Jay lake started out as a colleague, and writer who I was hearing a lot about. And then a distant but regular convention friend. And then he became an author that I published. And then he became a disappointed and frustrated author that I published. It was the first time that I had really failed as a publisher. Sure, I had books that had done worse, but there were lower expectations for those books. This was a book by Jay Lake... the shiny, up-and-coming-super-star short-story-writer that everyone was talking about. This was supposed to be his amazing commercial debut. He was going to be the next China Mieville. And it didn't happen. And this was the first time I could point to a specific mistake I made that directly impacted the sales in a negative way.
One of the reasons Jay went with Night Shade was because we always put out really good looking books. But Trial of Flowers had a disaster of a cover, and it was my fault. We were ramping up our schedule and trying to more books sooner, but our proccess hadn't changed, and we were still producing them the same way we had always done them. There were time pressures and new artists to work with, and I was in charge of it all. And I failed him. It was a simply adequate piece of art with a mediocre to solid cover design, but what really sunk it was somewhere in the communication between the Artist, the Cover Designer and Me, the color profile of the artwork's tiff file got changed to something that wasn't CMYK, and it got sent to the printer. And when it came back, the color had shifted and looked terrible. And we didn't catch it until we had 5K copies in the distributors warehouse.
Jay never out-right confronted me about it, but I knew he wondered why his book looked so bad, while most of the other Night Shade titles looked substantially better. And I tried to make it up to him by publishing a sequel to the book... with the hopes that I could turn the sales of the two books around some how. And Madness of Flowers got a pretty good looking cover that I was proud of. But I never got the series to take off. And due to some miscommunications between me and my business partner (and conversatiosn between my businesses partner and a third party) Jay had an even worse experience with Night Shade the second time around.
I had asked to see an early draft of Madness of Flowers, because I wanted to give Jay a hands on edit. I loved Trial, and was eager to try and make Madness the best it could be. My partner Jason didn't know this was an early draft, and was complaining to someone about the bloated manuscript Jay had turned in. I think the word Unprofessional was used. This got back to Jay who was understandably pissed off about the characterization. If there was one thing Jay was, it was utterly professional. I had some tense words with my partner, and I contacted Jay and apologized profusely, but the damage was already done.
We were never close after this incident, and I failed to find a bigger audience for the two City Imperishable novels. Jay moved up to a bigger publisher, and over the years he was cordial and professional towards me, but I never felt like I could make it up to him. I let him down. He was the first author who I felt I had failed... utterly failed.
For me, Trail of Flowers was the next Perdido Street Station. It was a smart, funny, baroque to the point of grotesque epic novel, filled to the brim with ideas, all executed flawlessly. The characters were a diverse cast of hilarious over and under achievers. I loved that book, AND its sequel. There are passages from it that still haunt me. There could only be ONE reason why that book didn't take off and become a huge hit, and that was because of THE COVER, WHICH I HAD SCREWED UP... Except....
I remember having conversations with a reader at Borderlands. He didn't know of my connection to the book. We were just two fans talking about fantasy novels. And he said, "yeah... I kind of liked it, but it was just TOO MUCH... to dark and graphic."
"Really?" I asked. "How so?"
"Well, the book starts off with a dwarf masturbating to all tall person getting murdered and tortured for his gratification. Later that dwarf is anally raped in graphic detail, and the author spends a lot of time describing the injuries and sutures the dwarf needs in his ass. Then there's the main character.. the one raised and abused by the dwarf? He gets off by torturing people in his S&M Dungeon beneath his office...."
"I guess, when you list all those things back to back like that..." I said, trailing off. Trail of Flowers was a dark book. It was filled with all kinds of nastiness. But I felt it was filled with a lot of other stuff too, and the Nastiness sort of mirrored the world I was living in...
US run Torture camps in Iraq were on the news every night... So all the nastiness in the book seemed kind of minor compared to the atrocities that were happening every day.
