Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ellora's Cave: It's Time to Speak Up

Greetings everyone! I know it's been a while since I've posted, but I hope you'll stick with me for a post that is certain to be long.

You may have noticed an uptick in former Ellora's Cave authors and/or staff speaking out about their experiences with a publisher that once rocked the mainstream publishing world with innovative, sexy, erotic, and adventurous oftentimes hardcore romances that broke the mold. For that alone, I say, bravo to Jaid Black, who decided not to kowtow to New York and write sexy stories about aliens from another universe, a result that launched EC into a huge financial success. Long before Fifty Shades of Grey, Jaid, along with many other erotic and erotica authors were venturing into sub-genres such as BDSM, Older Woman/Younger Man, Menage, M/M, and horror, just to name a few.

Many of those authors have gone on to become huge bestsellers on the New York Times, USA Today, Amazon, and B&N lists, and to them, I can only tip my hat.  Likewise, I continue to believe that Jaid's Trek Mi Quan universe is one of the most creative series I have ever read. Is it for everyone? Maybe not, but, again, props to her for writing what she loved, for sticking to her guns, and giving those books life through a lot of hard work and determination during a time when the concept of electronic books was as alien as her hot, sexy characters from a far away world.

Keep in mind, e-publishing has come a long way since the time of downloading files, printing them out or reading on a PC. With the advent of the Kindle, Nook, iPads/Tablets, buying eBooks is as easy as a 'click', and it's on your device in the matter of seconds. Self-publishing, of which I am now a huge fan of as a result of my last few years experience with EC, has become very popular and eBooks tend to be priced in such a way to make them affordable. Now, if I was J.R. Ward or Sherrilyn Kenyon, perhaps a reader would be willing to pay upwards of $6.99-$7.99, and at some third party vendors even higher, for a 100K+ novel on their iPad or Kindle. But generally, that's a lot to ask for a digital book.

That said, the following is my account and my experience with Ellora's Cave Publishing, and while it's not intended in any way to bash anyone or TPTB at EC, and I will not go into any contractual information that I have with them, I've had enough with the vitriol going on or being said about my fellow former EC authors and/or staffers and editors who are only telling their truths and their experiences. 

My first book was published with Ellora's Cave under the Cerridwen Press imprint, titled Seductive Persuasion, and was the first of an historical-paranormal four book series. Soon after the third book in that series, Sea Captain's Ghost, released, I learned that the imprint was going on hiatus. Eventually Cerridwen Press would become known as Blush. More on that in a bit. As I tended to write more sensual than erotic or explicit, this was awesome to me. But, I still had one book in the series left and wondered what would become of it. I debated turning it into an erotic story, however, given the time period it was written in, late-Georgian, and it just didn't seem to be right.

Instead, I set it aside and went back to a book I'd started a year before and stopped because it was 'out of my comfort zone', translation, erotic, featuring an older woman and a younger man as the heroine/hero. During an RT Convention in Columbus, Ohio, I'd attended an EC spotlight in support of my publisher and learned that older woman/younger man scenarios were selling very well, and, I immediately went home and wrote what would become Quarterback Blitz. To this day, that book is and continues to be very popular with readers, it won Best Erotic Contemporary from several online book review websites, and it launched a series of six books, a series titled Ink and Kink, Let me just say that I am proud of each and every story in that series, as well as those that I wrote separately or featured secondary characters in the Maddox brothers/Ink and Kink universe. In between, yes, I'd finally completed the Panthera series with Arrington's Claim for the Blush imprint.

Around the time the last Ink and Kink book was released, Switch Master, I'd begun tracking my royalty statements, primarily because sales dipped dramatically. I figured there were several causes, EC was releasing a lot of books, some re-releases, some in trade paperback per week. And, while that is their prerogative to release that many books in a given week, I also saw that more and more eBook publishers were on the rise, ditto for self-publishing, and the costs of those books were much more attractive to consumers than the pricey MSRP of my admittedly long stories. Yes, I write big books and I cannot lie. Yes, I think they are worth every penny, but I'd wished that the market would've been a bigger factor in the pricing.

The problem with the downturn in the market, therefore, my royalties, which were starting to come later and later, or in one case, a new release's sales figures were not accounted for, though quickly and professionally corrected within days, had dropped to the point that I could not afford to attend the Romantic Times Booklovers Conventions or many other conventions with the exception of Ellora's Cave's conference known as RomantiCon, and my local RWA chapter conference. I also couldn't afford blog tours. Book reviews declined dramatically and eventually stopped altogether.

