Back in 2004, I began reaching out for an agent and or a publisher for my completed memoir, Surviving the Battleground of Childhood. Remember, this was still a time when the publishing industry was geared to snail mail and hard copy. Needless to say, we are talking about a turnaround time of six to twelve weeks or more for each query. After about a year and a half of what seemed like hundreds of rejections, I was feeling somewhat down about the whole publishing thing and, truth be known, I was probably a little desperate.
It was then that I came across the UK small press PenPress Publishers Pty Ltd, Publishing and Marketing. After sending the usual enquiry letter, I received a response expressing some interest in my book. They explained that, unfortunately, they were fully booked for the foreseeable future, but they would be interested in looking at my manuscript and, depending on the product of course, they would consider me for their partnership programme. Being pretty green, and did I mention desperate, at the time, I asked for more information regarding the ‘partnership programme’.
Basically, after a rundown of the costs involved in producing a quality paperback, the ‘partnership’ meant that I carried half of the cost for first print run of 500 books. For their part, they would distribute to all the major, reputable UK outlets, one of which was Waterstones, and through Amazon of course. Their marketing manager would set up a book signing tour in the UK and organise media coverage: newspapers and radio stations in the locality of each book signing venue. They also provided contact with a number of authors willing to endorse their claims.
I put the partnership/publishing deal on hold for a while and continued to send out queries. However, long story short, after more rejections, and very much against the advice of my wife and mentor Zoë, in 2007 I went ahead with the partnership/publishing deal.
I organised a mini book signing tour: three venues in Tasmania and two in Sydney, and received one hundred copies with which to do so. There was a major printing error in the first batch: a blank square where a photograph was missing. I should perhaps have realised then that I had made a mistake. Those books were sent out as ‘un-corrected, pre-release review copies’, and PenPress sent me another batch. Thankfully, the reorganised tour was reasonably successful.
In March 2008 I arrived in the UK to do a whirlwind tour; mainly around what used to be the coalmining areas I grew up in as a child: Glasgow in Scotland and Coventry in England.
First port of call was the publisher in Brighton, who had recently moved premises. They had downsized from the spacious, well-appointed building advertised on the website and in their brochure, to a large, terraced house. In absence was the CEO Lynn Ashman, with whom I was supposed to have a meeting. The marketing manager, Danny Bowman, talked briefly with me, assuring me that everything was in order and the books had been delivered to the venues for each of the book signing engagements, saving me the bother of lugging the books around. All I had to do was to ‘turn up’.
Second port of call was the Coventry City Centre branch of Waterstones. They were well prepared; the occasion had been effectively advertised in the local papers and on local radio. I spent a couple of hours signing a steady stream of books.
Third port of call was the Argyle Street Glasgow branch of Waterstones. I had anticipated that, with so many relatives and old friends in and around the area, this could be huge. I had travelled halfway around the world for this homecoming appearance…
No books had been delivered. I, of course, had no books with me. None of the Glasgow Waterstones branches had taken delivery of my books. At least I didn’t have to worry about disappointing an adoring public: there had been no local media coverage either. It was an unmitigated disaster.
I phoned PenPress – to say that I was irate would be somewhat of an understatement – to find out what was going on. An apologising Danny Bowmen blamed it on the courier company and the local media coordinator et cetera… pathetic! I could have reached down the phone and ripped his heart out. I considered racing down to Brighton, but I thought better of it.
I returned to Australia, with relations between myself and the publisher a little tarnished, to say the least. Then, a period of two years passed where I received no payment from any UK sales. PenPress Publishing Pty Ltd changed their name to ‘Indepenpress Publishing Ltd’, and when I enquired about sales and remuneration I was told that the initial batch I received, which I distributed and sold myself in Australia, should more than cover my cut of the minimal UK sales to date.
Quite apart from the fact that, according to contract, the publisher was supposed to provide an updated statement twice yearly, they had defaulted on the contract on a number of clauses, including the Glasgow debacle. I informed them via phone and email that, due to those contractual defaults, the contract was now null and void. However, following that exchange, my books were still available through the various outlets, including Amazon.
After consultation with a solicitor, I sent a registered letter to the publishers telling them that, after seeking legal advice, I was advising them to cease all sales forthwith, and the next letter would be coming from my solicitors. There was still no confirmation from the publisher but my books ceased being available from all outlets except Amazon, where to this day ‘used’ copies are still available. The solicitor told me that I would probably have to take them to court to stop them or to get any recompense, and that could prove to be a long and very expensive exercise.
In conclusion I’d just like to say – I know I’m not the first to learn the hard way and I’m just as sure that I won’t be the last – and I don’t think I can stress too strongly: if you have to pay anything to an agent or a publisher before you actually make any money from your book they are ripping you off. And if their morals are thus, you are stepping into a minefield, and it’s a certainty they’ll be cheating you all the way.