In retrospect, I have to think that the horrors that were going on in the world around Jay as he was writing them had a direct impact on The City Imperishable books. The the setting for those two books was the last remaining shell of a former imperial empire... the city was and its inhabitants were living in a past where they were the center of the world, while the rest of the world had moved on. It was the crumbling remanent of a failed empire, filled by myopic and self important citizens who didn't realize their time had passed. It's possible these books were attempts to make sense of the America that Jay was living in. I don't think they were ever evaluated in that context, and I didn't promote them or push them in that way either. When you are in the middle of something, It's sometimes easy to miss the obvious.
And as the publisher, I didn't see the obvious... the obvious fact that while I loved the books, they were a bit far from the fantasy mainstream. Sure, the benchmarks were being moved to the dark and grim side of things... And since them, "Grim Dark fantasy" has become the new black. But there are STILL a lot of readers for whom China Mieville is just too gross and icky. The City Imperishable books are a bit further down the icky spectrum. They were too in your face, and gross and dark for a lot of fantasy readers at the time they were published. And that right there is another perfectly legitimate reason why the books didn't find a wider audience. But the cover... man. That was on me. I'm sorry Jay.
I ran into Jay at San Diego Comicon last year. I had heard he was going to be there. We exchanged pleasantries, and I idiotically said "I'll see you later" when we parted, even though I knew I wouldn't. When Jay first came down with cancer, it terrified me, because Jay was my age. And he had a beautiful young daughter who needed him. He was a living breathing example of just how cruel and uncaring the universe is. Every time Jay won another battle, and pushed off cancer for another week, or month or year, I cheered for him. I quietly kept up with his battles via the internet. He generously shared his experiences with the world, and I was one of those folks who watched from afar. I sent him a letter once... a long detailed letter that was filled with my fears of my own mortality. I told him what an inspiration he was. But it was a letter about my own insecurities, so I'm not surprised I didn't hear back from him.
When my own daughter was born, I thought of Jay's daughter... who I had met once at a Night Shade launch party for Doug Lain's collection. She seemed like such an incredible little girl. Smart, articulate, filled with confidence and wonder. Even during that short time that I met, I could tell that one of the best things Jay helped create was his daughter. And she was always at the center of Jay's life. Once again, Jay was an inspiration... in this case, he showed me what happens when you work hard at being the best father you can be.
Speaking of inspirations... There is an embedded little Easter egg... an anecdote about The City Imperishable books. Jay never admitted it, but I'm pretty sure the character "Jason The Factor" was based in part on my business partner Jason. The Jason in the book was an accountant and money changer and lender... Jason real life handled all the accounting and sent out all the checks for Night Shade. Jason in the book had a kinky S&M torture dungeon below his office,. Jason in real life... well... maybe its too much information... but yeah. Jason liked it rough and kinky, and he had been known to over share now and again, so I'm pretty sure Jay new about this side of Jason. Was the name "Jason" just a coincidence? Maybe. But I think Jay was a funny, savvy irreverent writer who packed a lot of different things into his prose.
Jay was one of the first friends I lost because I was his publisher. He wouldn't be the last. And my experience with Trail... and the reception it received from some readers and reviewers... That was an important lesson... about being honest with one's self, editorially. Aesthetic blinders can cause you to misread the marketplace, and make sales predictions and promises that you just can meet. But that experience with the cover.... That was the one that really haunted me. For a while it didn't help... it caused me to freeze up, put things off and ignore obvious problems. Being the one guy, ultimately in charge of and responsible for everything... It was pretty overwhelming at times. Its one of the reasons Night Shade started hiring staff, and paying people to be responsible for stuff. Which led to new sets of problems and stresses.
But there were many instances... where, at the last minute, I shit -canned art that just wasn't right, and found something else... or I didn't settle on a mediocre design... or I just kept working it over and over until the right combination of artist, and concept and design appeared. I didn't want to be the guy who destroyed someone's career with a bad cover... Because I had felt I had already done that once, and once was enough.