Competitors and Ethics

by Richard Grossinger on March 11, 2010

Chapter Six
Competitors and Ethics

Disclaimer

When I re-read this chapter from around the midpoint on, I sort of gulp.  I am not sure I should be saying much of what is in here.  While none—well, most—of the stuff in this chapter is not in reality and practice as extreme as it sounds in high rhetoric, it all has some element of truth to it.  And I can’t really get across the concepts any other way.  So, readers, please keep in mind that there is an even greater degree of self-righteousness in this chapter than in the rest of this blog, mixed with healthy doses of hyperbole and pique.  Don’t take me too seriously.  I hate the word per se; it’s kind of disgusting, but there’s a lot of what people call “venting.”

The Collective Enterprise

I don’t believe that there is such a thing as real competitors in the world of publishing in the sense of absolute rivals.  Publishing is conceptually and at its heart a culturally collaborative enterprise in which the creation of a civilizational and planetary library is a collective goal.  Everyone’s books get their meaning from the joint effort of everyone else in publishing across boundaries of company, language, and nation and in the context of literacy and freedom of speech (or its antipode: propaganda).  Books do not exist in isolation or as corporate monopolies; they would lose any meaning or value in such a situation.  There would, in effect, be only one book: the Bible or Mao’s Little Red Book. It is the total variety of information and information packages that makes publishing into a living ecology and a thriving business.

All books go to create an environment in which single books have relevance and generate literarcy desire.

Every competitor in that sense is an ally at different levels and in different ways, some of them quite subtle.  Perhaps this is true to a degree of all industries, but for publishing it is fundamental.  It is, perhaps, why it used to be considered “a gentleman’s business,”  that is, before zero-sum, capitalists got into it and messed it up along with everything else in the world.  When you play only for the immediate score, as if there were no future, you destroy meaning and you destroy and vitiate the present too.

At PGW, we were of course in continuous competition with the other 100-200 presses for a limited pool of money budgeted by stores for sales and for shelf space in those and sometimes for individual authors and titles, but we were also allies in making PGW, our joint fraternal order, a strong and attractive distributor.  The success of our lodge was to the advantage of everyone in it.  During its heyday, virtually every independent publisher sought PGW membership.

In choosing a distributor, a press should pick the one that will locate them at the lowest ranking vis a vis the other presses, as long as it is not so low that one stands a chance of being trimmed off the bottom, or cannot sell enough books to stay in business.  Forget competing with your fellow presses or envying their higher sales; these are to your advantage: Publishers are pulled upward (commercially) by the presses above them and dragged down by the presses underneath them.  That is, they gain from the strengths of their fellow presses and are weakened by ones that produce mainly failed books.

We ourselves grew and became successful in scale with Publishers Group West itself, as our titles with market potential were pulled up to the retail level of PGW’s best—e.g. most commercial—presses.  Our association with Grove/Atlantic Monthly, Audio Partners, Conari, Total Sports, Berrett Koehler, Avalon, etc., via PGW meant that stores were drawn to our titles in the context of the PGW list as a whole.  When those presses had strong sellers, our books tagged along on the ride.

Stores knew, as well, that, if they ordered too many of some of our books for their clientele and had to ship a few back for credit only, the one trade rule (I can think of) that favors the publisher over the account[1], they could use that credit for plenty of titles theoretically higher on the commercial totem pole than ours, a fact that is in play in direct ratio to how many stronger presses are above you.

For that reason, I don’t advocate switching from a top distributor to a lesser one.  There was a stretch in the late nineties and early aughts when a number of publishers, especially literary ones, fashionably jumped ship from PGW to Consortium, in part in order to become a big frog in a small pond (Consortium was also “dealin’” to steal PGW presses).  A publisher should never try to be the largest frog in a pond because its growth will thereafter be limited by the size of the pond itself and the smaller frogs.

I would argue always that it is better to be a small frog in a big pond and thus get to feed off the food left by the bigger frogs.  If you are the top press at a distributor, then your books can only be bought by accounts on the assumption that, if they don’t sell, they must be returned for less promising merchandise—you have to be the honey drawing the flies.

