Feel like a scary story for
the Halloween season? PMA members have so many to share that you won’t need
Edgar Allan Poe or an old Vincent Price movie. The bad news is that our
publishers’ nightmares aren’t fiction; the good news is that all of
us—regardless of the size of our companies—can learn from them.
Publishing horror stories
generally fall into four categories:
The publisher took shortcuts.
A vendor dropped the ball.
All hell broke loose..
The publisher got snookered.
Let’s start with those shortcuts.
Some have easy fixes, and some cause long-term frustration. Years ago, one very
savvy Seattle publishing executive told me that it’s a miracle when a book
comes through production trouble-free, and her assertion is certainly supported
by PMA members.
Just ask Tony Burton of Georgia’s
Wolfmont Publishing about his first book. He checked, double-checked, and had
others read the page proofs. He converted the Word document to PDF, and “flipped”
through the resulting proof: “Yep, it looked just fine. I was so pleased.”
Except it wasn’t fine. As Burton
soon found out, somewhere in the conversion process, two or three sentences in
the middle of the book vanished.
Burton’s lesson learned: Check
every sentence, every paragraph, every page of your final proof before the file
goes to the printer.
A related problem: An early
version of the book doesn’t get deleted from the publisher’s or designer’s
computer—and it gets sent to the book manufacturer instead of the final
edition. The best advice: if you must save early versions, file them
separately, and run a hard copy of what you’re FTPing to the printer. Require
that book designers and any other freelancers who are involved send you proofs
prior to submissions to the printer.
Some publishers made startup
decisions that continue to haunt them. Select company names carefully, cautions
Linda Murdock of Bellwether Books (a worthwhile reminder for those of us
considering new imprints, too). Her story: “I chose a name that I thought was
unique and close to the beginning of the alphabet. It turns out there are at
least two other Bellwether Books, one a used-book store. But clever me, I got
the Web-site name. Now I get calls and emails daily from people looking for
used scientific books.”
Compounding the problem, Murdock’s
800-number was once assigned to Kaiser Permanente. She’s had to remove the
number from her site to reduce the long-distance charges resulting from people
seeking doctors as well as people wanting used books. “Of course,” she adds, “I
still get an occasional surprise, when someone starts telling me about medical
Especially for startups or
publishers changing vendors, it’s vital to understand all contract provisions.
Dave Shields of Three Story Press says, “I was thrilled when my novel, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>The Tour, was
accepted by a major distributor.” Unfortunately, though, the formal letter of
acceptance regarding distribution arrived the day after the first print run—and
it specified that the contract was contingent on a different cover design.
“It was nearly as expensive to
remove the old cover as to reprint, so we mortgaged the house, hired a cover
designer, and went back to press,” says the Salt Lake City publisher.
The good news? Three Story
marketed the first run as a collector’s edition and sold it within a year.
New publishers also sometimes get
Halloween-style shock when the truck pulls up with that first shipment of
“My first mistake was ordering
5,000 boxed sets of my three books,” Mark Edward Wesley remembers. “I had no
idea how much space they’d take up.” Moreover, like others who operate from
their homes, Wesley had no loading dock, “so we had to unload each box one at a
time and carry them all down to the basement.”
Then there are the nightmares
caused by others, sometimes from errors in book design, manufacturing, and
shipping—like the pornography, the wrong stock, and bindery mistakes.
When you’re working with an
illustrator and designer, make no assumptions. Provide pictures, perhaps even
brand names and model numbers, of items that need to be shown. Require
high-resolution proofs so that you can check every aspect of the image. Ask for
paper PMS samples of the colors specced; it’s unlikely that the colors shown on
your computer screen or output by your inkjet printer are PMS matches.
“Our closest call was with a
children’s picture book for Audubon,” reports Jennifer Bunting at Maine’s
Tilbury House. “Our designer, checking proofs at the last minute, called with
the news that a native dancer pictured in Sarawak had some very pornographic
tattoos, which we hadn’t noticed in the 35mm slide.”
Some books don’t include porn;
they just get wrapped in it. Dennis McClellan, who runs DC Press in Florida,
struggled to get Come
and See: A Photojournalist’s Journey into the World of Mother Teresa
through Homeland Security’s post-9/11 security checks on the Los Angeles docks.
When the book finally arrived, each carton held a surprise. The copies were
packed in leftover sheets from another printing project—apparently pages from
an Asian version of the Kama Sutra.
“Especially given all the Catholic
churches and retailers we serviced, I have often wondered what people thought
when they found these images,” McClellan muses.
At Marion Street Press, Oak Park,
IL, the near-disaster involved what was left out.
