The Perils of Colleen Part V: The Dish Best Served Cold, and I Don’t Mean Borschton July 2nd, 2009
THE COMPLETE VERY BAD PUBLISHERS, now in one handy linkpalooza HERE. These tales are lessons I learned from The SECOND worst publisher I ever worked with.
Anyway, this company is no longer in existence in the form I knew. It has completely shut down its trade divisions and only does “specialty market” books. It no longer publishes fiction of any kind and the people I once knew are no longer there. It does not use its old trade division name in any of its literature anymore.
There is no mention whatsoever in its marketing information or company history that it had ever published trade book lines or graphic novels. I guess they have decided to leave that bit of the past in the past.
And since they are no longer in any position in our market, and the people that once caused these problems are no longer there, I publish this tale as a warning to creators who might encounter these interesting contract difficulties elsewhere.
These posts were originally published about ten years ago, and cover my publishing history with this company up to 1989. The lawsuits mentioned further down began sometime in late 1990.
OK, this epic missive is a bit rambling and redundant, but what the heck. Here’s where all of the disparate elements come together.
When a publisher announces signing a contract for reprint editions of your book, sometimes it’s good news. Another publisher buys hardcover or foreign rights, you reach a new audience, and there’s a little bit more money in your pocket. Most authors don’t make much on foreign rights, but they still cash the checks, you know?
But expanding the audience with reprint editions wasn’t what was happening here.
I told you of how one day my old publisher had me in the office and bit my head off, told me I had no talent, and then told me to get out of the business.
Mere days later, I was his bestest little artist, like a daughter. He loved me and my work, denying everything he had said before. Either he had schizophrenia or something was up.
Something was up.
The publisher was in financial trouble and had been for years, sinking into debt before I even got there. They had been bought out by their printer quite some time ago because they couldn’t pay their printing bills and even though the long departed Woman claimed their graphic novel division had more gross revenue than any other division of the company, gross is nothing. Net is everything. The net was in the red and had been for years. (At one point, they had also sunk huge sums of money into a travel quide book scheme that had bombed badly. So, their GN division wasn’t the only trade book line that was sinking the company).
My publisher was pissed off because the printer/owner was pulling the plug on the trade division and he was about to be out of a job. He was not in a good mood, especially where flaky little artists like me were concerned. He had bet that we would bring in huge bucks with our graphic novels and save his company, and he had lost his gamble.
Only a few of the GN’s made any money. Yet some authors had received far larger advances than mine, including one comics artist who was paid $10,000 to produce about a dozen black and white illustrations and a color cover for a novel that only sold about 1,000 copies. While I was getting chump change, bigger name creators were getting big advances, but their books were selling less than mine was. The publisher was unable to figure out how the comics market worked and how to get popular comics creators from the direct market to sell in the retail trade (in all fairness, the rest of the comics market didn’t really figure that out for another decade either).
The printer/owner had a plan to continue to bring in revenue on those books that were still profitable like mine. Our printer/owner was working up a secret deal to sign our contracts over to another publisher, but had no intention of telling any of the authors about this. Only 12 authors were being bought out including me, because we were the only ones bringing in any real dough. We weren’t making any money on our books, but the publisher sure was. Most of the books were New Age books. I think mine was the only GN that was bought.
However, they had no right to transfer our contract agreements without our permission. Instead of contacting us for permission or to negotiate a contract sale deal, the publisher told all of the authors involved that only reprint rights to our books had been sold.
My publisher was glad to see the back of the lousy comic creators he believed had helped ruin his company when we failed to make him really, really rich (he lived the good life anyway, but he wanted a really, really good life), so he blew up at me in the office that day and got it all off his chest. However, when my publisher realized that my book was one of the ones picked up by the reprint licensor, he had to keep me happy so I would continue producing new volumes. A core feature of the secret contract sale was that the creators were going to keep producing new works.
So, the next time my publisher saw me, he was all smiles again. He brightly asked when I would have a new volume ready only days after he had told me to give up art for good. He had not remembered that he had signed all my licensing rights and black and white publishing rights back over to me. “I don’t recall that!” was one of his favorite phrases (right next to “Artists sell themselves so cheap.”)