All the while, royalties declined, and I thought, I'll write more books and establish a back list. EC started a few marketing campaigns, such as 1st books in a series free for two weeks, and, yes, this helped, some. But readers will rush to get a free book yet when the next book is priced so drastically above other books of similar genre and length, they move on. Now, some of this is taste, not every reader or reviewer is going to like my books, and that's their right and opinion. However, pricing and affordability makes a difference in a consumer's choice when money is tight.

With the last book in the Ink and Kink series, I'd started a new series based on some secondary characters readers had been introduced to already. Those books simply did not sell well and while I understand that opinions vary, I began to think about making some decisions about my future. My favorite genre, in all honesty, is Romantic Suspense, and I really, really wanted to go into mainstream fiction.

In 2014, many things were happening, my royalty checks were coming very, very late, and while contractually EC was to pay quarterly,they primarily paid monthly. Checks came at odd times, likewise, they were dated a whole month before they were actually stamped and mailed. In two cases, there was no date on the envelope. Authors were told this was due to a glitch in the accounting software program. I have no idea if this is true or not, that's what we were told via an author email loop.

In August of 2014, the wheels fell off and my eyes were opened. While on a family vacation and very concerned because I'd not received royalties in a while and an email inquiry as to whether my check was lost in the mail or sent at all went unanswered, and in the midst of content edits for what would become the last book I've published with Ellora's Cave word was sent to the private author email loop that many EC staffers, including freelance editors, mine, too, were being let go due to a downturn in the market and blame seemed to be placed on Amazon. In my opinion, Amazon is a powerhouse in the eBook world and will remain so, and most of the sales I'd been making came from that vendor. I was devastated, not only for myself, but for the editors, especially my editor, whom to this day is one of my favorite people on the planet and continues to be my editor for my self-publishing ventures. For many reasons, I've chosen not to include her name in this post, though I'm sure she knows that I've the utmost respect for her. I'd also like to thank her for taking a chance on a newbie and helping me through the publishing process.

Within an hour, maybe less, of the announcement sent to the authors about the layoffs, an unknown party shared that same message on a public forum. I saw and read it on Absolute Write, but it was shared elsewhere and within a very short time, I received countless messages from readers and authors outside of EC sharing their concerns for the stability of the publisher. I had them too, but I wanted to believe it would be okay. My editor graciously finished the last round of edits for Pleasure Trove and the book received a release date within two weeks of the books final draft and FLEs, Final Line Edits, were done in a rush. Guess what? Despite blogging and doing as much promo as I could, the book tanked, I couldn't get it to sell, no matter what. A few of my faithful readers were concerned that I wouldn't receive the royalties and asked what they should do. I didn't know and did NOT EVER ask anyone not to buy the book or any of my titles. I still haven't done so. However, they have graciously purchased my self-published title, UnMAsKed, and are eagerly awaiting the next, also a Romantic Suspense titled Lipstick and Camouflage.

In September of 2014, I was attending a weekend writer's workshop in Connecticut. It was a great weekend, especially as I was able to get away from the stress of what was happening with EC. I had finally received a check dated in late July 2014 that arrived in my mailbox a month later, at the tail end of August. I was grateful. Yes, my checks were coming later and later, but they did come eventually. The problem was that EC became radio silent on our private loop, primarily, I believe, because private messages were being shared on public forums. For the record, I did not like that private emails were being made public and felt that this was hurting authors more than anything else going on. Again, my opinion.

I started talking to my husband about what I should do going forward. Okay, actually, we'd been talking about this for a long time but things were heating up. Should I ask for rights back based on contract terms? Let it go and hope checks come as they were supposed to? But then at that same writer's workshop, everything got drastically worse. NOT because one of the ladies at Dear Author had written a very long 'writer beware' type of article titled The Curious Case of Ellora's Cave. That article is on DA's blog and I'm not going to go into specifics, except to say that the blogger corrected a few details recently, yet the majority of it remains.