I don’t mean to overwork this argument to tedium.  I just mean to highlight a counter-intuitive angle on the situation.

Yet it also happens to be true that presses that left PGW for Consortium escaped the horrors of the AMS bankruptcy, but that is not why they made the switch and is incidental to the logic of my parable about ponds and frogs.

(And by that extended argument North Atlantic is now far better off at Random House than it would be at either Consortium or the new PGW under Perseus.)

There is probably less intrinsic competition among presses at a distributor than there is in-house competition among imprints of large publishers like Random House and Putnam.  After all, in difficult times, a commercial publisher might fold several imprints into one, costing people their jobs, but presses at a distributor retain their autonomy regardless of their success or lack thereof relative to their sister presses.  They don’t have to fight one another for survival, status, pecking order, or budget within a competitive bureaucracy in the way that imprints within a large house do, and the individual publishing personnel are less often building resumés for other jobs.

At a large publisher, there may be covert internecine warfare among imprints and editors for projects because people are far more concerned with their own careers than the success of the company.  They may even sabotage one another.  The fate of Embryogenesis at Avon (described in Chapter One) was typical: newly arriving personnel preferred clearing the slate and putting red ink on the account of their predecessors to getting back the company’s investment in the book.  This kind of thing happens frequently at times of regime change at large publishers.  By contrast, despite the friendly rivalry among the PGW presses evident in banter and aggressive teasing at meetings and parties, people generally rooted for each other, even amid those usual dollops of envy and kick-ass.

Copy-Catting

Though the sales of one’s competitors are generally beneficial to everyone in consolidating the success of the enterprise, there is some competition among presses within a distributor.  Directly competing books can be one arena of rivalry but similar items are not always problems—for surprisingly even almost identical books can enhance rather than diminish each other’s sales.  Books become advertisements for one another and their topics.  So it is helpful for a distributor to build a niche with similar-topic books from many presses, sharing and synergizing the marketing.  It is not so bad if other presses appear with parallel books and themes, as long as these are not in the same sales season.

Until the world became glutted with Walters, the Dutton editions that rivaled ours and attempted to kick us out of the game (see Chapter Nineteen) dramatically improved the sales of our own original volume, nor is it absolutely certain that it was a glut that finally drove down the market, though I am guessing so because our Walter continues to outsell the later ones—a stat, in case you are wondering how I could possibly know such a thing, that can be checked by subscribing to the industry cash-register-monitoring service, Bookscan.  While not all-encompassing or fully accurate, Bookscan allow one to compare sales of competing titles, whether you published them or not.  You are not locked out of the records of other presses’ books, so you can make market analyses and do comparisons.

The main unhappy competition we had from other presses while we were at PGW was the direct copying of our best titles and strategies— shameless out-and-out knock-offs of our books.

Though I do not pose us as the most brilliant organization in the world, I do think that we are a trail-blazing publisher of the sort that opens territories, so imitation was inevitable in those areas in which we were hot.  That is the nature of capitalism, and you might as well fight gravity.  It can’t be prevented—someone will eventually knock off your best books—and I understand that I should view it as flattery.  To quote our late lamentable leader, “Bring ’em on.”

However, within PGW, there were publishers, not many, who regarded the creative arena of the book business quite differently from me.  They believed that their sole goal in professional life was to parade successful books down the aisle, by hook or by crook, and they truly did not see anything unethical or wrong with mimicking exactly what another publisher was doing successfully.  The idea was to make a counterfeit version of the other publisher’s book and even steal the sales.

I was appalled and shocked when it happened to us within the PGW family; it pissed me off.  I call it theft as much as when someone breaks into your car and steals your laptop.

There was one fellow PGW publisher, of whom I can unhesitatingly say he is one of the sweetest and most thoughtful people in the world.  Having been through personal hardship and travails, he is compassionate toward others and unfailingly community-oriented and helpful; yet, over the years, he has thought nothing of copying whatever was successful by anyone else.  He never created his own niches.  He was (and probably still is) a mocking bird supreme.  That is his niche.

