A trickle of reports of additional problems began to appear online: errors introduced into proofs, missed deadlines (CQ’s contract includes an elaborate set of deadlines for editing, proofing, cover art, etc.), poor communications, and a lack of marketing support (reportedly a change from CQ’s early days when it had an active marketing department).
By 2018, the trickle had become a flood. Authors began reporting not just the troubling issues mentioned above, but a host of others: revisions that never made it into published books, books published with uncorrected errors, typos on the covers of printed books, cover art received just days before the pub date, unanswered emails, book shipping problems, and late royalty payments, with some authors reporting that they hadn’t been paid in months. A number of these authors had been with CQ for years and were reluctant to criticize it, but felt compelled to speak out because of the decline they perceived in quality, timeliness, and responsiveness.
Via email, CQ’s co-owner and CTO, Eugene Teplitsky, told me that he was aware of the problems, which he attributed to “an overambitious release schedule and small, dedicated, but overloaded team”. He says that CQ is working to improve things by hiring a new staff member and scaling back its new releases (based on a search at Amazon, CQ has averaged 73 releases a year for the past few years–a lot for a small press).
Eugene acknowledged the late royalty payments, but denied that they were tardy by more than a few days. When I mentioned that I’ve seen documented complaints of royalties that were late by months, he responded that “I can only go by what I see in our ledger,” and invited authors to reach out to him for resolution. (Several authors who contacted me indicated that they had done this, and were not satisfied with the results.) To make accounting easier, Eugene plans to shift CQ from a monthly (!) royalty payment schedule to a bi-annual one (though I’ve been told by authors that other CQ promises to re-vamp its contract have yet to come to fruition).
I also asked why, when calculating termination fees, CQ bills authors for their books’ entire production cost without factoring in money made on sales. Eugene gave me a couple of responses–most of the authors exercising the escape clause have low sales so production costs “were not even close to being recouped”, the chargeback is less than what authors would pay if they commissioned the work themselves (!)–but didn’t really address my question.
The potential for a secret profit isn’t the only concern here. If an escape clause can make money for a publisher, the publisher may be tempted to encourage its authors to use it. For instance:
The screenshot above is from one of CQ’s updates about its mysterious WishKnish project (more on that below). Authors are being told that they will be expected to shoulder a major amount of marketing for this project–and if they aren’t happy about that, are being invited to leave. Which, of course, they cannot do without handing over quite a lot of money. Either way, CQ benefits: enthusiastic author-marketers or cash payouts. For authors, the advantages are less clear.
So what is WishKnish? It seems to have begun as an effort by CQ’s owners to establish a non-Amazon marketplace for CQ sales, but has morphed into an e-commerce website where sellers of all kinds, including CQ authors, can establish storefronts and make “coin-agnostic” (i.e., cryptocurrency-friendly) sales and purchases (the “knish” is WishKnish’s own currency token). There are also social media and crowdfunding components.
If you look through the jargon-heavy website, it’s clear this is a major project for CQ’s owners–and equally clear that it has nothing to do with publishing. Many of the CQ authors who contacted me fear that the problems they’re experiencing are at least partly a result of WishKnish eating up CQ staff time (seven of eight CQ team members–including Eugene and his wife–are also listed as Wishknish team members). Eugene denies that this is the case. While his wife is working full-time on WishKnish, he says, “the vast majority of my time is dedicated to CQ,” and CQ staff are not double-timing. They’re only listed at WishKnish “because eventually we will be operating both sides of the coin jointly.”
I don’t know how comforting–or convincing–CQ authors will find this.
The complaints I’ve received and seen leave me in no doubt that there are serious problems at CQ. It’s also clear that Eugene is aware of the complaints, and his responses to me indicate a willingness to address them–but he and authors aren’t completely in agreement on the nature of the problems (for instance, on the late royalties issue), and I’m skeptical that WishKnish is as minimal a distraction as he claims. I’m also–as I have been since 2016–concerned about what I consider to be the exploitative nature of one of CQ’s core business practices, the escape clause and early termination fees.
I hope CQ can turn things around. In the meantime, writers who are thinking of submitting to CQ need to carefully consider the issues outlined above.
UPDATE 9/26/28: Months after putting this post online, I’m continuing to receive complaints from CQ authors who say they haven’t been paid their royalties and are experiencing ongoing communications problems. It’s disappointing to see that these issues are continuing.
UPDATE 10/24/18: Complaints of nonpayment are continuing, and authors cite almost complete silence from Eugene Teplitsky and Alisa Gus. Extremely disappointing, especially in light of the assurances Eugene gave me about addressing the problems.
