JCU book writing partnership draws criticism

JCU+Students+wonder+if+they+can+take+their+book+writing+dreams+to+new+heights+without+the+lofty+price+tag.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

JCU Students wonder if they can take their book writing dreams to new heights without the lofty price tag.

Laken Kincaid, Campus Editor

A new program at John Carroll has sparked controversy as students empty their pockets to follow their dreams. JCU’s Entrepreneurship program has partnered with Georgetown University’s New Degree Press to help college students publish their original works. However, recent controversy over undisclosed financial requirements and murky processes have left a few students and faculty concerned about John Carroll’s involvement. 

New Degree Press is a self-described “hybrid publisher” — self-publishing with the help of a professional editing and design team — that has worked with over a thousand authors with the mantra of creating, demonstrating and inspiring. Students enter the program either in April, August or December for a five-month class on how to write and publish their own books. Authors work with a series of editors, a publishing coordinator, a marketing and revisions editor, a copy editor and proofreader, a cover designer and layout designer to achieve their visions. The authors meet weekly with either their “team” or with other authors until their work is ready for publication. 

After writers get the green light, New Degree Press asks them to promote their books through presales and campaigns while also going through weeks of various editing phases. Altogether, the process takes about 11 months.

“It is a community-powered book creation program,” Eric Koester, founder of The Creator Institute, the parent company of New Degree Press, and professor at Georgetown University, told The Carroll News. “It gives students a process to keep them on track. While only 2% of people who start a book will ever finish, 600 of my students have published.”

Koester is a self-described “serial entrepreneur.” He has founded many companies, which earned him a place on Washington’s “40 under 40” list published by The Washington Business Journal in 2011. Now, he has turned his attention to students “who are curious and have an entrepreneurial mindset” for his new publishing organization.

“The creator economy is exploding where creators have their own voice,” Koester stated. “We help people build their own audience and activate their fans and friends. It’s a very big entrepreneurial endeavor. What is neat about the experience is that, for authors, it is a differentiator. People are able to get TED Talks out of the process. We have students from over 120 different colleges and universities. We empower unheard voices. We inspire thousands of students.”

Besides Georgetown, John Carroll was among the first schools to participate in this New Degree Press’s program. Katie O’Connell ‘19 was one of the first students to experience the program at JCU. The head of the Entrepreneurship program at John Carroll, Doan Winkel, arranged a personal call with Eric Koester to start her writing journey.

“The program was a big commitment,” O’Connell said. “I spent more time on it than most all my other classes combined, senior year, in part due to the structure and in part my own obsession with the idea. The early months were like the beginning of an entrepreneurial endeavor — asking a question and getting smarter. I did 50-plus interviews with leaders in the community and live music spaces. From there, I began to just write.”

Winkel says that working hard to get a book published can be “the most valuable experience during [a student’s] college journey.” Winkel discussed how this program offers students credibility in an area they are passionate about, fresh assets for employers and a strong network of experts in the writing field. 

However, after O’Connell, some writers claim to have faced troubles with New Degree Press, especially on the financial side of publishing. While O’Connell was financially sponsored by the Muldoon Center for Entrepreneurship on campus, other JCU authors claim to have been left to raise a large amount of money to publish their work. 

Ella Schuellerman ‘21 stated that the money needed to publish was not discussed until later in the fellowship, and her inquiries about finances were even dismissed early on in the process.

“With a few weeks left in the fellowship courses, I was sent an email with contracts to sign,” Schuellerman stated. “Though the contracts said I had full ownership of my book, it was the first time I was seeing I would have to raise $5,000 to $8,000 dollars in a 30-day campaign. I am a 21-year-old college student who could barely afford the developmental editor I had to ‘purchase time with’ earlier in the fellowship, and now I was being asked to somehow raise over half a semester’s tuition. This may have been attainable for some individuals, but in my opinion was outrageous and hidden from the start.”

The authors are expected to either “self-fund” or start a campaign using the website Indiegogo, where writers offer preorders of their books for a reported  $39. Authors in the program are expected to send this link to family, friends, alumni and others to advertise their work and avoid a hefty price tag on their account. 

Victoria Strauss, creator of the Writer Beware blog, posted about the cost of the New Degree Press program. 

“Writers are expected to do a lot of heavy lifting over the course of the publishing process,” she says in her blog. “Participants in the manuscript-creation phase of the open (virtual) version 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. The price tag now is $5,000, $6,000 or $8,000, depending on which plan students choose.”

Concerning the campaign, Strauss stated that many writers “missed the mark” by a considerable amount, although the Creator Institute claims that 96% of people who attempt to raise the money will reach their allotted goals. Strauss says that writers will often “chip in” some of their own funds to finish their campaign. 

Claire Marie Edgeman, a writer who went through the fellowship, stated in an article on Medium that she donated $2,000 dollars to her own book campaign. She added, “To my knowledge, most authors in my cohort at least partially funded their own crowdfunding efforts.” 

“No one should have to pay to publish a book,” Claire Luchette, English professor at JCU and author of “Agatha of Little Neon,” told The Carroll News. “Writing is a job, and you should get paid for it. I don’t understand what the students would get out of publishing with New Degree Press. It does not take into account the finances of college students.”

While it is not unusual for self-publishing to cost money, New Degree Press does not directly advertise itself as a self-publishing company, but rather a “hybrid publisher”.

“Self-publishing usually costs money but it depends who you publish with,” Luchette stated. “I think anything that promises speedy turnaround and a degree of expediency is something to be concerned about. I don’t get it.”

When Winkel was asked about the financial aspect of the fellowship, he said, “I’m honestly not sure. You’d have to ask some students.”

Aside from the seemingly hidden financial stakes, authors have had other problems with the fellowship and New Degree Press. Writers have stated that the contract they were given before the publication phase of their book was unclear and missing key components of a typical contractual agreement. 

“Almost nothing you’d expect to appear in a publishing agreement is present here,” Strauss wrote. “Grant term? Nope. Copyright? Nada. Warranties and indemnities? Absent. Termination or cancellation? Never mentioned. Publisher’s signature? Apparently not deemed necessary. 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.”

Koester later stated in an interview with Strauss that the terms and conditions were updated, but Schuellerman stated that with her recent fellowship that she felt that many essential pieces of her contract were still missing like “grant term, copyright and warranties.”

Authors like Edgeman said that New Degree Press encouraged their writers to pay for fake reviews of their works. 

“I know that many book reviews and praise quotes are fake, but the expectation that we were supposed to write fake reviews for our fellow authors and provide them with praise quotes for the cover of their book based solely on reading their introduction was a hard pill for me to swallow,” Edgeman said in her Medium article. “So I didn’t. I decided I wouldn’t write reviews for books I hadn’t read and didn’t expect my fellow authors to do the same for me. Unfortunately, these fake reviews are a huge part of the NDP marketing strategy, and choosing not to participate in them means I have very few Amazon reviews of my book.”

Edgeman also stated that she was encouraged to Venmo her contacts a dollar to pay for her e-book so that they could also write faux reviews. Again, Edgeman did not feel comfortable with this practice. 

Overall, many say that their experience within the fellowship was great and irreplaceable. O’Connell stated that it helped her build confidence and land exclusive interviews. Strauss also said that many of the authors she knew had positive things to say about the program. However, some disappointed students hope to see more transparency and communication from the program in the future before they unknowingly commit to a substantial investment. This lack of clarity leaves some fellows with a bitter taste and negative perception of a seemingly well-intentioned initiative.