|Pay-to-Play as Pedagogy? The Creator Institute and New Degree PressPosted: 15 Jan 2021 10:04 AM PST|
Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®
A few months ago, I began getting questions about a self-described hybrid (read: fee-charging) publisher called New Degree Press (NDP). Reported fees were in the $5,000 to $8,000 range, which paid for a suite of publishing services including editing, formatting, and publication via KDP and IngramSpark.
So far, so unremarkable. But there’s something that sets NDP apart from more familiar pay-to-play publishing ventures: although it presents the appearance of an independent publisher on its rather sparse website (including soliciting submissions), NDP is in fact the publishing arm of The Creator Institute, an entrepreneurship course created by Georgetown University professor Eric Koester.
THE PROCESS AND THE PUBLISHER
Likened to a master’s degree or MBA, the Creator Institute (CI)–dubbed the bSchool Program (for Book School)–enables students to “learn-by-doing–enabling you to discover your passion, develop your expertise and establish your credibility through the creation and launch of your very own book.” Both the CI and Prof. Koester have won awards for innovation, and there are offshoots of the program at colleges across the country.
Primarily targeting college and high-school students, the bSchool Program proceeds in two phases, per the Creator Institute’s (rather confusing) FAQ, taking a total of around 10 months. The first phase consists of lectures, group discussions, and work assignments geared to producing a complete book manuscript. The second phase focuses on publication of the ms. via NDP.
Publishing with NDP is not compulsory; students who complete the first phase don’t have to move on to phase two. It appears, though, that most people do.
Co-founded in 2017 by Prof. Koester and Tucker Max of Scribe Media, NDP is prolific. To date it has issued 540 titles, according to Amazon, more than half (311) published in 2020 alone. In 2021, projected output will nearly double, according to Creator Institute’s Spring 2021 Program Overview (page 10). Many of the books are under 200 pages–NDP mss. average 25,000 words for a rough draft and around 30,000 words for a finished manuscript–and the vast majority are nonfiction, with a small number of fiction titles scattered in.
Three author “cohorts” sign up with CI annually, each consisting of well over 100 writers. Georgetown University students can attend in-person sessions–or at least they could; I don’t know what impact the pandemic might have had on this–but the bulk of the learning is virtual, via an open version of the course. Writers receive one-on-one attention from editors and designers, and there is a roster of outside speakers, but much of the instruction appears to come in the form of recorded lectures and workshops, as well as weekly meetings and community discussions between the writers themselves. Class materials are template-heavy, based on examples I saw, an approach that I imagine is helpful for non-writers, but for creative writing, including creative nonfiction, not so much (this was acknowledged by NDP editors who contacted me).
CI/NDP promises that “All the developmental editors working with the program are professional editors who have worked on numerous books” (Overview, page 10). Neither Creator Institute nor NDP identify their staff, so it’s difficult to assess this claim. I have managed to glean the names of several editors, however, and while some do show substantial experience, others have much less (in some cases, per their LinkedIn bios, they don’t seem to have worked as editors at all prior to being hired by NDP). Brian Bies, Head of Publishing, does not appear to have had any professional publishing or writing experience before assuming his position, other than going through the CI program and publishing his own book through NDP. (Here’s his explanation of economies of scale in publishing, aka “batching”, which he compares to dining at Benihana.)
Writers are expected to do a lot of heavy lifting over the course of the publishing process–from drumming up support for their crowdfunding campaigns (see below), to providing ideas for cover design (including creating mock covers), to doing some of the work of layout. Authors get assistance in developing “a 3-4 month automated marketing plan” (Overview, page 6) but must handle the actual implementation (and expense) themselves. Authors are also encouraged to write back cover blurbs for each other, and are responsible for ordering books to mail out to campaign backers (NDP reimburses them for this).
The final work of uploading and publishing the finished books to KDP and IngramSpark is entirely done by authors.
Participants in the manuscript-creation phase of the program pay just $249 ($499 for non-students) to cover the cost of their developmental editors. The big bucks don’t kick in until the publishing phase.
Last spring, NDP’s publishing fee options were laid out as a flat $5,000, $6,000, or $8,000. They’ve been re-formulated in the Spring 2021 Program Overview to include cost breakdowns (page 6), but the basic amounts remain the same.
There’s also a $300 deposit to cover production of a promotional video (refundable if you choose the $8,000 option and make your goal).
To defray these hefty fees, writers can choose to “self-fund”, or they can raise the money through a crowdfunding campaign. Most choose a campaign.
