I set out to see if I, too, could be offered a writing contract through Sakura Publishing. Under a pseudonym, I sent Sakura a proposal by email for the stupidest, most absurd poetry book I could think of, a work in progress called CATTY CAT CAT which promised that every line of poetry in it would rhyme with the word cat, and I included some sample lines of poetry that I made up in a few seconds off the top of my head: "Do you think I'm a Brat? / For putting the Cat / Under the Mat? / Then why did you put a Rat / Under the Mat? / You big FAT / Tater Tat!!!!!"
Within hours I was contacted by CEO Derek Vasconi himself, who expressed interest in my project, suggesting that I might want to include illustrations with my book. Derek wanted to know if I intended to "do this long-term," and he asked how many of these poems I have. He informed me that he offers "paid services," assuring me: "trust me, I am the cheapest online and I do payment plans. [continued below]....
....." So I wrote him back and told him a fib, that I have about two dozen of these poems that rhyme with cat, but that I intend to write many more, and I hinted that I have some money saved up. Within a few more hours Derek wrote back letting me know his "company would definitely be interested" and he gave me a price breakdown: I would need to pay him $225 for editing, $150 for cover design, $600 for illustrations, another $150 for ebook conversion, and an additional $625 to put up a webpage promoting my book, with the grand total coming to $1750, to be paid "either all of the amount up front with signing of the contract or in installments . . . over the course of 6 months". He informed me that his "chief editor" lives in Chicago but that since he lives in Pennsylvania, all business would be done "over the phone and through emails."
In turn, I wrote back asking for something which describes his services and fees in more detail. He wrote back with some more blah blah blah so I realized I'd have to be more blunt about it. I wrote back requesting to see a contract. He wrote back the following:
"Sure, Ill (sic) work up a contract and send it to you. It might take some time because I have to do it from scratch pretty much. So give me some time."
I quickly wrote back, suggesting that another company was competing for my business, and wallah! within one minute he wrote back an email with my contract (that he had to do from scratch a moment ago) attached. That was it. Within 24 hours of sending the proposal, my pseudonym had secured a book publishing contract with Sakura Publishing based on one single poem composed of nothing but gibberish. Derek did not need to see the rest of the poems nor did he need to know anything about me, other than that I had some money.
Upon opening my contract, I discovered it wasn't something made from scratch, personally for me, but it was pretty much an exact copy of my friend's contract, only with the author's name and dollar amounts changed; in fact, Derek didn't even bother to change the word "her" to "his" when referring to me in the contract.
My contract from Sakura is rather humorous. It is 26 pages long and full of so much mumbo jumbo that I can't figure most of it out. The first 24 pages seem to be some big publishing industry contract that Derek commandeered that jibbers and jabbers about nothing that has anything to do with my book of poetry, including royalty I'd get if my book of catty cat poems ever gets turned into a theme park or a television program. What is most amazing is not all the nonsense that is included, but what the contract is lacking. What I found most lacking were three things: how many complimentary copies of the book do I get, exactly how many books the first run will consist of, and what exactly is the royalty schedule. I emailed Derek back asking these questions and here is what he said.
Q. How many complimentary copies do I get for my $1750 investment?
A. "No complimentary copies, sorry, but you can buy all copies at printing cost, which means I don't get any profit off them, so in a way, that's much better because I'll always have copies for you at cost." (Um, could someone please explain to me how having to pay for the copies is better than getting them free? Wait, it gets better, I even have to pay for the PROOF, plus shipping!)
Q. What is the size of the run?
A. "I usually do small print runs of about five hundred to start, but I also have the option in place to do print on demand for when they are needed." (I am pretty confident that translates into there is no print run and that he prints them up on demand as people order them. No orders? No copies printed up. Because, honestly, why would he print up 500 copies of CATTY CAT CAT when he knows d**n well nobody is going to buy them?)
