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Opinion: The Cautionary Tale Of Insurgent Publishing

Opinion: The Cautionary Tale of Insurgent Publishing

image: burning lighterWhen Linda Formichelli hired Insurgent Publishing to promote her upcoming book, it marked the start of a promising partnership. In its three short years, the company has racked up a string of successful book launches and enthusiastic author endorsements. Several of those book launches are still performing admirably to this day.

Insurgent CEO Tom Morkes is a West Point graduate and Army veteran, confident and articulate, who speaks with the quiet energy of a restless entrepreneur. Encouraged by Tom’s demeanor, Linda ignored her initial doubts. She signed the contract.

What followed was a $6,500.00 disaster that ended in lackluster results, a prematurely terminated contract, and angry recriminations from both sides.

Linda alleges that Insurgent:

  • failed to respond to her requests for communication
  • failed to complete key tasks
  • abruptly marked tasks as completed — including tasks assigned to Linda — when pressed for an accounting
  • used poor targeting for her primary demographic
  • engaged in bullying tactics
  • billed Linda for the entire amount of the contract (plus $100) when only a portion of the work had been completed

Tom responded that:

  • poor communication was due to the project manager
  • tasks were completed, but were not logged due to the sudden departure of that project manager
  • there was a rationale for the marketing channels Insurgent chose to target
  • Linda derailed the launch when she accidentally released an advance review copy of her book to her mailing list
  • Linda terminated the contract before much of the planned promotion could take place
  • dozens of work-hours had been committed to the project through a 7-person team

The collapse of the arrangement between Linda and Tom is attributable to several factors. Sandra Beckwith has an excellent analysis of how authors can avoid these pitfalls, but we will approach the conflict from the other side, examining how transparency, accountability, and respect are critical to service providers.

Transparency

iconTransparencyA company must never be secretive about what the client is getting for their money, when and how promises are being fulfilled, or the status of a project. Openness breeds trust; secrecy breeds doubt. Clients should demand transparency, and service providers should provide it without reservation.

In the case of Insurgent, Linda states that when she wrote to Tom to inquire what was being done for the launch, she received a dismissive reply telling her “we do what we do,” “trust the process,” and “we have plenty of stuff up our sleeve for launch day.”

Specific, detailed answers are the client’s right, and service providers should remember that responding to requests for information is not a distraction from the job, it’s a vital part of it. When a company does not respond to communication promptly and clearly, that’s a danger sign. At best, it shows disregard for the client’s concerns. At worst, it hints that the company is trying to conceal something from the client.

Insurgent Publishing uses BaseCamp to track tasks. BaseCamp is an online collaboration and project management tool that allows the client and the company to assign tasks and check them off as they are completed. It’s an excellent tool for both communication and transparency, but because Insurgent failed to keep the checklist current, it became a source of confusion.

When Linda demanded an accounting of what actions Insurgent had taken, she witnessed Tom hastily checking off those BaseCamp tasks listed as uncompleted. Tom asserts that the tasks had been completed and he was simply bringing the checklist up to date in the wake of the project manager’s departure. However, Tom also checked off tasks that were assigned to Linda — tasks which had not been completed — and that cast further doubt on whether any of the tasks had actually been completed.

Regardless of what the underlying situation may have been, the lack of transparency created the perception that Insurgent was being dishonest.

Accountability

iconAccountabilityNo company is perfect, but when mistakes happen, reputable companies step up to correct the problem. Accountability is more than simply accepting blame for that problem: it means taking responsibility for setting things right.

Tom ascribed his company’s poor communication to the former project manager. While he apologized for the lapse and acknowledged Linda’s dissatisfaction, prior to June 29th, there is no indication that Insurgent Publishing tried to make amends through a partial refund or to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution. On the contrary, Insurgent retained the $6,500.00 that Linda had paid to date, and proceeded to bill her for an additional $1,100.00.

