Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One of the Best Writers You've Never Heard Of Has Died

Today I found out  that Joel Lane died. Mark Valentine shared a very personal account of Joel and his work, and we are very lucky that Mark has chosen to turn his grief into an eulogy that helps us know Joel and his work a little bit better. Thank you Mark, for sharing your personal stories of Joel.

I only knew Joel through his fiction, and through the brief professional relationship we had. I published his short story collection The Lost District and Other Stories. I was always frustrated that I wasn’t able to find a larger audience for his work, but his fiction had an unrelenting quality that is sometimes the hallmark of both great work, and uncommercial work. For a good example of what I’m trying to convey, check out both the Publishers Weekly review, and Ray Olson’s Booklist review of The Lost District over at it’s Amazon page. These are reviews by people who have been made extremely uncomfortable by Joel’s work, but can’t help but respect (and sing the praises of) the writer who managed to invoke those feelings with just a few words on a page.

I am very proud to have published his collection. Indeed, one of the few perks of being an independent publisher was being able to follow the ones heart, instead of just following the market. And this book is one of those books that I have a personal connection too. I first discovered Joel’s work in the pages of Karl Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror anthology, and regularly stumbled across his work from that point on. This was all long before I was an editor, or even thought of working professionally in the field. I was a fan. And I was a fan of Joel Lane’s short fiction. I’d see it every year… in the magazines… in the original anthologies, and in the best of the year anthologies. Many years later, when I found myself editor in chief of a genre publishing company, I  jumped at the opportunity to work with Joel… to follow up his World Fantasy-award nominated short story collection with a new volume of his amazing, moving, troubling work… to help continue that long, ongoing genre conversation, and to make sure that Joel Lane's name was a part of it. I was ecstatic.

Hopefully we can take some solace in the idea that (to steal a phrase from a different genre) the circle will be unbroken.  Maybe, like I did,  a new generation of readers and writers will find and be inspired by Joel's writing. We may be in a small, dark little corner of the literary world, but in that corner, Joel was a giant. I feel very lucky to have known him and his work.

Obviously, this long view can’t ease the immediate pain of loss for those who knew him personally. Mark Valentine shared some very personal remembrances of Joel, and I’d like to share one of my personal remembrances too.

As Joel and I began going through his uncollected fiction and began imagining the shape and form we wanted the book to take on, he suggested we name it after his story “The Country of Glass.”  Due to my father’s alcoholism I had had a very negative and visceral reaction to that story, and while I was kind of self conscious about my reaction, I told him I’d prefer to not name the book after that particularly story, and explained why.

He immediately apologized to me, and offered to remove the story from the book altogether. I assured him that he owed me no apology… that the visceral impact his fiction had on readers was what I loved about his work, and that the story needed to stay in the collection.  And while we brainstormed over alternate titles, he was a perfect gentleman when he shot down several of my completely unserviceable suggestions.

Around the time The Lost District was published, Joel suffered a very personal and tragic loss… the sudden and unexpected death of his father. The circumstances of that death forced Joel to be continually confronted by the details of that death long after it happened. The world kept rubbing salt into that emotional wound. 

It was during this time that I lost contact with Joel, and if I’m honest with myself, it was in part because the very real loss that Joel suffered forced  me to consider my own father and the rift that separated us.  I wasn’t able to comfortably deal with these emotions, and Joel’s emotional turmoil mirrored my own in a way that, much like his fiction, made me deeply uncomfortable. But Joel personal grief, as well as his fiction played an important roll during that period of my life. It helped me realized that I still have a father who is alive, and accept that though that could be a burden, it was also a blessing.

Thank you for these insights Joel. I wish I could have somehow conveyed this to you when you were alive. If we are not careful, our lives can easily be subsumed by mounting piles of regrets. Of things we wish we should have done. I wish… I wish. And that is a terrible, terrible irony. Because the crushing weight of regret and how it shapes us is one of the facets of the human condition that Joel regularly grappled with in his fiction.
I wish you were here Joel, so I could tell you one more time… Your work is  important and powerful, and I thank you for sharing it with me and with the world.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

First week of my new life... (MANUSCRIPTS! SEND MANUSCRIPTS!)

The first week of my new life is a lot like my old life. Poeple are asking where their money is. somethings never change.  :)

But now I can say "Someone else is responsible for that and I've been told they are on top of it. If you haven't heard from them in a week or so, let me know, and I'll forward your information to the right people."

Other things that don't change, but sort of do... I've got a lot of production work that I need to process and hand off. Hopefully over the next few months, my work on the the production side of things will start to go away. Maybe I'll still be involved in some of the art direction decisions, or maybe I'll just be a guy with opinions that are sometimes listened to, and sometimes not. We'll see.

First and foremost though,  it seems like I'm back to acquiring books.  So I'm offically putting out the call for submissions.

If you already submitted something to me in the last 12 months and haven't heard back from me, please send a query. SF, fantasy and horror. That's what I'm looking for. It has to be good of course. Please querry first.

For now, I'm only open to agented submissions, or if you come with a reference from someone I know.  A lot of Night Shade's best titles came in through the transom via a recommendations.  Some even came from random hookups at a convention bar.  That sounds kind of naughty. I don't mean THAT kind of hook-up. I mean randomly discovering passionate, interesting writers at cons, whom I tell to send me something. and then that something turns out to be awesome, and I buy it. It happens. Crazy, huh?  The convention thing might not happen this year though, as I don't think I have a travel budget anymore. We shall see.

At some point in the future, my email address might change... but for the next month, hit me up jlassen@nightshadebooks.com

Query first. But only if a full manuscript is ready.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Fifteen Years of My Life...