It was his strategy to try to create books that resembled the bestselling PGW titles of other presses—the more exact the match the better.  He also found bizarre and underhanded ways to knock off the biggest international titles, as he occasionally made a splash with a derivative or parasitic title exploiting and glossing the original as, for instance, a guide to a best-selling topic under the smokescreen of being helpful to devoted readers of the original.  It was a “Harry Potter/Da Vinci Code/Kabbala” special.  It always maddened me to see him proudly displaying eggs taken from other nests.

Many years ago, this guy did have a specialty, a niche (which I won’t divulge in order to keep his identity somewhat secret).  One afternoon he took me out to lunch ostensibly to chat about our shared occupation, and he asked me what did well for us.  I emphasized our spiritual books and holistic health.  Within a year, he had become an aggressive holistic-health publisher with a few spiritual titles too; in fact he became more a holistic-health maven than a purveyor of his own prior specialty, and his spiritual and health books uncannily resembled ours in both subject and orientation.

Naturally voluble, I didn’t actually learn my lesson.  Several years after that lunch, the same dude queried me intensely one day at PGW about martial-arts publishing and I was ridiculously verbose, given what had gone down before, as regards the nuances of martial-arts publishing.  Within a couple of seasons, he was doing knock-off martial-arts books, picking exactly those genres that I had said worked best.

I realize in retrospect that I underestimated him in more ways than one: I didn’t think he was bright enough to educate himself in these fields or brazen enough to slap us right in the face before God and country and PGW itself.  But he showed no public shame or even reticence—after all, he was a high-profile PGW operative, in Charles Olson’s words “the fink of the bosses”; he was the life of the party.

As noted, it wasn’t just us that he was knocking off.  Anything he could find that could be sold and that showed an opening to him, however backdoor, he imitated, and, I might add, he did very, very well as a publisher in the halcyon PGW days, far better commercially than us.  He Harry-Pottered Harry Potter; he definitely knows his game.

In retrospect, I see that that knock-offs were in fact his supreme talent.  He doesn’t specialize in trailblazing topics.  His most creative ideas were ways to cuckold other publishers’ successes.  It is a game for him, but it is also his business strategy and the livelihood for himself and his family (“god bless him,” as my stepfather used to say of those he deemed schnorrers).

I finally decided to give him a wide berth, not engaging in any further conversations, a resolution I have kept for maybe six years to this day.

I can’t prevent being pick-pocketed—our books are public—but I don’t have to show the pick-pocket where my wallet is.

And I still think he is a prince of a human being.

Mainstream Competition

Our biggest competitors are invariably large presses that have the capital and brand prestige to outbid and outdazzle us for desirable projects, especially as we give few and negligible advances.  Money is more enticing than no money to most aspiring authors, and that is not surprising.  Add a fine name like Gucci or Kelllog’s or Saab, and a competitor’s offer usually can’t be beat.

An agent approached us in 2006 with a flashy massage/bodywork book that was perfect for our list; we likely could have outsold most other publishers, no matter their pedigree, with this book, and we would have been a prestigious choice for an author whose manuscript crept toward commerciality at the expense of substance—its main drawback.

We negotiated for a long time through the author’s agent.  A key to the negotiation was that the woman had a booming spa practice in which she expected to be able to sell large numbers of her books directly.  This gave us an inroad that was potentially far more lucrative than an advance, as we offered to sell her copies of her own book at a little above cost, and we gave her a very high royalty with a steep escalator as well.  It was a sweetheart of a deal but, literally moments before she was to sign it (according to the agent), an offer showed up from a mainstream New York publisher that included (she confided) a small advance, a much lower royalty rate, and standard discount for the books the author herself purchased—yet she turned around and accepted it on a dime, dropping our entire protracted negotiation without even asking us to counter.  She was deluded into dealing against her self-interest just to get a small shot of earnest money and that Gucci brand.

