GenZ Publishing is “on a mission to bring new authors to the world.” Founded in 2015 by Morissa Schwartz when she was just out of college, GenZ publishes a wide range of genre fiction, as well as some nonfiction. It also has a YA imprint, Zenith Publishing.
Ms. Schwartz, who describes herself as a bestselling author, is also an entrepreneur: in addition to GenZ/Zenith, she’s the founder of Dr. Rissy’s Writing & Marketing, which offers various PR services along with copywriting, editing, and consulting; and, according to her Reedsy bio, of a ghostwriting company called AmWriting. She was recently elected to the IBPA Board.
GenZ first came to my attention in 2016, thanks to an unusual clause in its contract (see the second paragraph).
In other words, GenZ keeps money that would otherwise be paid to the author in order to reimburse production expenses.
This is a more speculative version of author-financed publishing, since it’s dependent on sales–but whether money is due upfront on contract signing, or on the back end after a book is published, a fee is a fee. The amount of the fee varies from book to book, from a low of $500 to the maximum $2,500; it’s now called a “Publishing Recoup” and, later in the contract, is rather disingenuously described as “our version of an author advance.” (As I’m sure my readers know, it is the very opposite of an author advance, since an advance involves payment to, and not by, the author.)
In 2016, the GenZ contract included a second, equally non-standard guarantee of publisher income:
No author discount mentioned. This requirement was dropped at some point, and doesn’t appear in more recent contracts I’ve seen.
In yet another nonstandard practice, GenZ asserts ownership of editing (a legally dubious claim) by seeking to prevent authors who are released from their contracts from re-publishing the final edited version of their books. This assertion is present in the contract (from Clause 10: “The Author cannot use any version of the book that has edits or comments from editors, proofreaders, or other staff associated with GenZ or Zenith Publishing”) and it’s referenced in emails I’ve seen from Morissa Schwartz.
Since 2016, I’ve both received, and seen on social media, a small number of complaints from GenZ authors: poorly formatted books, lackluster marketing, and things that suggest disorganization (wrong books sent in response to an author order, for instance). You can see a couple of these complaints on this Reddit thread.
In the past few weeks, though, the number of complaints has really accelerated. I’ve heard from multiple authors who cite a long list of issues they experienced in 2020 and 2021:
- Production mistakes: books published with typos and formatting errors, books published with the wrong files (unproofed versions, unedited versions, versions with old revisions), mis-aligned covers or covers with typos, and one instance in which one author’s book was published with the right cover but another author’s text–a disaster for both authors, since the second author’s book hadn’t yet been released. Here’s what one author was forced to post to social media after the wrong version of their book was released in multiple formats (the panicked author was told that the issue would be dealt with “during business hours”):
- Unrevised or outdated files posted on NetGalley for reviewers
- Lost files and other materials
- Extremely late proofs, in some cases received just days before the pub date
- Release snafus: missed release dates, books released too early, books released in only one format. Authors’ promotional plans were disrupted as a result
- Late sales/royalty statements (but no complaints about late payment, probably thanks to the Publishing Recoup)
- Communications problems: difficulty getting staff to respond to questions, concerns, and emergencies, difficulty getting staff to address or fix the problems described above, and alleged censorship of the GenZ authors’ Facebook group after authors started sharing their experiences.
In July 2021, a group of authors sent an email to GenZ describing their concerns. This produced a promise to “improve.” But, based on the information and documentation authors shared with me, the problems continued in the months that followed. Rapid staff turnover and a dearth of experience may have been contributing factors: in mid-September, for instance, GenZ announced that it was “starting fresh with a brand new team”, several of whom were former interns. (GenZ seems to rely heavily on the work of unpaid interns; you can see how some of them feel about the experience here). I’ve seen email exchanges in which these new staffers seem to be unfamiliar with basic publishing terms, could not figure out why problems were happening, or confessed that they were learning as they went.
