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Unveiling Publishing Turmoil: The City Owl Press Controversy and Lessons for Indie Authors

Occasionally, a publisher gets into a bit of trouble, and trouble is brewing at City Owl Press (COP). Today, I want to address the lessons authors can learn from this situation.

According to their website:

“City Owl Press is a cutting edge indie publishing company, bringing the world of romance and speculative fiction to discerning readers. Co-founded by award-winning authors, Yelena Casale and Tina Moss, the City Owl Press team brings together more than a decade of business, writing, editing, design, marketing, advertising, and publishing experience.”

Recently, their authors have been asking pointed questions.

Blocked on Socials

According to LinkedIn, the COO of City Owl Press is Tina Moss.

Lisa Edmonds, one of the affected authors, wrote this on Threads:

“This is wild…the COO of my publishing company, with whom I’ve published 9 highly successful books since 2017, blocked me on all the socials. I haven’t said anything public about my situation at all…but she blocked me.
“Is there trouble at City Owl Press? Draw your own conclusions.”

—Lisa Edmonds

Edmonds went on to allege that City Owl Press blocked at least one of their published authors from all the publisher’s social media and Facebook accounts after the author questioned their public posts. (Not nice.)

Imagine being blocked from your publisher’s Instagram account so that you are unable to see what they say about your books or if they promote your books. Also, getting kicked out of Facebook groups run by your publisher would raise suspicions, wouldn’t it?

Financial Questions

Erin Fulmer disclosed that her rights to her series were reverted, unsolicited, back to her after she asked to view financial records. She had a right to do this, but it upset the apple cart.

Fulmer concluded in the end that: “In the end, I did get to review those records, or some of them, at least. The information included made it undeniably clear that reversion was the best possible outcome for me and my books.”

Unexpected Rights Reversions

Other City Owl Press authors unexpectedly received their rights back too, according to Fulmer. She named eight others in a Threads post and on her website: Author News: The Cambion Series Will Return in 2024! – Erin Fulmer Writes SFF.

Getting dumped by your publisher means starting over. Fulmer talks about needing to format her manuscripts, choose categories and keywords, and purchase new covers. As you might imagine, that can be a direct hit to the old pocketbook. But she considers herself to be one of the lucky ones who received her rights back.

Beware of a Publisher that Charges Authors Money

One sentence in Fulmer’s post caught my attention: “The covers cost me less than my former publisher wanted to charge me for the old art.”

If your publisher expects you to pay for stuff like editing or book covers, that’s a big red flag. Be cautious. Either you have found a vanity press or you have found what I will call an author co-op.

Since the founders of City Owl Press are authors, I will go with the latter conclusion and call it an author co-op, and I will just say: I think there’s an inherent conflict of interest. You must be able to trust the outfit that publishes your work, so ask questions. Lots of questions.

Questions that come to mind are:

  1. How are marketing resources divided between the authors who are in the co-op? This creates a potential source of conflict between the authors and between the authors and publisher.
  2. How transparent are the financial records to the authors? (This question should apply to every publisher.)
  3. Is there a possibility that your work will get dumped back in your lap, as seems to have happened at City Owl Press? So disappointing.
  4. Is there a clear line of communication that is always open with the owners?
  5. Can you expect quality social media output from the publisher? Are they always working for your benefit?

Are you better off with a publisher like City Owl Press?

Um, I don’t see the advantages, but I am a bit of a control freak. Also, I’m not a legal expert, and this is not legal advice.

As an indie author, you are the boss.

If you pay your publisher for services, who is the boss? Answer: The one who holds the rights. How do you know your books are getting fair treatment among all the other titles from your publisher? How do you know you will receive good service?

If a traditional publisher offers you a contract, you expect the publisher to do its part—editing, formatting, book cover design, marketing—at no charge. Traditional publishing works because the publisher brings expertise to the table, but you should still expect to work hard to market your book.

If you go with a smaller publisher that routinely passes on expenses to the authors, make sure all of the financial arrangements are clearly delineated and you have a competent lawyer at your elbow before you sign the contract. (A lawyer sounds like a good idea for any kind of publisher.)

Question: What are your criteria for choosing a publisher, or why do you publish your work yourself? Share your experiences or thoughts in the comments to help other authors avoid making publishing mistakes.

Update to this post:

On January 7, 2024, City Owl Press (a registered Absolute Write member) issued the following invitation to the writer community about their business: “Welcoming additional questions.” In the past, City Owl Press has been quick to answer questions on Absolute Write.

The next day, Absolute Write Super Member, writera, provided a compilation of sixteen concerns raised by City Owl Press authors. Today, it has been twenty days with no response to this post:
https://absolutewrite.com/forums/index.php?threads/city-owl-press.313386/post-10964938.

My purpose in publishing this blog post for my readers is to push authors, especially new authors, to ask uncomfortable questions and get legal counsel before they sign a publishing contract with ANY publisher. As with every publisher, big or small, it is safe to say: “Your experience may vary.”

