Scribe Media’s explosion leaves a smoldering crater in the hybrid publishing industry

When we learned that Scribe Media, one of the largest publishing services companies, had laid off most of its staff, I figured we’d get the straight story in a few days. Nope. Two weeks later, we’ve heard mostly bullshit. The dishonest and unprofessional way in which this company has abused its authors, staff, and freelancers will severely damage the rest of the hybrid publishing industry.

An update on what happened

First, some context. Scribe Media was founded in 2014 by Tucker Max and Zach Obront as “Book in a Box.” Since then it has published more than 2000 books as a paid service to authors, and has branched out to offer ghostwriting as well. JeVon McCormick took over as CEO in 2016. In addition to running and expanding the company, McCormick has put himself forth as a management guru. The Scribe imprint Lioncrest published his book, Modern Leader, in 2022.

Some of my author clients have worked with the company, and I have interviewed some of its other authors. My impression was that Scribe delivered a basic service including copy editing, page layout, and print-on-demand publishing. It also developed methods for turning audio interviews with authors into publishable text. Scribe has some bestselling authors and a lot of other books that went nowhere. Before the events of last month, I would have told authors that Scribe was a basic service they could use to get published.

On May 24, Scribe Media laid off 90 people, the majority of its staff. Based on what those staff have said, they received no warning, no severance, and no continuation of benefits. The first public statement from the company was a LinkedIn post from Meghan McCracken, Scribe’s Chief Experience Officer, on June 1, seven days after the original layoff. She says:

As the Chief Experience Officer at Scribe Media, I wanted to address recent rumors and share some critical updates.

First, let’s address the facts: Scribe Media is fully operational, and we remain steadfast in our commitments.

We have taken proactive measures to retain essential operational staff. All books and marketing projects will continue.

Now, let’s address the difficult part: These are unprecedented times for our company. The recent layoffs have impacted many talented Scribe crew members, as well as the authors they have built relationships with.

We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of support we have received. It comes as no surprise, considering the exceptional people we have the privilege to work with.

Rest assured, we are working on a restructuring plan.

It’s hard to see how Scribe could continue to function normally with most of the staff gone. Authors are having difficulty getting a response from anybody at the company. Many of those authors paid their full fees up front in exchange for a discount (authors, never do this!). Now they are left to wonder if they will get any of the services that they paid for.

Finally, on June 3, 10 days after the original layoff, the CEO JeVon McCormick posted a statement on LinkedIn, taking full responsibility and resigning. Here’s part of that statement:

I have not disappeared, and this message is long overdue.

Accountability, responsibility and blame…it all falls on me.

Not my partner. Not the co-founders. Not the economy. And definitely not the people of Scribe, “The Scribe Crew.”It all falls on me.

I don’t blame anyone but myself, and I make no excuses for my actions.

I sincerely and deeply apologize to everyone this has impacted: Scribe and Libra Crew members, Authors, Freelancers, and all the people and companies that helped publish books for Scribe and Libra Authors.

Though there are many ways I fell short as a CEO, there are three decisions I made that I must specifically apologize for:

1. The fact is, layoffs are never easy, regardless of the timing or circumstances. However, the recent layoffs have impacted many talented Scribe crew members, as well as the authors Scribe has built relationships with. The way these layoffs were conducted is not aligned with the values of Scribe and the Scribe Crew. The negative impact all falls on me, and I sincerely apologize.

2. Equally, I apologize for not seeing the other problem in myself sooner. I know my poor decision making started back in March of last year, after my Mother died. I was in the office, but I wasn’t present. I was in meetings, but I wasn’t present. I saw challenges and concerns that I needed to weigh in on, but I didn’t. Quite simply, I was not the CEO the company needed and trusted.

3. Finally, I deeply apologize for not speaking out to authors, Scribe and Libra Crew members, and Scribe and Libra freelancers much sooner. The Scribe Crew that remains with the company has been working long, exhausting hours this past week answering the questions I should have been answering, making the announcements I should have made, and speaking on behalf of me. As the majority shareholder and former CEO, the communication on all of this was my responsibility, and I apologize.

As someone who has been outspoken about “Putting People First” and “Doing Right By People”, I clearly did not live by my own words, and beliefs.

I did not fulfill my CEO role in the way I was capable and trusted to, and I have let down many people who put their faith and trust in me.

Scribe Media is second to none when it comes to the quality of the books published for Authors, and the people of Scribe are continuing to operate and serve those Authors that have trusted the company with their books. The Scribe Crew has been and will continue to contact each Author to ensure their book is published. Scribe Media will continue to thrive even as the company works through the restructuring plan.

As such, I have resigned as the President & CEO of Scribe Media.

Taking responsibility is all well and good, but the former employees still have no explanation of what is going to happen to them, the author customers can have no faith in the company’s ability to perform, and the many freelancers the company works with will certainly wonder if they’ll ever get paid. This was a colossal fuckup, and the damage has been done.

