The novel by first-time author Kim Gatlin had the potential to be one of the biggest successes ever for Milli Brown and her Brown Books Publishing Group. Published by the Dallas-based company in 2008, Gatlin’s controversial Good Christian Bitches took off like a fireworks display on New Year’s Eve.
The fictional story, about a newly divorced mother of two who moves back home to Hillside Park (read: Highland Park) for a fresh start, not only attracted national attention for its titillating title. It also was optioned by TV producer Darren Star, the man responsible for such hit shows as Beverly Hills 90210 and Sex and the City. ABC then picked up the project, which will debut in March as a midseason replacement for the 2011-12 television season.
Annie Potts and Kristin Chenoweth are set to star in the adaptation of Gatlin’s book, which now has been given a tamer title, GCB, to avoid offending Christian and women’s groups.
Alas, you won’t find any reference to Good Christian Bitches on Brown Books’ website. And neither Milli Brown nor Gatlin will speak for the record about their publishing partnership. The reason: Gatlin filed a lawsuit against Brown and her company over the book in December 2009, and the parties eventually entered into a settlement agreement that includes a strict confidentiality clause.
According to Dallas County District Court documents, Gatlin alleged that Brown attempted “to profit from Gatlin’s naïveté as an aspiring author” by making “fraudulent and negligent misrepresentations, engaged in deceptive trade practices, and materially breached its agreement with Gatlin.”
Specifically, the writer charged in her suit, the publishing company induced her to pay a ghostwriting fee of $73,500 that included a “100 percent markup,” never disclosing that the fee paid to the actual ghostwriter was just $36,750. Gatlin further alleged that Brown Books significantly boosted charges without notice by tens of thousands of dollars for various services.
The author also claimed that the publisher recommended unreasonably that she purchase 20,000 copies of the novel, and misrepresented its ability to market the book, according to the documents. In addition, Gatlin alleged that Brown Books failed to register a copyright for the novel, wrongly blocked her access to a warehouse where her unsold books were stored, and “went above and beyond to ensure that
Gatlin’s movie and television rights would never be realized.”
Gatlin’s lawsuit offers one surprising, behind-the-scenes version of business at Brown Books (“The Entrepreneurial Publisher for Entrepreneurial Authors”), a privately held company that has mainly drawn local praise for its pioneering publishing model. It also hints at the controversy surrounding Milli Brown, the firm’s founder and CEO. Brown is lauded by some as a successful, up-by-the-bootstraps innovator. But she is criticized by others who say her company’s services are sometimes less than promised.
Brown, who declines to disclose her age, prides herself on being an atypical book publisher. While the major publishing companies won’t even consider a manuscript unless it’s already fit for print, Brown says, she is “looking for a kernel to work with. I knew that I was different when I would read a manuscript not for what it was, but for what it could be.”
A prime example, she says in an interview at her office off the Dallas North Tollway, is Ebby Halliday’s original manuscript for her book, Ebby Halliday: The First Lady of Real Estate. The manuscript, Brown says, was many times as long as it needed to be. “It contained a lot of family history,” she says, “but what people wanted was [Ebby’s] wisdom. How did she do this, how did she do that? It took a lot of developmental edits to get at the heart of Ebby’s story.”
The traditional business model for publishers involves buying an author’s rights in return for a royalty of around 10 percent of sales. The publisher assumes the risk of bringing the book to market, but also takes the lion’s share of the profits should it make money. Brown Books, on the other hand, says it lets its authors retain all rights and profits to their books. Brown makes its money by charging authors for services rendered—ghostwriting, editing, designing, printing, packaging, distributing and marketing. The author assumes the risk in return for maintaining control of the rights, and also stands to reap the reward should the book exceed expectations.
“Everyone told me I could not do it this way,” Brown recalls. “But I knew if I kept up standards and kept publishing credible authors, somehow the doors would open. And it turned out that way.”
Some Brown Books authors and ex-employees tell a different story, however.
Some of the writers, like Paul Spiegelman, CEO of The Beryl Companies, and Jeff Crilley, a public relations specialist, are unabashed admirers of Brown’s operation. Crilley, who wrote a book called Free Publicity: A TV Reporter Shares the Secrets for Getting Covered on the News, says he has sold 65,000 copies of the title, making him one of Brown’s most successful authors. “Milli is the Rolls-Royce in Texas of self-publishing,” he says. “What she does is open the doors to the big book distributors. … In a sense, she helped me get to where I am today.”
