A few months ago, I began getting questions about a self-described hybrid (read: fee-charging) publisher called New Degree Press (NDP). Reported fees were in the $5,000 to $8,000 range, which paid for a suite of publishing services including editing, formatting, and publication via KDP and IngramSpark.
So far, so unremarkable. But there’s something that sets NDP apart from more familiar pay-to-play publishing ventures: although it presents the appearance of an independent publisher on its rather sparse website (including soliciting submissions), NDP is in fact the publishing arm of The Creator Institute, an entrepreneurship course created by Georgetown University professor Eric Koester.
THE PROCESS AND THE PUBLISHER
Likened to a master’s degree or MBA, the Creator Institute (CI)–dubbed the bSchool Program (for Book School)–enables students to “learn-by-doing–enabling you to discover your passion, develop your expertise and establish your credibility through the creation and launch of your very own book.” Method and goals are summarized thus:
Students take a two-semester, experiential learning course that teaches the principles of developing and launching a venture using a nonfiction book as the “product.” The students apply all of the cutting-edge entrepreneurship principles — ideation, customer discovery, hypothesis testing, persuasion, startup marketing, startup sales, public relations — but do so with a product that is lower risk than many “startup ventures.” It offers long-term credibility and expertise to the student even if they do not wish to pursue an entrepreneurial venture immediately after college. Students are trained in the creator mindset, which increases their chances of eventually becoming a successful founder.
Both the CI and Prof. Koester have won awards for innovation, and there are offshoots of the program at colleges across the country.
Primarily targeting college and high-school students, the bSchool Program proceeds in two phases, taking a total of around 10 months. The first phase consists of lectures, group discussions, and work assignments geared to producing a complete book manuscript. The second phase focuses on publication of the ms. via New Degree Press.
Publishing with NDP is not compulsory; students who complete the first phase don’t have to move on to phase two. It appears, though, that most people do.
Co-founded in 2017 by Prof. Koester and Tucker Max of Scribe Media, NDP is prolific. To date it has issued 540 titles, according to Amazon, more than half (311) published in 2020 alone. In 2021, projected output will nearly double, according to Creator Institute’s Spring 2021 Program Overview (page 10). Many of the books are under 200 pages–NDP mss. average 25,000 words for a rough draft and around 30,000 words for a finished manuscript–and the vast majority are nonfiction, with a small number of fiction titles scattered in.
Three author “cohorts” sign up with CI annually, each consisting of well over 100 writers. Georgetown University students can attend in-person sessions–or at least they could; I don’t know what impact the pandemic might have had on this–but the bulk of the learning is virtual, via an open version of the course. Writers receive one-on-one attention from editors and designers, and there is a roster of outside speakers, but much of the instruction appears to come in the form of recorded lectures and workshops, as well as weekly meetings and community discussions between the writers themselves. Class materials are template-heavy, based on examples I saw, an approach that I imagine is helpful for non-writers, but for creative writing, including creative nonfiction, not so much (this was acknowledged by NDP editors who contacted me).
CI/NDP promises that “All the developmental editors working with the program are professional editors who have worked on numerous books” (Overview, page 10). Neither Creator Institute nor NDP identify their staff, so it’s difficult to assess this claim. I have managed to glean the names of several editors, however, and while some do show substantial experience, others have much less (in some cases, per their LinkedIn bios, they don’t seem to have worked as editors at all prior to being hired by NDP). Brian Bies, Head of Publishing, does not appear to have had any professional publishing or writing experience before assuming his position, other than going through the CI program and publishing his own book through NDP. (Here’s his explanation of economies of scale in publishing, aka “batching”, which he compares to dining at Benihana.)
Writers are expected to do a lot of heavy lifting over the course of the publishing process–from drumming up support for their crowdfunding campaigns (see below), to providing ideas for cover design (including creating mock covers), to doing some of the work of layout. Authors get assistance in developing “a 3-4 month automated marketing plan” (Overview, page 6) but must handle the actual implementation (and expense) themselves. Authors are also encouraged to write back cover blurbs for each other, and are responsible for ordering books to mail out to campaign backers (NDP reimburses them for this).