In another apparent devolution of expertise–or maybe an effort to cut costs–GenZ’s contract was recently altered to indicate that editing is done not by editors, but by beta readers (more interns?):
In other possible signs of cost-cutting, GenZ pulled out of NetGalley and mostly stopped using Ingram in early 2022. It appears to be publishing primarily–or possibly only–via KDP (which poses a challenge for authors who want bookstores to be able to order their books). Authors have also told me that GenZ no longer provides ARCs (although if this is the case, its website hasn’t been updated to reflect the change)–and in the past few months, at least some authors have been informed that they’d have to pay for marketing opportunities that were formerly financed by the publisher.
For most of its existence, the Copyright clause of GenZ’s contract looked like this:
That’s fairly standard language, although it’s not that common for a small press to register on its authors’ behalf (and no mention is made of who pays for it).
Sometime in 2020, GenZ decided to make a change:
This is…weird. Is GenZ really encouraging authors to believe that the main benefit of copyright registration is so that the publisher can send out DMCA notices? Which, by the way, wouldn’t be the appropriate action to take in the event of infringement like this. As for “constructive notice“–defined as “A legal presumption that a party has notice when it can discover certain facts by due diligence or inquiry into the public records”–it’s irrelevant to registration, given that copyright exists by law whether the copyright is registered or not.
In any case, the fact that GenZ now leaves copyright registration up to the author doesn’t change earlier contracts’ requirement that GenZ register copyright on authors’ behalf. As I mentioned above, this is somewhat unusual, so I decided to check.
Using the US Copyright Office’s Copyright Public Records Catalog, I searched on the authors and titles of over 40 GenZ books, starting with 2020 publications (books whose contracts were likely to have been offered before 2020 and thus to include the old copyright language), and going all the way back to GenZ’s origins in 2015. I found just three registrations–all done by the authors themselves for unpublished works. I did not find a single registration by GenZ for any of the books I checked.
This would seem to be a pretty clear breach of GenZ’s contractual obligations.
I reached out to Morissa Schwartz for comment (on other matters too–see our Q&A below). She initially wasn’t willing to comment on the record, but when I again requested a response, she sent me a screenshot of the new copyright clause. When I pointed out that this was a relatively recent change, she again didn’t address the missing registrations, stating only that “We would never intentionally mislead or breach an agreement. We always intend(ed) to do everything correctly and by the books.” Any breach, she said, was on the part of GenZ authors who disclosed the terms of their contracts.
Q&A With Morissa Schwartz
In the Q&A that follows, as well as articles she’s written, Morissa refers to “bootstrapping”: the process of starting a business with minimal capital and no outside financing. As the issues discussed above suggest (and my many blog posts about troubled publishers attest), it’s a precarious way to run a publisher.
Below, and also in emails to me, Morissa acknowledges that there have been problems, and claims that they are attributable to the disruptions of the pandemic. And indeed, the recent spate of complaints are all from 2020 and 2021. But the (admittedly few) complaints about GenZ that pre-date Covid do suggest that at least some of GenZ’s problems are of older standing. And while Morissa says that things are running smoothly now, that doesn’t fit with what authors have reported to me.
If you’re a GenZ author and would like to share your experience–good or bad–please contact me.
WRITER BEWARE: The GenZ contract includes a Publishing Recoup fee of between $500 and $2,500 (GenZ keeps authors’ royalties until the recoup is reimbursed), which the contract describes as “our version of an author advance”. Keeping royalties in order to reimburse publishing expenses is not standard publishing practice (it’s also nothing like an author advance). Why did you feel that a Publishing Recoup was necessary for GenZ?
MORISSA SCHWARTZ: I bootstrapped this company from college. I unexpectedly graduated from undergrad a year early, and the first thing I did upon graduating, was start this GenZ. When I went into the bank requesting a loan, baby-faced, college-aged me with no credit history was laughed out of the bank.
