The UK writer and small press community – especially anyone in the dark, weird, fantastic, and horror areas – has been abuzz lately over the implosion of a once well-regarded small press. And it’s a cautionary tale for authors and independent presses everywhere. There have been some heated social media and email exchanges on this, but I’ve tried to stick to the publicly available materials to stay above the debate and sift through it for a balanced view. Now read on.
Spectral Press is – or was – “an independent 2012, 2013, & 2014 British Fantasy Award-nominated genre imprint, devoted to stories of the ghostly and supernatural, and to very high quality.” I’ve covered their work and their excellent publications extensively, and you can see my TeleRead posts here. However, as the Spectral Press blog site itself states, “due to some financial and health problems we are not open at the moment. Please do not order anything as we can’t deal with the order.”
Now, any business, not least a small independent press, can run into business difficulties. However, there is apparently a lot more to the Spectral Press story than that. Simon Bestwick, sometime Spectral Press author, has summarized the whole debate here on his blog. I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as he does on some of his points. However, as he states, “it has emerged that Spectral is in debt to the tune of between £8,000 – £10,000 GBP [$11,400-14,255]. A good part of this consists of monies owed to their authors; in addition to this, many customers had paid for orders that had still not been received.”
No one is alleging deliberate malfeasance in this situation, not least because Simon Marshall-Jones, founding publisher and editor of Spectral Press (interviewed here in TeleRead), as Simon Bestwick states, “has a number of health problems, including severe depression, which may well have been a factor in the collapse of Spectral. It was also announced by SMJ’s wife, Liz, that SMJ was suicidal as a result of the press’s problems and debts.”
As Simon Bestwick continues, “there has been a great deal of sympathy online for SMJ,” which he shares. However, all the comments over health issues should be a warning to writers in themselves. Small presses are often the creation of one impassioned individual. But if the whole operation is hostage to the health of that one individual, then an author’s future may be at risk to the same extent. For the sake of their own writing and well-being, they’ve got a right to prefer a platform that’s broad and built well enough to weather any temporary health issues with its leading spirit.
Plus, it’s a real question whether such issues excuse the kind of practices reported at Spectral Press, cited by Simon Bestwick and widely corroborated on Facebook and elsewhere. These include delays in fulfilling orders, late or absent payments to authors, lack of promotion for new titles, and evasive or even hostile responses to enquiries about these.(Delays to promised publications, however, are all too common in Big Publishing or small press publishing alike.) There’s also the very slight issue that, according to Simon Bestwick, “in many cases, deals with Spectral had been in the form of ‘gentlemen’s agreements,’ and authors had not been provided with details of royalties owed or even a payment schedule for those royalties.” Spectral Press and its defenders have broadly produced explanations, but not denials, of these practices.
None of the above should be taken as evidence of deliberate dishonesty. However, if you’re an author looking for an independent press, or in discussions with one, you should be alert for any mention of them. And obviously, you should expect at least a properly written contract with clear schedules of what the publisher will pay you and when, and what rights you give to them. Any writer has a right to that, no matter how strong the publisher’s rep.
All of that should serve as a warning for authors everywhere. For current and past Spectral Press authors, and UK genre authors, though, there are some more red flags about the way the Spectral salvage operation is going. It was announced via Facebook that an agreement had been reached whereby “Spectral Press and its sub-imprints become part of Tickety Boo Press,” publishers of Simon Marshall-Jones’s own collection Biblia Longcrofta. That came along with a GoFundMe campaign ascribed to Tickety Boo head Gary Compton, seeking £5000 ($7126) to “Support Simon Marshall-Jones.” According to this, “restructuring has taken place, he now has colleagues who will watch his back and vice-versa, they will take some of his workload from him allowing him to do what he does best – put together amazing books with amazing authors and editors. The monies raised here is to alleviate pressure on him from his creditors (who mostly have been very supportive).” Simon Bestwick has posted a screen grab showing a concluding clause to that last sentence, now deleted from the GoFundMe announcement itself, running: “… and give him a much needed break in Northumberland, chaperoned by me, the wife and Murphy.”
The whole campaign and that last sentence in particular attracted a lot of very vocal complaint on Facebook. Concurrently, Tickety Boo has launched a Kickstarter campaign around its own funding requirements. As this states, they are seeking £2000 ($3500) “to enable us to get our paperbacks printed in China and shipped to the UK where we will distribute to Gardner’s (who supply the bookshops), to Easons (70 shops in Ireland and Northern Ireland), to Waterstones (the largest bookseller chain in the UK), and to the Amazon fulfillment warehouses in the US.” Even if Kickstarter is a common resort for small and indie publishers these days, that hardly gives comfort that Tickety Boo will be able to make up Spectral Press’s business deficiencies.
I hope that hasn’t come across as an extended screed at the expense of some very dedicated, talented, and unfortunate people. But here at TeleRead, we’ve devoted reams of digital print to flaying Big Publishing for its bad practices and abuse of authors. It’s only fair – to authors above all – to call out indie publishing when it also doesn’t come up to the mark. And to outline for writers what the warning signs are. Maybe independent publishers can also learn from the Spectral Press example how to put their passion to work in ways that won’t ultimately damage themselves and their authors. After all, one consideration for indies is that there’s no corporate logo to hide behind, and the individual rep you pick up from your business practices will follow you around – for good or ill.