The printer/owner had sold my entire contract to the licensor without letting the licensor know that there were virtually no rights left to buy, because my publisher had simply neglected to let the printer/owner know he had signed those rights back to me months earlier. So, one day it was “Get out of publishing!” and the next it was “I love your work and when are we going to get a new book?”
By then, the entire trade line was dismantled. We no longer had editors, an art department or marketing people (I had to deal with the publisher’s wife when I had a question). The authors were baffled. The publisher wasn’t telling us anything. And I was even more confused when I had a chance to speak to the new licensing company. They demanded to know when they would be getting another book from me. I thought this was strange behavior from a reprint licensor. They weren’t my publisher, but they were sure bossing me around like one. They would not tell me anything about the format of my reprint edition or to which market it was being targeted.
The edition of my work that they licensed came out a few months later and I hit the roof. It was identical in every way to my original publisher’s edition, except for the name of the publisher. This was not a reprint edition, it was a reprint. When I called the licensor trying to find out what the heck was up, he refused to speak to me. My old publisher ignored my letters.
Authors began to trade information and a class action suit was filed. I was contacted months later by one of the authors and asked to join the suit. I spoke at length with Harlan Ellison who was also concerned about his editions, but lucky him, no rights to his work were transferred (they were scared to death of him.)
Our publisher wanted to continue to make revenue on the profitable books without having to spend any more money on their trade division, so they cut this deal with a third party licensor to publish our works and cut the authors out of the revenue stream. Our publisher would collect half of all revenues on our works from the licensor which dropped our already meagre earnings into the toilet.
On A Distant Soil, instead of 10% of cover (when my book sold over the 10,000 copy threshold, I earned up from 8% to 10%), I would now earn 5% on retail sales. On direct sales books, I would now be getting 2.5%. Considering amounts held against returns, for at least a year that meant your earnings were 2.5% retail and 1.25% direct. It was a nightmare for all of the authors.
Since my new book was a $12.95 trade. I’d be getting a whopping 16 cents a copy on all sales in the direct market. So, if my book actually sold 30,000 copies there (NOT) I’d gross all of $4,856 – about enough to pay the colorist, but not enough to pay the letterer, or any other costs…including me. In order to earn out my meagre advance within a two year period, I would have to move something like 50,000 copies, assuming at least half of those were sold in the retail trade where I’d get a bigger royalty. Worse yet, even if I did earn out the advance, the take would be eaten up by the cost on the NEXT volume of the book, and the deficit on The Woman’s book.
The misery mine deepens when my publisher began demanding further volumes of A Distant Soil from me and even threatened to sue if I didn’t come up with another GN right away.
Despite the fact that my publisher claimed he had never signed an agreement to release my licensing or black and white publishing rights, I went right ahead with my self publishing adventure, and they didn’t dare sue when I told them they would never get another book out of me (and they didn’t).
When I had worked in the publishing office and witnessed their lawsuit against one of their authors over the definition of reprint, I knew exactly what reprint edition meant: an edition significantly different from the primary edition so as to be non-competitive but to appeal to a new market.
Now, my publisher was claiming the exact opposite definition through his attorneys: a reprint could mean a second printing, a printing no different from the first. As a matter of fact, the core of their defense was that since (they claimed) they were the only publisher in Virginia (a ridiculous lie) they set the standard for the legal terms of art in the state, and whatever they said was the definition of reprint was what the legal definition ought to be.
Their attorneys were very, very belligerent at the deposition, having been told many tales about what a noxious character I was by – you guessed it – The Woman. My old publisher who had dismissed her years previously had brought her in to be a character witness against the authors, and she told quite a tale. They asked many bizarre questions about whether or not I worked with an editor more than once and if I ever got any jobs after I worked with The Woman. They even asked strange questions about several author’s personal beliefs and religion.
Science fiction artist (and fellow author in the lawsuit) David Cherry was fuming when he walked out of that deposition, and he was a former attorney who thought he had seen it all.
It got even nastier when they began grilling me about a story that had appeared in Publishers Weekly. Someone had leaked the news about the lawsuit and it was all over the publishing industry. The lawyers really let me have it, certain I had been the one who squealed. I had nothing to do with leaking the story, but since a lawsuit is a matter of public record, I had no idea what they were getting at in trying to make me look like a bad guy for going to the press with the info, especially since I hadn’t.
