The Short Life and Strange Death of Entranced Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

When Entranced Publishing (its website is now gone, but a recent archived version can be seen here) opened to submissions in 2012, it looked like a promising small press, with a number of imprints, a sizeable staff, and a commitment not to churn out books, author-mill style.

However promising-seeming, though, authors always need to be wary of brand-new small presses, because there's such a high attrition rate for such ventures. Even if the staff are very experienced (which often isn't the case in the small press world), it's wise to watch and wait until the press has been publishing books for at least a year. This demonstrates some stability; it also makes it possible to evaluate things like quality and marketing. And--just as important--it allows time for problems and complaints, if any, to surface.

In the case of Entranced, that caution would have served authors well.

Entranced planned to start publishing in 2013, and its first books came out around April of that year, with attractive covers and decent sales rankings. The company drew the interest of reputable agents, a number of whom placed authors with Entranced. From the outside, things looked pretty good.

But inside the company, trouble was brewing.* In the summer of 2013, editors began leaving, citing lack of payment and general unprofessionalism. Orphaned books were left to languish, with no new editors assigned. Authors didn't receive marketing support; books weren't getting contractually-promised ISBNs or making it into the promised distribution channels. Authors were discovering major mistakes and formatting errors in published books.

And then there were the money problems. Bounced echecks. Late and missing royalty statements. In many cases, no payments at all--either of author royalties or staff fees.

To authors' increasingly anxious questions about the missing money, Entranced's owner, Ashley Christman, offered various excuses. She was out of the country and having bank troubles. Vendors were late with their own payments. The contract's 45-day payment window actually meant 45 business days. She was sick and hadn't been able to tend to business affairs. According to authors, she always had an explanation...but the money never arrived.

Then, on March 10, 2014, authors were stunned by this announcement from Christman:
As many of you know, I’ve been dealing with a prolonged personal illness. This illness has not been easy and is not going to resolve anytime soon. These next few months will involve therapy for me and require me to devote my focus on getting better. I’ve known for a while that this is not an illness that one can overcome overnight and as such began the search to find a new publisher for Entranced.

As of 1030AM CST today, I am no longer the owner or publisher of Entranced Publishing.

The new owner, Robert Oknik, comes from a background in contract law specializing in publishing. He has previously worked for Meredith Media in addition to a number of other companies. I have no doubt that he is what’s best for Entranced.
Christman supplied no other info about the new owner, and neither she nor Entranced staff would answer questions about his background or experience. Doing their own research, authors discovered that, apart from a skeleton profile on Google+, Oknik had no web presence whatsoever--quite surprising for someone who'd worked for a firm as prominent as Meredith. Putting this together with the continued problems and lack of communication, some authors began to wonder whether Oknik existed at all.** Had the supposed sale of the company been just another smokescreen?

On March 18, Entranced authors received an email from their new publisher:
Let me explain a little bit about how I'm prioritizing things: My initial goal is to go through author and staff accounts and make sure those are tied up and taken care of. After that, I want to look at other avenues of revenue, any reorganization, and re-branding, etc.

For now, releases will still be moving forward on their release dates. I will handle those temporarily while I learn the process from Ashley....Please bear with me and realize that none of these things will happen overnight. I'm still settling in and learning things.
Not surprisingly, authors' fears weren't much assuaged by this vague message. Some continued to ask questions; others requested reversion of their rights. By this point, also, I was looking into Entranced. I sent an inquiry to Oknik, requesting his comments on the reported problems and asking what he planned to do to fix them.

A company in disarray; unruly authors; curious watchdog. Apparently it all became too much. On March 24, authors received another bombshell, in the form of this terse message from Oknik***:
To our Authors,

Today, I regret to inform you that a decision has been made that Entranced Publishing will be exiting the publishing business.

We are not insolvent, we are not going bankrupt, we simply have decided that we no longer wish to be in the business and therefore we will be exiting this business in a professional, orderly fashion.

Over the next 30 days, we will remove all books for sale through all sales channels.

We will compile finalized statements for all titles and pay all royalties owed once all vendor payments have been collected. We anticipate that this could be as soon as June, but we do not completely control third party sales.

This means that your rights will automatically revert to you per your contracts and at the end of the thirty day period. If after this period you still find your title available, please email me and I will promptly have it removed. If your title has yet to be released, this reversion is immediate.

I wish to thank all of you who have been good partners with us and wish everyone nothing but the best.

And just like that, Entranced was dead, less than a year after releasing its first books.

While I don't think authors should be holding their breath for the promised royalty payments, I'm glad to report that Entranced seems to be fulfilling its promise to issue reversion letters, and that, as of this writing, most Entranced books have been removed from retailers' websites. It sounds awful to say it, but in situations like this, that's about the best result that can be hoped for. Many small presses not only take their authors' money with them when they go, they fail to relinquish rights as well.

So what really happened here? Is the story of Entranced a sadly familiar tale of a well-intentioned but inexperienced publisher who got in over her head, began to lie to get authors and creditors off her back, and eventually decided to cut her losses and run?

Or, as many Entranced authors are convinced, was something more sinister going on? Authors tell me that Entranced's street address and phone number seem to have been fake, and point out that Christman seems to be trying to delete herself from the web: her Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook accounts are gone, and she is reportedly now calling herself Ashley Michele. Entranced also seems to be erasing itself, though for the moment, a Tumblr and a Pinterest page are still live.

I doubt we'll ever know for sure. In the meantime, Entranced is a useful object lesson on the risks of the small press market--and on the wisdom of letting a publisher mature before trusting it with one's intellectual property. No comfort, I know, to the authors who were exploited by this publisher, and then so callously kicked to the curb.


* The information in this post comes from the reports of Entranced authors and staff who contacted me directly, and also from the Entranced discussion thread at the Absolute Write Water Cooler.

** Does Robert Oknik exist? Christman appears to have lied about a lot of things in order to get out from under her troubles at Entranced, so it's certainly plausible that she made him up too. Sleuthing by Entranced authors further suggests this. Here's Robert (Bob) Oknik's Google+ profile...

...but his picture is identical to one on Facebook for a man named Robert Mate...

...who is currently a Senior Student Support Specialist at Purdue University (if you click on his name on this list you can see his photo, which matches both the photos above)...

...and while there's no trace of a connection between Robert Oknik and Meredith, the company where Ashley Christman said he worked, there is a connection between Meredith and Robert Mate...

...but that Robert Mate, who is currently CEO of a company called Tabbed Media, is not the same Robert Mate who works at Purdue and whose image appears in "Bob Oknik's" Google+ profile.

Confused yet?

*** I can't quite find the words to express how unprofessional--and cruel--I think this message is. First the bombshell: we're closing. Then the "screw you": we aren't in trouble, we're just bored with book publishing, so we're packing up our toys and going home. And finally, the brushoff: Thanks, losers! See ya! No apology for running the company into the ground; no acknowledgment of the devastating impact Entranced's death spiral has had on its authors. Disgusting.

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