I originally started the company after a few negative experiences in the publishing industry. The first was pitching my own book to about 100 publishers while a junior in college. I didn’t hear back from most publishers, and it was a terrible feeling not knowing if they even got my manuscript or if they hated it. Some who responded said I was too young. That was the first lightbulb in my head that made me say “If I had my own publishing company, we would give feedback to every query, whether we published them or not. And we would not discriminate any author based on age, gender, background, etc.”
Then when I did have my book published by a traditional publisher, I learned a lot and saw things that I would improve in my own company. At the same time, I saw a close friend get swindled by a vanity publisher. They charged him $5,000 to put his book on KDP and did nothing else. He was a trusting religious man and my heart broke for him. I never wanted to put an author in a situation like that.
I knew that I was not a big publisher and could not afford to do everything I wanted to out of pocket. I certainly did not want to be like any of the negative examples above. I met with a mentor from the SBA [Small Business Association]. She kept insisting I charge authors up front, but I was so afraid of being considered one of those predatory ‘vanity’ publishers I would read about on Writers Beware or like one like the company that ‘scammed’ my trusting friend, that I refused. We compromised on the recoup model. It was the only way I could afford to start and run the company. I would work hard every day in grad school (I earned my Masters in Public & Corporate Communication followed by my Doctorate in Literature during this time), come home and freelance to pay for these books, and then work on the books. I had no time for anything except for school and work, but I was passionate about books and was determined to help underrepresented authors publish their books.
Since then, we have continued to bootstrap. We came close to working with a few VCs [venture capitalists] but never went through with it.
WB: I understand that GenZ recently stopped participating in NetGalley and is no longer using Ingram. What prompted those decisions?
MS: We went with alternative options for book reviews and publishing and are open to exploring both Netgalley and Ingram again in the future.
WB: According to a recent GenZ contract, editing is to be done by beta readers. In previous contracts, editing was to be done by editors. Why was this change made?
MS: I used to edit many of the books myself. However as we became more selective, most books come to us already edited, so it makes more sense to have several beta readers go through each book. They point out things most editors would not and we get diverse opinions on each book. There are select books we provide editing help to, but that is at our discretion.
WB: How are GenZ staff paid? Salary, project fees, or a royalty share?
MS: Most are paid hourly. Some, like cover creators and formatters, are paid on a project basis.
WB: What percentage of GenZ staff are unpaid interns?
MS: We have a great internship program that started thanks to me being a student while starting my company. I first enlisted classmates to help me grow the company and they helped me to make an enriching internship program where many of our student interns earn credits. Another exciting program we did was having an entire literature class, professor included, ‘intern with us’ by beta reading our books together as a class, critiquing, and learning the publishing process with us. That was their class. It was awesome!
Also, while we do provide college credits for many of our interns who are college students, many of our interns are not college students. Many are parents, some are following their passions and making a career shift, and others are in their second act looking to expand their horizons. Some are already in similar industries looking to hone their skills or get more experiences.
We have 5 paid team members and several contractors who oversee everything and do the bulk of the work. We have about 20 interns in our internship program, but we would not commingle and have the interns do the work of the paid team members and vice verse. The interns are here to learn, give feedback (so that we can gauge reader response), and help spread the word about the books.
WB: In my first email I referenced the wide range of problems that have been reported to me by GenZ authors. The issues described and documented for me seem to have become especially acute in fall and winter 2021, following a major staff turnover in September 2021 and the hiring of several former interns. A lack of experience does seem to have played a part in the problems writers describe, and in the difficulty they describe in getting the problems resolved. Can you share how GenZ is addressing these serious issues, including ensuring that staff have adequate training and experience, and that mistakes and errors (such as incorrectly formatted books or books published with typos and other errors) are timely addressed and corrected?
MS: I hate to complain about COVID in this context when so many people have lost their lives to it; however, these issues would not have happened without COVID. My company ran smoothly for 5 years before this.