In balance to that episode we gain numerous authors who have become fed up with mainstream commercial publishing and in fact do want either to control their rights through copublishing, or get higher royalties and/or large numbers of inexpensive books in lieu of an advance.

Independent-Press Competition

Within our world of smaller independent presses we also have some serious competitors, and they tend to be other spiritual and New Age publishers, companies that not only compete with us directly for general metaphysical and health titles but are willing to challenge our strongest hands with their own ambitious titles, for instance in shared niches of martial arts, bodywork, etc.  After all, we don’t own the niches or the topics.

I distinguish these competitors from the above-mentioned cuckold insofar as they put out strong original titles that we would have been pleased to have published if we had gotten them.

The best of these presses have a higher profile than ours. Shambhala[2] actually published bodywork and aikido years before we thought to try those areas (see Chapter Four), but they never developed their full potential; they probably defined them as one-up books and topics didn’t mine the actual depth.  With their genre-defining focus on Buddhism and related transpersonal psychology and their emphasis on tradition and lineage, they probably thought one massage book by a mindful practitioner and one aikido book by an American with a Japanese pedigree handled the market.

When we began doing bodywork and martial arts in legion, they probably felt as encroached upon as we have at times, but I arrived at those topics through my development of Planet Medicine. If they had been on the ball and prescient, though, they could have locked them down before we entered the game.

Even smaller spiritual presses can be effective competitors.  A tiny yoga press in Berkeley won away one of our major martial-arts authors through the same kind of personal attention that was once our own calling card against the big houses.  Another smaller press wooed away an author we had been publishing for years and beat us out on two authors we were jointly seeking.

I discovered that warfare between countercultural small fries can be even nastier and less scrupulous than that between giants.  It got back to me that this press routinely said things about us that weren’t legit: we were owned by PGW (they changed their alias of mischief, a few years later, to Random House)—but of course, we are nonprofit and unownable. They told our own environmental author whom they were courting that we had let his book go out of print when the opposite was true: we continued reprinting it, even though it was not much of a seller.  In fact, we are a reputation for keeping books in print at levels as low as twenty-five sales per year; that has been a signature of ours, against even economic rationality.

In some left-wing and countercultural publishing circles, our associations with PGW and Random House have in fact been used over the years to represent us to potential authors as sellouts to corporate publishing.  The above-mentioned press may well have swayed at least two feminist, anti-corporate authors (of a slow-food book and a yurt book, that I am aware of anyway) not to go with us and to go with them or someone else instead.

We have encountered a different sort of issue with Sounds True, an audio company in Colorado that publishes spiritually and ethically impeccable tapes and, from all I hear, has an honorable business mission and is staffed by thoughtful, compassionate people.  Yet I feel that their “ruse” of new audiobooks allows them an inroad into our market that is not always transparent or fair.  Many of our bestselling authors have been approached by Sounds True to do audiobooks on their topics.  That in itself is a legitimate if intrusive business strategy.

Where it crosses a certain line is when authors sign up to do what they think are audio projects and then they turn out to be books too.  A transcript of the audio is sold along with the audio package as a separate book, or a book is created out of the author’s general materials and/or transcript and released to the public as the author’s newest tome, something we expected to publishger.  Suddenly there is not only a competing audio project on Amazon (and elsewhere) but an actual printed book.

On several occasions (which will go unnamed) we held the contractual or verbal rights to the author’s next book and the author thought we were doing it, so both of us were surprised when a “paper, ink, and binding” product appeared under the Sounds True imprint.  The author perhaps didn’t read the fine print in his or her audio contract.  We have had three or four authors who did read the fine print and bailed in time.

Whether this business practice is innocent or canny to a fault, I can’t say, but it seems to me an end-around to get books not otherwise available or even intended as books.  Authors committed to a certain publishers are suddenly stolen, as it were, while on blind date.

