by Libby J. Atwater
Publishing presents enough challenges to first-time authors, but even veterans like me can be surprised when a publisher announces he’s selling his company only a few days before the sale closes.
I’ve been writing, editing, and publishing others’ life stories as a ghost writer for nearly twenty years. When I began doing this work, the books I wrote were for private individuals and families who wanted to preserve their stories but did not want to sell them commercially. They requested small print runs of 10 or 25, but I could not find publishers who would print these.
After a few challenges, I decided to publish clients’ books under my company’s name, Choose Your Words. That meant I was responsible for everything involved with book production from interviewing, writing, editing, graphics, formatting, proofing, and printing to binding.
In 2013 I published my own memoir, What Lies Within. It became an award-winning book, but it was one of millions of books published that year. Shortly after it was published, we had a family tragedy. Sales were minimal, despite my best efforts, which were also minimal.
I decided to boost sales by writing another book after gleaning this information from book-marketing websites. The fastest way to accomplish this was to resume work on a book I’d written in 2003 as a subcontracted ghost writer. I always believed in the story’s potential, so I contacted the former client, Marc Ashton. Coincidentally, he was about to send his version of the book to a publisher. After several discussions, we agreed to work together as co-authors to produce a new version of the book we both liked.
We signed a contract with Hillcrest Media, Inc., a publisher who could provide professional book-publishing services and marketing support to independent authors. We discovered that the process was grueling, because we found ourselves doing all the work and inserting it into the publisher’s “proprietary” software template. It took a very long time.
After nearly two years, The Spirit of Villarosa: A Father’s Extraordinary Adventures; A Son’s Challenge debuted on June 28, 2016, in paperback.
We then prepared the e-book, which had somehow been overlooked by Hillcrest’s staff. While editing the e-book, we revised the print file for a reprint and inserted corrections to ensure consistency with the e-book. We did this in August, just before our publisher, Mark Levine, owner of Hillcrest Media, Inc., announced the sale of his company to Salem Media. One aspect of our contract with Hillcrest was that we would own the final print files. Hillcrest neglected to send them to us prior to the sale.
Since The Spirit of Villarosa’s publication, the book has won awards in historical nonfiction, biography/memoir, and historical human relations.
We had high hopes that Salem Media might take our book to the next level with marketing support and its reputation. An author advocate reached out and introduced herself immediately. We were encouraged. Shortly after that, all contact ceased. At September’s end I asked the status of the changes to our print file.
I was informed that it was ready and I’d been sent it. That surprised me, but not as much as the file I downloaded. It bore no resemblance to the file we sent to print in March. The following differences became evident:
- The file size decreased from 156,855 KB to 28,779 KB
- The contents page was not formatted properly.
- The font for one of the book’s two narrators had changed, undoing all the time we spent choosing two distinct narrative fonts.
- The italics fell out of the text.
- The footnotes became plain text, not superscript.
- The numbering of the 71 footnotes was no longer sequential.
- The chapter titles, listed on the verso page, changed within chapters.
- Graphics appeared in the wrong chapters.
- The number of pages increased.
When I addressed these issues, Salem claimed it had received garbled files. That was three months ago, and Marc Ashton and I have been trying to deal with the inconsistencies in the files since then.
I requested that Salem compare its digital file word by word with the printed book, using one of its copy editors. The response: Salem could not do this because it has no editors. A formatter makes the changes. Anyone with editorial experience knows that most formatters lack the same skills as a good copy editor.
I then sent Salem a final PDF of the book before it was printed and hoped the company would work with that version. They didn’t! The versions they have repeatedly returned continue to get worse, despite our attempts to lead Salem to the printer (Thomson Reuters) with the final file.
I called Thomson Reuters directly on December 8, 2016, and was informed that the boss was away. The employee could not release the final files without his boss’s permission. The employee promised to get back to me when his boss returns. I’m still waiting.
Marc Ashton and I have reviewed our contract with Hillcrest Media, Inc. and its letter announcing its sale to Salem. In it, owner Marc Levine promised the same “high level of service and excellence that you have come to expect from Hillcrest Media.” To date, we have not experienced it. We are discussing our next steps.
Meanwhile we feel like characters in the movie Groundhog Day.
Editor’s Note: Received the following message from Libby Atwater after publishing this article.
“I just finished an hour’s conversation with the Director of Operations for Salem Media. He explained the problems they’ve faced since acquiring Hillcrest and apologized several times. He also provided concrete steps to remedy the situation and produce the original files.”
Author of the award-winning memoir What Lies Within