Adding insult to injury, Tom wrote an 8-paragraph explanation of why Linda’s premature release of the book was responsible for poor sales on its launch day. Whether those claims have merit or not, deflecting responsibility onto the client and subordinates is rarely a good idea. Compounding that blame with the refusal to provide a refund and a seemingly retaliatory invoice, Insurgent displayed little accountability for its role in the dispute.

Respect

iconRespectWhen you represent a professional enterprise, you cannot afford to let emotions rule your actions, particularly when communicating with a client. Impatience, frustration, and anger can leak into your communications and spark a similar response. Above all, communications from your company must be respectful.

That doesn’t change because you have a dispute with the client. And it applies to your proxies as well as yourself.

Following the publication of Linda’s blog post, an individual by the name of Sarah posted several hostile comments on the blog. The comments praised Tom, belittled Linda’s “measly platform,” ridiculed her book, and criticized the initial decision not to publish Tom’s rebuttal.

Linda’s business partner at Renegade Writer Press quickly noticed that the IP address was the same one Tom had been using. Sarah was an associate of Tom’s, and accusations of sockpuppetry began to fly.

Whether Sarah made these comments at Tom’s behest or launched the attack on her own initiative, she decimated Tom’s credibility in that forum. It’s a prime example of why employers should train employees on how to represent the company online — including referring tense situations to a qualified PR representative within the company.

Insurgent Publishing had a strong following and solid track record prior to this incident. Unfortunately, failures of transparency, accountability, and respect have turned a customer dispute into a full-blown PR crisis. It is my hope that Insurgent and author services of all types can learn and grow from those mistakes.

OVER TO YOU
What would you have done differently in this situation? Share your advice in the comments below!

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How a dispute became a PR crisis: the cautionary tale of Insurgent Publishing - by @JohnDoppler Click To Tweet

John Doppler

From the sunny California beaches where he washed ashore in 2008, John Doppler scrawls tales of science fiction, urban fantasy, and horror -- and investigates self-publishing services as the Alliance of Independent Authors's Watchdog. John relishes helping authors turn new opportunities into their bread and butter and offers terrific resources for indie authors at Words on Words. He shares his lifelong passion for all things weird and wonderful on The John Doppler Effect.

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This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. John Doppler–you’ve performed a valuable service with your post. Thank you.
    What a nightmare. I sympathize completely with indie writers who must rely on professional marketers. I am one such who also trusted a marketer, and was–in my view–cheated. Not in legal terms, but every other way. And the person responsible is a high-profile, “highly respected” pioneer in the online marketing field. If the day ever comes when I find an honest and savvy book marketer, I will gladly pay for her/his services. But after my earlier experience, I am extremely skeptical that such people exist.

  2. I admire and respect Linda as a professional and like her as a person, and I don’t know Tom Morkes at all. I doubt I would have done much differently than Linda did because I, too, am a trusting person who assumes she is dealing with professionals who are working on her behalf.

    That said, the one thing that would have given me serious pause was Insurgent’s requirement that Linda pay by check or absorb PayPal’s 3% fee. Knowing that credit card companies and PayPal almost always side with the customer in disputes, I probably would have paid the additional 3% just to have the assurance that I was going to get what I paid for (and I have in other situations for that very reason). I think if Linda had done that, she would not be out the $6,500, unfortunately.

    Of course, that doesn’t excuse the stories Tom has told her and the unfinished work that was clearly not done, and I don’t think I would have encountered a different outcome in that respect. I hope that continued conversations around this topic and this company puts pressure on Insurgent to do the right thing and refund Linda the money she paid for work that was not done and promised results that were not achieved.

    1. Marcia, it’s also worth pointing out that it’s against PayPal’s user agreement to require customers to absorb the 3% user fee. Frankly, I haven’t seen a lot of businesses attempt this, but whenever I have, I scratch them off the list of companies with whom I want to do business. We had one vendor last year who told us he’d only accept PayPal if we paid him through PayPal’s Friends and Family plan, where there’s no fee and again, against PayPal’s user agreement to use this with anyone who’s not a friend or family member. Right there, he lost our business. Hey, I like to save a buck, but not at the expense of my customer. And when I’m the customer and I see a vendor doing something like that, I wonder what else she or he would do to save a few dollars at my expense.