Q. What is the royalty schedule?
A. "I can't even begin to tell you what the profit would be per tier because we don't have a retail price listing and we can't get a retail listing until the book is completed, because it all depends on the cost of printing." (And bladdy blah blah blah. Okay, I'm supposed to sign this contract and pay him $1750 and he can't even explain to me what the royalty schedule is? Derek continues . . .) "You get paid every month a royalty check for sales past $100, which means you must accumulate up to $100 dollars in sales each month to receive a check." (For the books that I paid him to design, I need to wait until he sells $100 worth of them to get a few pennies back. Wow.)
The last two pages of the contract consist of the stuff Derek has personally added onto the standard industry contract, sloppily tagging it on in a different font even. Surprisingly, even after getting $1750 out of me, he still wants to tag on hidden charges.
He sneaks in a hidden hourly charge regarding the website.
He sneaks in a hidden charge regarding illustration.
He sneaks in some absolutely shocking language about how if he decides I'm nuts, he can then do whatever he wants with my book regardless of my wishes.
Derek claims that his service is "the cheapest online" but I know first-hand that this is not true. I actually self-published my last fiction novel through a company called CreateSpace, owned by Amazon.com (perhaps the same company Derek uses to print up his books), and they gave me an ISBN number, an easy to use program that allowed me to design a professional looking cover, a listing at Amazon as well as a personal webpage for my book, all for free. I didn't have to pay them anything at all and I receive something like $6 every time they sell one of my books. I also could have had free ebook conversion if I wanted it. True, I had to do all the editing and designing myself, and I suppose if I was truly that bad at it and needed to pay someone to edit my completely unformatted book, $225 is not all that ridiculous--if it was a good job. But when I looked at some sample pages of one of Sakura's books on Amazon, I found it to be horribly edited and formatted. The table of contents is five pages long, a list of other books offered by Sakura doesn't even include the authors' names, and the poetry itself is published in the biggest, boldest, ugliest font imaginable. I won't link to it in order not to embarrass Derek's victim.
However, the most outrageous charge in this contract involves the $625 to create a website. In the age where there are so many outlets for free advertising online, such as facebook, myspace, youtube and blogger, paying that much money for a bare bones webpage does seem quite ridiculous. My contract states that the website will be hosted on Sakura's "private server."
However, this is an outright lie. Sakura does not use a "private server." When I conducted a WhoIs Search on the domain names Sakura has set up for some of its authors (here is an example of one), I learned that Derek uses GoDaddy as a registrar. Now, mind you, you can register a domain name as well as have GoDaddy host a website for you for about $60 a year, everything included. I personally haven't created a website through GoDaddy, but they advertise a common point and click formatting system similar to blogspot that allows you to design and launch a website similar to the Sakura sponsored ones in about half an hour. If that is what Derek was doing, then technically, these sites would not be "designed" by Sakura at all, but they would merely reflect pre-existing templates offered through GoDaddy. Also, they would not be hosted on Sakura's personal server as the contract states, but on GoDaddy's hosting service. That would mean that the $625 Sakura wants to charge me for designing and hosting a website reflects a 1000% mark-up compared to what Derek would be paying for it.
But, wait, this is not what Derek is doing at all. Upon closer inspection of the websites I found out they are powered by WordPress, a FREE hosting service similar to blogspot. This means Derek isn't paying anything, not one dime, to host the site, and he merely designed it in a few moments for free through a WordPress template, blatantly violating the WordPress terms of service by collecting a hosting fee for their free service. This goes beyond simply overcharging for something; this enters into the territory of deception and thievery. It would be like if I charged you $600 to set up your twitter account for you and then charged you an annual fee to use it.
Even though it seems there will be no print run and that my website will simply be a free WordPress page, Derek of Sakura has guaranteed me "distribution all over the world" and he claims my website will be "optimized to be indexed on the front page of google and yahoo," but he has also warned me that "This contract offer is good until next Thursday, at which point if we do not hear from you, then we will assume you do not have an interest in publishing with us."
(This report has been excerpted from an expose at ChicagoPoetry.com.)