CannibalNights copyWriter Kiana Davenport blogs the cautionary tale of how her self-publishing collections of her short stories led to one of the Big Six publishers backing out of a contract to publish her first novel. She had self-published the collections of already-published short stories after submitting to and being rejected by various publishers, including the one who had been going to publish her novel.

The publisher demanded that she remove one of those collections, Cannibal Nights, from sale and guarantee that she would not self-publish any further works until her novel was published in both hardcover and paperback.

The vice president and publisher of that house called my agent, offering extra little sweetmeats if I would just capitulate and ‘adopt the right spirit going forward.’  This somewhat sinister and semi-benevolent attempt at mind-control fascinated me.  It became  crystal-clear to me that the issue wasn’t a supposed  ‘breach of contract,’  on my part, but the publisher’s fear and loathing of the profoundly threatening Goliath, Amazon.  Since CANNIBAL NIGHTS in no way ‘resembles’ or would ‘injure’ sales  of the book I had sold them (an entirely different subject matter) I was not in breach of my contract.  I stood firm, and refused to capitulate.

So the publisher’s lawyers sent her a letter terminating her contract and demanding the return of the $20,000 advance.

Davenport is philosophical about this, feeling that it was perhaps worth giving up that $20,000 to have what she considers her best work in print at last, and to discover exactly what kind of organization she was going to do business with.

It’s an interesting reminder of why it may be best to think twice before getting into traditional publishing in this day and age.

(Found via Jeff Kirvin’s Google+ postings.)


  1. Like I commented at Digital Reader, if the author was not in violation of her contract, the publisher’s cancellation was a breach of contract so the author can demand damages. You can’t just cancel a contract (unless it falls under the ‘cool off’ period rules, which this doesn’t).

    Info I found:

    If a publisher cancels a contract without good cause, the publisher is in breach of contract. In practice, it’s very difficult for an author in that situation to get an order from the court compelling the publisher to honour the contract and publish the book — particularly if the book still requires some editing. The author is therefore left with a claim for damages.

    …a publisher must weigh up carefully the pros and cons of cancelling an author’s contract, since a claim for breach of contract could end up costing the publisher more than it would have cost to publish the book, while leaving the publisher without the revenue from the sale of the book. And that’s without taking into account all of the headaches that litigation can cause: management time used up; adverse publicity — possibly leading to further claims by other authors; documents examined in open court; legal costs and the uncertainty of the outcome; and so on.

  2. Fear and bullying seem to be linked in a strange embrace. Almost everyone of importance in publishing seems to fear what is coming from the Big Six publishing houses to Amazon and Apple. And that fear has them bullying authors. A few years back, Amazon threatened to yank from direct sale print-on-demand titles that weren’t printed by its own print-on-demand presses. More recently, Apple slammed the door on in-app purchasing that didn’t include a substantial kick-back for them. And now there’s this, a major publisher who goes ballistic over self-publishing through Amazon.

    I suspect there will be quite a few of these bumps in the road until everything settles down again. A lawsuit in Maine forced Amazon to end its print-on-demand bullying. Apple got almost no takers for its in-app subscription scheme. Over time, major publishers will learn that, if they want talented writers, they’ll need to leave authors free to self-publish.

    The world is changing. The old system where publishers virtually owned authors is fading much like the old thirties-era studio system where motion picture companies bound actors to themselves by contracts.

  3. Michael is right in his last para.

    However I am not sure I really grasp or accept the basis of the above article’s criticism or the justification of the emotive headline.

    From a business point of view it is hardly surprising that a publisher who pays 20k in advance gets upset at the title being available through a competitor. It is hardly surprising that they try to prevent this. On the subject of the contract we don’t have access to it and so have no real idea if they had legal grounds for their actions. I am no fan of these publishers but quite honestly I don’t see any indication of bullying and threatening other than the fact that any competitor is a threat to market share and profit.
    The publisher simply demanded she take certain actions or tried to terminate the contract and return the advance. Where is the bullying ? It is up to the writer to read the contract, consult a lawyer and establish her rights.

    Self publishing is a clear competitor to established publishers. It appears to me that many many publishers and their circle still live in the past, where the dream of being ‘chosen’ by a publisher and offered a publishing contract is the ultimate goal of every writer. That dream is now fading fast among a wider and wider circle of writers and publisher’s power is fading with it. With that, publishers are discovering that they have to be far more aggressive in their efforts to defend their market and writers have to be far more careful about the contracts they sign.

  4. Howard, there’s no competition involved. The ebook that Davenport published was a short-story collection, not the book she’d contracted to write for the publisher.

  5. @Howard: American case severely limits the applicability of non-compete clauses, regardless of what the boilerplate may say. Just because it is in the contract does not mean it is enforceable. In some states it is up to the employer to *prove* on a case by case basis why it should apply.

    In this case, unlike the backlist e-rights fights (for example, Random House vs Rosetta), the publisher wants to stop the author from publishing *anything* through one *specific* distributor, not just the book for which they have a contract for. (Note that Amazon is not the publisher of the book in question, merely distributing it.) This is classic restraint of trade behavior; “If you want us to deal with us, you can’t have anything to do with XXX.”

    Also note that the unnamed publisher had already been offered (and they rejected) the material in the ebook being self-published.

    Finally, the quoted expressions being used make it clear the author’s “sin” was distributing through Amazon and that going with Smashwords or PubIt or iBooks would not have produced the same reaction.

    It appears this publisher, or at least the people dealing with Ms Davenport have Amazon “issues” and are trying to coerce her into joining their “war” (note the language used: betrayal, enemy) against Amazon. That is not what non-compete clauses are for. Non-compete clauses these days are mostly to keep companies from hiring competitors’ employees as a way to acquire the corporate knowledge. (Microsoft vs Google, Walmart vs Amazon, etc)

    If Ms Davenport chooses to fight it out, odds are she’ll prevail.
    If she chooses not to, she should name names so writers will know what that Publisher’s secret policies are.

  6. Felix – same as I said to DensityDuck. You are ‘interpreting’ what the original author is saying. I was simply opining on the fact that we don’t actually know if there were other issues in the contract.
    I accept your comment on competition. The EU has similarly strict limitations, but this competition law was not the basis of my comments.
    The language used is the author’s, not the publisher’s.
    But please don’t get me wrong. I am not in any way supporting publishers, or even opposing the stance of the author. I am simply making the point that it is sometimes too easy to assign motives based on incomplete information.

  7. “On the subject of the contract we don’t have access to it and so have no real idea if they had legal grounds for their actions.”

    I…guess if you assume that the author is lying, you could take that interpretation? I dunno, it seems like kind of a stretch to believe that the author honestly thought that she could self-publish a work she was writing under contract for someone.

  8. DensityDuck – Hey I’m only back one day and we’re fighting ! LOL

    It’s ridiculous to suggest I am questioning her truthfulness. I am simply pointing out that her interpretation of the situation is her interpretation. We don’t have the facts to be definitively supportive ….

  9. Personally, I can’t understand why some authors continue to believe the old stigma that only wanna-bes resort to self-publishing.

    I believe each author should try self-publishing for their first book, just to get an idea of how the machine works and only after that should they consider querying agents and houses about their next work.

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