So that’s a chapter of my life that has ended. Night Shade Books is now an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing and Start Publishing. I always said that if it ended tomorrow, that would be fine because I was proud of what we managed to accomplish.  I always said that because it always seemed like we were on the verge of going out of business.  That never changed, right up to the end. The number of zeroes at the end of checks increased every year, and that in and of itself was a kind of monument to our success. We started out very small, with very little. And in the end our successes were very big, and our failures were very costly.

For everybody who wants to take shots at Jason Williams and myself for being bad business people, that’s fine. I don’t begrudge anybody their opinion. Obviously, if we had been better business people, we would have ended up with money in our pockets when we sold our company, instead of tax bills that we can’t afford to pay. But the majority of these “bad” business decisions involved being too “writer friendly” - both in terms of royalty rates and contracts, and in terms of many other very author-friendly decisions we made over the years. I won’t bother listing them or going into the details, because even if all of the information were made available to interested parties, it wouldn’t changed the minds of people who have already judged us. In the construction of many people’s inner morality plays, we have been cast us as either outright bad guys or incompetent buffoons or some combination of these two things. Many of the people who made those judgements have done so publicly.  For the record, I'd like to point out several things. 

First and foremost, my long time business partner made enormous financial sacrifices to keep Night Shade running. Whether it was not taking owner-draws on months when cash flow was dangerously low or when it came to investing personal money, he always stepped up and never hesitated.

He will probably be very mad at me for sharing this anecdote, but I know he won’t share it himself, and I believe the record should reflect his personal sacrifice.  In the summer of 2012, when Night Shade had just transitioned from one distributor to another, sales were lower than expected. Returns were 2-3 times higher than they had historically been, and Night Shade was approaching the end of a royalty period with not enough cash on hand.  Jason got money from his father… money inherited from a recently deceased grandmother, and dumped it all into the company. And I’m not talking a few thousand dollars. I’m not talking tens-of-thousands-of-dollars either. I’m talking six figures.  He dumped that onetime pot of family inheritance into the company so that authors would get paid their royalties on time, and so that the wheels would not come flying off during a time when we had made systemic changes which had hoped would lead to a stable company. That was probably a "bad business decision" but he made it without hesitating.

Unfortunately, the distributor change did not result in the kinds of increased sales (and decreased returns) that we were hoping for. Six months after Jason's contribution, we were better off  than we had been prior to the distribution change, but we were still not meeting the goals we needed to meet. But that influx of personal cash from Jason put the company into a position that made it attractive to buyers… attractive in a way that it would not have been otherwise…  attractive in a way that allowed our unsecured creditors to get paid. And by unsecured creditors I mean our authors and production free-lancers.

So every check that gets cashed in the coming weeks exists because off the extremely significant financial sacrifice that Jason made.  I will go further than that, though. Every one of those checks exists because of the hard work that Jason, myself and our employees put into this company, year after year. 

We all worked hard to ensure that every book published was a significant event… Because it was a Night Shade book. We had a carefully cultivated brand that instantly brought attention to the many first novels, mid-list career reboots, and other titles we chose to publish. I firmly believe that not only did we do our best for our authors, but I believe that our best was pretty good.  For some authors, that just wasn’t enough. For others, external events and timing got in the way - the same way it does for every publisher out there. But to all of our authors who harbor a grudge, or feel like we were “a rolling shit train” that "did nothing" to support their books, I’ll take full responsibility for your sales figures. I’m sorry I didn’t do better by you and your work.

We published a lot of authors over the years, and I believe that while some of them would have eventually found publication elsewhere, there are many who would otherwise not have made their way into print, and would not have found the readers that they did.

Night Shade paid a lot of money, year after year, in royalties and advances. And while people in the SF community often heard about the tardiness of some of those payments, the truth is we put hundreds of thousands of dollars into many people’s pockets. Night Shade’s new owners chose to make last years total dollar sales public.  Keep in mind we paid significantly higher royalty rates (30-50% on ebook and 10-12% of cover on print editions), and a significant number of our titles last year did not earn out their advances, so Night Shade  paid out more than just earned-royalties on those sales.  I’ll let interested readers estimate for themselves how much money we paid out. And that’s just to the authors. Don’t forget all the freelance editors and artists we paid last year. And we did that year after year. Last year’s sales were actually a 3 year low for Night Shade. That frustrating fact is obviously one of the things that led to the sale of the company. We could have given up on Night Shade many years ago. But we didn't.

Night Shade kept the train going forward for a lot of years. And money went out to those people who earned it, year after year. It went out to our authors; to our freelancers; and to our employees. And the last thing we did as publishers was to make sure that the money got paid out to the people who earned it. I’m proud of the work we did, and I feel we operated with integrity. I feel we did right by a lot of people, for a long time. I gave 15 years of my life and my professional career to the field that I love. I have nothing but respect and admiration for all the authors I’ve worked with over the years, and I wish them the best of luck going forward.

To our readers who supported us over the years. Thank you. You supported us when we took risks… you supported us when we published challenging books that didn’t fit neatly into predefined categories. You helped spread the word, via many different outlets… be it face-to-face at conventions or online at various social media outlets. You all helped create something that has had a lasting and significant impact on the Science Fiction community and publishing world. Thank you. I’m honored to have helped you find the authors and books that you otherwise would not have found. Putting the right book in the right reader’s hands is hard… but that, more than anything else, is what the hard work of publishing really is. I’m proud to have done it for these past 15 years.

To the new owners of Night Shade: Thank you for taking a leap of faith. I’m hoping that this new incarnation of Night Shade will continue to have a significant and positive impact on the science fiction community.