Other authors and former employees, echoing some of the charges made in Gatlin’s lawsuit, are far less complimentary. While they universally praise Brown’s ability to produce a quality product, some are sharply critical of how much the company charges, its representations about the number of books that would sell, and its marketing and public relations prowess. Several declined to speak on the record for this article, saying they feared retribution by the publisher.
“She did a very good job producing the book. But as marketers, they were atrocious,” says Ron Stout, a business consultant and former sales executive who wrote a Brown-published book called Secrets from Inside the Clubhouse: What Men REALLY Think About Women. “It was a total waste of my money. Later I learned that there are companies that handle publicity on an à la carte basis. It’s the old, ‘caveat
“Between marketing and publishing, I spent over $75,000,” Stout says. “I ordered 5,000 books and sold 1,000 of them, mostly myself. I recently told her to burn the rest of them; they were still sitting in a warehouse. The publishing part is overpriced, because you can get just as good quality for less money. In retrospect I wouldn’t go with them again.”
Dayna Steele, a business speaker and author of the Brown-published book, Rock to the Top, says she spent $42,000 on the book, which was a “great calling card” to sell or use as a marketing tool at her speaking engagements. In retrospect, she says, “I would have done things differently—but I learned. I’ve watched too many young authors go into debt to do this. …
“I would advise people to hire a true publicist that has [real] contacts,” Steele opines. “Milli’s company tries to sell you a PR/marketing package, but I say let them do the printing—not the marketing. I feel like there is a conflict of interest, because they are working on so many other projects. You get wrapped up in all the glamour and they say, ‘This one really has a good chance,’ which is what they tell everyone.”
Another writer, who asked to remain anonymous, tells of being advised by the company to purchase thousands of books for sale, which was not a realistic probability. “So, I am left with a lot of books. It’s my error, for not knowing, and their poor advice. I did not use their PR. Even so, there are a lot of hidden costs.”
Asked to comment on these criticisms, Brown says she would put her PR and marketing team—they’ve been with her eight to nine years—up against any in the business. “A lot of people suffer from ‘magical thinking,’ that they’re going to become a best-selling author,” she says. “I tell every one of them: ‘You might not sell one book.’ There is no guarantee.
“But, some authors don’t have the patience. They expect everything to start happening, but it doesn’t happen instantaneously. The authors with the biggest budgets have done the best. The ones who spend $8,000 for three months—that won’t work.”
Asked about complaints regarding pricing and “hidden” charges, Brown says that “a proposal is more like a guesstimate,” and costs may rise if more work is done. However, “everything is in there in [the proposal] in writing; nothing is hidden,” she says, adding, “There is so much information for new writers to absorb. Sometimes they don’t listen—even after they’ve been told something three times. We could not be more transparent.”
In addition, Brown goes on, “no one on our staff is ever allowed to tell someone how many books to print. We do explain the advantages and disadvantages of [each option], and they make the decision.”
Brown is accustomed to being the target of skeptics.
One line of criticism, for example, characterizes Brown Books as little more than a vanity press. “Brown is vanity,” says one prominent literary agent who asked not to be identified. “She has no credibility at all as a ‘real’ publisher.” Then again, Brown’s supporters would argue, that’s the sort of judgment one would expect from a literary agent. Brown represents a threat to that business. If more publishers began to copy her business model, agents would stand to lose a lot of their mid-list authors, leaving them in a mad scramble to sign the few potential blockbusters that come along every year.
Brown recognizes and accepts this animosity.
“Agents hate me,” she says. “They make no money on my books. And as far as being a ‘real’ publisher, my books get into all the stores and are reviewed by all the major publications. I have all the privileges of a large publisher. And my books sell, which is the bottom line.”
‘Ahead of Her Time’
Michael Levin, an attorney-turned-writer who has ghostwritten books for local sports figures Pat Summerall and Chad Hennings as well as dozens of other celebrities and business executives, has worked with Brown on a number of projects over the years. “Unfortunately, there is no such thing as licensing or quality control for individual publishers or ghostwriters,” Levin says. “I’ve never seen so many scam artists as there are on the Internet right now.”