If I thought the practice was utterly innocent, I wouldn’t bother to mention it.  It is the response that surprised authors have reported back to me when they went to Sounds True with a grievance over the matter that has led me to call it a “ruse.”  It seemed to me as though they were proud of the ploy and also felt that the high spiritual goals of their company legitimized their behavior, that their act was in the service of helping people rather than making money, hence was ethical.

I also know that everyone has his or her own “view from the bridge,” and I am sure that, within the Sounds True world, they probably feel like saints on this issue and, if any of them read this, I no doubt sound like a greedy curmudgeon and a holier-than-thou author miser with his own portfolio of thefts.  But I think a book is a discrete formality and shouldn’t be fudged.

This practice well introduces my next rubric: the law of spiritual publishing.

The Law of Spiritual Publishing

A pet peeve:  Supposedly moral countercultural and progressive political publishers don’t always live up to the most basic ethical rules honored like morning coffee by the Random Houses of the world.  Since the larger corporate presses carry meager moralism on their sleeve, they are generally ethical, though formidably competitive in a business-first model.  They believe in and play by the book—they are old school.

In all my dealings with Random House as a member press of their distribution service, for instance even where I disagree with their practices, I find that they make ethics and fairness the basis of their rules and practices; they demand civil and professional dialogue.  I got in trouble for being shrill and accusatory almost immediately when, in an email to an executive whom I felt had gone back on a promise, let her know my displeasure in a candid, somewhat hyperbolic language that had become routine and workaday throughout my exchanges with PGW executives over the years.  I was called, not on my argument, which was ultimately accepted as more or less correct, but for my lack of courtesy and appropriateness of tone.

Yet at PGW, where you had to yell even to get a menu, let alone place your order, I was one of the milder voices.  Charlie liked to toss in four-letter expletives almost recreationally or for emphasis.  I heard that while he negotiated his Avalon exit strategy with Perseus, the company that ultimately bought him out during the PGW bankruptcy, he almost killed the deal because he offended those in the corporate hierarchy with his foul language, leading the Perseus representative on the other end to hang up.

Among smaller presses and distributors, interaction is often one big friendly food fight, no holds, no screeds barred.

But I am rambling here and conflating issues.  Civility and ethics are finally two different matters, and I should not confuse one with the other, as I just did.

Here is a catty one-liner about other consciousness-oriented presses, something that I occasionally call my “first law of spiritual publishing” or what our author Robert Masters calls “spiritual bypassing”: the more spiritual the books, the less spiritual the publisher. Of course, this is a rank and unfair oversimplification.  But I do believe this “law” holds true a remarkable degree of the time, enough so that that I have wondered, beyond my own cheekiness and sense of irony, what it actually means.  It has got to be more than a coincidence that some of the smartest, toughest, ass-kicking money machines in independent publishing are purveyors of spiritual books.

I would guess that its verity lies in the fact that people who are associated with putting out spiritual books often feel that they are too spiritually advanced themselves to be unethical or, like what I guessed for Sounds True, that they believe they been made somehow immune from unscrupulous behavior by the very spiritual nature of their business and their sacred aspirations.  More to the point, they feel that they don’t have to behave by the same ethical standards as nonspiritual publishers because they are intrinsically doing the work of the angels.  This is spiritual bypassing, and it means that a saintly guru can actually be a criminal sociopath at the same time.  One bypasses psychological and ethical considerations in their acclaim of spiritual accomplishment and prowess.

Businesses can behave at times like churches that preach prosperity and encourage people to fork over their money to them—in this case, their manuscripts and books—with the return in spiritual affluence and good grace more than actual dollar return on investment because spiritual affluence will somehow also lead magically to conventional affluence.

As I noted above, ordinary commercial publishers have nothing moral to practice except their business ethics, whereas spiritual publishers can practice their piety through the spirituality of their books and the metaphysical and esoteric decor that envelops that their operations.  Churches have famously blurred this same line between business and religion.