Meanwhile, WishKnish is still in beta, and Curiosity Quills, which was issuing anywhere from two to five books every month, has published nothing since last August, and has just one release scheduled for December. It remains open to submissions.
UPDATE 11/27/18: CQ appears to be selling audio rights without notifying authors. I’ve seen statements from several CQ authors who say they only found out that their books were being, or had been, made into audiobooks through outside sources. CQ authors would be well-advised to check to see if their books are available at Audible and Tantor.
UPDATE 12/17/18: “My publisher is a mess. ‘Stealing my money’ a mess.” CQ author Richard Roberts speaks out.
UPDATE 1/4/19: Things are not looking good. I’m hearing from authors that Clare Dugmore, the Marketing Director, and Andrew Buckley, the Acquisitions Manager, have left the company because of lack of payment, and that Eugene Teplitsky has completely stopped responding to emails, messages, and posts in the CQ Facebook group. Editors and designers are telling authors that they haven’t had new assignments–or been paid for assignments they did do–in months.
CQ’s website is still live. But authors tell me that as of today, emails to CQ addresses have begun bouncing, and putting that together with the other reports, it really looks as if CQ is effectively closed, or on the verge of closing. As yet, though, there has been no announcement, nor have authors had any response to their increasingly desperate requests and questions about rights reversion.
If indeed CQ is done, Eugene Teplitsky needs to do the honorable, professional thing: terminate all current in-force contracts, and revert all rights. Hopefully that’s what will happen. Hopefully CQ won’t just go dark, leaving its authors in legal limbo, like so many other small presses have done.
UPDATE 1/5/19: Through a staff member, CQ’s owners are denying that there are problems–no bouncing emails, no plans to shutter CQ–in fact they’re planning a “transition” that will focus CQ on ebooks rather than print. Meanwhile, CQ authors and staff continue to report that they aren’t being paid and are not getting responses to their questions.
The worst part about the ending of this story is what feels like unprofessional and disrespectful behavior of the company towards me and the other writers. They’ve been ghosting the entire group….I’m so sad that what started as a grand adventure has ended with me feeling like I have an especially lousy ex-boyfriend who didn’t have the balls to end it properly and let us both move on.
UPDATE 1/8/19: Publishers Lunch has picked up the CQ story (a subscription is required). They contacted Eugene Teplitsky by email:
[C]o-owner Eugene Teplitsky has confirmed to PL that the publisher is behind on authors’ royalty payments and temporarily shutting down print operations with the exception of middle grade novels, citing “month after month” of dwindling sales as the cause. All authors now have the option to terminate their contracts, “no strings attached” (including the waiving of their contractual “termination fees”), Teplitsky wrote in an email. Authors who wish to terminate should “simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will revert rights to all who ask for it, no questions asked,” he wrote. He is also giving authors the ability to shop their own subrights, “greatly relaxing” existing terms.
Teplitsky says he is focused on building “a leaner, more effective business model.” He denies that CQ is shutting down.
To cut costs, a content strategist, marketing assistant, social media marketer, and acquisitions manager have all been let go. The remaining core team includes Vicki Keire (marketing), Tanya Yakimenko (production), Hans Tjakra (production), and Vladimir Makarov (development).
This all sounds very similar to what Teplitsky told me more than 8 months ago, when I first put this post online, and I don’t imagine it will inspire much confidence in the many authors I’ve heard from who’ve been waiting weeks or months for payments or reversion letters promised to them. Or to the authors who found that their audio rights had been sold without notice–or payment–to them.
And why, despite what’s clearly a crisis situation, and what sounds like a major reorganization of CQ’s business model, is CQ still open for submissions?
UPDATE 3/4/19: Another CQ author speaks out: “Sheer and gross incompetence…and what the hell is WishKnish?”
UPDATE 10/31/19: This comment was just posted and it doesn’t sound good:
As of now, the CQ site has pulled ALL books. There have been no updates since November, 2018, and even Alisa Gus’s and Eugene Teplitsky’s Facebook and Twitter pages are all quiet as of 2018. WishKnish, as well, appears dead in the water, for all the good it did.
This whole process with CQ rankled, and to see it just quietly fade off into nothingness with a whimper and not a bang is somehow even more depressing.
There was talking in early parts of the year about CQ transitioning to “ebook only” publishing–but really, what’s the point? It doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.
Shame on Lisa and Eugene for doing this to their authors.
CQ’s website looks active, but as the comment notes, doesn’t appear to have been updated since November 2018. Ditto for its Facebook page and Twitter feed. The latest pub date for any CQ book on Amazon is December 2018.
Wishknish’s Twitter feed has been moribund since June 2018, and its website looks neglected, but its Facebook page has been recently updated.