To illustrate the difference between her operation and others, Brown pulls one of her books off a shelf in her office conference room. It’s by local business legend Comer Cottrell. After allowing a reporter a moment to admire and leaf through it, she sets a self-published Cottrell biography printed by another publisher next to it. The text is so large it appears to be a children’s book. It’s not. It is, however, riddled with typos and poor grammar, and the cover design is almost laughable.
“In the early days,” Brown says, “I turned down about 75 percent of what came to me. You see lots of non-viable projects. I have a whole file room in the back filled with rejects. From Day One, I’ve expected some reporter to turn up determined to play hardball. ‘If I put a $100,000 check in front of you, do you mean to tell me you wouldn’t take it and publish my book?’ If I had published everything that came my way, I would be the queen of vanity publishing, but I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I’ve worked hard to be reputable and credible. I will not publish just anything.”George Slowik, president of Publishers Weekly, which is the bible of the book trade, says of Brown, “Her model is unique. She is ahead of her time in some ways. Her business is a hybrid, far more hands-on than the large self-publishers. Her operation is more akin to a traditional publisher in terms of distribution, marketing, and publicity. You still have to have all those back-end things happen.”
Brown, who declines to disclose revenue for her company, says it will publish about 150 books this year, a slight increase from the previous 12 months.
David Leach, who spent nearly 11 years at a religious publisher before joining Brown Books, says he jumped ship because, “I loved her business model.”
As an example of how Brown is different, Leach pointed to the “buyback” programs of traditional publishers, which caused him to grow
increasingly disenchanted. A “buyback” refers to the practice of selling copies of an author’s book back to him or her, usually at 60 percent off the retail price. Businessmen, professional speakers, and religious ministries then sell these books at speaking engagements or give them away to friends, family, and customers.
“One question we always had to ask was, ‘How many copies do you plan to buy?’” Leach recalls. “The big ministries might take 10,000, so in effect they were financing their own endeavor.”
Regarding her business model, Brown says, “The business world is wired to think differently. Businessmen and professional speakers got it first. I went to a romance writers’ conference one time. They didn’t get me, and I didn’t get them. A businessperson cares about retaining rights and turning a profit. Authors–quote, unquote—just want validation.”
Straddling the Fence
While Brown may not be the typical publisher, she is in some ways the typical entrepreneur. She made her first million dollars in Atlanta, in multi-level marketing for Nutrisystem, just past the age of 30. She moved to Dallas in 1990 to get married (she describes herself now as “happily divorced”) and then stumbled into publishing through serendipity and a head for business.
“In my 20s I was very much a Type-A personality, driven by money,” Brown says. “But after I moved to Dallas I started losing a lot of special people in my life, and I realized that there were questions that I meant to ask that now would go forever unanswered. Their stories would be forgotten, and I thought, ‘These need to be written down.’ ”
She responded by creating something called Personal Profiles in 1991. The business involved creating family histories in beautiful, leather-bound books. In less than a year, her short stint as a stay-at-home mom was over.
“I had no business plan,” she recalls, “but ignorance is bliss. We were fortunate in getting some good publicity, and it took off like a rocket. Then a year or two into it, I started getting calls referred to me by clients. ‘Grandaddy said you could help with my children’s book.’ I kept turning them down until one day I had a little baby epiphany. I have editors, designers, printers, etc. I know how to do books. I decided I would do a book or two a year, but two became four, which became eight, and the referrals just kept pouring in.”
By 1994, Brown launched Brown Books Publishing Group as a separate entity. (Personal Profiles has subsequently been folded into the larger operation as a division.) She trademarked the slogan, “A New Era in Publishing,” but it’s doubtful she realized how prophetic those words would be. The publishing environment of 2012 is completely different than that of 18 years ago, thanks to the Internet and the ever-evolving digital market for content.
While the rest of the publishing world has been rocked to its core and forced to reevaluate its business practices, Brown’s decision to straddle the fence between vanity press and traditional publisher looks like a stroke of genius—or beginner’s luck.
Regardless, Brown has continued to steer her own course.
“What’s unusual about Milli is that she’s totally her own” person, Leach says. “She can write her own rules. They tend to make sense, and if not, it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t have to worry about investors. There’s a larger than life air about the whole place. She’s opinionated, unapologetically so, yet she’s fair—really fair in terms of how she deals with authors.”
