girlgeniusTV Tropes has a trope called “Poor Communication Kills,” in which an otherwise easy-to-prevent problem comes about because of either plot-contrived or real failure to communicate. (I’m pretty sure that’s happened at least once or twice in the Girl Genius comics.) Well, these things happen in real life, too.

Last night, Phil Foglio posted to his LJ, Facebook, and blog a story of frustration with Tor, who had opted to try launching a line of graphic novels starting with the first Girl Genius omnibus edition. They came out with a low-priced hardcover, but when the Foglios wondered when the paperback would come out they started getting the runaround. As they were trying to get the matter resolved, friends pointed them in the direction of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, ostensibly Tor’s editor-in-chief. (He actually isn’t, but I’ll get to that in a bit.)

So after a year of this (yes, an entire year. We are Slow to Take Offense, here at Studio Foglio), I write to Mr. Hayden, asking him if our editor is dead, or just fired? This question surprises him, as he saw her in the office that morning. He seems sympathetic. We even have a face-to-face meeting at worldcon the next week where he explains that TOR just really doesn’t know how to sell graphic novels, and when someone takes on a job they don’t know how to do, they tend to just stick their fingers in their ears and hope that eventually, it goes away. Fair enough, I am occasionally like this with The Experiments.

I mention that we’ve been selling graphic novels fairly well for quite awhile, and that we’d cheerfully give them pointers. However, if they just can’t wrap their heads around it, which seems obvious since after three years they have yet to sell through the initial print run (We’d have done it in 16 months- and that’s with no advertising, which is a fair comparison, as they did no advertising either), then we’ll just sing a chorus of “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You”, and then we’ll publish them ourselves, because if there’s one thing we know how to do, it’s publish and sell Girl Genius graphic novels.

But we can’t. Because our contract with TOR says we can’t publish “a competing product” for five years. Okay, what can we do about this? But now, Mr. Patrick Nielsen Hayden has apparently decided that we’re too much trouble.

They closed by calling upon their readers to pester Mr. Nielsen Hayden [it’s not “Mr. Hayden,” it’s a hyphenated married name sans the hyphen] since they and their agent haven’t been able to get through to Tor themselves. However, it comes out that’s not the whole story.

On his blog “Making Light” this morning, PNH responded explaining his side of the situation. He is not in fact Tor’s editor-in-chief because Tor doesn’t have one. He’s a senior editor and a colleague of the other editor who was handling the Foglios’ book, and he stepped in to help out because he was handy to talk to at Worldcon. He says that he did explain he was not actually in charge to the Foglios, and pointed out he would be traveling and teaching and hence unable to do anything about it until late November, though that didn’t stop Phil’s agent from starting to pester him about it at the end of September.

Here’s the other place I’m at fault. Once I got back into the office regularly in late November, I didn’t instantly jump on the Foglio problem, and I didn’t respond to two or three emails from Phil wanting to know what’s going on. I fully acknowledge that this was rude and probably baffling to Phil. Some of it was probably residual annoyance about feeling like I’d been jumped by Phil’s agent in September. Some of it was definitely annoyance over continuing to get communications from Phil’s agent addressing me as if I was the guy in charge of Phil Foglio’s business dealings with Tor. And some of it was certainly the fact that this period of several weeks included the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s holiday periods, during which, like lots of other people, I tend to pay extra attention to family and friends and get behind on the details of my job. But I shouldn’t have left Phil wondering, all the same.

He notes having seen communication between Phil’s agent and the editor who was actually in charge of matters in January that suggested the matter was in the process of being resolved, and felt bad about not having gotten in touch in a more timely manner. (In the Facebook comments, the Foglios’ business manager Carol Monahan notes they got a one-line communication from the editor less than 48 hours ago, which the Foglios might not even have seen yet at the time they made their blog post.) But then Phil made this public post ascribing all his problems with Tor directly to him, which he feels is more than a little unfair.

Bottom line: As far as I can see, Phil’s problems with Tor are being dealt with now. Sending me dozens of angry emails isn’t going to get them dealt with any faster or better. If you want to send me email telling me I’m a craphead for not having answered Phil Foglio’s emails from late November to mid-January, okay, guilty as charged. But I’m not the guy on a golden throne proposing and disposing the actions of all the other senior editors at Tor. I’m someone who had the bad judgement to offer to try to help with a problem, and then got sufficiently overwhelmed by other urgent matters that I wasn’t actually able to help in the timely fashion I said I would. This was reprehensible of me. My other mistake: Not clearly extricating myself the moment it became clear that Phil’s agent was going to persist in the impression that I’m Phil’s editor’s boss.

If you think these errors are a good enough reason for the stream of crap Phil is now directing in my direction—and exclusively in my direction—then I suggest you might want to reconsider.

What can we take away from this situation? Well, first that people are all human and fallible. As PNH says in his blog post, “To the best of our knowledge, nobody in this situation is a villain.” And there’s a lot of institutional inertia in big publishing houses. Authors going for months without hearing anything is a pretty common story. (For example, the case of the Kensington author who was still waiting on her contractual rights reversion months after it was due.) It’s sad that it took a public complaint before PNH responded with an explanation, but he does own up to his culpability for that part of things.

Something else we can take away is that non-compete clauses are terrible, terrible things in today’s publishing environment. Not that this is new; self-/indie-publishing experts (such as Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Passive Guy (more than once)) have been saying this for a long time.

No publisher has ever provided what PG considers to be a cogent reason for a non-compete clause. In fact, nobody has even come close to anything clear, logical and convincing. For him, it’s one of the bizarre business idiocies of traditional publishing.

They’re most commonly used to prevent traditionally-published authors from self- or alternate-publishing other books—even if the books would serve to boost the sales of the trad-pub book along the way. (And lawyers have previously suggested using them to quash independent e-book sales of rights-reverted titles.) And if this five-year non-compete of the Foglios’ wasn’t cleared up, it could at least in theory prevent them from selling the first volume of their popular webcomic collection, or possibly any volume of it, for years. [Update: Carol Monahan, the business manager, clarifies the concern is solely in regard to omnibus editions that collect more than one print collection, not the print collections the Foglios currently sell.]

The irony is, the Foglios’ Girl Genius was one of the earliest indie-publishing success stories in comics. In 2005 they saw the publication of a single-issue print comic becoming too expensive for the return, and switched over exclusively to publishing the strip as a free webcomic and selling the collections. As they say, they’ve been selling their own collections successfully for over ten years. But apparently Big Five Macmillan subsidiary Tor has problems in that regard. (Which is, honestly, not surprising given all we’ve seen lately about how agile self-or-indie-publishing authors have been running circles around the Big Five. And niche markets like graphic novels can be hard to find a foothold in for even the largest outsiders.)

Hopefully now that everything is out in the open, they can get this all straightened out to everyone’s satisfaction. Meanwhile, I would suggest not bombarding PNH (or, for that matter, the Foglios) with angry communications. It won’t help anything.