Fate of Girl Genius omnibus at Tor causes friction between the Foglios and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

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.

9 Comments on Fate of Girl Genius omnibus at Tor causes friction between the Foglios and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

  1. Quick clarification: the concern is solely about Omnibus editions.

    The individual Studio collections are in no way affected.

    -Carol Monahan, Business Manager

  2. Quite possibly I should keep my nose and two cents out of this discussion, but it looks as if I’m not going to take my advice.

    IMO Tor’s editorial structure is, to a large extent, responsible for the situation Phil found himself in with regard to being able to communicate with his editor–or lack of one. Over the years I’d published nine books via Tor/Forge and throughout that period, I worked with one editor and felt we were on the same wavelength. I believe she did too. Then after a break of several years when I wrote material that wouldn’t interest Tor, I went to contract with them for a single book. I turned the complete in ahead of my deadline and over the next 16 months, (yes, that’s right, 16 months) I waited and asked for updates on the manuscript’s status. I’d received the signing part of my advance but because my editor hadn’t read/accepted the manuscript, I received no more payment.

    Finally, and after much angst, I did what I believed I had no choice in. I retained a literary attorney who got Tor to sign the book’s rights back to me in exchange for my returning the signing advance.

    As part of that process the editor wrote the lawyer and me a lengthy email detailing her duties. Seriously, no one human being could do everything she was required to and find time to edit contracted manuscripts let alone schedule them for release.

    My take on all this–Tor’s management needs to take a serious look at its inner structure.

  3. George Mays, III // January 30, 2014 at 3:40 pm //

    Where can we buy the book?

  4. Well, Amazon has third-party-sold copies of it for $30, at the link I linked in the blog post. Or you can buy the individual volumes from the Girl Genius web store on the Girl Genius website.

  5. I found PNH’s explanation odd.

    If PNH is not the boss or supervisor of Foglio’s incommunicado editor, then why, when approached about the problem, did he not simply direct them to the correct person? I gather from PNH’s statement that all Tor editors are under the direct authority of “the publisher.” In which case, why not point them straight to the publisher so the problem could be solved (at least in theory)? Letting the problem go unresolved for months, until Phil Foglio got so exasperated he went public about it, was not a better solution than PNH saying months ago, at WorldCon, “You need to go to the correct person for this, and it’s the publisher.”

    Also, what sense did it make for PNH to say he would address a current problem, but only THREE MONTHS LATER, when he’d finally be back at work after a long absence? Why didn’t he refer Foglio to someone who could address it immediately rather than months later? (That Foglio agreed to wait 3 months seems to suggest that he had the impression that PNH -was- the correct person in Tor’s business structure to deal with this, and perhaps the -only- person who could address it.)

    Having returned from his long absence, and having promised to deal with the problem… why then did PNH ignore the follow-up emails asking him to do so? PNH’s excuse that he felt the agent had blamed him for a problem he hadn’t created is silly and unprofessional. He had agreed to help with the problem, and nothing prevented him from clarifying to the agent how he wanted to be spoken to. So why, instead, did he react by withdrawing into a non-responsive sulk because he didn’t like the agent’s assumption? This is not responsible professional behavior, though it is in keeping with the whole mess Foglio has described.

    It’s nice that PNH is sorry. But the important question is not how he feels, it’s whether the problem has been resolved, all rights returned to the author, and/or the non-compete clause legally nullified (PNH saying to his blog readers that Tor won’t prevent Foglio from publishing is not a legal nullifcation of that clause).

  6. Deal, you have a good point. Why did PNH get involved in what was already a messy situation if he’s not the boss? Why not simply promise to forward an email upward?

  7. Thanks for a neat summary Chris, and for your excellent comments about non-compete on Making Light.

    Dela – yep, but on the other hand there has been little or no real reason for anyone in the oligopsony of publishing to conform to the professional standards normal in other businesses. Well, that’s changing, so we hope they’ll either learn soon or go extinct soon.

  8. It’s quite possible that Patrick was the high-profile representative of TOR available to Phil to speak to. A lot of business of all varieties is handled at Worldcons, often in an informal fashion.

    I would expect a responsible individual who, hearing of Phil’s complaint at the con would want to find out what was going on (Phil is pretty high profile himself and anyone associated with TOR hearing of the problem could be expected to respond).

    I don’t read anything into this other than Patrick, being with the company in question and knowing the editor in question, offering to try and help out an author/artist and fellow fan.

  9. This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve dealt with big companies before. Most of them auto companies, but the defects are the same. They require their contractors to have equipment from a list that has nothing to do with the services they will perform. They send out freshly minted engineers to coordinate on systems they can not even identify by sight.
    People from Chrysler used to call my wife trying to find out who did something and their phone number AT THEIR OWN COMPANY!
    Think hard before you promise such idiots anything like a non-compete agreement. They will defend their ‘rights’ even if it harms them.

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