Kiana Davenport faced a problem that many writers are familiar with. Despite being an award winning and bestselling author, her collection of short stories entitled “Cannibal Nights,” which she considered to be her best work, had been rejected for publication. “I had submitted them as a collection to all of the Big Six publishers in New York,” she told me, “but their response was uniform. ‘Story collections don't sell.’ So these prize-winning stories sat in my files for a couple of years. It was utterly depressing. And I know many writers share this experience.”
Kiana’s stories were languishing, and because she was in a state of “financial desperation,” she decided to self-publish. “I had never thought of self-publishing but then I heard of Amazon's Kindle, and how ebooks were taking off and how even established writers like the brilliant John Edgar Wideman were self-publishing their work. So I decided to try it.” Though under contract with a major publisher, her financial difficulties were due to the way in which payments from publishers are spread out, sometimes over several years. “I had a book contract with Penguin, but advance payments with legacy publishers are generally doled out. A third on signing contract, a third on final acceptance of the manuscript (which can take up to 6-8 months) and a third on publication of the hardback and paperback (up to 18 months into the future). This is how writers are traditionally kept poor.”
But when Kiana self-published with Amazon, she ran into a big problem. Under the terms of her book deal with Penguin, she was not permitted to self-publish, even though Penguin itself had rejected “Cannibal Nights.” Her editor at Penguin was furious, as she described in a well known blog post in August of last year entitled “Sleeping With The Enemy: A Cautionary Tale.” “[T]hey went ballistic,” she wrote in that post, “The editor shouted at me repeatedly on the phone. I was accused of breaching my contract (which I did not) but worse, of 'blatantly betraying them with Amazon,' their biggest and most intimidating competitor. I was not trustworthy. I was sleeping with the enemy.”
Kiana’s publisher gave her an ultimatum: she was to immediately cease the electronic publication of “Cannibal Nights” until after the publication of her next novel, which would be at least two years in the future. “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, in a state of acquiescence and, consequently, utter self-loathing.” Kiana refused, but Penguin continued in its attempt to convince her to take “Cannibal Nights” off the market. Eventually, Penguin terminated her contract, which meant that she had to repay a $20,000 advance. To Kiana, there was no question as to what was more important, the $20,000 or having her work be accessible to the world. Kiana’s blog post about the matter went viral and she “landed on the front lines of the publishing wars, a place [she] did not want to be.”
But all was not lost for Kiana. “Several other NY publishers stepped forward to 'rescue my novel, and my reputation,' but they were offering the same old royalties for print books and digital books that have been unfair to authors for years. Their contracts have not changed for decades.” Ultimately, she decided to publish her forthcoming novel “The Spy Lover” with Amazon instead of a traditional publisher. Her reasons for doing so reveal a lot about the differences between Amazon and traditional publishers; the terms of her deal with Amazon are superior in many ways to those that she could get with a traditional publisher. “I decided on Amazon because the Senior Acquisitions Editor, Andy Bartlett, was articulate, a lover of books, with a PhD. in Literature, and he took the time to read my manuscript and discuss with me why he loved it. And how he envisioned it being marketed. And just as important, Amazon's rates and royalties especially for digital books were twice what NY legacy publishers offered. In short, Amazon made me an offer I could not refuse.”
Opinions obviously differ about Kiana’s actions, and how could they not? This story illustrates the tension between writing as an art and writing as a business, and between old forms of publishing and new. For some, the artist’s desire to distribute his or her work to the public, even in the face of financial loss, may seem abstract and difficult to understand, but to others the thought of having one’s work left in limbo is a fate far worse than poverty.
To date Penguin has been silent about its position on how this matter unfolded. I have to wonder how much of a role Kiana’s decision to publish with Amazon played in this. That is, if Kiana had decided to self-publish with only Smashwords, would events have unfolded in the manner that they did?
For Kiana, this experience has changed the way she looks at writing and at publishing. “[U]ntil this fiasco happened with Penguin, I was incredibly naive. I looked upon writing as a 'holy calling,' forgetting that it was also a business, MY business, and my only source of income. “ Though she has signed with Amazon, she is by no means dismissive of traditional publishing, though she believes it needs to adapt. “We can either adhere to the outmoded, anachronistic terms of legacy publishing contracts which have kept authors in bondage for decades, or we take the leap and become innovative and independent with self-publishing and setting our own rules, and/or publishing with the 'new paradigm' offered by Amazon publishing... Business wise, we need to be quicker, shrewder, warier. But in terms of bringing beauty and humor and hope to mankind...The world will always need writers.”
For the full text of my interview with Kiana Davenport, including some of her views on ebooks and on her own work, please visit my personal blog at ecstaticdiscourse.tumblr.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @vmanapat.