Some former employees of the company, however, view Brown’s fairness quotient less charitably. While conceding that she is intelligent, they also contend that she can be manipulative and vindictive, and describe a workplace akin to that portrayed in The Devil Wears Prada, said to be about Vogue magazine’s imperious editor, Anna Wintour. Because of this, one ex-employee says, turnover at the book-publishing company has been “enormous” at times.
Brown, disagreeing strongly, says this characterization is completely off the mark. She’s only fired one person in the last year, she says, while another left to “go back into the ministry again.”
A little later she adds, “The weak will not survive at Brown Books. I don’t have any slackers. … I’m not going to say I’m easy to work for. I’m tough, because I demand excellence, and only the best will end up with me long-term. I’m not going to apologize for that, because my authors benefit.”
From the beginning, Brown has grown her business incrementally, even during tough times. (“I refuse to participate in this recession,” she says.) Last year she launched a new Christian books division, Brown Christian Press, as well as two other new ventures for which she holds high hopes.
The first was a partnership with Zig Ziglar, the nationally known motivational speaker. The relationship kicked off with Ziglar’s new book, Born to Win, in September. “His organization is long overdue for branding,” Brown says, barely containing her excitement. “We … launch with six books for their top speakers. They will acquire the talent and we will publish the book.”
In addition, she hired the previously mentioned Michael Levin to create a Business Books division, which hopes to debut its first book in February, followed by three to five titles per month afterward. Brown made this move in order to focus more on the core of her business—books by chief executive officers.
“I love my CEOs,” she says. “We probably publish more CEO authors than any other demographic. They get right to the point. They are decisive. They don’t want to drag out a project and never let go of it. In the publishing business, time equals money.”
With the business-publishing unit in place, Brown plans to devote more attention and resources to her corporate authors so that books can come together more efficiently.
Levin, who will remain based in Orange County, Calif., says he plans to extend the reach of Brown’s marketing efforts by making the rounds to tell the story of Brown Books to as many meetings, groups, and conventions as he can book. His mantra? “Every leader needs a book, like every employee needs a business card.”
Brown agrees. “Our culture is accustomed to thinking that if you’re an expert, you must have written a book. It’s my responsibility to make sure the book is an enhancement of the image.”
Paul Spiegelman, chief executive at Beryl, a Bedford-based healthcare outsourcing firm, chose Brown Books as his publisher for just that reason. His book, Why Is Everyone Smiling?: The Secret Behind Passion, Productivity, and Profit, was published in 2007. Three years later he was named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in the “Spirit of Entrepreneurship” category.
“I wanted to do a book for three reasons,” he says. “First, to give our culture a legacy document that could live on. Second, I felt it could be a significant marketing tool for our business. And third, I have a personal passion for employee engagement as a platform for business success.”
Spiegelman also believed Brown Books was a better fit for his vision for the book than a traditional publisher would have been. “I was not out to do a bestseller,” he explains. “I wanted to deliver a message, and having ownership of the content and distribution of the content was primary for me. Control, in a more digital world, is critical. Brown was ahead of the game on that score. I’m very interested in the digital media side, and she’s well-positioned to take advantage of that.”
Publicity for GCB
In late November, Kim Gatlin was eagerly awaiting the March 4 debut of the TV show based on her Brown Books novel, Good Christian Bitches.
Ten episodes of ABC’s GCB show have already been filmed, she said, and the new program, scheduled to follow Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights, will be promoted heavily during the Feb. 26 Academy Awards telecast.
Coinciding with the TV show, Hyperion Publishing will also re-publish Good Christian Bitches in a paperback version, Gatlin said. Target, considered a book-buying bellwether, already had placed an order for 6,500 copies of the new release.
And Gatlin’s follow-up novel, titled Good Christian Bastards, was being considered by Mel Berger of WME (William Morris Endeavor), a diversified talent agency in New York.
Back in Dallas, meanwhile, the company that started the ball rolling for Gatlin has grown steadily over the last 18 years. But Milli Brown insists that Brown Books is “still in the infancy stage of being the best-kept secret in publishing.”
As a result, Brown is an unlikely candidate for retirement anytime soon.
“Retire?” she says. “No way. I have so much to accomplish, so much to do. I never know who’s going to walk in the door next!”
Chances are good, though, that it won’t be Kim Gatlin.
A condensed version of this story appears in the print version of D Magazine.