April 9, 2013

The messy demise of Night Shade Books


This illustration would be more original if half of Night Shade books didn’t actually have airships in them.

It seems the slow-motion implosion of San Francisco based science fiction publisher Night Shade Books will continue this week unabated, and likely for weeks to come.

Night Shade is known among readers for their intense allegiance to the genre, their work in discovering new talent, and their excellent cover design. The small publisher has struggled with money in the past, most significantly a few years back when they were failing to make royalty payments, leading the SFWA to put them on probation (much like the organization’s recent de-listing of new e-book only imprint Hydra, which we wrote about earlier this year.) Now the struggling publisher has come to an agreement with two others, Skyhorse Publishing and Start Media, to sell off their assets in an effort to forego bankruptcy hearings.

The deal was first publicly mentioned in a tweet by Night Shade co-founder Jeremy Lassen, who wrote on April 2nd “My exciting news is that Night Shade is being bought by a larger publishing company! NS authors are recieving formal notification now.”

The gist of the deal seems to be that Skyhorse would buy print rights to the Night Shade list and Start would buy digital. They would make all payments owed to authors, as well as start a new imprint at Skyhorse called Night Shade, with Lassen and Night Shade co-founder Jason Williams being brought on as consulting editors. The only catch: Night Shade’s authors would have to agree to revised terms, and a significant majority of them would have to agree before the deal went through.

That formal notification Lassen mentioned soon went up online. Charlie Jane Anders of io9 posted it as part of her great ongoing coverage of the deal.

As you probably know, Night Shade Books has had a difficult time after the demise of Borders. We have reached a point where our current liabilities exceed our assets, and it is clear that, with our current contracts, sales, and financial position, we cannot continue to operate as an independent publisher. If we filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or liquidation, the rights to your books could be entangled in the courts for years as could past or current unpaid royalties or advances.

Provided that a sufficient number of Night Shade authors agree to certain changes to their contracts with Night Shade, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. and Start Publishing, LLC have agreed to acquire all Night Shade Books assets. To be clear, this is an acquisition of assets, not a purchase of the company as a whole. The revenue received from the sale would go towards paying off the debts of the company. If you sign below, and a sufficient number of other Night Shade authors and other creditors also agree to these terms, you will receive full payment to bring all royalties and overdue advances current.

Vocal dissenters to the deal cropped up immediately. Most objected to the revised royalty rates in the contracts offered by Skyhorse—10% of net sales—and some disliked the inclusion of additional rights in the contracts, such as audio, while others simply mistrusted the bona fides of Skyhorse, newcomers to the genre as they are. The most common reaction, however, was vitriol for Night Shade itself. Kameron Hurley, an author with three books published by Night Shade, wrote on her blog: “The deal is seedy. It’s made to fuck writers in all sorts of interesting new ways.” Jeff Vandermeer, editor of an anthology with Night Shade and a respected voice in the genre, called it a “crappy deal.” Cartoonist, novelist, and apparently un-classy gent Phil Foglio called the Night Shade founders “wankers” and spurred his audience to comment on their Facebook pages. SFWA, however, calls the deal “likely in the best interest” of the authors involved.

The entire asset transfer is becoming a game of prisoner’s dilemma, and the most vocal opponents to the deal are most often those with the least to lose.

Lassen—always the more vocal of the Night Shade duo—has since written a public letter, acknowledging the criticism he’s faced and pleading “Right now the deal is in the hands of the individual authors, and their agents. I am asking you. Please. Sign off on this deal. Help me make sure all my authors get paid.”

Jarred Weisfeld of Start and Tony Lyons of Skyhorse spoke to io9 about the deal, saying, “we’re the good guys here,” and “they were losing more than almost any publishing company I’ve ever heard of.” They defended their offered royalty rates, and emphasized that this was not a golden parachute for Lassen and Williams. Weisfield said:

Jeremy and Jason are being punished by losing their company, by having salaries that are much less than they were before, and they’re going to be out of the business. They’re going to be consultants, and their future in the publishing field is going to be precarious. They’ve paid for their mistakes, and they’re going to continue paying for [them.]

That insistence on punitive measures might be meant to reassure angry authors, but it rings strange to my ears. (In a side note, it seems Weisfield was a manager for Ol’ Dirty Bastard at one point? Show business is bizarre.)

If the authors do decide to move to Skyhorse/Start and the resulting imprint does ramp up their acquisitions and output, as has been the norm with other houses Skyhorse acquires like Arcade, it could mean two things. Either the new Night Shade will be an outsized force in the field—even now at something like sixty titles a year their output is impressive—or it will lose something in the transition, move to ebook-only, and cease to be relevant other than as a market for otherwise-self-published authors, similar to the Hydra model. Whatever the outcome, the current calling in of grudges is painful to watch.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.