For years I have had a running debate with my good friend George Quasha, copublisher (with his wife Susan) of Station Hill Press, in which I have held the viewpoint that many of his and my disputes are because we are very competitive with each other and don’t have a way to acknowledge and defuse it.  Deals have come unraveled in mutual accusations, ranging from issues of being accountable for the inventory of each other’s books when distributing them for the other party to poaching each other’s authors and topics.  I at times tried to overcome it by teasing George provocatively with lines like, “I guess we don’t think we have to pay each other for the books from each other’s presses because it is all one literary movement, and it probably evens out over the long run” and “You must have seen that we did well with that topic, so you got your own big book on it.  That’s okay.  I’ve done the same with you.”  Sort of like bait trucks and lobster wharves—an eternal friendly combat, covert competitiveness masked by overt collaboration.

Station Hill was where we stored our East Coast overstock when we moved to Berkeley in 1977, but many cartons simply disappeared.  In 1979, I was pleased and proud to get The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, our first t’ai-chi book, from Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, and I gave it to George to typeset and design, as he was running a book shop as a side business.  I knew that an advanced practitioner of the art would enjoy the project.  I attached one cavil—Ben had asked me to keep the text and publication secret until the book appeared because he didn’t want his rivals among Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s associates to use the project against him in any way.

I presented this emphatically to George, so of course he ended up showing the entire manuscript to the one person whom Ben most wanted to keep from seeing it.  It may have been silliness on Ben’s part—I think it was—but George knew what he was doing, and it almost cost us the book when Ben found out.

George’s rationale and excuse was: although he agreed not to show Essence…to this rival of Ben’s, his pledge to his teacher transcended any obligation or promise to me.  Furthermore, he added, I wouldn’t have known about Ben if he and Chuck hadn’t introduced me to Meredith Monk at his house (see the next chapter).  This kind of logic, writ large, holds the kernel of the dilemma of spiritual publishing.

George has always denied our rivalry, interpreting me as reading motives into his actions that weren’t there.  His accusations of psychological bypassing versus mine of spiritual bypassing.

I thought that I was merely responding to the way things “felt” with him by comparison to how they felt with other so-called competitors with whom I was able to negotiate productively, and he was an older and closer friend to boot.  It always seemed to me that he was not facing his natural competitiveness with North Atlantic and his desire, in fact intense desire, to win.  I tried telling him that if he owned up to it, we could transform and neutralize it, and it would no longer block our interactions.  But that just infuriated him because, like many people who have done advanced spiritual practice but no psychotherapy, he looked down on psychology and psychological analysis as a lesser, pop mode, not worthy of a real Buddhist, as he sought to transcend rather than self-reflect on neuroses and behavior.  I come from a lineage of looking to the unconscious and reading subtexts for real motives, whereas he comes from a tradition of trying to make intention conscious.  A bad mix if the parties do not know how to actually mix it.

So when I suggested that we neutralize our competitiveness by acknowledging it, he didn’t see anything there to neutralize.  He fiercely denied that he was competitive, insisting that his Buddhist practice had empowered him to surpass such base and banal motives.  He explained my perception of competitiveness in him as a projection of my own competitiveness onto him.

Maybe so.  I have considered this for periods of time and certainly experienced my desire to kick his ass on more than one occasion, but then when I work through that to a place that feels to me like compassion and generosity, I rarely find him there to meet me (except the one time when we undertook publication of his book Axial Stones in 2005).  However, before we were done with Axial Stones, a great and mutually generous collaboration was sadly tarnished by North Atlantic’s utter incapacity to sell the book.  Before long he was telling me that I was a businessman while he was an artist and thus I didn’t understand him.

When I said that we were both businessmen-publishers and artists, he nuanced his statement after the fact, but we were still stuck with the old underlying argument, tossed back into the same knot as thirty years earlier.  He wrote me: “I think that anything I say will be taken in your context of a lifetime of psychoanalysis, and you leave me no room to tell you simply that there is no subtext, just text.  If I deny your implication, which I do, this to you is ‘denial,’ a quite different thing, so what can I possibly say?  Where’s the respect for our integrity to say something and mean it?”