The final work of uploading and publishing the finished books to KDP and IngramSpark is entirely done by authors.
Participants in the manuscript-creation phase of the open (virtual) version of the program pay just $249 ($499 for non-students) to cover the cost of their developmental editors. The big bucks don’t kick in until the publishing phase.
In its first couple of years, CI held publishing expense down to “less than $1,200 per author,” defrayed by a “donor grant” (aka Bank of Dad). Times sure have changed. The price tag now is $5,000, $6,000, or $8,000, depending on which plan students choose. These costs were laid out as flat fees last year, but they’ve been re-formulated in the Spring 2021 Program Overview to include cost breakdowns (page 6).
There’s also a $300 deposit to cover production of a promotional video (refundable if you choose the $8,000 option and make your goal).
To defray these hefty fees, writers can choose to “self-fund”, or they can raise the money through a crowdfunding campaign. Most choose a campaign.
Conducted on Indiegogo, the campaigns all follow a similar template (a cookie-cutter approach that has been noted by observers), featuring pre-orders (suggested softcover price: an eyebrow-raising $39) and other perks, such as “become a beta reader”. The goal is to engage in a prelaunch effort to sell 125-250 books, in order to “build your audience in advance of a formal book launch” (Overview, pages 7-8). While any professional writer will tell you that building an audience involves getting people you don’t know to buy your books, for NDP, pre-sale audience-building primarily relies on people to whom you are already connected. This isn’t emphasized in the 2021 literature, but it’s explicit in last year’s Overview (“Most presales come from friends, family, coworkers, classmates, alums, and people you’ve interacted with through your book-writing process” [page 13]) and was confirmed by writers who contacted me, some of whom said they found this leveraging of relationships uncomfortable.
Technically, writers who reach their crowdfunding goals don’t have to pay out of pocket–something CI makes sure to emphasize throughout its literature. And indeed, a large number of campaigns do succeed in raising or even exceeding the desired amount of cash.
What about those that don’t, though? CI encourages writers to believe this is unlikely: “96% of authors reach their campaign targets” (Overview, page 13–an estimate that’s a step down from the prior year’s Overview, which assured students that “Creators Program alums have, to date, all succeeded in their targets.” [page 12]). But in fact it’s very easy to find campaigns that have missed the mark, in some cases by quite a considerable amount of money.
Might there be substantial incentive for writers to chip in themselves to make up the difference? I’ve heard from NDP writers who say they did just that. So did this writer. Even a brief survey of NDP writers’ campaign pages indicates that self–contributions are not at all uncommon. (Writers seem to be encouraged to help fund campaigns by other NDP authors as well–a practice that appears to involve a certain amount of quid pro quo.)
Here’s where things get really murky.
NDP repeatedly identifies itself as a publisher (specifically, a “hybrid publisher”). NDP titles carry NDP ISBNs; Amazon and other retailers list it as publisher, and its name is printed inside the books and on back covers.
It also issues a Publishing Agreement. That agreement, however…well…here’s one from September 2020.
Almost nothing you’d expect to appear in a publishing agreement is present here. Grant term? Nope. Copyright? Nada. Warranties and indemnities? Absent. Termination or cancellation? Never mentioned. Publisher’s signature? Apparently not deemed necessary. As for rights and royalties, there’s only this…
…which merely affirms a basic truth about intellectual property (unless they surrender copyright, authors always “retain full ownership rights”; it’s what allows them to grant publishing rights in the first place), and doesn’t explicitly license any rights to NDP or say how or when royalties will be collected.
Of course, NDP doesn’t need to license rights, because it doesn’t actually publish anything. Writers themselves upload their finished books to KDP and IngramSpark, at which point they agree to those platforms’ rights licenses and payment terms. Presumably that’s why there’s no license language in NDP’s agreement, and no payment stipulations other than confirmation that authors keep all platform income (NDP does not take a share of sales income).
But do you see the problem here? Publishing agreements should not require you to presume. More to the point–if NDP leaves it to authors to do the actual publishing, why have a publishing agreement at all? Surely a service contract–which NDP’s agreement in fact resembles far more than it does a publishing contract–would be more appropriate.