A year ago, Ed Avis had 1,000
advance orders for a book about freelance writing—from people professionally
involved with publishing. The 5,000-copy printing was delivered directly to the
distributor, as usual, and Avis just happened to be in the warehouse when the
cartons arrived. He picked up a sample book and thought it seemed a “little
“Aaaggghhh, an entire signature
By the time Avis was back in his
office, the printer had called to say the book would be reprinted within a
“No harm done, but I still shudder
to think about orders being filled with those books,” he remembers.
Gordon Burgett, at Communication
Unlimited in Santa Maria, CA, had a similar near-miss. About to drive hundreds
of copies of a newly delivered title to a writing conference, he broke open the
first carton and started thumbing through a copy. “I almost fainted because it
was printed upside down!” he exclaims.
So were the next three books
Burgett checked. “Imagine my blood pressure,” he says, chuckling. Luckily, they
were the only books of the 3,000 that were misbound. Somebody at the printer
had caught the mistake.
Did I mention all hell breaking
loose? Well, that’s not exactly what has befallen PMA members. But most will
agree that terrorism, political unrest, and hurricanes can come close.
Toolbox Publishing’s <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Never Too Busy for a Hug
has had what publisher Bob Kneebone suggests is more than its fair share of
stumbles. Among them was a true disaster. Because early sales indicated that
new parents were excellent customers, the Maryland publisher printed 25,000
color brochures and spent $1,000 to have them inserted in the goodie bags
distributed by hospital maternity wards in the Northeast. Unfortunately, the
brochures were distributed right about September 11, 2001.
“We received exactly two orders
from the 25,000 inserts,” sighs Kneebone.
If you got into self-publishing
because your publisher was unresponsive, consider the situation Linda Le Blanc
of Ama Dablam found herself in: her publisher’s entire company—and country—were
The Colorado author had placed <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Beyond the Summit,
set in the Sherpa region, with Pilgrims Publishing in Katmandu. Unfortunately,
while the book was in production in early 2005, the Nepali king declared a
state of emergency after Maoist rebels tried to overthrow him. “All phone and
email services were shut down; freedom of the press no longer existed; anyone
who dissented was thrown into jail, and flights in and out of the country were
suspended,” reports Le Blanc.
Tourism to Nepal ended overnight,
eliminating customers for the publisher’s retail outlet and for Le Blanc’s
title. Le Blanc knew Beyond
the Summit was in production limbo, but she had no way to find
out what that meant and how to get publication moving again. Eventually, the
cooperative publisher and the entrepreneurial author saved the book. Pilgrims
retained publication and distribution rights for Asia and assigned Le Blanc the
right to publish in the United States. With the page proofs loaded on a disk
that Pilgrims sent from its printer in India, she incorporated, immersed
herself in printing how-tos—and got <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Beyond the Summit out last May, just in
time for the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hilary’s ascent of Mount Everest.
Then there’s Ronald Gauthier’s
story about novels set in New Orleans. <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Hard Time on the Bayou is the title of
one, and it’s also a good way of describing what Hurricane Katrina gave him.
When his books were delivered in July 2005, Gauthier had thousands of copies
sent to a library in New Orleans in preparation for an author event. When the
storm hit in August, the library was destroyed, his books were destroyed, and
the printer was literally swamped: Gauthier had orders coming in, but no books
to sell and no way to get more books printed.
“For a first-time author, this was
absolutely unimaginable,” he says about the physical and financial nightmare.
His printer is now back in business and so is he, but with a write-off for the
first press run and a loss of momentum.
Finally, there are the publishers
who ended up in trouble because they got sold a bill of goods. “I could have
done it myself, or I could have done it through PMA,” was a familiar
confession, “but, no, I didn’t believe that I knew enough or that PMA had the
Here’s Devenish Press’s story. The
first book from this Colorado firm was a winner with people interested in
Northern Ireland. It paid for itself in nine months, in fact. But when the
second book came out, a consultant insisted that Devenish needed a broader
market, and recommended a sales rep who claimed to have far better contacts
with distributors and wholesalers than PMA does. The company signed with the
rep, started writing monthly checks and put its own publicity campaign in gear.
“Long story short,” reports Jan
Bachman, “the author was giving 21 radio interviews the day before St.
Patrick’s Day, had done TV and radio shows and book signings in March—and there
were no books with any wholesalers. No books with any distributors. No books in
No response from the rep, either
“When we withheld the rep’s check
in April, ooh, the whining about our contract was so loud. They did not
deliver, but we certainly had to,” Bachman continues.
Her attitude is echoed by Marilyn
Barnicke Belleghem, at Ontario’s Quest Publishing.
“Don’t trust book coaches who
assure you that they have checked the details for you—and don’t trust a book
coach who works for a printing company. Look into every detail yourself; that’s
what self-publishing is all about.”
First the Horror, Then a
Dream Come True
Stuck? Make a Story to
With years of experience in
self-publishing in Seattle and as a marketing consultant to publishers, Linda
Carlson (lindacarlson.com) reports she has experienced a few publishing horror
stories of her own.