In mid-2016, I wrote about YA publisher Month9 Books’ abrupt decision to scale back its list, reverting rights to as many as 50 authors across all its imprints. Explaining the culling, Month9 founder and CEO Georgia McBride cited her own health problems, along with staffing issues and the company’s “substantial growing pains” over the past six to nine months.
McBride’s announcement triggered a surge of complaints from Month9 authors, who described a host of serious problems at the company, including late or missing payments (for staff as well as authors), problems with royalty accounting, delayed pub dates, broken marketing promises, overcrowded publication schedules, communications breakdowns, and harsh treatment and bullying by McBride.
According to authors and staff, these problems were not new or even recent, but had been ongoing for a long time. Why had authors kept silent? Almost every writer who contacted me mentioned their fear of retaliation–along with the draconian NDA included in Month9’s contracts. I’ve rarely encountered a situation where authors seemed so fearful of their publisher.
Things quieted down after the initial flood of revelations, as they often do. Month9 survived and kept on publishing, though its list continued to shrink: between a high point in 2016 and now, the number of titles appears to have fallen about 50%. Apart from a handful of additional complaints in late 2016 and early 2017 (similar to this one), I didn’t hear much about Month9 in the years following.
Until now. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been contacted by multiple writers who say they are still suffering from the same problems that surfaced in 2016: primarily, late (sometimes very late) royalty and subrights advance payments and statements (in many cases received only after persistent prodding by authors and their agents), and allegations of irregularities in royalty reporting.
The intimidation level, too, seems not to have changed. Most of the authors told me that they feared reprisal for coming forward, and asked me specifically not to mention their names or book titles. (Writer Beware never reveals names or other unique identifying information, unless we receive specific permission from the individual. That disclaimer is included on our website and in our correspondence.)
If you’ve been following the recent ChiZine scandal, you may be feeling some deja vu–notably, in the alleged existence of a toxic culture within the publisher that makes authors fearful and and helps to keep them silent. It’s disappointing to learn that even if the issues that thrust Month9 into the spotlight three years ago have gone quiet, they don’t seem to have eased. Writers be warned.
I wrote about Black Rose Writing in 2009, in connection with its requirement that authors buy their own books. Writers who submitted were asked how many of their own books they planned to buy; their response was then written into their contracts. (Book purchase requirements are back-end vanity publishing: even if writers aren’t being asked to pay for production and distribution, they still must hand over money in order to see their work in print.)
Black Rose got rid of the book purchase requirement a few years later, and claimed to be a completely fee-free publisher. I had my suspicions that money might still somehow be involved, though…and as it turns out, I wasn’t wrong. Here’s what I’ve recently learned.
Black Rose authors are still strongly encouraged to buy bulk quantities of their own books, at paltry discounts (unless they spring for 100 or more). Black Rose claims that this is how “authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling climbed to the top of the bestseller’s list”–which of course is not even remotely true. Plus, reputable publishers provide promotional copies for free.
Black Rose authors also receive a Cooperative Marketing Catalog that sells a range of pay-to-play marketing and promotional services, with costs ranging from a few hundred dollars to four figures. Purchase is optional–but it’s worth remembering that reputable publishers don’t sell marketing or other services to their authors, and in any case, much of what’s on offer are things that other publishers, even very small ones, do for their authors free of charge, as part of the publication process.
Authors also regularly receive emails offering additional paid marketing opportunities–such as Amazon ads or special NetGalley deals–or encouraging them to buy into various outside products and services for which Black Rose receives an affiliate fee or credit–such as DartFrog, which for several hundred dollars promises to place books onto selected bookstore shelves, or ProWritingAid, a grammar and style checker Black Rose uses as part (or all?) of its editing process.
Again, purchase is optional, but it’s something of a Catch-22:
Black Rose also seeks to drain its authors’ bank accounts in more stealthy ways. Owner Reagan Rothe is a self-described “financial partner” in two additional businesses: the Maxy Awards, a high entry fee book competition that donates “a large part of every entry” to a charity (how large? No idea; that information is not provided); and Sublime Book Review, a pay-to-play review service.
Though Mr. Rothe’s financial interest in these businesses is not disclosed on the business’s websites, both businesses are clearly energetically promoted to Black Rose authors. On Sublime’s website, nineteen of the first 20 book reviews are for Black Rose books. There’s also this, from the marketing catalog (note the lack of disclaimer):
As for the Maxys, thirteen of the 17 winners and runners-up for 2019 are Black Rose books.
Mr. Rothe does admit his relationship with the businesses in this recent email to Black Rose authors–though only to afford them yet another opportunity to give him money:
UPDATE 7/28/21: In yet another monetization effort–this time to extract some cash from writers it decides not to publish–Black Rose Writing is promoting the Maxy Awards in its rejection emails, suggesting that rejected writers enter their books because “winning an award like this would definitely help get your book published” (conveniently, the Maxys accept unpublished manuscripts). There’s no mention of the fact that Reagan Rothe is a “financial partner”. Rejectees subsequently receive this: