Writer Beware: Creation House / Charisma Media

Before I go into what I think writers should be aware of before working with Creation House / Charisma Media, let me give you a bit of background. (You can skip to specific discussion of Charisma Media if you’re not interested in the background.)

As a writer of a specialized kind of Christian literature (one that I call “theological thrillers,” by which I mean sophisticated, adult, page-turning novels written from a Christian worldview), I find few publishers where I can submit my novel-length work. Secular publishers are often not interested in Christian fiction (sometimes explicitly so in their guidelines), while Christian publishers are not really interested in thrillers, especially if they contain scenes that can be considered “edgy” (forget for now that you’d have to throw out half the Bible under those terms).

This was a serious problem for me until quite recently, when self-publishing became a viable path, especially for this kind of niche fiction. In the last year, as part of educating myself about this new world, I self-published two books, both collections of previously-published short fiction. It was a low-risk way to learn the ropes. The results have not been stellar—I’ve only sold a handful of copies of each book. I’m not discouraged, though; as part of my education, I’d learned that self-publishing is a marathon, not a race; that an author shouldn’t expect to make very many sales with only a few books available; and that the best marketing and promotion an author can do is to keep releasing high-quality work.

So I was ready to graduate and self-publish my novels. Some hesitation, however, was expressed by my highly intelligent wife-to-be Kirsten, who comes from an academic background where self-publishing is still very much a dirty word. Kirsten had not read any of the blogs or authors that I was reading (authors who were venturing into this new world of self-publishing with greater success and joy than they had with traditional publishing); she was still thinking about the old world, where self-publication usually meant one had been rejected by every publisher great and small, and where distribution entailed the author carting boxes of books from street to street and trying to hand-sell each one out of their car’s trunk (the internet and Amazon changed all of that, of course). I decided the safest course was to look around for traditional publishers who might want to consider my work before I jumped with both feet into self-publishing.

The first problem I encountered is that many of the Christian publishers I considered belong to a service called “ChristianManuscriptSubmissions.com.” This service costs $196 per year to have one’s manuscript placed in their database, where it will be available “for review by our member publishers.”

That immediately eliminates me from the running with any of those publishers. I’ve never paid a reading fee, and don’t intend to start now. My feeling is that publishers should make money by finding great novels and bringing them to market, where they can sell them to eager readers; if a publisher’s business model is based even a little bit on selling anything at all (including space in a database) to hopeful writers, I don’t want to work with them.

That brought me to Charisma Media. They didn’t charge a reading fee, which was good. There were red flags on their submission form, though. First, they ask for the full manuscript, which I found odd. Usually publishers want a synopsis (Charisma doesn’t) so they can get a quick sense of the overall story, and a sample chapter so they can get a sense of your writing ability; only after reviewing those will publishers request the full novel if they’re interested. Next red flag on Charisma’s submission form: they ask you how many copies you’d be willing to buy, and the number starts at 2000. That’s as strange to me as if I applied to work at a grocery store, and they ask me how many apples I expect to buy from them.

With some trepidation, but feeling that I owed myself this attempt at traditional publishing, I uploaded the full manuscript of my novel, ticked “other” for how many copies I’d be willing to buy, and filled in “50.” At least that was honest; I could definitely buy 50 and give them as gifts to loved ones.

A reply was waiting in my inbox less than three weeks later. Here’s the email I received:

Dear Mr. El-Koura:

On behalf of Charisma Media, thank you for giving us the privilege of seeing your work and considering it for publication. We’re very excited to be able to offer you the opportunity to co-publish your book through Creation House.

In a co-publishing collaboration, the author agrees to purchase—at a deep discount—a number of copies from the first printing of his book. In every other way, the model is the same as traditional royalty publishing. The co-published book becomes a Charisma product and bears our imprint. We print copies of the book at our expense for our own inventory, market it, distribute it, and pay royalties to the author for all the copies we sell. The author, in turn, sells his own copies and keeps all the profits. It’s that simple, and it’s a win/win strategy.

Creation House has been an industry leader for more than 40 years and has earned a reputation for quality and integrity. Our books are not only produced with excellence and stand among the finest in the industry, but are also distributed worldwide and given a real chance for success. A number of our co-published books have done very well and have become best sellers. We’re hoping that you will become our next best-selling author.

The email then asks me to consider their five publishing options, including a premium, standard, and basic co-publishing package.

What are the other two options?

From the email:

We believe that your book deserves to be co-published, but if co-publishing isn’t feasible for you, our two self-publishing options—POD or e-book—are offered as affordable alternatives.

