A group of Canadian children’s book authors and illustrators is unhappy with Vancouver-based publisher Simply Read Books, which they say has breached contracts and failed to pay advances and royalties on time. Nine creators and one former Simply Read editor spoke to PW, with complaints dating back to 2006.
Sarah Lolley, the Montreal-based author of Simply Read’s Emily and the Mighty Om (August 2014), told PW she has not been paid her C$500 advance, although her contract stated she was to be paid upon publication of the book. She also has not received a royalty statement, the first of which was due in January 2015. The book’s contract says that a statement is to be issued every six months.
According to Lolley, she even went so far as to arrange with Simply Read’s publisher, Dimiter Savoff, to pick up her check while she was visiting Vancouver last October. “When the appointed date arrived, they would not answer my phone calls or return my messages asking about a pick-up time,” Lolley said. On November 28, Savoff sent Lolley an email saying her check was in the mail, but it never arrived.
Savoff admitted to PW that Lolley has not been paid, and said they have had trouble paying creators on time for the past year due to a number of factors. The independent children’s publisher received thousands of unexpected book returns from Target, which announced in January it would close all of its Canadian stores. “I ended up spending a lot of money on printing a lot of books, which came to a crashing end,” Savoff said. “Target returned 80-something percent of the books.”
“To top this off, we lost our accounting staff due to severe medical problems,” he says. “I operated without accounting until this February. I wear too many hats as it is, but I had put all my extra time into selling more books to bring up revenues and I couldn’t pay too much attention to our accounting.”
Savoff, who founded Simply Read in 2001, called this “a rollercoaster of a year.” However, complaints dating back many years indicate that this is not simply a recent problem.
Montreal-based Anne Renaud, author of Missuk’s Snow Geese (2008), said that with the exception of the first two years when she was earning out her advance, she has had to file a grievance with the Writers’ Union of Canada every year in order to receive royalty payments and statements. Renaud said that her emails to Savoff go unanswered, and she is still waiting for her statements from last summer.
To receive her $2,500 advance in the first place, she said she had to send many emails, most of which went unanswered for months, before she received the money. Qin Leng, who lives in Toronto, signed a contract for a $4,000 advance to illustrate Not Just Another Princess Story, her second book with Simply Read, in January 2012. Leng said she was meant to be paid the first half upon signing, but didn’t get the payment until more than a year later. The book ended up being delayed three years, and was finally published in February 2015. She received the second half of her advance in March.
These authors’ stories are reminiscent of Montreal’s Lobster Press, whose president, Alison Fripp, who was frequently late paying authors. Renaud had published books in the past with that children’s publisher as well. “Lobster Press also produced beautiful books, but had substantial cash flow problems due to a lack of business acumen,” she said.. “We were fed a variety of lies and excuses whenever we asked about our royalties and advances.”
Caroline Woodward, author of 2011’s Singing Away the Dark, said she also had to have the Writers’ Union intercede on her behalf, and in 2013, Simply Read finally started to send her statements. However, several authors noted that the statements they do receive are scant in detail, making it difficult to know how many books have been sold. “The books published by Simply Read Books are so beautiful,” Woodward said. “And this is how the abundant Canadian talent pool of writers and artists get sucked in.”
Late Payments to Authors and Editors
Ashley Spires, creator of Kids Can Press’s popular Binky the Space Cat series, published three books with Savoff between 2008 and 2010 and said she “definitely wouldn’t work with him again.” She said that her statements are currently up to date, but that she too often had to threaten to file a grievance in order to get paid. “It’s really unfortunate,” Spires said. “I often have to remind them that I’m owed a statement and that I’m aware my book has been selling well.”
Duncan Weller of Thunder Bay, Ontario, has published three books with Simply Read, including the Governor General’s Award-winning book The Boy from the Sun (2007), but in 2013 he regained the rights and permanently ended his relationship with Savoff. Weller said he was not given final say on the edits to his 2005 book Nightwall, and royalty statements for all three books were consistently late. According to Weller, after his book won the Governor General’s Award in 2007, the publisher failed to bring books to sell at the ceremony, and took months to have the award stickers added to the book’s cover, losing valuable momentum at an important time.
