Dear Chicago Poetry Scene,
Recently, it came to my attention that a new poetry publisher -- Sakura Publishing -- is in town offering contracts to commission books. They seem to have come out of nowhere, and they even had a table at this year's poetry fest, where they passed out bookmarks. I was surprised to learn that they even offered at least one local poet / friend of mine a publishing contract, based solely on the few minutes of poetry she read during the open mic at the fest.
You see, I like to believe I'm up on just about everything Chicago poetry, so I was a little miffed. Why had I not heard of Sakura? After a little snooping, I became even more baffled. Their Facebook page only gives a "Hermitage, PA" post office box as its address. So how did Sakura get a table at the poetry fest, I wondered, knowing how strict the fest is about only showcasing local publishers.
After stumbling upon their poorly designed official website that has the tone of a glee club and flashes a purple logo of a little girl in a short skirt getting blown around by the wind, I couldn't be more perplexed. Sakura didn't seem to be strictly a poetry publisher at all, but instead a publisher of all genres of writing. Check out this link showcasing one of their authors' dieting book. So, again, what were they doing with one of the rare and coveted tables at the poetry fest?
I browsed their site to learn some more about their authors, one of whom is Almney King, who the site describes as "a high school junior." I found a video of Almney reading poetry at Sakura's YouTube channel (which at the time had 3 subscribers), and in all fairness, she's a pretty good poet. On the other hand, one of their two listed Chicago poets, a man named Dan Picone, is hailed by Sakura as "one of the most prolific poets in America today." Here is a video of Dan reading his poetry. The other Chicago poet published by Sakura is Sharday Cage. Here is a video of Sharday delivering what seems to be a slam-worthy performance. I also watched a video of a man named Derek Vasconi, who calls himself the CEO of Sakura Publishing, giving a lecture at PENN State, and he seemed extremely non-threatening. In fact, all those involved with Sakura seemed to be nice people. That makes me feel sad, since I have to expose Sakura for the dishonest vanity publisher that it is, but nevertheless that's exactly what I intend to do.
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." 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 voila! 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 for book sales. 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, here is the part of the contract that tells me 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 damn well nobody is going to buy them?)
Q. What is the royalty schedule for book sales?
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 big industry publishing contract, a list of one charge after another, sloppily tagged on in a different font even. It's bad enough he is trying to charge me $1750 to publish my book of nonsense, but he also sneaks in a bunch of hidden charges.
Here is where he sneaks in a hidden hourly charge regarding the website:
Here is where he sneaks in a hidden charge regarding illustration:
Here is where 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 this age, when 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. Here is what my contract says about the website:
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 (click here and scroll all the way to the bottom to see), 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."
My dear poets, when a publisher offers to contract the rights to your book, the publisher is suppose to pay you either through an advance, through complimentary copies or through the promise of clearly spelled out royalty payments. It's not suppose to be the other way around. If you are paying someone to publish your book, that is called vanity publishing. It's exciting to get a publishing contract and to feel like a published author, and vanity publishers use that excitement to prey on those who aspire to be published authors. So be careful out there.
These days the line between self-publishing and vanity publishing can get a little blurry, and there are of course a lot of publishers out there who ask for money for one reason or another who are running legitimate projects or contests, and it's not that uncommon in the small press industry for writers to chip in at least some money to help their publisher's financial obligations. For example, ChicagoPoetry.com does charge small fees (presently $30) to participate in its publication Poetry Cram. However, Poetry Cram only breaks even, as the publication is given away free to the public and there are often cash prizes involved. Furthermore, not all poets who submit into Cram get accepted. This is what I believe distinguishes it from a vanity press.
I think a good rule of thumb is, if you are going to make a financial investment in your writing, be certain that at least half if not the majority of the benefits arising from that investment, whether they be financial or promotional, are going to go to you.