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8 Comments

  1. I also want to note:
    And since we’re on the topic of “not a good look”: City Owl Press recently closed down two of its official FB groups—one where they posted announcements to authors, and the other that was described as a private “authors-only” space for COP authors to share resources, concerns, & information. Why shut down an “authors-only” group? So we can’t share information? To isolate us? Again, draw your own conclusions…

  2. Also of note: at least one *reader* who voiced support of former City Owl authors on Threads (but said nothing critical about COP) received an unsolicited DM by the official City Owl Threads account, and then was blocked by the official City Owl account. This info is also shared on my Threads page.

    1. Hi Lisa, I saw your posts on Threads and thought my readers should see how this situation is affecting other authors, if only to warn them to be cautious about working with this publisher.

  3. I wonder if you talked with Tina or Yelena about these matters you’ve brought up in this blog. You seem to be making a judgment with only one side being heard. Yes, I’m another City Owl author. I know that City Owl has invested a lot of resources, including time and money, into our books, because I’m a benefactor of their efforts. And no, I’m not receiving any better treatment than any of the other authors.

    An author was asked to pay for her cover? Interesting, since none of the rest of us were. Did she, perhaps expect an expensive cover that would take resources from other authors? I can’t say because I wasn’t there and neither were you.

    City Owl did not block Ms. Edmonds from any Facebook groups. They were closed at the advice of legal counsel. This was stated to ALL City Owl authors at a recent author meeting.

    It’s disingenuous to say that a publisher did nothing for you then complain that you have to pay for all those things your publisher did for you, now that you’re indie.

    All of these inconsistencies in the complaining authors’ stories only lead me to believe that they had expectations that were not met, and have decided it’s City Owl’s fault because, we all need someone to blame when we are unable to look at how we may have played a roll in our own discontent.

    I’ll be interested in seeing how these authors compare their sales and publishing success, now that they have separated from City Owl, whichever direction they should decide to choose.

    Those who chose to leave have been granted their wish. They had the opportunity to leave with grace, with their heads held high. Instead, they’ve chosen to take the low ground by throwing matches at the building. Anyone who chooses this avenue of throwing a public tantrum is only hurting themselves. City Owl will continue on. But will the writing careers of these discontented authors survive their very public attacks against their former publisher? Only time will tell.

    1. In every divorce, there’s always another side of the story, isn’t there? I did not reach out to the founders; still, I want to be fair, so I will share a couple of thoughts below and update my blog post as well.

      I am willing to take Fulmer at her word about the cover art; it is not unheard of for expenses like cover art to be shared between an author and their small publisher. Fulmer wrote: “The covers cost me less than my former publisher wanted to charge me for the old art.” So, perhaps they didn’t charge her? She at least had a figure for comparison afterward.

      You stated: “Those who chose to leave have been granted their wish.” Fulmer stated that she did not initiate or propose the rights reversion; in fact, it surprised her and seemed to be linked to her request to review financial records.

      Fulmer named eight other COP authors who unexpectedly received their rights back. For prospective authors, the potential for being unexpectedly divorced by your publisher should be a consideration.

      Several authors raised issues on Threads (and possibly X.) They each reported different experiences, so though their stories may seem inconsistent, combined, their stories form an unfortunate pattern.

      Could it be growing pains for the publisher? A temporary problem? Poor communication? I hope so. Will it hurt the authors who have aired their concerns publicly? As you say, only time will tell.

      I’m certainly happy to hear that you have enjoyed your experience with City Owl Press. Also, good on you for coming to their defense.

      Here is some additional information:

      On January 7, 2024, City Owl Press (a registered Absolute Write member) issued the following invitation to the writer community about their business: “Welcoming additional questions.” In the past, City Owl Press has been quick to answer questions on Absolute Write.

      The next day, Absolute Write Super Member, writera, provided a compilation of sixteen concerns raised by City Owl Press authors. Today, it has been twenty days with no response to this post:
      https://absolutewrite.com/forums/index.php?threads/city-owl-press.313386/post-10964938.

      My purpose in publishing this blog post for my readers is to push authors, especially new authors, to ask uncomfortable questions and get legal counsel before they sign a publishing contract with ANY publisher. As with every publisher, big or small, it is safe to say: “Your experience may vary.”

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful response. And you are correct, there are always 2 sides to a story. And then there is the truth, which usually falls somewhere in between.

    I reached out to a COP editor and asked about the cover conflict and Ms Fulmer’s surprise return of her rights. All other authors I know who’ve received their rights back have posted that they *decided* to leave City Owl. Which is the truth? I don’t know.

    I thought I had also seen a post by Ms Fulmer stating that she asked for her rights back then asked to see the Financials. My memory of that was backed up by the editor I spoke with last night. The editor also stated that Ms Fulmer’s novel had just come out when she wanted new covers, which is why they asked her to cover that cost.

    Although I appreciate taking someone at their word, there are times when the tales grow taller with time. The fact that there have been disingenuous and inconsistent statements repeated among these actors, one might be inspired to question much, if not most, of what these authors have to say. I’m somewhat of a “Fool me once” kind of gal.

    Yes, much of the discontent is born out of dissatisfaction with industry standards, as you have otherwise stated in different words. I can state unequivocally though, that in other ways City Owl has exceded industry standards. And some of us would appreciate it if those who have left the building would stop trying to burn it down with us inside.

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