Colin Thomas worked as an editor at Simply Read Books from January to August 2006, and he told PW he had the same problems getting paid. “He was so consistently late in paying me that I started to feel like I was loaning him money but earning no interest,” says Thomas. According to Thomas, Savoff told him at least once that money that came in had to be used to settle the publisher’s other debts. Thomas eventually reduced his bill to make it easier to pay, and received his check.
Grants from Public Funding Organizations
Over the years, several authors and illustrators have filed complaints with the funding organizations that have given grants to Simply Read, including the Canada Council for the Arts, the B.C. Arts Council, and Heritage Canada. Since 2004, those three have given a total of nearly C$1 million to the publisher. Cynthia Heinrichs, author of Mermaids and Under the Mound (both 2011), said she trusted Savoff when she signed her contract because she saw those grants as “a stamp of their approval.” However, she experienced similar problems involving late payments and a Korean edition of her book she wasn’t even aware existed.
In August 2012, Heinrichs met with two officers at the B.C. Arts Council to give them proof that Simply Read Books was in violation of contracts for several authors. However, the publisher has continued to receive funding from them every year – in 2015, the B.C. Arts Council provided a grant of C$30,627.
Woodward, who also found foreign editions of her book on the Internet despite receiving no information from Simply Read about foreign-language sales, is frustrated that the company still receives annual grants. “I am disappointed that the federal and provincial funding agencies ignore credible complaints and keep funding a publisher who avoids paying Canadian writers and artists,” she said.
All three arts organizations were contacted by PW, but the Canada Council was the only one to reply. Although he wouldn’t provide details about this publisher’s grants, Arash Mohtashami-Maali, head of the Council’s writing and publishing section, said it was “disturbing” to hear these types of complaints.
“The first thing we do in instances like these is to connect with the organization in question to ensure we have all the right information,” Mohtashami-Maali wrote in an email. “As part of its policies and funding agreements, the Canada Council clearly stipulates that organizations which employ artists must appropriately remunerate the artists they hire for their work. When organizations do not fulfill this expectation, we can withhold or suspend payment of a grant until we are satisfied the concerns have been addressed.” Citing confidentiality reasons, the Canada Council did not confirm if an investigation of the complaints against Simply Read is underway. However, Savoff told PW he has not yet received his 2015 grant from the Canada Council, which usually arrives in May.
Heinrichs is hopeful that the organization will heed her concerns. “Simply Read Books produces beautiful books,” she said. “Unfortunately, it does so at the expense of the people who create them. The arts councils in Canada need to enforce their own policies if they want to support Canadian authors and illustrators. “
Publisher Hopes for Turnaround
When asked about the complaints against Simply Read, Savoff admitted that the company’s troubles in the past year or two – the returns from Target, the departed bookkeeper – have caused him to fall behind on payments. He also notes earlier troubles, including the bankruptcy of three separate distribution companies (including Words Distributing Co. in 2004).
“For some of our authors’ advances, I couldn’t pay,” Savoff said. “I paid the money to the printers to produce the book, I paid the illustrators to finish the art. In the end there were maybe four or five authors that didn’t receive their advances, like Sarah Lolley.”
“At one point, I decided I’m going to publish as many books as possible to cast a wide net, because you never know which one will be a successful book,” he said. “So my business strategy was always to overextend to the maximum possible. And of course, the cash flow in publishing is always a bit of a problem because you never know how many dollars you’re going to get per month.”
Savoff, who published 26 books in the last year, said he has hired a new bookkeeper who started in May, and hopes to be up to date on payments within a few months. Cynthia Nugent, a Vancouver artist who illustrated 2011’s I Want to Go to the Moon, hopes that things will improve, as she says she suffered financial problems “because of Dimiter’s promises of payment, contracts, and pub dates which were late or never materialized.”
“It is upsetting that Dimiter gets such great press and his books win awards and foreign sales, and he continues to be funded,” Nugent said. “He is causing so much hardship and grief to the talented and hardworking people who create these books.”