WARNING: DEREK HAS A FILTHY MOUTH. DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU ARE EASILY OFFENDED
Derek Vasconi (photo), CEO of Sakura Publishing, has replied to ChicagoPoetry.com's undercover eXposť with a lengthy, scathing response, accusing me of everything from being "heinous" to being an "alpha male". I'm not going to publish his attack in its entirety; I stopped letting people slander me on my own website a long time ago. Let him do that on his own website if he wants to. However, just for fun, I will offer you my 15 favorite quotes from Derek's rebuttal. All quotes are actually written by Derek Vasconi, CEO of Sakura Publishing, LOL. Warning: Derek has a FILTHY mouth. (The stuff in italics is from me.)
#1). I actually liked your poem . . . (You actually like Cat Under The Mat that I thought up in, like, five seconds? You seriously think it deserves a publishing contract? Are you trying to delude me or yourself?)
#2.) Do you realize showing my private contract online could be something that I will be going to my lawyers with tomorrow morning to see if I can press charges? (There was nothing in that contract that stated it was confidential. Good luck with your lawyers.)
#3.) You know how I got the "coveted" table at the festival? I fucking asked, that's how. I made a few phone calls . . . and I just set up shop.
#4). . . . what I didn't expect that day was getting the high amount of traffic sent my way and due (sic), was it awesome to talk with so many people, many of which who I felt were great and sincere with their desires to publish! So I indulged them . . . (Are you related to Sarah Palin?)
#5). You can be damn sure that if we had got the contract signed with your alter ego, I would've had HEAVILY edited your work. (LOL. Really!? Which words that rhyme with cat would you have deleted?)
#6). I love how you excluded the fact in your exposition on my company that you goaded me into basically needing to get you a contract fast or that fictitious OTHER company you LIED to me about would pick you up first. (No I didn't. Read my eXposť. I openly admit that I baited you with the prospect of another company competing for my business. Only a vanity publisher would have reacted the way you did.)
#7). I didn't suck anyone's dick in order to learn how to be a publisher. . .. (Um, okaaaaaay. That is waaaaay more information than I need.)
#8). As for my PAID services, you forgot to put in the part where I fucking told you it's OPTIONAL. You don't have to use them at all, which pretty much puts me OUTSIDE the vanity realm if you can supply some of the basic stuff that's needed for publication. (Yeah, I get it, it was optional whether or not I signed your contract, all of which described your paid services. I opted not to. Wait. What is your point again?)
#9). I hate vanity publishers. Hate them with a passion. If all I wanted to be was a vanity publisher, then I would just get my money and tell you good luck with your book. (Derek, you were trying to charge me $1750-plus to publish a book of nonsense. What part of your own scam don't you seem to understand?)
#10). I use wordpress because they do great with search engine rankings but dude I could easily code a site from scratch using Dreamweaver because that is what my background entails . . . (I think it's that word "could" that's most important here. You "could" actually deliver what's in your contract, but you don't.)
#11). . . .somebody like you probably needs me to send you my tax records to prove it huh? (Don't bother. I know you're making a profit by selling me a WordPress page for $625. I don't need you to prove it.)
#12). I'm meeting with my lawyer tomorrow to see if they can help me get it taken down. (So your response to getting exposed is to try to censor me. Lame.)
#13) Let me quote you something Janet Jackson said to Tupac Shakur in the movie POETIC JUSTICE: When you assume something, you make an ASS out of U-and-ME. (That quote was plagiarized from The Bad News Bears, circa 1976.)
#14). But hey, see you next year at the Chicago Poetry Festival . . . (I guess we'll see.)
#15). So....you have a chance to either take the article down or print my rebuttal, or do nothing. Your choice. (Why, thank you so much for giving me all those choices. But you left one choice out. I could just publish excerpts of your rebuttal and then make fun of you.)
Note: Click Here to read the entire eXposť.
NOW WITH A FILTHY MOUTHED RESPONSE FROM DEREK.