Good points!  Where does text end and subtext begin, if anywhere, if ever?  And, more importantly, how do we play it so that it doesn’t matter?  Being unable to separate text from subtext can actually become more of a problem than the subtext itself.

The upshot has been that relatively large-scale collaborations on projects other than Axial Stones have eluded us, despite the potential there, because, on my end, I perceive George as always trying to seize an unfair advantage and not able to own up to that or work together on equal terms.  And he perceives me as more interested in business than art and unwilling to honor the types of publishing deals he likes to cultivate, which I then interpret as an attempt to get a patron rather than a partner, while still not acknowledging a desire to win.  But at least we have kept at it.  Most adversaries would have given up long ago.

The three big spiritual presses with whom we have traditionally competed for books are Shambhala, J. P. Tarcher, and Inner Traditions International.  It is striking to me that all three were founded and developed by East Coast Jewish businessmen with spiritual aspirations.  And guess what?  Although I would shun the application, the same measure could be applied to me and North Atlantic.

The publishers of these three companies, Sam Bercholz, Jeremy Tarcher, and Ehud Spurling, respectively, are all admirable people and, to one degree or another, serious practitioners and devotees of a tradition—perhaps Sam most so, as Shambhala arose to a significant degree out of his practice of Tibetan Buddhism and commitment to his teacher Chögyam Trungpa.   Yet I consider all three imprints to be opportunistic in author  and public relations or, to put it more neutrally, to drive very hard bargains.

My own book Planet Medicine lived at Shambhala for one print run, years before North Atlantic took off as a publisher, when Lindy worked for Sam as acquiring editor for a year and a half, in the early 1980s.  In order to facilitate the new edition, I had asked Doubleday liberate the film, and my good friend and editor there, Tim McGinnis, overriding company policy, got it for me for free.

When Shambhala let the book go out of print two years later, I asked for “my” film back, but Sam wanted $2500 for it.  I was speaking on the phone to an underling in the Shambhala office, a person who was alternately engaging with me and then putting his hand over the receiver ineffectively and asking Sam for his response.  When he said initially that it was Shambhala policy to sell the film, I explained that I had provided the film to them, so it was mine.  “He says he gave us the film in the first place,” the person’s muffled voice stated.

Probably not thinking he could be heard (but who knows?), Sam replied, “Charge him anyway.”

An almost identical thing happened to me a few years later with Jeremy Tarcher and The Night Sky. In this case North Atlantic ended up producing new boards and film for Tarcher, and these were given over to him gratis.  But he would not return them to me after the book went out of print except at a fee, and then they got destroyed before I could decide whether to pay it or not, so by the time that I said I’d buy them, they were gone.

Just two months before that, at Jeremy’s personal request and out of the blue, I served as a mediator between him and a recalcitrant author whom I passingly knew.  In a three-way phone conversation I offered a compromise between their positions, which they both accepted (the unhappy author would write the book Jeremy wanted rather than the one he was passionate about, but Jeremy would then contract for the book he wanted if the former was successful).  At the end of the call Jeremy said simply, “I owe you one.”  Yet when the opportunity for a very small favor from him came up almost immediately afterward (a nuance that might not even be considered much of a favor or, in particular, the one he owed me), he dug in and wouldn’t budge.  How to explain such behavior?  It is kind of like saying, I’ll go a mile for you and then refusing to budge half a inch.

There is something about the stubborn businessman (or woman) who wants it all.  I understand it psychologically—because that guy is there in me too.  It is not about money at this phase; it is not even really about power.  It is best characterized as a form of obsessive compulsion.  I know because North Atlantic has been my arena in which to work on it in myself, to force myself to enact the opposite and overcome my own neurosis around lack of generosity.  I don’t always succeed.  I can be the son-of-a-bitch New York Jewish businessman asshole too.