What alarmed me and so many authors and reviewers and bloggers, as well as readers, was EC's decision to sue the writer of the post. I was familiar with Dear Author and similar sites, yet, I'm honestly not a frequent visitor or reader of it, primarily because it's a little bit 'mean girl' for my tastes. That said, the blogger had every single right to write what she substantially believed to be true, she'd researched court cases, looked at tax liens accrued against the publisher that are on public record, and listened to author accounts of not receiving royalties. That's called FREEDOM of SPEECH. It's part of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights. And, Ellora's Cave turned around and sued a blogger in what appeared to be a SLAPP suit. From there on the Streisand Effect took root. Readers and reviewers boycotted. The vitriol that resulted since steamrolled, more readers bailed on EC's books out of concern that we weren't getting paid, royalties came later and later and that all meant to me that the publishing company was in serious financial trouble.

A few months ago, EC also launched a new website. I didn't care for it visually, but I'm not a web designer by any stretch. Some say it's more user friendly, some say otherwise, and there appeared to be more than a few glitches that needed to be fixed. What I know is this, during the change something happened to all of the blurbs on my books on EC's site. They're not only missing commas and punctuation, they appear amateurish. Therefore, I have not asked my web guru to change the links on my website that directs readers to purchase my books from the publisher's site, nor have I any plans to. It seems to me that the responsibility for hunting down and correcting typos and punctuation errors is on whoever maintains that site.  

Honestly, I've no idea what the financial status of EC is. I'm not going to guess or take a jab at the ownership or current staff members, other than to say, that I absolutely believe the authors who say they haven't been paid or that their payments are way late or breached. At the time of this blog post, I have not received a check since February 2015's sales that came in September of 2015. Could a check arrive this week? I hope so, we were informed via the private loop that we would receive payment for three months in one check, yet even if it arrives they are still months behind. I hope they really do catch up, authors worked hard on their books and deserve to get paid.

Let me say that up until the last year or so, I've enjoyed my experience as an EC author. I loved RomantiCon and the friends I've made through the convention, both authors and readers. I adored the Cavemen models who danced for us, and I will miss Angelo forever. He was incredibly charming and charismatic and appeared on the cover of Field of Play, not only signing my cover flats to help the book to sell, but also one for me that's now framed and in a place of honor in my office. For those who don't know, Angelo was tragically shot and killed (for the true story I recommend the documentary produced by Joe Manganiello, from True Blood/Magic Mike, titled LaBare). To this day, my fellow EC authors and former editors remain my friends, people I respect, admire, and trust. They are speaking up, they are telling their truths. If they're asking readers not to purchase their books, respect their decision. It is not because their books are poorly written or they are ashamed of it. Despite what's being posted on social media by an EC principle and a few EC authors who are in her corner (that's their right, too), those who are speaking out or speaking up are not liars, they are not misogynists, Bad Apples, or bullies. To sick a very nasty troll after a group that follows a Twitter hashtag known as #notchilled, the same person probably best known for GamerGate, is, by my measure, very low and irresponsible and an another attempt to 'chill free speech.' That's the purpose of #notchilled, not to malign EC, but to come out in defense of a blogger's and anyone else's right to write what they believed to be substantially true.

It is because of the lawsuit that I have chosen not to write for Ellora's Cave any longer. Yes, the case settled, and there's a sense of letdown by all parties of interest, but an attempt to stifle free speech did not sit well with me, and still doesn't. That's why I made the decisions I have since August of 2014. I'll continue to write and publish mainstream Romantic Suspense, and I'm venturing into paranormal again. When or if I get the rights returned on my back titles, I'll heavily revise, re-title, re-cover, and set prices according to what is most affordable for readers. If I go with a mainstream publisher, who knows what's down the road, you can be certain that I will never sign a contract without a lawyer and hopefully an agent's assistance.

Please note that this is my experience, another author or staffer's story may vary. It is not intended to sling mud, there's already too much being thrown around by both sides of the situation. Frankly, I hope the bullying on Twitter from sock puppets and trolls ends. I hope the vitriol stops and business-like discussions resume. I do not hope EC goes into bankruptcy, there are authors, staffers, publishers, artists, copy editors, you name it, who depend upon this publishing house. I do not wish ill upon Jaid Black, Patty Marks, or anyone else involved with Ellora's Cave, nor do I seek to cause trouble for them or create further chaos. It was simply time to speak out.

To authors who remain supportive of EC, I wish you success. To authors who have chosen to speak out or request readers not to purchase their Ellora's Cave titles, whether it's a business decision or something more personal, I support you unconditionally. To my readers, I hope you will continue to support my self-published titles, UnMAsKed is available at Amazon, B&N for Nook, Kobo, and iBooks. For information on this, hit me up in the comment section or check out the following page:           

Until the next time,
Frances Stockton