Publishing and Marketing 02: Night Shade Books

About a month ago, I posted my first Publishing & Marketing column on the blog, titled “Publisher Communication“. In it, I talked at length about the marketing approaches of various SFF publishers in the English-speaking markets. The post got a fair amount of attention in social media and over email, and I’m really pleased with how things turned out.

I initially intended for the second installment of this semi-regular column to get into more of the above topic, but then I decided against it, since something else happened around roughly the same time. It was announced in various places that Night Shade Books was a hair’s breadth away from declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy and that they were considering an asset (author contacts to be specific) sell-off to meet their debts and make sure that their authors, editors, cover artists, etc all got paid their respective dues. This is where Skyhorse Publishing and Start Publishing were stepping in as the potential buyers. But, things weren’t as promising as they seemed at first. The terms being offered by Skyhorse/Start meant that while everybody would be paid, they would not be paid anywhere near the full amount, especially not the authors.

Smarter and more publishing-savvy people than me have already talked at length about the details, so I’m not going to touch on any of that. There was even enough backlash from a LOT of people involved, the fan community and the SFF community that is, that Skyhorse/Start eventually were willing to offer better terms, although there were still some big concerns. Just do a google search and you’ll get a plethora of links and discussions about it.

The purpose of this column is to talk about my experiences with Night Shade’s publications, and why I think its rather tragic that they are going under and what it means for the SFF community as a whole.

I’ve read about 10 books from Night Shade to date, and my experience has definitely been a mixed one. Some of the books, like Nathan Long’s Jane Carver of Waar duology and Katy Stauber’s Spin The Sky have been extremely fun books, others such as Jeff Salyards’ Scourge of the Betrayer and E.J. Swift’s Osiris were somewhat average, while others like Kameron Hurley’s God’s War and Rob Ziegler’s SEED were too unreadable for me, to the extent that I did not finish them. Nothing particularly different so far. Such is my experience with any other publisher, whether it is Angry Robot or Black Library or Orbit or anyone else.

What makes the Night Shade books stand out though is how different they are to each other and to what you are likely to find in the larger SFF market. Each Night Shade book is a completely different experience in that the settings are extremely innovative, as are the narratives in terms of the choice of point-of-view characters and the way the books turn out towards the end. Hopefully I’m not misremembering, but I have yet to read a Night Shade book where the ending turned out to be what I expected.

And that is the value of a publisher like Night Shade to me, very much like Angry Robot in terms of the kind of SFF the publisher puts out. I could not have imagined reading a novel like Adam Christopher’s Empire State, Anne Lyle’s Alchemist of Souls, Nathan Long’s Jane Carver of Waar, or Zachary Jernigan’s No Return a year and a half ago. My tastes at the time tended towards the standard SFF fare, that too focused on tie-in fiction for the Warhammer, Star Wars, Star Trek, Dragonlance, and the like. And just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with tie-in fiction at all. A lot of the tie-in fiction I read is just as strong as the original fiction I read, being superior in quite a few cases.

Becoming a reviewer extended my reading horizons beyond anything I expected, with Angry Robot and Night Shade being there every step of the way. Today, I try and read as widely I can within the various SFF subgenres, even urban fantasy, non-anglophone fantasy, apocalyptic horror, sword-and-planet pulp, and space operatic fantasy.

I haven’t read as many Night Shade books as I want to, but if there’s one thing I can say about them is that kudos to the commissioning editors for picking all these novels for publication. They took a really bold step with this approach, and as far as I’m concerned, it has paid off rather nicely in terms of establishing that particular coveted niche for them within the publishing industry.

Here’s a rundown of the Night Shade books I’ve read till now:

  • Bloodsounder’s Arc #1: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards (Review)
  • Jane Carver #1: Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long (Review)
  • Jane Carver #2: Swords of Waar by Nathan Long (Review)
  • Lays of Anuskaya #1: The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)
  • Miserere: An Autumn Tale by Teresa Frohock (Review)
  • No Return by Zachary Jernigan (Review)
  • The Osiris Project #1: Osiris by E. J. Swift (Review)
  • Shattered Sigil #1: The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer (Review)
  • Spin The Sky by Katy Stauber (Review)
  • The Daedalus Incident by Michael J. Martinez (Review)

That last book on the list is a book that has been delayed now, given the asset sale, which is still ongoing and has yet to be fully resolved [The condition of resolution rests on the majority of NSB’s creditors agreeing to Skyhorse/Start’s revised deal]. I’m going to be reading a few more 2013 releases by NSB this year, which you can check out here.