Another practice that I consider ethically marginal and spiritually vacuous: Shambhala reduces or eliminates author royalties for periods during which a predetermined threshold of sales is not reached.  This is a particularly mean-spirited and regressive tax.  Maybe they have dropped the clause by now, but that was the case with my contract and a few others that have been shown to me since by authors consulting me for advice.  It is something that one would never look for in a contract and thus would never uncover in the normal course of things.  I mean, why should one be paid no royalties just because their book didn’t reach an artificial threshold of sales—and then have the meter start back at zero for the next period.  Two authors could hypothetically sell the same number of books in a year, and only one would get any royalties at all in an instance in which all the sales fell in the same six-month period.  It is like double punishment, and it happened to me with Planet Medicine before Shambhala put it out of print.

I might add that when Lindy worked at Shambhala, sexual harassment was epidemic there and went completely unexamined.  Perhaps because of Trungpa’s partying and espousal of crazy wisdom, people in power at the press right up to the tippy top had none of the usual sense of morality or appropriate sexual behavior; thus anyone—married or not, willing or not—was subjected to debauchery, drunken depradation, and the kind of forceful advances that these days would lead to immediate lawsuits, yet then and there were justified by a reworking of Buddhist ethics into no-ethics, or—more to the point—all behavior became justifiable as an aspect of inquiry into the dark and untamed reaches of the soul.

Ehud Spurling drives a hard bargain too and, the few times that he and I have gone after the same title, he has demolished our position as if he were Rupport Murdoch and we were Tiny Tim.  Yet I have not met a more gracious and generous practitioner of publishing.  Soon after we met at a BookExpo he invited Lindy and me to visit his press in Rochester, Vermont, and then he paid the bill for our hotel room (including meals) in a fine local establishment and also took us to dinner.  That is generosity well beyond what I would have done in the reciprocal instance, and I recognize it and honor it as a mode of spiritual achievement.

Then Ehud committed his own time and his employees’ time to showing us around for an entire workday.  He told me in the course of the visit that I wasn’t much of a businessman as a publisher but that he admired our press for its purity and its support of homeopathy and osteopathy, which he and his wife considered a community service.  When I acknowledged not coming close to ITI’s standards as a business, like a sweet, paternalistic uncle he confided, “You don’t have to.  You’re a writer.  You don’t have the time to do both.  The books you write are more important.”

Inner Traditions is not only a successful publisher; it is out-and-out one of the most successful businesses I have encountered.  Ehud started as Donald Weiser’s right-hand man at his legendary occult bookstore in New York and worked at Bantam before starting his own press and later buying out Bear and Company and adding it to his imprint.  By locating in rural Vermont, he is able to do everything (except maybe heat his company offices) inexpensively.  ITI pays its staff well, yet has enough profit to expand into real estate, much as Phil Wood did from Tenspeed profits in Berkeley (becoming one of the biggest commercial property holders in the East Bay).  Ehud owns his own ITI building plus other dwellings in town that he rents to employees, many of whom are professional publishing people delighted to escape New York for utopian Vermont.

Everything that needs to be done to make its titles profitable ITI does, from the special Atlantean science-fiction look of its covers, created in-house by a bank of migrant designers, to their distinctive branding, to their wide-ranging direct sales market and their own personalized distribution network, none of which we hold a candle to.  They can take a mediocre New Age book and make it look like a million dollars.  I know because I have almost purchased two tomes on shamanism that I previously turned down as a publisher because I thought they were vacuous and unoriginal.  They looked that good, reborn in ITI packaging!

Chapter 7: The North Atlantic Books List 1: Sources of North Atlantic Books | Table of Contents

Footnotes

[1]
Bookstores can ask for cash, but they usually don’t get it. They may make the argument, “We are not going to order from you anymore, so we can’t use a credit,” but it is the publisher’s prerogative whether to honor that or not, as the deal going in was “credit only” on returns.
[2]
A curious thing about us and Shambhala: they named their press Shambhala and started a legendary bookstore of that name on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, but now their offices are in Boston and Halifax.  We, on the other hand, named our press North Atlantic when we were in Maine and Vermont, in part after an organization in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Yet for many years Shambhala Booksellers was a mere dozen or so blocks from us in Berkeley. We and they had switched coasts and places.

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