As it is, NDP’s publishing agreement leaves important issues unaddressed, protecting neither the author nor NDP itself, and potentially setting everyone up for awkward outcomes.
For instance, suppose an NDP writer decides they want to seek a different form of publishing. They can unpublish their book from KDP and IngramSpark, per the terms of those licenses–but what about the NDP publishing agreement, which has no stated term and no provision for cancellation by the author (or even by NDP)? Presumably (that word again) the author could ask NDP to cancel it–but if NDP refused, or became unreachable, what then? How would a potential new publisher, or even another self-publishing platform, feel about an existing interminable publishing agreement, even one as vague as NDP’s? At the very least, it would be a complicating factor.
Or suppose it turns out that an NDP writer plagiarized portions of their book, or included content that someone deems defamatory, and lawsuits are filed against NDP as well as the author. With no author warranties, and no indemnity language, NDP is totally exposed. Might it claim that it wasn’t actually the publisher, since there was no explicit license of rights? Courts might be skeptical of that argument, given NDP’s repeated identification of itself as a publisher, not to mention its ISBNs and the presence of its name inside its books. Self-publishing service provider AuthorHouse did not do well with a similar argument when it was sued for libel (and now includes extensive disclaimers in its service agreement). For a publisher that touts its entrepreneurial focus, this does seem a bit short-sighted.
These scenarios are not far-fetched. The odds they’d happen might be slim–but they aren’t zero.
A CLOSED LOOP
Despite its name and claims, NDP is not much like a publisher, in the traditional sense of a company that takes on the entire work of producing, distributing, and marketing a carefully curated catalog of books.
It more closely resembles a self-publishing services provider, with an added element of coaching and community interaction. With its focus on entrepreneurship, NDP seems a better fit for people who want to use a book as a calling card or a line on their resume, than for those with ambitions of authorship. In particular, it seems a bad fit for novelists and other creative writers.
Regardless, anyone who decides to sign up with NDP should be aware that to all intents and purposes they are self-publishing, that crowdfunding success is not assured, and that–as with any self-published book–the burden and expense of marketing will fall to them.
Most of the authors I heard from had positive things to say about their CI/NDP experience, and were happy with their finished books. But all expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of the program and/or business model, from concerns about the quality of editing and copy editing, to doubts about the usefulness of the seminars, to disappointment with the lack of marketing support. These concerns echo those expressed by Clare Marie Edgeman, who lays out in a detailed blog post why she regrets publishing with NDP (see especially the section titled “The Red Flags I Ignored”).
I’m also troubled by the ethics of the CI to NDP pipeline. CI students don’t have to publish their books with NDP. But what about alternatives? CI/NDP literature paints a discouraging picture of traditional publishing, claiming it offers few chances for first-time authors “unless the author has a built-in audience that can purchase 10,000 copies of a book”, and gobbles up “90-95% of all the profit” (Overview, pages 11 and 12). According to a previous Overview, trad pubbed writers “give up their rights” and “typically end up owing the publisher money” if they don’t meet sales targets (page 11). Similarly misleading claims are made in a CI video lecture I viewed, including the common false meme that the “average” trad pubbed book sells just 250-300 copies.
Of course, for most CI authors, trad pub is moot, since 30,000-word manuscripts are unlikely to interest bigger houses unless they’re for the juvenile market, and the low word count eliminates many smaller presses as well. What about self-publishing, then? That’s portrayed as too expensive: “the average self-published author reports spending $4,450 on publishing costs” (Overview, page 14–it’s worth noting that this is just $550 less than NDP’s lowest fee level). According to the video lecture, first year sales for most self-pubbers are 50 copies or fewer. (I’m sure there are many successful self-publishers who can attest to spending far less–and selling more, too.)
The inevitable conclusion: “Hybrid publishing…offer[s] the best combination for first-time authors” (Overview, page 12). Essentially, it’s a closed loop: the CI program produces manuscripts that, for word count and possibly other reasons, have limited publishing options, and NDP is there to publish them.