The publisher claimed that we were conspiring with a former business partner of theirs to take all of our books to the ex-partner’s new publishing company. The lawyers were going to great lengths to try to make us all look like nefarious characters. This was a multi-million dollar lawsuit, and the publisher had even hired private detectives.
ADDENDUM: There was wire-tapping, and letters between me and David Cherry showed up at the deposition. How on Earth did they get those unless someone had broken in to our homes? The letters were perfectly innocent, but the publisher’s detectives were trying to prove that all us authors knew each other and were in cahoots to get the poor, innocent publisher. The only author I really knew and was on good terms with was David Cherry. We’re still friends today. But the others? Barely knew two of them, and couldn’t name anyone else. And neither David nor I had any relationship with the former business partner, and had not spoken to him since he left the company.
Since I didn’t know the former business partner even HAD a new company, this was especially confusing to me. The ex-business partner was a New Age enthusiast and published inspirational books, hence the bizarre questions about our spiritual beliefs (a lot of the books involved in the suit were New Age books.)
He had been gone from the company for years and I simply didn’t know what the lawyers were trying to get at. Obviously, I was self publishing my book and had not taken it to this former partner’s company.
When questioned about my professional experience, my attorney picked up a couple of long cardboard boxes containing some of my published works and set them on the table, flipping through stuff I had done for Disney and the like. The snide questions about my professional relations quietly faded away. In the five years since I had worked with The Woman, I had produced over 200 published works. Clearly, someone was happy to work with me, and repeatedly.
But the best part was when they asked me to define reprint. I told them what I knew reprint edition to be. They became very angry and repeatedly grilled me to define it over and over. Then the publisher’s attorney snapped that he wanted to know just how I could possibly know the definition of reprint. Hadn’t they been told I was just a dumb girl? I was 20-something then, but the lawyer treated me like I was an unruly twelve-year-old.
I simply said my ex publisher (the one I was suing) told me what reprint edition meant.
The guy grilling me went a little pale and then asked how I came to talk to my ex publisher about it. I simply stated that this publisher had sued authors over the definition of reprint and had asked me to recruit people from New York publishing houses to testify for them in their lawsuits years earlier.
This brought the house down.
When the deposition was over, my lawyer looked at me and said “We just won.”
I knew I had signed a bad contract and had been misled by this publisher, and the only way to get out of the situation was to learn how not to make the mistakes I had made before, and to learn what my publisher’s weaknesses were. My publisher had so little respect for authors and artists – and for me in particular – it would never have occured to him that I might actually be paying attention and gleaning useful information when I spent months and months going over documents, reviewing sales charts, and interviewing company employees while I was working for no pay. I mean, duh. What the heck did he think I was sticking around there for, the friendly atmosphere?
My publisher had mistaken my patience for passivity. Since I had first encountered this publisher when I was no more than 16 years old, it was understandable that they would severely underestimate me, but this lousy (not to mention sloppy) contract swindle was ample evidence of this publisher’s contempt for all the authors and artists.
We returned the favor by giving him exactly what he deserved.
The authors didn’t have to endure a grueling lawsuit with big legal fees. The publisher’s prior court case on file with the Circuit Court was enough to hang them, and I knew about it because years before, the publisher had taken advantage of me, had had me work for months as an unpaid office gofer, and I had gotten the goods to kick them in the nards with everything I had learned years later.
You know what they say about dishes best served cold.
Revenge was pretty sweet, especially when it came in the form of a big legal settlement (which I can’t reveal – sorry). Of all the authors, because of the track record I had gained in publishing over the ensuing years, I could prove an even better professional reputation and more damages than almost anyone else involved in the suit. I got the second highest settlement.
I got enough money to make up for a lot. Amortized over the total number of pages I had done on the series, I had now received a very fair page rate for my work. I was well satisfied.
But I was about to get even more satisfaction out of it all.
I called Harlan to let him know how things had turned out and he gave me some lovely advice about remaindered books. Since I was self publishing, I had accounts in place to sell my own work to bookstores.
As part of my settlement deal with my ex publisher, they had one year to liquidate the remaining inventory of my books.
Fortunately for me, they were so magnificently incompetent they sold absolutely nothing.
Not one copy.
After one year, they offered them to me.
