Kiana Davenport or Self Publisher Beware of The Big Six

This image, folks, sort of sums up what self-publishing writers are up against.

All writers, really.

Or, at least, this is what dealing with the BIG SIX feels like.

Like climbers, writers train all their adult lives for one shot. Anything could happen. The weather could turn bad, your equipment could malfunction, and because of the tiniest error, (or simply because your editor moved to another house) you could fall. Very. Very. Far.

If you’re not a writer, you probably don’t know who the BIG SIX are. Ah, but as readers, you should. Everything on your bookshelves, I’m willing to bet, is published by one of these six media conglomerates. See the books on the table of a B&N? All from Harper Collins.

Sometime in the 90s, a massive consolidation in the publishing industry took place. After the dust from all the mergers settled, writers found themselves staring at the rock face of a publishing El Capitan with very few ways to climb.

First, there’s Hachette, which acquired Time Warner and is part of the French Media Conglomerate Lagardere. Little Brown and Grand Central are two of their imprints.

Moving right long, you’ve got Harper Collins which is part of American News Corp owned by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s empire has about fifty imprints. It might be possible to go for weeks getting all your information and entertainment from this one source.

MacMillan Publishers, owned by the German Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, publishes commerical fiction (St. Martin’s Press) Sci-Fi (Tor) and very literary fiction (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

The largest trade publisher in the whole, wide world is Random House, and it is owned by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann. It is is divided into several publishing groups— Random House, Knopf Doubleday, and Crown.

Then you’ve got Simon & Schuster, which is owned by the CBS Corporation. It has many imprints, including Scribner.

Last, but not least, there’s Penguin Group, owned by the British conglomerate Pearson PLC. Penguin is the second largest trade publisher in the world.

And it is now to Penguin I wish to turn.

Apparently, there’s something even more frightening than the threat of a hostile takeover by these guys on the right, the ones whose job it is to make boatloads of money on what you read. It’s . . .

Guess who?


Here’s a story that really put the fear of God in me for many reasons. It involves one writer of women’s fiction — Kiana Davenport — Penguin Publishers, and Amazon, and it had me wondering if I might need to lawyer up.

Kiana Davenport is what is known as a midlist writer. For those of you who don’t know what that means, I’m referring to to catalogues publishing houses send to bookstores each year. Front of the list books might include Michael Crichton, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, writers like that. Everyone else follows. Midlist is good, and used to be where ALL the literary fiction could be found, used to be the place for REAL writers before money became the end-all and be-all, back when houses wanted prestige.

But time marches on.

Here’s a bit of an article by David Streitfield of the New York Times, which gives you an idea of the tectonic plate-shifting that’s going on in publishing:

Publishers caught a glimpse of a future they fear has no role for them late last month when Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire, a tablet for books and other media sold by Amazon. Jeffrey P. Bezos, the company’s chief executive, referred several times to Kindle as “an end-to-end service,” conjuring up a world in which Amazon develops, promotes and delivers the product.

For a sense of how rattled publishers are by Amazon’s foray into their business, consider the case of Kiana Davenport, a Hawaiian writer whose career abruptly derailed last month.

In 2010 Ms. Davenport signed with Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin, for “The Chinese Soldier’s Daughter,” a Civil War love story. She received a $20,000 advance for the book, which was supposed to come out next summer.

If writers have one message drilled into them these days, it is this: hustle yourself. So Ms. Davenport took off the shelf several award-winning short stories she had written 20 years ago and packaged them in an e-book, “Cannibal Nights,” available on Amazon.

When Penguin found out, it went “ballistic,” Ms. Davenport wrote on her blog, accusing her of breaking her contractual promise to avoid competing with it. Penguin canceled her novel and has said it will pursue legal action if she does not return the advance.

In ten days. She’s got to come up with twenty — that’s two-oh — grand in ten days. Until then, she has no rights to the novel it took her five years to write.

(BTW: Lawyers for the National Writer’s Guild have taken up Ms. Davenport’s case, and state Ms. Davenport did not in any way violate her contract.)

Nonetheless, here’s where things stand now according to Ms. Davenport’s blog:

” . . . the publisher demanded that I immediately and totally delete CANNIBAL NIGHTS from Amazon, iNook, iPad, and all other e-platforms. Plus, that I delete all Google hits mentioning me and CANNIBAL NIGHTS. Currently, that’s about 600,000 hits. (How does one even do that?) Plus that I guarantee in writing I would not self-publish another ebook of any of my backlog of works until my novel with them was published in hardback and paperback. In other words they were demanding that I agree to be muzzled for the next two years, to sit silent and impotent as a writer . . . ”

Let’s, for a moment, do the math. The novel took five years to write. Ms. Davenport signed a contract with Penguin in 2010 and was expected, as we all are, to wait two years before it would be published, before it would earn back the advance and perhaps bring in more revenue. And now, she is being required to wait another two years before she can make money on any other novel or story in any other way.

Nine years of this woman’s life? For $20,000? The rough equivalent of $2,200 a year? So the boys you see above can live large? So you get to pay $24.00 for a hardback book?

Now enter Amazon. No wonder publishers are worried. A writer can put a book on Amazon for a buck, a book that’s available to every English language reader in the world . . .

Like I said before . . . Do. The. Math. Why wouldn’t they?

Anyway, I went right to and for $2.99 ordered Cannibal Nights. It’s wonderful.

Just think. If a few thousand of us do this, she’ll pay back her advance in no time, and we’ll get to read her civil war novel sooner and cheaper.

If you’ve got an ipad or Kindle and you want to right a wrong, why don’t you join me?

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