Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Small Press Implodes: The Inside Story of Aspen Mountain Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A month ago, I blogged about the troubles at Aspen Mountain Press, whose authors report nonpayment of royalties, contract breaches, delayed publication schedules, and other problems; and whose senior staff resigned en masse in early August.

Usually, when this kind of turmoil engulfs a publisher, authors and staff members are reluctant to say too much, and the details don't become widely known. But recently, in a searing blog post, AMP's former head editor Celina Summers broke her silence, and went public with the whole sordid story of AMP's demise.

Celina writes,
My first indication that anything was wrong came when one of my authors at [AMP imprint] Aurora Regency—a writer who was in my writing group, who was a dear friend, who was someone whose integrity I trusted absolutely—wrote to me in concern because she hadn't received her royalties.
When it became apparent that this was more than an isolated problem, AMP staff attempted to intercede with the owner, Sandra Hicks, to get things straightened out. Ultimately, the owner turned the running of the company over to staff (who were themselves owed substantial amounts of money in back pay), and brought in a bookkeeper to straighten out the royalty mess. But the mess was worse than anyone imagined.
Hundreds of emails in all the AMP accounts, gone unanswered and unopened from authors and staff. The customer service email account alone had over 500 unanswered emails over the previous eight months. That took two people working eight hours to resolve—and in the process, we discovered a frighteningly large number of AMP books that had serious formatting problems for a long time.

Authors who were contracted and never heard back from the company, leaving their books unpublished and their rights tied up. I found books from two years previously that were still stranded by AMP, the authors begging to just get a response from somebody…anybody.

The royalties were such a mess that the bookkeeper, Kerry Mand, elected to concentrate on just getting that month's royalties out and working on some of the most pressing cases before working backwards through the books and auditing a year's worth of royalty spreadsheets and reports--a course of action I agreed with. We discovered that in previous months, only portions of the royalties had been paid at any given time.
Celina describes the staff's all-out efforts to get things back on track. And it looked as if they were succeeding. Correspondence was answered, books were uploaded, release schedules were established, and the royalty accounts were untangled.

The accounts were then sent to Ms. Hicks for payment. But within days, staff began hearing from authors who hadn't received their royalties. When Ms. Hicks was confronted about this, Celina reports,
...she said that to her knowledge, [payments] all had been [made]. We were online IN the bank account and Paypal, trying to match authors (and pen names) to amounts to see who'd went unpaid. And as I asked her about a specific author, we watched the payment go out from that account. Then she texted me back each time and said that I was mistaken, that author had been paid.

Up until that moment, I believed that all the problems at AMP were unintentional, and that there wasn't a chance of dishonesty on the part of the owner. But that, when considered along with everything else, made me suspicious for the first time. After that, we couldn't believe Ms. Hicks when she told us she'd paid for something. So we began to monitor the bank account...It was then that we starting noticing some peculiar activities in the AMP bank account.

The owner was using the business's bank account for personal expenses.
Staff begged Ms. Hicks to separate her personal expenses from the company's. She refused. Believe it or not, the story goes downhill from there, with scheduled books left unpublished, rights reversion requests refused or ignored, threats from Ms. Hicks, authors chastised and banned from discussion loops, and royalties and salaries still unpaid. All of this, apparently, has been complicated by Ms. Hicks' personal and health issues.

There has been some positive movement recently. In subsequent posts, Celina notes that a few AMP writers have received reversion letters. More important, the AMP website is down--and per the AMP contract, if the company suspends operations for 60 days or more, all rights automatically revert to authors. Other problems, however, including outstanding royalty payments, continue to be unresolved.

In conclusion, Celina writes:
Publishers need to be held accountable for their actions. It is time now for Aspen Mountain Press to pay what they owe.

Give the authors their rights back.

Give the authors an internal audit of the books.

Pay the authors and staff what they are owed.

And shut the doors on a one-time great little publisher that is now the biggest cautionary tale of all.
A cautionary tale, indeed.

For every writer and editor caught up in a disaster like this, the situation is unique. But for us at Writer Beware, it's a sadly familiar story. Small press publishing is inherently risky--for publishers as well as for authors--and while the situation at AMP is uglier than many, it's also far from unusual. Small presses tend to be much more directly tied to the personal lives and resources of their owners than bigger companies are, and that makes them uniquely vulnerable to not just to money problems, but to logistical and personal ones as well.

The problem is, while some small presses reveal their iffiness on initial research, or demand a wait-and-see approach because they're untried start-ups, there's no way to predict the implosion of an apparently established, active publisher like Aspen Mountain Press. No matter how careful you are, some risk is inevitable. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself--some of which are suggested in my blog post, Precautions for Small Press Authors, and also in the brand-new Small Press page at Writer Beware.

Over the past few weeks, a number of AMP authors have come forward with their stories. Here are some of them:

Charles E. Wells
Esther Mitchell
Andy Dunn
Kimberly Nee
Grace Wen
Destiny Blaine
Samantha Combs
Barbra Custer
Celia Kyle

Also, a local reporter is looking for authors who are having issues with AMP; TeddyPig has posted his contact details.

20 comments:

Danielle said...

Isn't there legal implications if they can prove the owner is not fulfilling contractual promises, paying salaries, etc? Especially if she is using the money for personal expenses???

Rogue Mutt said...

I've been through that with the company I used to work for. Some owners like to think the company is their personal piggy bank.

Morgen said...

Using a company bank account for personal expenses is against a LOT of laws. This is a criminal offense, and the perpetrator can be imprisoned. It's all-out theft. Not only for the authors, but staff and the government - were the TAXES getting paid?? So, anyone up to pressing charges? Calling the law?