Remaindered books are the savvy author’s happy little secret stash. If you’ve got some cash, and your publisher determines that there is no longer a market for your work, they will sell it to remainder buyers at massive volume discounts. A $15 book may get a price of only 50 cents a copy if the buyer agrees to take them in sufficient quantity.
Harlan had been buying out his book stocks for years and did a snappy mail order business selling autographed copies of his works. Moreover, he always made sure his contracts required that any books be remaindered to him first before they were offered to anyone else.
Sometimes this meant buying out a small stock of no more than 50 or 100 books for an author, but it can be very good extra money selling them at shows and autograph signings for cover price. This is how a lot of authors make extra money on their books.
In my case, my ex publisher had thousands of books I had worked on, especially since they had about 20,000 copies of the book I had illustrated for The Woman.
They offered me a deal where I could buy out the remaining copies of A Distant Soil at discounts that would increase as I bought more copies. But to get the best discount, I would have to buy several thousand copies of the book I had done with The Woman.
I not only sold out the entire inventory of A Distant Soil that I had purchased at only 35 cents a copy, but I had also managed to sell thousands of copies of the book I had done with The Woman. It took several years, and some marketing hijinks such as selling autographed copies and including promo prints from my other works, but I pulled it off in the end. I went from thinking I would never see another penny on that book to making at least $3 per copy sold. The Woman’s GN did not do nearly so well as A Distant Soil and I ended up having to trash some unsold copies rather than continue to pay for warehouse space for them. But no worries. I made a handsome profit on them.
In the end, I made a nice $50,000 on the total remainder deal for all my projects (in addition to my hefty settlement), all money that my ex publisher could have made for themselves with very little time and effort (this is a perfect example of why their trade division went out of business). I earned enough money to keep my self publishing operation running in the black for a while longer when the comics market went belly up in the mid-1990′s. Those profits kept me afloat until I later signed a contract with Image.
When The Woman saw that I was selling copies of the book I had drawn for her, she went mad, believing I had reprinted the book and stolen her copyright, and sent me an eight page letter threatening to sue. It would never have occured to her that I had just bought them directly from the old publisher, something she could have easily done for herself if she had had any imagination and ingenuity at all. I made very good money on a project that initially kept me in poverty and she got nothing but sour grapes. My lawyer sent her packing when she came calling.
Once, I told some A Distant Soil fans how I had bought my books and sold them to people for more than I had paid for them. They were furious that I didn’t sell my books to all my fans at my cost. How greedy I must be!
This, of course, is the kind of thinking that makes people very, very bad at business. Without profit, you do not pay your mortgage, electric bill, food bill, etc. Profits on these books paid bills when I had no other income some years later. Moreover, there is cost involved in shipping books and warehousing them. And since I had had to spend some years in poverty because of these books, I think I was more than entitled to make money on them later.
So, if anyone thinks it is rotten for an author to actually make a profit on their book…I don’t know what to say except one day I hope you will make Darwin proud.
And for an extra special irony moment: after the trade division was long gone, the printer/owner contacted me about how they could sell more of their remaining inventory of other people’s graphic novels into the direct market. They had thousands of books in their warehouse. Including books drawn by Tim Sale, which would have been incredibly easy to market and move.
A decade later, they had still not figured out how the direct market worked. Yet they had come to me, an author to whom they had paid a settlement, to figure it out.
Oh well, no hard feelings.
Next, the absolutely bizarre and 100% true 20-years-in-the-making-sequel.
Comments from the original posts below.
“I would have to buy several thousand copies of the book I had done with The Woman.”
I see Volume 2 is still available for order from Barnes and Noble; it’s just 18 years late.
Allan, one full year after I had completed work on Volume I of that book, the writer had yet to begin the script for Volume II. I had done some preliminary and promo art for it based on an outline just before I quit, but I don’t believe the writer ever actually wrote the story. However, the publisher released full color fliers and other promotional information for it, and 20 years later, that promo info is still out there? Good lord.
I spoke to several artists she tried to get to draw it, but none were willing to take it on.
ADDENDUM: A couple of fans forwarded me some amusing correspondence from The Woman in which she indicated that I was so horrible to work with she has been unable to write since.
So, a working relationship with me that lasted only about a year and was over two decades ago completely drained her creative resources.
My mojo over my enemies is awesome!