COVID hit and many of my staff who had been with me for years got it. One person, who had been with me pretty much since I started the company, is immuno-compromised. She made the difficult decision to move to a city with a healthcare center that specializes in her disease and to a larger company where she could get the healthcare coverage she needed. At the same time, another team member, who started out as an intern and was with me about three years, had long term effects caused by COVID. She could no longer concentrate and always felt sick. She could no longer work. At the same time, I contracted Lyme disease and was in treatment for 31 days. My neck was so sore and headaches so severe, that I needed help reading and responding to emails from an assistant. I did not miss a day of work, but it did make an already difficult situation even more strained.
This was the first time there were issues in our company. With these these important team members gone with virtually no notice (they of course gave advance notice but were so sick they really could not work much in that time), we had to find replacements, fast. Not only that, but we had to train these replacements, not only on our protocols, but on where each book was in the process.
Given the state of the great resignation, it was not as easy as it used to be to find new team members. I moved a few great former interns up to paid positions and hired a new manager, who the authors loved. About four months into the new manager’s position, she contracted COVID. She was also immuno-compromised, and her effects were long-term. She could no longer work. It was the worst case scenario, an absolute nightmare that many other small businesses I know have also faced (I am an instructor and counselor with the WCEC and see business owners with similar hiring challenges often).
Given the state of the world, specifically the business and hiring world, I could have chosen to shut down as many other companies did. I even had someone contact me and inquire about buying the business. But we had too many books slated for release and too many authors I did not want to disappoint. I love this company and would not give it up. We persisted.
The issue wasn’t that the new team members were not adequately knowledgable or trained. The issue was that we had so many authors needing our attention, and we needed to catch the new team members up. There was so much to do and a lot of rushing. We had so many requests and worked so hard to address each individual that reached out to us. Any issues that occurred were a result of this catch-up period.
We have always hired from our internship pool. That should be one of the goals of the any internship program: to offer paid positions to those who did well and who want to work with you. So I moved up one of those former interns to manager, who would have been moved to a paid position regardless of the hiring issues. She was great and we knew we wanted to work together after she spent a full year in our internship program. She is one of the examples I spoke of earlier, who was not a college student when she interned with us but someone over a decade into her career, who is passionate about books and who wanted to hone her skills through the internship program. She has been amazing at getting us back to where we were before we lost these team members.
We are now running much more smoothly. We no longer have to rush as we did before when the new team members were catching up. We have more safeguards in place so that if a team member gets sick or leaves, we have SOPs organized for replacements. We have checks and balance systems.
If you check out any of our books online or on a book shelf, you will not see grammatical mistakes, formatting mistakes, or sloppy covers. Our quality has remained intact. We have worked with over 100 authors over the last 6+ years, and I am proud of our published titles.
WB: Several authors have told me that royalty statements are often late. Is GenZ addressing that issue, and if so, how?
MS: With the team member turnaround, this was the first time ever that some royalty reports were sent out later than we would have liked. And that is for the simple reason that new people had to be trained on how to do it correctly. We do try to keep as transparent with authors as possible and showed them how to make Amazon Author Central accounts so that they could at least keep track of sales from there until we were back up and running.
UPDATE 4/23/22: In another indication that errors and communication problems continue to happen, a GenZ author is having a lot of trouble getting GenZ staff to fix, or even respond on, a pretty important mistake: printing a copyright notice inside their book in the name of the wrong person. (The author has given me permission to share this, and I’ve linked to the original tweet, but I’m obscuring their identity here.)
UPDATE 4/25/22: Aaaaand here comes the retaliation.
Another GenZ author speaks out:
Do not publish with GenZ Publishing; a 🧵.
Tallie is not the only author being mistreated by GenZ. I’ve been hesitant to speak out for fear of this exact retaliation but frankly I have nothing to lose anymore. #WritingCommunity #amwriting #amquerying https://t.co/bqcgzfMnrT— Jessa G—ON HIATUS (@jessagraythorne) April 25, 2022