Prof. Koester is NDP’s co-founder. This fact isn’t exactly hidden, but it is also not disclosed on NDP’s website or in its literature, which describes the relationship between CI and NDP as a “partnership” (as though NDP hadn’t been created specifically to service the CI program) and only acknowledges that Prof. Koester “worked” with NDP to “design this innovative, group-based, hybrid publishing experience” (Overview, page 2).
For me, this raises a question: is NDP a profitmaking entity? If so, that would represent a considerable conflict of interest. NDP’s cost breakdown for its services does suggest that it’s break-even, more or less, for CI students–but NDP also calls for unsolicited submissions from non-CI participants, and does “custom” publishing where costs are higher.
I sent this question, along with a number of others, to Prof. Koester several weeks ago. He has not responded.
UPDATE 11/22/21: Another writer has gone public with an account of their New Degree Press experience; they too have regrets.
There’s also an article from a campus newspaper about some of the criticism the NDP program is receiving.
UPDATE 1/25/21: Here’s NDP’s updated contract, provided to me by Dr. Koester. You’ll note that it bears the same date as the one above–and is even less like an actual publishing contract. Among other things, there’s no longer even a separate rights or royalties clause.
UPDATE 11/30/22: The Creator Institute has outgrown its academic origins and gone commercial. It is now Manuscripts, a “Modern Author Accelerator” that provides coaching, editing, marketing, and publishing services that “help turn your insights and stories into a book that produces life-long ROI.” There are multiple imprints, with New Degree Press being one:
From the description of the creation/publishing process on the website, as well as the more detailed current program overview, it’s the same business model that’s described above, only quite a bit more costly. The fee for program participation (5-10 months) is $833 per month. The top pre-sale goal for publishing is now $10,000.
Three days after I published this post, Prof. Koester responded to my questions. He has given me permission to reproduce his answers here. I’ve commented on some of them (in bold).
Writer Beware: NDP authors receive what is described as a Publishing Agreement (I’ve seen several examples, along with other NDP materials), and NDP is characterized in your Spring 2020 overview document as a “full service publisher”. Yet the Agreement is missing many components that publishing agreements from full-service publishers typically include, including exactly what rights are being granted to NDP and for what time period, whether subsidiary rights are involved, the parameters of editing (for instance, ensuring that major changes require author consent), warranties and indemnities, and language governing contract termination and reversion of rights (which could pose problems for writers down the road). Can you help me understand why NDP doesn’t address these important issues in its Publishing Agreement?
Eric Koester: Earlier this year we updated our publishing agreement to include answers to some of those questions, but in truth we may be incorrectly using the term “full service publisher” in our documentation. From what you’ve shared, these terms don’t really apply to ‘professionally supported self publishing’ — so it may well be that the term ‘full service publishing’ is used in error. We’ve tried to keep the agreements simple, straightforward and devoid of legalese, and so likely anything we’ve excluded is with that in mind. The short version is that New Degree Press takes no rights in the work, and any guidance to make that clear (and not confusing) would be welcomed.
I think the document you reviewed (the publishing agreement) was from early in 2020… it’s since been updated to cover all of the elements you discussed. Happy to share the updated document if it’s helpful. Any changes you recommend, we’d be happy to try and update. (The contracts I saw are from September 2020. Prof. Koester has promised to send me the latest version; when I receive it I’ll post an update.)
WB: I’m aware that authors run crowdfunding campaigns on IndieGoGo to fund the costs of NDP’s various publication options. I’ve looked at many of these campaigns (both current and past, archived on the site), and while many reach and even exceed their goals, some fall short (this has been independently confirmed for me). I’ve read what your Spring 2020 overview document says about what happens when a crowdfunding campaign doesn’t generate enough money to fund the writer’s chosen option, but can you give me one or two real-life examples?