Conducted on Indiegogo, the campaigns all follow a similar template (a cookie-cutter approach that has been noted by observers), featuring pre-orders (suggested softcover price: an eyebrow-raising $39) and other perks, such as “become a beta reader”. The goal is to engage in a prelaunch effort to sell 125-250 books, in order to “build your audience in advance of a formal book launch” (Overview, pages 7-8). While any professional writer will tell you that building an audience involves getting people you don’t know to buy your books, for NDP, pre-sale audience-building primarily relies on people to whom you are already connected. This isn’t emphasized in the 2021 literature, but it’s explicit in last year’s Overview (“Most presales come from friends, family, coworkers, classmates, alums, and people you’ve interacted with through your book-writing process” [page 13]) and was confirmed by writers who contacted me, some of whom said they found this leveraging of relationships uncomfortable.
Technically, writers who reach their crowdfunding goals don’t have to pay out of pocket–something CI makes sure to emphasize throughout its literature. And indeed, a large number of campaigns do succeed in raising or even exceeding the desired amount of cash.
What about those that don’t, though? CI encourages writers to believe this is unlikely: “96% of authors reach their campaign targets” (Overview, page 13–an estimate that’s a step down from the prior year’s Overview, which assured students that “Creators Program alums have, to date, all succeeded in their targets.” [page 12]). But in fact it’s very easy to find campaigns that have missed the mark, in some cases by quite a considerable amount of money.
Might there be substantial incentive for writers to chip in themselves to make up the difference? I’ve heard from NDP writers who say they did just that. So did this writer. Even a brief survey of NDP writers’ campaign pages indicates that self–contributions are not at all uncommon. (Writers seem to be encouraged to help fund campaigns by other NDP authors as well–a practice that appears to involve a certain amount of quid pro quo.)
Another question: suppose writers who don’t reach their goal decide to walk away, rather than making up the difference. Work on editing and other tasks is concurrent with campaigns; would writers have to reimburse NDP for the cost of those activities? Here’s what CI has to say about that (Overview, page 13):
I find this explanation far from clear. No, authors aren’t responsible for costs, period? Or no, authors aren’t responsible for costs “beyond those from their pre-sales and applied to publishing activities”–which would seem to add up to “yes, you are responsible for costs”?
Indiegogo is one of the few crowdfunding platforms that allows participants to keep the money they raise whether or not they make their goals. But remember, the campaigns are for pre-orders, and if there’s no published book, backers will want to be compensated. If indeed there are financial repercussions to walking away, authors could be faced with a quandary: refund backers and pay NDP out of pocket? Or pay NDP with campaign funds and find some other way to reimburse backers?
This absolutely needs to be more fully explained. It should really be included in the contract. Which brings me to…
THE CONTRACTHere’s where things get really murky.
NDP repeatedly identifies itself as a publisher (specifically, a “hybrid publisher”). NDP titles carry NDP ISBNs; Amazon and other retailers list it as publisher, and its name is printed inside the books and on back covers.
It also issues a Publishing Agreement. That agreement, however…well…here’s one from September 2020.Almost nothing you’d expect to appear in a publishing agreement is present here. Grant term? Nope. Copyright? Nada. Warranties and indemnities? Absent. Termination or cancellation? Never mentioned. Publisher’s signature? Apparently not deemed necessary. As for rights and royalties, there’s only this…
…which merely affirms a basic truth about intellectual property (unless they surrender copyright, authors always “retain full ownership rights”; it’s what allows them to grant publishing rights in the first place), and doesn’t explicitly license any rights to NDP or say how or when royalties will be collected.
Of course, NDP doesn’t need to license rights, because it doesn’t actually publish anything. Writers themselves upload their finished books to KDP and IngramSpark, at which point they agree to those platforms’ rights licenses and payment terms. Presumably that’s why there’s no license language in NDP’s agreement, and no payment stipulations other than confirmation that authors keep all platform income (NDP does not take a share of sales income).
But do you see the problem here? Publishing agreements should not require you to presume. More to the point–if NDP leaves it to authors to do the actual publishing, why have a publishing agreement at all? Surely a service contract–which NDP’s agreement in fact resembles far more than it does a publishing contract–would be more appropriate.
As it is, NDP’s publishing agreement leaves important issues unaddressed, protecting neither the author nor NDP itself, and potentially setting everyone up for awkward outcomes.