  3. Good, professional way to follow up on the story I’ve been watching. I would have liked to see Tom’s company respond to Linda’s gaffe with the premature release of the book in a “What can we do to make the best of this?” kind of way. I think that centerpiece of the dispute is a key opportunity for salvaging the whole thing.

  4. John, you’ve explained the problems with this situation beautifully. Thank you. I’m going to update my post on the subject to link to this one because it’s so well done.

    As a former public relations agency owner, I can say with certainty that Tom Morkes didn’t handle this situation appropriately or professionally. When a client expresses frustration or concern, and can point to specifics as Linda did (such as targeting the wrong audience for the book), a true professional who cares about the client responds with, “I see what you mean. Let me look into this and get back to you. I’m sure we can make this right.” As you and Linda noted, that wasn’t Morke’s approach.

    In addition, some of what Insurgent did for Linda was useless. In particular, any book marketer with credibility knows that dropping book launch links into Facebook “buy my book” groups is pointless. Readers don’t go to those groups looking for books to buy.

    Finally, you’ve noted the Insurgent was linked to successful book launches. On the surface, that’s true, and no doubt the company made a contribution, most likely as project manager. However, it’s important to note that those launches were destined to succeed because the authors tend to be high-profile successful internet marketers with huge platforms. These guys all support each other’s launches (understandably). They are smart marketers providing quality products to followers who love everything they produce. That adoration is earned, for sure, and because of it, all the authors really need is someone managing the process for them — they don’t need help uncovering and reaching untapped markets.

    Thanks for such an excellent assessment.

  5. When I first began to self-publish more than twelve years ago, I did two fairly basic promotions with Author House as a test. Neither promotion resulted in a single sale or newspaper review. One third of their press release (that I was sent a copy of) was spent talking about Author House instead of my book, and the section regarding my book looked written by an amateur. When I requested a list of the “press contacts” so I could follow up, no list was ever provided. In fact, there was no proof a press release was even issued. It appears the press release was really a spam email. I have continued to work with Author House for their print services (where you must watch them like a hawk), but never again bought into a promotional program. Maybe there are some good ones out there, but I’ve seen them.

    1. Gregory: given the huge, highly publicized number of negative stories about Author House, I can’t understand why you would continue to do business with them. Especially when you tell us you have to “watch them like a hawk.”

    2. Hi Gregory. I’m a publicist, and emailing press releases rarely results in reviews. Book press releases are largely meant to give the journalist or reviewer an idea of what the book is about, and in the case of nonfiction, explain what readers (and journalists) will find inside the book that is useful to them or worthy of coverage. Some books certainly have a solid news hook, but to garner reviews you have to actually send a book to the reviewer for consideration. A book press release is an accompaniment. Getting book reviews is tough, as there is limited review coverage available in newspapers and magazines, and indie authors have an extra hurdle to clear. I tend to think online reviewers is a better focus.

      For off the book page coverage, targeting individual journalists with a finely tailored pitch explaining what the author/book can offer that would be of interest or useful to the journalist’s audience is an effective media strategy. It’s also a lot more time intensive than just blasting out a press release, and therefore usually comes with a bigger price tag.

  6. Thanks so much for this balanced article, John! I wanted to point out that we have proof that the derogatory comments from “Sarah” and the comments from Tom came from the same computer. We’re fairly certain that “Sarah” is actually Tom.

    Also, on July 29 Tom emailed saying he’d like to chat on the phone about a refund. When I responded that I preferred to keep the conversation to email, and what did he have in mind, I never heard back.

    Thanks again…I hope this saves other writers from losing so much money!

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