EK: Yes that’s correct — it’s a very high funding success rate — in the 90%+ success rate every cohort thus far. (96% is the figure given in NDP’s most recent literature.) If you review prior campaigns Indiegogo, you may find there are some authors who did NOT meet their goals but if you look further you’ll see that the author did go on to publish. An example of that is Kenneth Joyner (Without a Father, October 2019). For Kenneth, he was prepared to fund the entire publishing costs himself, but decided to run a pre-sale campaign as an audience building activity and covered just over 50% of his costs through his pre-sale campaign. He covered the remainder himself and additional cash preorders. Unlike Kickstarter, these pre-sale campaigns are setup to be “Flexible”, meaning author receive the proceeds even if they do not reach their goal. That meant Kenneth used the proceeds even though he did not hit the campaign goal.
Another author Vihan Khanna sold $460 of books on Indiegogo (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/what-s-your-plus-by-vihan-khanna/x/20569148#/) and decided to use those proceeds towards self publishing which he did, releasing the book (https://www.amazon.com/Whats-Your-Plus-Graduate-College-ebook/dp/B08LK54SF4) in October 2020. Ruth Cowan started a campaign but was not able to sell sufficient copies, so I worked with her to turn her writing into a series of long-form articles based on her book content, and she refunded the pre-sale proceeds.
One important note on the timing: we are intentional that authors do NOT begin the publishing activities (other than some simple things like revisions) until they’ve completed their campaign. That way if an author does walk away, they are not required to “reimburse” any costs. It’s setup that once an author has successfully pre-sold the sufficient copies, they they proceed to the publishing process.
WB: According to your Spring 2020 overview document, writers can work with NDP on customized publishing packages even if they don’t go through the Creator Program, but the costs are higher. Can you give me an idea of the cost range for custom publishing?
EK: The costs vary depending on the book, but usually they range from $7,500 to $10,000. An example of a book that did not go through the Creator Program, but was published via a customized publishing package is Paws To Comfort (https://www.amazon.com/Paws-Comfort-Everyday-Learning-Disconnected/dp/1641372109).
WB: What sales can an NDP book expect, on average, beyond the crowdfunding pre-sales?
EK: On average, authors will pre-sell 165-170 copies, and while New Degree Press does not have exact sales numbers of the authors, from the authors who provide them they will typically sell between 100-300 more copies in their first year. There are outliers who have sold multiple thousands who do skew the average higher.
This means that authors can expect to be around the median first year sales numbers of comparable traditionally published books, and far exceeding most self published books. (The same misleading claim about trad-pub sales is made in the lecture video I saw: that sales for a trad-pubbed book average 250-300 copies. It’s a common meme, but as a broad generalization, it is not accurate.)
WB: Brian Bies doesn’t seem to have had any publishing experience (other than participating in the Creator Program) before becoming NDP’s Head of Publishing. Can you help me understand why NDP chose not to hire someone with a professional background in publishing or a related field?
EK: The publishing process at New Degree Press is based on an educational pedagogy of ‘creation-based learning’ — which means that the goal of the publishing experience is a taught/guided experience through all the aspects of publishing (pre-sales, revisions, covers, layout, marketing, printing). This has made the experience rich and fulfilling for authors who have agency and autonomy over decisions related to their book, with the support of experienced professionals. Each author goes through five main phases of their publishing journey, has a weekly live instructional session plus a one-on-one coaching call each week.
As a result, this cohort-based, creation based learning approach to publishing at New Degree Press requires a different blend of skills and experiences to work — this process is all based on the original, semester-long publishing course. As we moved from a Georgetown course into today’s cohort-based publishing experience it requires us to weave this weekly, class-based learning approach into the tactical nature of book production. The New Degree Press management team includes heads of Acquiring Editorial, Revision Editorial, Copy Editing, Art/Design, Layout and Marketing all of whom bring decades of experience in their respective fields. The head of publishing role serves to ‘manage’ the author’s journey and learning experience through each of those steps, stages and services. While Brian Bies may not bring extensive publishing industry experience, he brings substantial relevant experiences to the cohort-based publishing process having spent two years co-facilitating the ‘publishing semester’ course with me while at Georgetown and running the on-time and on-budget production processes of more than 125 books in that capacity. Over these two years he would personally facilitate more than 250 hours of publishing labs/workshops and would directly support over 100 authors from first draft manuscript to published book as my teaching assistant. Therefore, it made tactical sense to have him serve as the head of publishing who collaborates with the heads of multiple service-areas and guides each author-book through the weekly cohort-based sessions.