You can download the PDF of the options as I received them.

Setting aside the fact that I submitted to what I believed was a traditional publishing house (i.e., one that pays me the author, rather than the other way around), I decided to look at the options rather than dismissing them out of hand (my first instinct). The premium package would set me back $19,360 to $39,100, depending on how many copies I want to try to sell myself (up to 10,000!) and whether I want to go with the hardcover or paperback option. The standard package costs $12,590 to $33,100, while the basic starts at $7,960 for 100 copies.

Before considering the last two options, let’s see what I would get for these princely sums. If I pay premium prices, I get cover design, formatting, editing, copy-editing, ISBN, proofing (does that mean I get a proof copy or that they’ll hire a proofer? not clear), and e-book publishing. There’s also “premium marketing,” which they describe in their marketing plan below the quote (it mostly consists of group ads, ads in their own magazine, and cross-promoting with other authors who also decided to pay for the privilege—notice they won’t provide “reciprocal advertising” with their other Charisma Media books, just with the Creation House ones).

Almost $20,000 (at the minimum) seems a bit steep. What do I lose if I opt for the standard package? The only real difference seems to be that they cut out the editor (but keep the copy-editor), the embossing on the hardback or paperback covers, and some marketing. The embossing I can do without, and the 30-second trailer I can definitely scrap to save almost $7,000, but the editor? Are they really so disposable?

OK, what about the basic package? Now it seems I’d lose the ability to customize my book’s formatting and cover design. Well that doesn’t sound very good, but the basic package would still set me back at least $8,000, which still seems kind of steep.

Their email did warn me that I should look at the next two options if I couldn’t afford the first three.

Unfortunately, the fourth option is basically the third option with a smaller number of minimum copies I’d have to order. One is called “co-publishing” and the other “self-publishing” but Creation House slaps their imprint on both versions anyway (more on that later). Instead of 100 copies for $7,960, I can order 25 copies for $4,857. That still seems steep, especialy since when I submitted to them (I can’t say this enough times), I was expecting them to pay me an advance (the way it works in traditional publishing), rather than the other way around.

One more option to go, and since it’s an ebook option, I guess it’ll be much cheaper, right?

Wrong.

The fee is $3,665. So what does that get me? Cover design, basic typesetting, one round of copy editing, then proofing (still not sure what this entails), e-book formatting, and uploading to major e-book distributors. And again, “typesetting is done with a basic template (industry standard with no customization), and the front cover is a basic design composition selected by the author (with no customization).”

$3,665 is a lot of money. I’ve been learning to do cover design myself, and feel like I’m getting better at it, but if I wanted to I could hire a good cover designer for under $500, and they’ll work with me to design the cover I want (none of this “no customization” business). Kirsten, my brother, and my sisters (who often read my work before I unleash it on the world) have eagle-eyes for typos, but if I wanted to I could hire a copy-editor for another couple of hundred dollars, especially if it’s to go through my manuscript and make sure everything matches up with The Chicago Manual of Style. Ebook formatting is a cinch if you have a bit of tech know-how, and uploading to the different major e-book distributors takes five to ten minutes per site, once you get used to them. (Or you can just upload a Word document to Smashwords and let them do everything else for you, without any upfront costs.)

Having said that, I don’t really think $3,665 is egregious. By my calculations, it’s inflated by a factor of two or three for what you get, but I’d call that a very healthy profit margin Charisma Media takes for having to go to the trouble of hiring cover designers, copy-editors, and formatters for you.

And even suggesting a retail price of $16.99 for the ebook (same as the paperback) is not egregious to me, though it does show a lack of savvy in this area (even a neophyte in publishing like me knows that few readers think it’s fair to pay the same amount for a paperback as for an ebook, and that Amazon, with all of its customer data, has figured out that $9.99 and under is the optimal price for an ebook). It’s just a suggested price, after all, and it’s not their fault if you take their suggestion and don’t sell a single copy (it’s also no skin off their nose—more on that later).

What is egregious in my mind is that after I’ve paid them all kinds of money to publish my book (i.e., taking all of the risk and putting up all of the money), they still keep a large share of the proceeds of each sale. On paper book sales, Creation House’s royalties are 12% to 15% (depending on the volume of books I’d move), and on ebooks their royalties are 50%. Half. Wait, for what exactly are they taking 50% of my profits? I wrote the book after all, and I paid them to do everything else from cover design to editing and formatting. That wasn’t enough? I need to continue paying them for those one-time services? (And for how long? It depends on the contract. In the email, Charisma Media’s representative tells me “If you would like to take this to the next step, we would be delighted to send you a contract to look over. Just let us know which option and quantity you desire.” The thought popped into my head to reply that I was interested just to see what the terms of the contract are, but I can’t help but feel that would be unethical. Besides, reading their options made me upset enough, I can hardly imagine what their contract would do to me.)

