Monday, January 13, 2014

The right way and the wrong way

[This is a post I originated for my other blog Payperazzi, but I think might be of interest to Creating Van Gogh readers as well.]

If you stay in the creative writing game long enough you accumulate plenty of quirky, sad, disheartening, and even enraging publication stories.  Maybe about things that happened to you; maybe about things that happened to your friends.  But they happened.  In the unfortunate if inevitable tussles between writers, agents, editors, and publishers (take any combination of those four) sometimes things just go wrong--or they don't go at all.   In a previous blog post I mentioned that once I'd had a short story accepted for a themed anthology planned by a press who specialized in such, but that five years after the acceptance I was still waiting for the book to appear--until it became 100% clear, rather than merely 99% clear, that the book was never coming out.  Then I deleted the "publication" from my resume.   I'm going through something similiar now, except that it's taken a lot less than 5 years.   In Oct. 2012 I had a story--actually a short chapter from my Van Gogh novel--accepted for an anthology called The Man-Date: 15 Bromances which was being assembled by Prime Mincer Press, publisher of Prime Mincer literary journal.  The bromance thing seemed like a cute, trendy idea, one that might catch a lot of attention, make for a series of fun promotional readings, and hopefully generate some sales.  Although my piece was fairly serious--a picture of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh living together in a Paris apartment that was never intended for occupaton by two single men--I envisioned a series of comedic but literary, and maybe even moving, buddy stories.  The acceptance email I got from Prime Mincer made it clear they were proud of what they'd put together, so I eagerly anticipated the book, scheduled for release in "early 2013."

Well, the busy fall semester ended and a few weeks later the busy spring semester started.  I received no further communication from Prime Mincer, although I had no particular reason to be concerned.  In fact, at the 2013 AWP conference in Boston (last March) I spied Prime Mincer's table in the great big conference bookfair room, so I went over to introduce myself as one of the contributors to their bromance anthology.  The guy at the table was reasonably friendly, shook my hand, and informed me there had been some delays with publishing the book but that it would come out "soon."  No problem, I told him, and walked away, not doubting that what he said was true.  Turns out that would be the very last time I would ever hear a single word from anyone associated with Prime Mincer Press.  

Spring turned to summer; I started teaching a summer class, and then I took a trip abroad with my brother and his family.  I got back home to Arkansas and started preparing for the fall semester.  Fall semester began and things got busy and . . . You get the picture.  It wasn't until several months after the March AWP conference that it occurred to me to wonder, So where is that bromance anthology, anyway? First thing I did was go to Amazon to see if maybe it had been released already and I just hadn't heard (not likely), or if there was a future release date listed.  Nope.  No mention of the book at all.  It did not exist, according to Amazon.  I went to the press's web site and was more concerned when all I found there was the original call for submissions, with the same old damning information that it would appear "in early 2013."  We were well into the second half of 2013--about a year since submissions to the book were closed and all the acceptance notifications sent--and they hadn't thought to pull down the call for submissions from their web site?  I immediately emailed the managing editor of the press, just asking after the latest news.  I thought (or at least hoped) I might get an apologetic reply, with an explanation that the publishing schedule had changed again and the book would have to be out in late 2013 or early 2014.  But what I got was nothing.  Total silence.  This, of course, was bad.  Having one's emails ignored by someone in a professional setting is never a good sign--it's also completely inexcusable and the sure sign of someone with no real notion of what being professional means.

You know the end of the story.  When the semester was over, and I had time to breathe again, I did some more research on the anthology and the press.  This time I found not more information but less.  Prime Mincer's web site, rather than showing outdated information, had been pulled down completely.  It was gone.  Evaporated.  Meanwhile, the Facebook page for Prime Mincer, which previously had featured regular and enthusiastic news about the book, had not been updated since October 2012, around the time I received my acceptance email.  The web site for Prime Mincer's literary journal still existed, but it was advertising the last 2012 issue, long out of date by this time.   With nothing to lose I emailed the managing editor again as well as a different person who at one time--and I hoped still was--associated with the journal.   "What's up?" I basically asked.  Neither person responded.

So this appears to be the situation: Prime Mincer Press closed its doors, scuttled its very public plans for an anthology--and then didn't tell anybody!  And to this day they still refuse to tell anybody.  That is exactly the wrong way to handle an unfortunate turn of events.  Everybody knows things happen with small presses.  While they do great work, and serve an overriding need in the publishing industry, it's a struggle for them to survive.  Sooner or later many of them go belly up.  That is no cause for shame.  What is cause for shame is ignoring the very writers who helped you assemble your books.  What is a cause for shame is acting as if they don't exist or aren't worth even a two-second email.  What is a cause for shame is not taking responsibility for the project that you started.   And by taking responsbility I mean explaining to all involved what is going on.  I would never expect, don't need, and don't deserve a detailed explanation of the troubles that brought your press down.  What I do expect and deserve is a statement clarifying that your press no longer exists, that your book is not coming out, and mabye you feel sorry about it.  That's all.

That's not asking too much. 

In fact, that's asking for the bare minimum.  And yet too many publishers, like Prime Mincer, don't even do that.  What people need to understand is that writers, while being naturally disappointed by such a message, will appreciate being told, will appreciate being valued enough to be told.  Being told nothing--in fact, having one's attempts at communication ignored--isn't just disappointing.  It's maddening; it's infuriating.  It's utterly unprofessional and it doesn't make the situation better for anyone; it makes the situation worse.   (I happen to know, from my net-wide scrambling for info, that several writers who'd been accepted into the anthology put up excited posts to their blogs and web sites.  It's not just me who is being ignored but at least a dozen contributors, some of them highly established authors.)

I'd love to hear that the behavior of Prime Mincer is the exception when it comes to a failed press handling its lingering responsibilities, but I'm pretty sure it's not.  I'm pretty sure most presses, to say nothing of most businesses, handle their various demises exactly the same way: that is, by tucking in their tails and running, instead of owning up to the mess they left behind.  If you have a heartwarming story of a small press going down with dignity and taking care of its own, please share it!  It would make me feel a lot better.  And don't get me wrong, I've had fantastic relationships with many small presses in the past.  A great small press--Lavender Ink/Dialogos in New Orleans--is bringing out my short story collection Island Fog this year, and I couldn't be more pleased with how things are going.  Another small press--KY Story in Kentucky--is soon bringing out an anthology called Redacted that features, among several other pleasantly perverse submissions, a sci-fi story of mine about dogs being discovered on Pluto.  I've had nothing but frequent and open communcation with Ashley Parker Owens, the founder and chief editor of KY Story.  She's running KY Story exactly the right way.  So while I adore small presses--they are usually run by writers and out of a devotion not to profit but to the word--it's a simple fact that sometimes a small press fails; and thus a ballyhooed book by that press won't ever appear.  That's a real life situation.  Then the question for the press becomes: Are you going to handle it the right way or the wrong way?  I wish the correct answer was as obvious to others as it is to me.


  1. This has happened to me twice in the last five years. So frustrating. If something doesn't happen when it was supposed to, a brief email noting the delay or end, is common courtesy.

  2. Yes, exactly. It's a common courtesy. Why should anyone--writer, publisher, editor, agent--not feel to offer such courtesies. And here's the thing that stumps me most: It would take less than a minute to generate a mass email to your contributors. I know they've got a distribution list!