I signed with a small press at the height of the print-on-demand era.
I won’t name the press (It’s gone anyway.) and I won’t repeat some of the rants I made when it went under. Suffice it to say, it’s one of the reasons Holland Bay is going to be my last crime novel. So what happened?
Back in the day, I’d worked very hard on Northcoast Shakedown. I talked it up on forums, made friends with some influential zine editors, and even networked with some rather successful writers. It even netted me some agent referrals. So what happened to the fame and fortune?
Well, first off, there’s no guarantee of fame and fortune. In those days, I was rather friendly with publishing guru Sarah Weinman, and often we would lament that a promising author’s career would tank with a rushed second novel or shabby treatment by a publisher. It happens. It’s business. But I think if I had waited two more weeks for a nice lady named Jane Chelius to contact me, I’d have at least had a two- or three-book run to build upon.
Instead, I shopped to several small presses that were getting buzz. One of them was run by a radio guy and his wife who lived waaaaay out on the fringe of the Baltimore-DC area. He had signed a couple of writers from a forum I had joined, and his wife worked for Borders, which helped get the books on the shelves. (I really miss Borders.) My system was to send out the manuscript to certain small presses and get the rejection letters out of the way. Only this guy didn’t. He pulled the trigger. Soon I found myself with a contract (no advance, which should have been a warning sign), and an agent for whom I had no manuscript now to shop.
OK, I thought, I’ll ride out the contract, get some sales, and move on to something New York would like better. Only…
I politely refer to this guy as “someone working out of his garage,” an apt description as several more successful small presses do just that. I signed based on goodwill, and in our capitalistic, opportunistic society, goodwill is sometimes a liability. We soon had problems. Early copies looked rough because he missed his payments to Lightning Source. Some bookstores wouldn’t carry our books because of the returns policy. And print-on-demand smacked of vanity press. I never paid a dime to get into print, but man, I spent a lot of travel money going to signings and conventions. I miss those days when I could hop a plane to New York or spend a weekend in Chicago.
But alas, a company needs revenue to survive. My publisher was long on good intentions, clearly loved what he did, but did not have the business acumen or the cash flow to make it work.
This, of course, is not a knock on small press. Many micro-presses and small presses do rather well. But they live within their means, try not to overreach, and generally don’t make promises they can’t keep. I’d seen what happened to me play out several times before. I remember when Blue Murder Press imploded that many people worried for the publisher once they knew the story. When a small press fails, it’s never pretty. Many publishers, including mine, go into denial. Many writers, including me, lash out in anger. And I’m a planner. I already had a trip to his door planned, three courthouses Google mapped, and the number to the IRS memorized before I got my rights back. Yeah. I was righteously angry. I got the reversion of rights agreement in the mail before I ever left on that trip or called the IRS.
But I moved on, and from what I’ve seen, so did my former publisher. He focused more on radio and film after abandoning his publishing venture. I hope he’s done better since then.
As for my side of it, my biggest crime was being impatient. Two weeks, I tell myself, and I would have been into traditional publishing back when it was really the only game in town.