Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Unhappy Client Suing B.K. Nelson Inc. Literary Agency

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

An article from Courthouse News Service (a nationwide newsletter for lawyers focusing on civil litigation) caught my eye this morning:
A retired lawyer claims he wrote a book investigating the death of Princess Diana, and his agent extorted thousands of dollars from him to market the book. Paul Anthony Spletzer...sued BK Nelson and her eponymous firm, whom he says he hired to represent him for 20 percent commission.

"In negotiating her fee, defendant Nelson, when questioned by Spletzer as to why she charged 20 percent commission, which is believed to be twice as much as other agencies, replied that she, she personally, was worth it," the complaint states.
Spletzer says Nelson told him that he "would receive not less than $250,000 and probably $450,000 plus royalties for the rights" to his book by selling it as a film.

He claims she asked him to pay $4,000 so she could create a DVD trailer of "Her Necessary Death" and market the book to the entertainment industry in New York and Hollywood.

"Defendants stated that this trailer would be similar to the trailers seen on HBO or Showtime or those presented as coming attractions in movie houses ... that there would be actors presenting the theme of the work entitled 'Her Necessary Death,'" according to the complaint.

Spletzer says he received the trailer in May, but that it "is worthless."
The full complaint, which demands millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages, can be seen here.

Also noted in the article: B.K. Nelson Inc. is one of nineteen literary agencies on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List. We've been receiving complaints and advisories about the agency since 1999, including:

- A 20% commission (a handful of reputable agents do charge 20%, but the prevailing standard is 15%).

- An evaluation fee of $350, plus an additional fee of between $3.00 and $5.00 per page if the manuscript isn't finished.

- A fee of $250-400 to represent subsidiary rights at various book fairs.

- A fee of $450 to be included in a Speakers' Directory.

- A fee of $2,000 to feature an author and manuscript at BEA.

- Editing fees of as much as $4,500.

- Thousands of dollars charged to a client to produce a "professional trailer" to present to the entertainment industry. This client isn't Mr. Spletzer (I'm withholding the exact amount paid to protect the client's identity), but had a similar opinion of the trailer, describing it as something that "could have been done by a high school student."

And that's just the documented complaints.

The agency's website describes B.K. Nelson Inc. as "one of the leading agencies in the nation," which "has had a strong impact on the careers of writers world wide." However, the agency's client list reveals little evidence of recent sales. Of the clients on the list, several don't turn up in any websearch. For others, the referenced titles are incorrect, or don't seem to exist at all. Two clients have books with fee-based companies (Xlibris and Tate--possibly placed with these companies by the authors themselves). For the book authors and titles that do check out, there are some reputable publishers--but few recent publication dates (most of the pub dates are 2004 and earlier).


EDITED 6/13/12 TO ADD:  Mr. Spletzer's complaint (linked in above) bears a file stamp from the Westchester County Clerk dated September 10, 2010. However, a search of Westchester County court records shows no sign that Mr. Spletzer's complaint was ever filed with the court, and there's no record of any case in Westchester County, NY where Paul Anthony Spletzer, B.K. Nelson, or B.K. Nelson Inc. are parties.

Friday, September 24, 2010

YouWriteOn Redux

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A while back, I wrote a couple of posts about an ill-advised POD publishing venture launched by peer critique website and writers' community YouWriteOn. YWO promised to publish a maximum of 5,000 writers for free (or, if they wanted an ISBN number, for £39.99) by Christmas 2008 if they could get their manuscripts in by the end of October of that year. Not surprisingly, YWO wasn't able to deliver on that ambitious promise; ultimately, only a few hundred books were released, and some writers experienced significant problems.

YWO has since parted ways with its original partner in the venture, Legend Press (which now runs its own POD publishing service, New Generation Publishing). However, it continues to publish books. Interestingly, although the details of the publishing packages it offered with Legend Press can still be found in a Google search, they are no longer accessible from the YWO website, which now merely advertises the publishing service, and invites writers to email for information. According to Amazon UK, YWO has issued 508 books to date. The actual total is probably higher, since Amazon lists only the authors who have bought ISBNs, but it's still far short of the original 5,000-book goal.