WB: Can you give me an idea of the kinds of credentials that other NDP staff have (editors, marketers, artists)?
EK: Acquiring Editorial — The Acquiring Editor Department has a breadth of experience and specializes in reviewing manuscripts from a number of different genres and subject areas. Some of the areas of expertise include: Poetry, Graphic Novels, Memoirs, Young Adult & Children’s Literature, Technology, Start-ups, Business, Anthropology, Sociology, Social Justice, Cultural Studies, Religion, Arts, and more. The average AE holds one more degrees in Writing, Teaching, Editing (including MFA) and has at least 4-6 years of experience in publishing. Venus Bradley (Head AE) has been in publishing for 10+ years, working on the publishing side of Borders and Barnes & Noble, has a BA and MFA in Writing, Creative Writing & Editing. The AE Department has experience working at a number of different publishers (both big and small), to name a few: Candlewick Press, McGraw Hill, Pearson Education, and Duke University Press. (As mentioned above, I was able to find NDP editorial staff with this kind of experience–but also a number with considerably less, including individuals who had not worked as editors at all prior to their job with NDP.)
Revision Editorial & Marketing — Every Marketing & Revisions Editor holds at least one degree in Teaching, Journalism, Scriptwriting, Writing, and/or Communications; approximately 50% of the MREs hold 1 or more advanced degrees beyond that. The average MRE holds at least 5-7 years of experience in marketing (in TV, in Advertising, or Marketing). Most MREs have at least 3-5 years of experience in publishing, and several with more than 10+ years experience in the industry.
Copy Editing — The Copy Editing Department has a breadth of experience in the industry (Amanda Brown, Head CE has 20+ years of experience in copy editing and publishing) and have worked at a variety of Publishing Companies (both Traditional and Smaller Presses) prior to working at NDP. The Copy Editing Department brings every manuscript up to CMoS Standards and helps polish books prior to publication.
Art/Design and Layout — Everyone in the Layout Department has 10-15+ years of experience in Layout & Design within Publishing, Journalism, and/or Media. The Art Department is relatively younger (the average experience is 2-3 years), but most designers hold 1 or more degrees in Visual Arts/Graphic Design. The Average Designer at NDP has worked on at least 50-60 books within their particular genre they design for prior to working with NDP.
WB: Is NDP a profitmaking enterprise?
EK: NDP is a social venture and is currently undergoing the process to be certified as a B-corporation (benefit corporation) like Laureate and Guild (other social education ventures). NDP does not rely on donations or grants (like 501(c)(3)), but it’s aim is to build a sustainable business that can maximize impact and educational outcomes. To date, NDP has covered its annual operating costs and paid for the staff, contractors and team. Any remaining publishing proceeds have been used to subsidize/sponsor the costs of the book creation courses and editors for students (acting much like a sponsor enabling students to participate at a sponsored rate). This is how we are able to provide students access to an editor for $249, while professionals pay $499.
WB: I’m aware that publishing with NDP is not mandatory for writers who go through the Creators Program. Even so, are you concerned about the appearance of conflict of interest in steering writers who participate in the program into a fee-charging publisher you helped to found?
EK: I think you always should be concerned about ‘steering’ anyone anywhere. I position the NDP publishing option as an option and I’m very upfront as to why generally it’s been a good fit for so many of my students — high success rates, no ownership rights given up, and a funding mechanism to make supported publishing accessible. Much like university presses which are an option available to those connected to the university, we see this as a benefit that authors have available to them.
And there is an important educational aspect of the Creators programs where I teach the students every week. It’s been one of the most important parts of the program to do a series of lectures on the publishing industry and book publishing economics designed to give authors a great deal of information about the publishing industry. Additionally, each author does their own calls with the publishing team. The goal of all of this is to create empowered authors — giving them information to make informed decisions — and never creating a scenario where they are obligated or financially required to do anything related to publishing. I find New Degree Press fills an important gap in the publishing market and does it very well.