For instance, suppose an NDP writer decides they want to seek a different form of publishing. They can unpublish their book from KDP and IngramSpark, per the terms of those licenses–but what about the NDP publishing agreement, which has no stated term and no provision for cancellation by the author (or even by NDP)? Presumably (that word again) the author could ask NDP to cancel it–but if NDP refused, or became unreachable, what then? How would a potential new publisher, or even another self-publishing platform, feel about an existing interminable publishing agreement, even one as vague as NDP’s? At the very least, it would be a complicating factor.
Or suppose it turns out that an NDP writer plagiarized portions of their book, or included content that someone deems defamatory, and lawsuits are filed against NDP as well as the author. With no author warranties, and no indemnity language, NDP is totally exposed. Might it claim that it wasn’t actually the publisher, since there was no explicit license of rights? Courts might be skeptical of that argument, given NDP’s repeated identification of itself as a publisher, not to mention its ISBNs and the presence of its name inside its books. Self-publishing service provider AuthorHouse did not do well with a similar argument when it was sued for libel (and now includes extensive disclaimers in its service agreement). For a publisher that touts its entrepreneurial focus, this does seem a bit short-sighted.
These scenarios are not far-fetched. The odds they’d happen might be slim–but they aren’t zero.
CONCLUSIONDespite its name and claims, NDP is not much like a publisher, in the traditional sense of a company that takes on the entire work of producing, distributing, and marketing a carefully curated catalog of books.
It more closely resembles a self-publishing services provider, with an added element of coaching and community interaction. With its focus on entrepreneurship, NDP seems a better fit for people who want to use a book as a calling card or a line on their resume, than for those with ambitions of authorship. In particular, it seems a bad fit for novelists and other creative writers.
Regardless, anyone who decides to sign up with NDP should be aware that to all intents and purposes they are self-publishing, that crowdfunding success is not assured, and that–as with any self-published book–the burden and expense of marketing will fall to them.
Most of the authors I heard from had positive things to say about their CI/NDP experience, and were happy with their finished books. But all expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of the program and/or business model, from concerns about the quality of editing and copy editing, to doubts about the usefulness of the seminars, to disappointment with the lack of marketing support. These concerns echo those expressed by Clare Marie Edgeman, who lays out in a detailed blog post why she regrets publishing with NDP (see especially the section titled “The Red Flags I Ignored”).
I’m also troubled by the ethics of the CI to NDP pipeline. CI students don’t have to publish their books with NDP. But what about alternatives? CI/NDP literature paints a discouraging picture of traditional publishing, claiming it offers few chances for first-time authors “unless the author has a built-in audience that can purchase 10,000 copies of a book”, and gobbles up “90-95% of all the profit” (Overview, pages 11 and 12). According to a previous Overview, trad pubbed writers “give up their rights” and “typically end up owing the publisher money” if they don’t meet sales targets (page 11). Similarly misleading claims are made in a CI video lecture I viewed, including the common false meme that the “average” trad pubbed book sells just 250 copies over its lifetime.
Of course, for most CI authors, trad pub is moot, since 30,000-word manuscripts are unlikely to interest bigger houses unless they’re for the juvenile market, and the low word count eliminates many smaller presses as well. What about self-publishing, then? That’s portrayed as too expensive: “the average self-published author reports spending $4,450 on publishing costs” (Overview, page 14–it’s worth noting that this is just $550 less than NDP’s lowest fee level). According to the video lecture, first year sales for most self-pubbers are 50 copies or fewer. (I’m sure there are many successful self-publishers who can attest to spending far less–and selling more, too.)
The inevitable conclusion: “Hybrid publishing…offer[s] the best combination for first-time authors” (Overview, page 12). Essentially, it’s a closed loop: the CI program produces manuscripts that, for word count and possibly other reasons, have limited publishing options, and NDP is there to publish them.
Prof. Koester is NDP’s co-founder. This fact isn’t exactly hidden, but it is also not disclosed on NDP’s website or in its literature, which describes the relationship between CI and NDP as a “partnership” (as though NDP hadn’t been created specifically to service the CI program) and only acknowledges that Prof. Koester “worked” with NDP to “design this innovative, group-based, hybrid publishing experience” (Overview, page 2).
For me, this raises a question: is NDP a profitmaking entity? NDP’s cost breakdown for its services does suggest that it’s break-even, more or less, for CI students–but NDP also calls for unsolicited submissions from non-CI participants, and does “custom” publishing where costs are higher.
I sent this question, along with a number of others, to Prof. Koester several weeks ago. He has not responded.