Now YWO appears to be gearing up for another big push (I say "appears to be" because this email solicitation, posted in a writers' forum, is the only mention of it I've found.) This time, it's wisely setting a lower goal, by extending its publishing "invitation" only to "up to 200 authors," as long as they contact it by September 27, and submit their manuscripts by October 18.

The most telling sentence of the solicitation: "So we may prepare, the amount of author discount copies you may wish to order of your book?" Shades of Black Rose Writing! Will authors find their response written into their contract? Also interesting: the "distribution fee" (actually, an ISBN) is £49.99, £10 more than the fee listed on YWO's website.

Assuming it gets the volume of submissions it's looking for, will YWO be able to avoid the logistical logjams of last time? Hopefully it has learned something from prior experience (though its cover templates haven't improved). However, authors who are thinking of sending in their details should check the links above, and read through the (very lengthy) YouWriteOne thread at Absolute Write.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Guest Blog Post: How Deliberate Practice Can Make You an Excellent Writer

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

This old saw applies to writers as much as to musicians. In today's guest blog post, author and writing teacher Barbara Baig explores the importance of "deliberate practice"--a technique that involves not just identifying and challenging your writing strengths and weaknesses, but active, critical reflection on the writing process itself--and suggests ways in which writers can use deliberate practice as a tool for honing their craft.

For the record, I don't agree with Barbara about the irrelevance of talent. I believe that some people start out with more innate verbal, visual, and imaginational ability than others, and can benefit more from practice--just as some people start out with more athletic or mathematical or musical ability, and benefit more from training. However, even the greatest genius risks failure if he or she doesn't do the work. Just about any writer can benefit from the techniques suggested below.

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by Barbara Baig

In a recent blog post (Getting Published is Not a Crap Shoot), Victoria Strauss explained the truth about why most people shopping manuscripts don’t get published: it’s because their writing isn’t very good. Agents and editors are looking, above all, for excellent writers. But how do aspiring writers set about achieving excellence?

The answer to that question comes from the field of expertise studies. Research scientists in that field have for decades been interested in the question of what makes certain people really good at what they do. To find the answer, they have studied high achievers in many different fields: music and firefighting, chess and golf—even writing. Most of us are sure we already know why some people are great in their field—it’s talent, that mysterious quality given at birth to the fortunate few. But we are wrong.

In study after study, researchers have found no evidence for innate talent as the prerequisite for success. Nor have they found that hard work alone makes certain people great. While successful people—those who achieve excellence in a domain—do work very hard, it’s how they work that distinguishes them from others. It turns out that just putting in hours and hours at your chosen work is not enough; the only way to get better is to make sure you’re devoting those hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.”

Most of us think that we know what practice is. Maybe we once learned to play tennis, and we remember practicing our forehand. Or maybe we are learning to play the piano, and we practice scales. It’s unlikely, though, that what we are doing is really “deliberate practice”—and it’s almost a certainty that we have never applied the concept of deliberate practice to improving our ability to write.

When most people practice, they repeat things they already know how to do. But when those who become experts in their field engage in practice, they spend most of their time doing things they don’t already know how to do. They are constantly challenging themselves to improve, to do things better, to gain additional skills. Deliberate practice isn’t just hacking around; it’s hard work, which demands reaching for objectives that are always just out of reach. The only way to attain those objectives is through immense amounts of repetition. Ted Williams, the great Red Sox hitter, used to take swing after practice swing until his hands bled. Larry Bird, the legendary basketball player, got up at 6 a.m. every morning in high school, went to the gym, and shot 500 free throws.

Athletes and musicians all devote themselves to practice; they know that’s the only way they can become good enough to compete at a professional level. Practice is how they learn their skills; practice is how they keep those skills sharp. But when do most writers ever practice?

For most people, the answer is: Never.