So the way I see it is that if I spend $3500 on editing, cover design, formatting, and uploading by hand-picked freelancers, I’ll come out ahead and I get to keep my rights! I don’t have to pay Charisma half of my profits! Otherwise, I take all of the risk and they get half the rewards? Does that sound fair? (After all, if Charisma Media and I are “co-publishing” my book, why aren’t they putting up half the cash investment? Fifty-fifty, right, partner?)

But there is one point from the email that I haven’t addressed yet. “The co-published book becomes a Charisma product and bears our imprint.” That’s worth something, isn’t it? Having an imprint on the spine of your book?

I agree with some of the self-published writers I follow that readers don’t really care about the imprint on a book. They care about the author (if they’re familiar with the author’s work), they care about the cover and blurbs and descriptions while browsing, they care about reviews, and they care about what their friends are suggesting they read. But assume that’s wrong and readers do want to see a publisher on the book–think about the imprint you’re getting in this case. It’s stated as “CHP”, which is “Creation House Press.” So anyone who is familiar with them will know that you paid to put that imprint there. It would be much cheaper to start up your own imprint and stick its logo on your book’s spine. And probably safer, too. Remember that they reviewed my 100,000 word book for less than a month before offering to “co-publish” it with me (enough time to read it? Discuss it? Make a decision on it?) What else are they offering to co-publish? Remember too that they’re happy to do no editing beyond copy-editing before sticking their imprint on a book. Do you want to have your book associated with incoherent drivel, because both you and the author of said incoherent drivel were willing to pony up the cash? I don’t. (If I had the time or inclination, I might, as a piece of investigative journalism, submit to Creation House a really poor (but not obviously bad) novel and see what would happen. I’d bet good money (but not as good as Creation House wants me to pay for their services) that they “would be very excited to be able to offer [me] the opportunity to co-publish [my] book through Creation House.”)

The important question to ask is this: who does a publisher consider to be their clients? Most publishers consider readers to be their clients; publishers will take a risk on the author, invest time, effort and money in that author and their book to bring it to market, and hope that readers reward them by buying lots of copies; if that doesn’t happen, they could stand to lose thousands of dollars. Charisma House, on the other hand, can never sell a single book to a reader and still make loads of money. Think about that, a “publisher” can make a hefty profit without ever selling a single book to a single reader!

Writers are easy prey. We want our books to be read, sometimes desperately so. We want to focus on our writing and not be bothered by other stuff, sometimes obsessively so. You can find stories on the internet of all kinds of publishing scams and unethical behaviour to steer clear of (years ago I had an agent offer to review my manuscript (of my now-abandoned first novel) on an “expedited track” for a small (ha!) reading fee). I’m saddened by this kind of behaviour, but perhaps it’s to be expected when there’s easy money to be had.

I consider Charisma Media’s offer unethical because they pulled the bait-and-switch on me (I submitted my manuscript explicitly to Charisma House, their traditional publisher, but they replied from their vanity publishing side, Creation House); because I believe the cost of their services is inflated; and because I think it’s taking advantage of writers who don’t know any better to offer that they pay a minimum of half their royalties to Creation House when Creation House did nothing for them that they weren’t paid by the author to do.

P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, this is the reply I sent to Charisma Media:

This is to decline your offer of “co-publishing” my book. If you are interested in my reasons, I’ve posted my thoughts in an entry on my blog at http://www.ootersplace.com/writer-beware-creation-house-charisma-media/. I believe that writers will submit to you under the assumption that you are a traditional publisher (as I did, considering I accessed your submission form at www.charismahouse.com), and that they may mistakenly think that this is how traditional publishing works when they receive your offer to vanity publish their work. I hope that my post shows up if they decide to do a bit of searching before signing a contract with you, because those writers deserve to be warned before they pay several thousand dollars for services that can be had much cheaper (and for much greater control over those services) and—what’s far more important—without those writers having to tie up their rights with you and give away at least half their royalties (after taking on all of the risk themselves).

Please delete my manuscript from your drives and servers, and please reply to confirm that you’ve done so.

Thank you,

Karl El-Koura

Update July 25, 2012: Charisma Media has requested that I post their replies to my emails, which I’ve done despite continuing to have deep reservations about this company.  At least this way potential Charisma Media writers can see both sides and make up their own minds.

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