PORT TOWN PUBLISHING
For some time now, there have been rumors about the alleged bankruptcy of Port Town Publishing, a small publisher located in Wisconsin, run by Jean Louise Hackensmith (who, it turns out, has a 1996 conviction for theft in a business setting, a class C felony--she started Port Town while still on probation for that conviction).
Writer Beware has seen documents that confirm that Jean Louise Hackensmith and her husband, Ronald Lee Hackensmith, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January of 2008. (Chapter 7 provides for liquidation, with the debtor's non-exempt property sold off to pay creditors.) Creditors included several Port Town authors, a phone company, a printer, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, and a number of collection agencies. The case was closed on April 22, 2008.
This was the second time around for the Hackensmiths: they'd previously filed for bankruptcy in 1995.
Over the years, Writer Beware received a number of complaints about Port Town, including publication delays, poor physical quality, nonpayment of royalties, continued sale of books whose contracts had terminated, and general unprofessional behavior. At one point, if authors wanted distribution through Ingram, they had to pay a $50 processing fee. Later, Port Town required authors to agree to buy 250 of their own books.
Port Town's website has been gone for some time, but its books still show as in print and available on Amazon.
LIGHT SWORD PUBLISHING, a.k.a. LSP DIGITAL
Since its establishment in 2006, we've been getting a similar range of complaints about Light Sword Publishing: delays, nonpayment of royalties, unprofessional behavior. We've also gotten reports that Light Sword's current owner, Linda Daly, and its former co-owner, Bonny Kirby (who is no longer associated with the company), misrepresented the company's expertise and capabilities in order to encourage authors to sign contracts.
We weren't entirely surprised, therefore, to discover that in late 2007, Linda Daly, Bonny Kirby, and Light Sword Publishing were sued by one of their authors for breach of contract, fraud in the inducement, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Writer Beware has seen the complaint, as well as numerous other documents involved in the lawsuit).
Although the defendants filed a counterclaim, alleging that it was really the plaintiff who provided misrepresentations and breached contract, the plaintiff was ultimately successful. On April 15, 2008, a default judgment in the amount of $15,342.64 was entered against Bonny Kirby, and on July 8, 2008, a default judgment in the amount of $16,558.63 was entered against Linda Daly and Light Sword Publishing.
Although we've gotten reports that Ms. Daly may be intending to file for bankruptcy within the next month or so, Light Sword Publishing appears to be alive--if not, perhaps, well. It's now calling itself LSP Digital--according to the announcement on its website, "with the industry shifting due to the economy and the amazing technical advancements in the printing industry, LSP Digital was formed so that our authors can compete in todays [sic] competitive market through digital manufacturing, while holding steadfast in our commitment to our readers and authors."
In a way, what's happened with these two publishers is unusual. Though troubled publishers often threaten to file for bankruptcy, they rarely do--a bankruptcy filing costs money and obligates you to your creditors, and it's really much cheaper and easier to claim to be filing, and then disappear. That's what happened with Creative Arts Book Company, a vanity publisher that took money from authors and never published their books. (I still sometimes hear from CAB authors who are convinced that CAB's former owner is illegally producing and selling their books; I've seen some evidence to suggest that this is indeed happening, but no conclusive proof.)
Also, unhappy authors are rarely willing to incur the expense and emotional stress of a lawsuit--which carries with it, of course, the risk of losing. Over the years, Writer Beware has heard from thousands of authors who have had dreadful publisher experiences--but we know of only a handful of lawsuits.
In all other ways, however, the sagas of Port Town and Light Sword are depressingly typical. If you're a regular at the Bewares & Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, or a reader of any of the blogs that keep an eye on the world of electronic and small publishers--such as Dear Author, EREC, or Karen Knows Best--you'll know how common it is for small publishers started by inexperienced people to fall into a predictable pattern of bad behavior--failing to perform, failing to pay, attempting to harass or intimidate authors who speak out or ask uncomfortable questions--and to go out of business within a couple of years (or less) of starting up.
Wouldn't it be easy if we could dismiss publishers like this by calling them "scams?" It would remove all ambiguity, and place them in their own special category apart from all other publishers. Problem is, most of them are not scams (or not entirely). Amateur publishers aren't generally out to deliberately defraud their authors. It's just that they don't have a clue what they're doing, and often get scared and mean when things start heading south.
For the author, of course, this is a meaningless distinction. Whether you're scammed or amateur'd, the bottom line is pretty much the same: few sales, no professional cred, a book tied up in contract, and possibly a lighter bank account (because so many amateur publishers encourage authors to buy their own books).
In other posts, I've suggested ways for writers to guard against being amateur'd--researching thoroughly, avoiding unproven publishers, and just being careful, which includes being aware of problem contract clauses that may make it tougher to get free of the publisher if it gets into trouble. But the best way to protect yourself is simply to avoid amateur publishers from the get-go, and start your querying process at the top rather than the bottom.
Of course, many writers wind up with the amateurs not because they didn't look higher, but in frustration after striking out with reputable agents or larger commercial publishers. But rather than submitting to the Port Towns of the world, I'd suggest you pick a POD service such as Lulu.com. Your contract will be better, your stress level will be lower, you'll be better treated--and your sales and professional credibility will be about the same.
Better POD'd than amateur'd, in my opinion.