Anonymous said...

At this point, a new author trying to break into the field, might have second thoughts. Where do you turn for advice. Most writers get a deal through some of the smaller publishers...so it is a gamble?
What about online printing with ebooks?

Lehcarjt said...

Using a company bank account for personal expenses is against a LOT of laws.

That's not necessarily true. It depends on the legal status of the company. For example, a company set up as Sole Proprietorship can pay the owner's personal expenses (taken as 'owner draws'); they just can't include those expenses on their P&L, Tax return, etc. It's really, really common for owners of Sole Proprietorships to mix in personal expenses. Handled correctly by the bookkeeper (errr... me.) it's no big deal.

I don't know the ownership status of AMP though.

darkprincealain said...

Anon, Victoria's post on precautions for small press authors linked to within the post is actually a great help. Though as a rule, there are no guarantees in life, it is a pretty helpful set of instructions.

Tahlia Newland said...

This kind of thing turns more authors to indie publishing. If you can't trust a small press, you might be better off going it alone. At least you only have yourself to blame if it all goes wrong. I've just published a short work on ebook while my agent looks for a publisher for my novel. It's trial so if she doesn't get a decent publisher, I'll have my head around an option that gives me control.

AlvaradoFrazier said...

I applaud Celina Summers for having the persistence to investigate the problem and take action. Perhaps she should start a small press. I'd be happy to take business to someone with demonstrated integrity.

Suzanne Pitner said...

This story sent shivers up my spine. It gives small presses a bad name, but we have to remember that the majority of business owners are doing a good job with integrity. Thanks warning us about the ones who aren't.

Jennifer Loring said...

Alvarado: Celina did start a small press: Musa Publishing. I work for her. :)

Marla Miller said...

Victoria,
As usual, you and Ann rock! Thank you sooo much. I just ran across another 'indie' press in Ca. that's suspicious.
Writers, be careful out here. We have always been easy prey for flimflammers-maybe because we SO want to get our stories published. They feed off this.
Reposting & sharing-Thank you 'Write Beware' for all you do for our community.
Marla Miller
www.MarlaMiller.com

P. David Gardner said...

A sad, sad story, but unfortunately an unremarkable one. I worked for a few small publishers in the '80s who operated much the same way, and two crashed and burned and left us employees high and dry, and writers and artists too. It's not something I'd like to live through again.

What is remarkable about this story is the fact that the process has been so transparent. And bravo to the brave editors who stood up and walked out, and started Muse.

C.E. Hart said...

Thank you for the info.

Doug Brunell said...

As much as I love small publishers, I find they don't often act that much differently than the publishing giants. I am still pursuing more traditional outlets, but I am finding that publishing direct to Kindle (and elsewhere) is the way to go. While my book may not be doing gangbusters (my short stories did better), and I am working my butt off, in the end there is no middleman and I have only myself to blame.

Anonymous said...

From AMP's website: "Over the past five years we've demanded high standards in all areas of the company from authors to editors to administrators. Due to the current health of the owner these standards have not been met."

Kudos to the owner for taking responsibility for the mess and not blaming others.

Having read Celina Summers blog post, I have to wonder if she had taken a less belligerent stance if things couldn't have been worked out. A single parent with health problems needs real help not bashed on the head for what she hasn't done.

I would really like to see Writer Beware take a more objective stance on these issues.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:
Having read Celina Summers blog post, I have to wonder if she had taken a less belligerent stance if things couldn't have been worked out.

Wow, blaming the victim. Really?!

P. David Gardner said...

Anonymous, did you read the entire thing? If so, you would have seen that the owner's facebook page talked about RECENT personal expenditures of money on concerts, talking about what a fun time she had. Not saying that one should not be able to enjoy music, but she's in a unique position, and needs to pay her bills before running out and spending money on non-essentials.

Christine Tripp said...

Anon, do you really think a companies personal problems should come into the equation? Say an author or illustrator has the same story, should their publisher put them first?
This is business, nothing personal.

Marian Perera said...

"A single parent with health problems needs real help not bashed on the head for what she hasn't done."

I'm not sure I understand this... who was bashing the owner on the head? And what is it that she hasn't done?

Perhaps you mean she hasn't paid the authors the royalties they earned, hasn't paid the staff their wages, hasn't communicated with authors and hasn't used the company's money appropriately?

She may well need "real help". But by the same token, other people - even if they are not single parents with health problems - need the rights and/or the money which legally belongs to them.

Nancy Sanders said...

I would suggest AMP authors go to this November 9, 2011 Huffington Post article which lays out the authorities/entities to whom AMP authors can contact to get some help in dealing with this publisher. I worked with the reporter to get that article published.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/09/aspen-mountain-press-shut-down_n_1084382.html?1320865960

Yesterday my husband received a response from the Denver Better Business Bureau – a response to the snail mail letter which he sent to them setting forth the problems at AMP. The BBB letter stated my husband’s complaint has been assigned a case number. It stated that they have reviewed his case and have forwarded it to the business (AMP / Hicks) for the business’ response. It stated that if the business does not respond to his complaint by November 17, a second letter will be sent to the company.

The letter encouraged my husband to use their Online Complaint System to keep up with the progress of this complaint, giving my husband a password to use along with the case number. The letter stated the BBB “appreciates the opportunity to work with you and the business to resolve this matter efficiently and to your mutual satisfaction.”

You are writers. Please write to these entities so that they may help you. The more authors they hear from, the more concerned they will become and all the more swift will their actions be (hopefully).