When a Publisher Goes Belly Up

A year ago, a publisher imploded amidst some of the nastiest news ever released concerning the misuse of company funds and mistreatment of writers. Reading about it was like not being able to tear your eyes away from the car wreck. It serves as a cautionary tale to authors to be careful which publisher you place your titles with and to publishers who think they’re too big to fail.

The market is in flux. Houses are going to come and go. The publisher that seems strong today may collapse under bad management tomorrow.

Usually, you can see it coming a mile off. That is, if you’re paying attention, and even then, the signs may not be clear. Sometimes you don’t know how bad a house is until you place a title there and are privy to the inside dirt. Let’s face it, they all look good until you look behind the curtain. 

I’m keeping an eye on a publisher that looks like they’re struggling; the downhill slide has been steady. Where they used to release half a dozen books a week, they’re down to two a week and often one is a reprint. Not a good sign.

I suspect authors who once felt happy and safe there have begun sneaking off to other publishers, leaving quietly but definitely leaving. Among the writers who remain, the rumbles are starting to move the earth even as the publisher snarkily replies to questions about how things are being done.

If you read about Aspen’s meltdown and what precipitated it, you know lots of writers were left in the lurch both before and after the crash. If a publisher you have titles with goes bankrupt, this can happen to you, and as most writers do not have the financial wherewithal to hire a lawyer to get their rights back, you could be out a considerable sum of money, not to mention your intellectual property.

How can you protect yourself from this? There is no sure-fire way because most online publishers, being privately held, are not legally required to post year-end numbers, which would be a strong indicator of how well or poorly they’re doing. We pretty much have to trust our instincts and hope they’re solvent and will remain that way for the length of the contract.

But if you want to do additional inspection before signing on the dotted line, cast a jaundiced eye toward their operation. Talk to other writers currently publishing with them, get their opinion. Have new releases noticeably gone down in number or are they suddenly charging more for them? A genre ebook being listed for $9-10+ suggests a lack of cash flow. Do they seem to be understaffed and doing a less than stellar job on covers and editing? What’s their promo like? Are they even doing any? Are statements and royalties going out late or not at all and the explanations given flimsy at best? Do you pose questions or concerns and get no response?

If you suspect your publisher is teetering on the edge of collapse, email and ask nicely if they’d consider returning your rights to you. It can’t hurt and who knows, maybe they’ll let you have them, in which case you’re in the clear. If they say no and  you have a friend who’s a lawyer, ask their advice… and then post it here because we’d all like to know.

It’s hard writing a book. It’s harder still to see it tied up indefinitely in litigation because a publisher failed.


About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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7 Responses to When a Publisher Goes Belly Up

  1. therealtbaggins says:

    Want to see something ugly? Go here: http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,129458.0.html

    It gets hot midway through page 2.

    • That is ugly, all right. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happening with a couple other publishers, too. Allegations have been made about late or missing payments, emails being ignored…

      Authors barely make any money as it is, and when they don’t get their royalties on time (or ever), they have every right to be pissed. Publishing companies are not your family, whatever they tell you. It’s a business. Everyone needs to treat it as such. #1 rule: Pay your people when you say you will! No excuses, ever!

  2. diannegray says:

    This is bad news all round. No wonder a lot of popular authors are self-publishing.

    • The one thing online publishers can offer authors is a storefront, i.e., their web site. Otherwise? I don’t see many of them doing much promo for their writers; that’s mostly left up to the writers these days. In fact, one publisher actually exhorted her authors to “get out there and sell your books!”

      What the hell! If all the publisher is going to do is edit your manuscript, slap a cover on it, and make it available to buyers, well, yeah! Most writers can do that themselves, or hire it out for reasonable rates.

      I do my own covers. I format for the various bookseller platforms. I can’t edit my own work to the level of professionalism I require (because no writer can edit their own work properly, being too close to it), but I make sure I send it to those who can. And I contact the professional reviewers myself. They’ve been amenable to reviewing my work.

      The first time you do this, it’s daunting. I admit it freaked me out some and I agonized over things. The second time was much easier and went a lot faster. I expect the process of self-publishing to become more and more efficient, and I’m very pleased with the process now.

      Self-publishing gives the writer back the control publishers took away. For many writers, they prefer someone else handle publication for them; to them, I say, “Go for it!” Just check out your publisher and try to ascertain they are stable and successful.

      To the rest of you: Self-publish! Build your readership and back list. I’m happy to offer you any information I’ve garnered. Just ask.

      • diannegray says:

        Wow, great response. I only know because I’ve been published by ‘major’ publishers and have learned the hard way that they expect you to do everything and all you get is their ‘name’. I only self-publish now because it gives me the freedom I want to do what I want, when I want (and much more money for my effort).

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