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 (you can take a peek at that version of its website courtesy of the Internet Archive), 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.
CLP’s online presence appears professional, from covers to web design–but on a closer look, there are some oddities. As of this writing, all four books shown on CLP’s homepage as “coming soon” appear to have missed their original pub dates by weeks or months. (See my Update, below.) (NOTE: CLP’s website is no longer functional, and there’s no archive of the version that was current when I wrote this post, but an older version can be seen here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.)
Google Books shows pub dates for three of these books in June and July (the fourth, Love is Not Tourism, doesn’t show up anywhere)–but as of this writing, only one of the titles has an Amazon listing.
Multiple other books appear to show a May 5 pub date on CLP’s website but are still listed for pre-order (you can see examples here and here). Again, these titles can be found on Google Books with upcoming June and July pub dates (examples here and here), but have no Amazon listings–including this one, which Google Books says was supposed to publish on June 10:
(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 says, 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.”
It’s worth noting that CLP authors dispute this statement based on their own experiences, and there’s also the example of the book pictured above, which as of this writing has clearly missed its pub date.)
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’ve seen supporting documentation on all of this.)
Several authors have taken advantage of CLP’s generous termination clause, and canceled their contracts and reverted their rights.
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.
I did hear from some authors who said they are happy with their CLP experience so far. Though all acknowledge mistakes, they feel these have been addressed to their satisfaction, and that CLP is well-intentioned and “trying to do its best”.
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. The nature of CLP’s problems suggest that lack of experience is at fault, rather than ill-will or deliberate malfeasance. But to the authors who experience these things, there is little difference.
UPDATE 6/21/21: Writer Beware has learned that three senior staff members have recently left City Limits Publishing. So it isn’t just authors. I’ll post more info as I receive it.
UPDATE 6/25/21: The City Limits website is offline.
UPDATE 7/6/21: Today, CLP authors received emails from Robert Martin announcing that CLP will be closing its doors as of July 21, just over a year after starting up.
For authors whose books were not released, the email serves as notice that their contracts have been voided. For authors whose books were published, the picture is a bit more complicated.
The email also promises that orders of books that haven’t been released will be refunded, and orders of books that have been published will be shipped.
Authors and staff who are owed royalties and salaries, please let me know if you receive payment.
A final note: City Limits’ story is a common one in the small press world: inexperienced person starts a publisher, tries to learn on the fly, gets in over their head logistically and financially, resorts to obfuscation and deflection to keep things going while staff and authors get ever more dissatisfied, and finally goes out of business (sometimes without any warning or rights reversions; thankfully that does not seem to be happening in this case, but it’s early days).
I wish I didn’t hear this story so often. But as an object lesson, it points up how important it is for a would-be publisher to have experience–not just publishing experience, but business experience (and even then there are no guarantees)–and also why it’s a bad idea to sign on to a new publisher with a limited track record. This is why I advise writers to wait at least a year before submitting to new small presses.
CLP authors and staff, please keep me updated on whether you’re receiving payments and rights reversions, either by emailing me or commenting below.
UPDATE 7/20/21: Apparently City Limits isn’t the first failed business associated with Robert Martin. Under the name Robert Coles, he co-founded a web design and social media agency in 2013 called Coles & Colomy, which collapsed after a short time under similar allegations of non-payment and misrepresentation.
UPDATE 8/17/21: The City Limits website is gone. On Amazon, CLP books are still for sale, but Kindle listings have been removed, so I’m thinking that this is an effort to sell off print stock (for which royalties should most definitely be due). CLP’s Bookshop.org page is still online, but all the books show as “backorders.”
In the comments on this post, people are reporting that orders they’ve placed for CLP books have not been filled. (Surprise!)
Authors, have any of you gotten the second quarter royalty payments that Robert Martin promised to pay out on July 20?
UPDATE 8/18/21: In response to my question yesterday about second quarter royalty payments, I’ve heard from a number of CLP writers who say they have received precisely nothing. (Again: surprise!) No payments, no statements, no updates or even excuses from Robert Martin–who, writers tell me, is not responding to any attempts at contact and has gone dark on social media.
I’ve also seen documentation that Robert under-reported sales (by half) in at least one case (confirmed in writing by IngramSpark). In other cases, he over-reported sales (but did not pay the corresponding royalties). It’s a puzzling tangle of untruths, but the through-line is that Robert lied, repeatedly, to the authors to whom he had a contractual duty of responsibility and transparency.
It also seems pretty clear at this point that no money will be forthcoming–even though CLP’s inventory of physical books is for sale on Amazon (something that will complicate writers’ ability to re-publish, even if they regained their rights before CLP shut down, because it puts them in competition with themselves). It’s all just disgraceful.
Reports have been made to local law enforcement, but to date I’m not aware that there have been any consequences.
UPDATE 10/25/21: Ex-City Limits author and staffer Peter Fenton has made a video about his experience with the publisher. It really brings into sharp focus the extent of the deception and gaslighting to which Robert Martin subjected everyone in his orbit. Much more than the large sums in royalties and back wages that are still owing, or even the disappointment of sabotaged books, this emotional manipulation is the source of the anger and hurt that CLP authors and staff feel so keenly.