The way this happened will cause lasting damage

The hybrid publishing business already suffers from a poor reputation. Legitimate hybrid publishers like Amplify, Ideapress, Wonderwell, Greenleaf, and Page Two have worked hard to build valuable services to authors including developmental editing and to distance themselves as far more than “vanity publishing.” I’ve coauthored, ghostwritten, and edited books many of these houses and they’re every bit as solid and notable as traditionally published books. The trade association for hybrid publishers, the Independent Book Publishers Association, lists criteria for such publishers intended to show that they operate like real publishers.

Now one of the largest companies offering similar services has imploded in spectacular fashion. Employees, authors, and freelancers got no notice. The company failed to communicate for a week, and as I write this, there is still no official statement on the Scribe Media website.

Regrettably, the message authors will take away from this is “you can’t trust hybrid publishers.” That is wrong, but when authors have paid their money and failed to receive services, you can’t blame them for being cynical. The rest of the industry must now find some way to distinguish themselves from this train wreck.

I’m sorry about McCormick’s mother. Everyone deserves a chance to grieve. But the responsible thing to do if you are unable to manage due to grieving is to turn responsibility over to someone else, not to allow the situation to get completely out of control and then lay most of the company off with no explanation or notice.

How Scribe violated every element of its cherished culture

An ordinary company collapsing in ordinary fashion is a shame. But this is no ordinary company. This is a company that held itself out as an exemplar of corporate culture and dedicated great effort to describing its “culture bible.” It (still) touts that it is “Ranked the #1 Company Culture in America by Entrepreneur Magazine.”

Let’s look at how Scribe just violated every one if its 12 most sacred cultural values:

1. People: “We Do Right By People.” We believe that business is about meeting the needs of people. We show up with empathy, caring, and understanding for people—because people are the point of business.

I doubt that the employees, clients, and freelancers who whose trust was violated on May 24 would agree that the company did right by them.

2. Results: “We Get Things Done.” We begin all discussions with this question: what result are we after? If we can’t answer that question, we’re probably not ready to have the discussion at all.

The most notable result of Scribe’s sudden implosion has been damage the whole industry.

3. Responsibility: “We Are In Charge Of Our Reality.” No one else but you can decide how you’re going to show up. It’s entirely within your control, and therefore it’s entirely your responsibility.

JeVon McCormick is certainly responsible for what just happened. There are no excuses.

4. Excellence: “We Have Impeccable Attention to Detail.” We have learned the hard way that impeccable attention to details—all details—is necessary for us to do a great job. The path to excellence is paved with attention to detail. 

In this instance, attention to detail might have included recognizing the impending problem and acting before it became a crisis, and planning for how to give severance and notice to staff, authors, and freelancers.

5. Optimism: “We Trust With Generous Intent.” Our optimism is not blind, nor does it ignore reality, nor pretend that trade-offs don’t exist.

I believe that optimism, as opposed to dealing with reality, is what led to Scribe’s crisis.

6. Service: “We Decide What’s Best, Not Who’s Right.” Service boils down to a very simple action: meeting someone’s needs. And it’s impossible to meet someone’s needs if you’re in judgment of that need.

The needs of the clients appear to have been in conflict with the needs of the company. You saw the results.

7. Curiosity: “We Ask Questions.” Our culture is a non-judgmental environment where any question is encouraged. Nothing is off the table.

Some questions that might have been relevant here are “Are we able to continue financially on this path?” and “How can we change the path we are on before we have to cease most of our operations?”

8. Integrity: “We Are Honest With Ourselves and Others.” We operate with integrity. Without an individual and collective commitment to integrity, pretty much everything else in this Culture Bible falls apart.

The authors and employees who were operating on the assumption that business at Scribe would continue in a normal fashion might have a few questions about the integrity of the leaders.

9. Courage: “We Bring Our Whole Selves to Work.” We believe work should be a harmonious part of life.

As McCormick acknowledged, his failure to balance his life and his work led to an inability to manage the problem.

10. Impermanence: “We Embrace Change.” Instead of fighting or denying the impermanence of life, we choose to lean into it. We embrace change.

Part of this value would include identifying what was changing in Scribe’s business rather than continuing business as usual until it became untenable.

11. Abundance: “We All Rise Together.” Always make the right decision for the Crew as a whole, and trust that in doing so, you’re also making the right decision for yourself.

It’s hard to see a decision that results in most of the “Crew” being out of work with no severance as the best decision for everyone.

12. Fun: “We Enjoy Our Lives, Our Work, and Each Other.” As a creative, people-driven company, our work is better when we have fun.

Nobody’s having fun at Scribe right now.

Looking at all twelve values now, it’s clear that none of it mattered when a crisis arrived. All companies have challenges. Most companies have setbacks. But very few companies vaporize all of their cherished cultural values in one go.

And that’s going to leave a mark on the whole publishing industry.

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