Thing is, whether or not I liked a particular book, this is a really crap situation to be in for the authors (specifically, but, as I said, there are a whole lot more people who are owed money by NSB as well). For those who had books coming out later this year, they are all delayed. For those who already had their books released, it doesn’t suck as much, but now the uncertainty about on-time payment is going to be a huge concern.

No matter how the argument is cut, for the moment, things are dire for all the authors. Their choices are to either say no to the deal and watch from the sidelines while decisions are made, or, they can agree to the deal and take the (possibly) reduced amount of money owed to them in advances and back royalties, etc. There is also the concern that if the deal does not go through, then Night Shade will be filing for bankruptcy and this will result in the IP rights to these books getting stuck in legalese limbo, from which they might not be free for a good long while. The timescale for that is projected to be in terms of years, not weeks or months.

Rock and a hard place. The devil’s choice. That’s what it has come down to for all these people.

I’ve talked to a few of the people involved in the deal, and it appears that most are in favour of the deal, albeit with reservations. Some payment is better than nothing, so the reasoning goes, in a nutshell. It is a rather simplistic point of view of course, but for authors who’ve been waiting months and even years to get paid, this is all they can see for now.

I’m rooting for things working out and Skyhorse/Start making good on their promises. So far, the one shining light I see is that the Skyhorse management reiterates at several different times that it is committed to developing on the NSB publication line, and that they want to break into the SFF markets with NSB’s publishing list. The people at Skyhorse/Start are taking a huge risk with this approach of course, but it’s nice to see that they are confident in their future plans, and that they have the money to back up their plans.

Skyhorse/Start are primarily non-fiction publishers, and for them to buy off the release and back list of an out-of-business SFF publisher means that they are pretty serious about this. If I recall correctly, it is mentioned in various editorials that Skyhorse is even setting up an entirely new sub-department to manage their NSB acquisitions, and that they will be looking to appoint a commissioning editor soon as the deal goes through.

To me, that sounds fantastic. Skyhorse/Start have some serious cash flow to bring to the dealing table, and the fact that they are going to clear payments within a very short window of the deal going through, means that they are taking a long-term approach to the whole issue. After all, they can’t build their own SFF identity in a year or even two.

But then the main concern is: will Skyhorse/Start take the same chances that the commissioning editors of NSB did? Will Skyhorse/Start work to maintain the niche that NSB developed or will they go into comfort zone mode and publish what many would call “standard fare”. Just buying up the author contracts is not enough and Skyhorse/Start need to maintain the fan base that was invested in NSB’s publications. That’s what it all comes down to: retaining your fans.

If it so happens that the new owners fail to capitalise on the advantages and strengths of their acquisitions, then the future is grim for all the authors involved. All I can hope is that Skyhorse/Start do right by everyone involved and that the whole situation turns into nothing more than a superficial name change. Best case scenario.

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Posted on April 29, 2013, in Editorial, Publishing & Marketing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I’ve been reading Nightshade for years. when I look over my bookshelves and find some of my favorite novels of the last 10 years, Night Shade shows up on the spines over and over again. I’ve discovered so many great authors through NSB, Jon Armstrong, Catherynne Valente, John Love, Kameron Hurley, so many others, and these are THE SAME authors that I’m now worried for. what will happen to their future books in series they have been writing? what will happen with their, well, everything?

    Like many people, I get average satisfaction out of my dayjob. I”m suddenly tempted to shiny up ye olde CV/resume and send it off to Skyhorse, offering myself up as North American sales rep for the authors I love.

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    • An excellent idea, and best of luck! 🙂

      I’m hoping that some, if not all, of these authors will get the opportunity to go the Bradley P. Beaulieu route and kickstart their next novels in the series that were in publication with NSB.

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  2. When I first discovered Night Shade, I was thrilled. It seemed like every book they put out was a winner in my eyes, and they kept giving amazing chances to debut authors. That made them awesome, and for a while they were at the top of my list of favourite publishers.

    Then all this happened, and I got to see into the ugly behind-the-doors action of the company, and I’m no longer quite so impressed. It’s still great that they took chances, but they overreached themselves in ways that it would have been fairly simple to correct while still keeping a good reputation. And the way they handled the sale of their assets reminded me of nothing so much as a company I used to work for, which also went backrupt but refused to actually file for bankrupcy. Doing so would have taken care of their debts (and allowed employees to actually have been paid what they were owed, something they never actually followed through on — I was owed about $1000, for example) but would have meant the owners took a big hit to their credit score, preventing them from getting another business loan later on. It seems to me like what’s left of Night Shade is only concerned with how it can come out of this smelling the best, and not actually for all the people they’re screwing over in the process.

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