That’s because we learn how to write in school; and in school, writing is always done under what I call “performance” conditions: it counts—it will be read, assessed, graded. Even in most creative writing workshops and writers’ groups, the focus is on performance writing—not, in this case, to get a grade, but to write something good enough to get published. The problem with this approach is that it’s impossible to learn your skills and to improve them if you never give yourself a chance to practice. Most aspiring writers are doing themselves a great disservice by focusing on trying to write publishable pieces. They simply don’t have the skills they need to produce professional-quality work. Instead of trying to get published, they need to devote themselves, at least for a while, to practice.

What, though, does a writer practice?

At first, that seems like a tough question. There are so many different kinds of writing, so many apparently different standards of excellence. But if we take a practical look at that question, it’s not so difficult to answer. Writers, I tell my students, need to have two main sets of skills: I call them “content skills” and “craft skills.” The content skills are the ones we use to come up with ideas and material for pieces of writing; they include creativity, imagination, and curiosity. Writers also need the ability to establish a natural relationship with readers, so we can transfer our content into their minds. We need craft skills, as well, both an understanding of the “large craft” of how our chosen genre works (a poem does not work the same way as a novel or an op-ed piece) and skill in the “small craft” of choosing words and putting them together into clear, eloquent, and musical sentences.

That’s a lot of skills, isn’t it?

That’s because writing is a complex activity, just as complex as hitting a fastball coming over the plate at a hundred miles an hour or performing a Beethoven sonata. One of the keys to deliberate practice is to break a complex skill down into component parts and practice each part separately. Athletes and musicians do this all the time; writers can learn this way, too.

To begin, write down all the writing skills you presently have. Are you good at coming up with ideas? Do you have a well-trained ability to do research? Does your imagination give you vivid, detailed pictures? Are you good at finding wonderful words?

Next, write down all the skills you need to learn or to work on. If you are just getting started with writing, you may find this difficult. If people have made comments on your writing, you can use those comments to make your list. If, for instance, you have been told that your characters are not believable or your descriptions fuzzy, then the skills of creating characters and writing description go on your list. Or try this: read over a piece of writing by your favorite author, writing you consider excellent. Now write down all the things the writer does that make this piece so good. How many of these things can you do now? How many of them do you need to learn how to do?

Your answers to these questions will tell you what you need to practice. Now you need to devise practices for yourself, and start doing them on a regular basis. If, for instance, you realize that you’re not very good at coming up with material, try this: make a list of all the things you want to write about and add to that list every day. Then, every day, pick one item from the list and write nonstop about it for ten minutes, simply collecting onto the page, at random, any material that comes to mind about your subject. In this way you will strengthen your creative faculty, which comes up with ideas and material.

Or if you need to get better at telling a story, you could find a book of folk tales or urban legends, and read one and retell it, on the page, in your own way. Do the same thing with another story, and then another. Or if you realize that you need to learn how to write more complex sentences, then get a good grammar book, learn something about sentence structure, and practice writing sentences with more than one clause.

To get the most benefit from practice, keep these two principles in mind: repetition and reflection. Repetition—lots of it—is required to make skills automatic, so that when you sit down to write your novel, they are ready to work for you. Reflection—what did I learn today? what do I need to learn next?—keeps you on track in your pursuit of excellence.

If all this sounds like a lot of work—well, it is, just as becoming a professional athlete or musician is a lot of work. But if you love to write—love it as much as Ted Williams loved to hit or Larry Bird loves to play basketball—then practice is a kind of dedicated play, a source of pleasure and fulfillment. And if you are willing to shift your focus from getting published to becoming an excellent writer, then there’s a very good chance that, eventually, your skills will take you to the “big leagues” of the writing world.

Recommended Reading:

Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everyone Else
Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
David Shenk, The Genius Myth

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Barbara Baig has taught writing for over twenty-five years and is the author of How To Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play (Writer’s Digest Books). She offers free practice-based lessons for beginning and struggling writers at www.wherewriterslearn.com.

Friday, September 17, 2010

When Persistence Becomes a Vice

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

It's all very well to declare that getting published isn't a crap shoot--that smart and persistent writers with marketable manuscripts have a very reasonable chance of landing a publishing contract. But what if you've been submitting a manuscript you're convinced is marketable--a manuscript that has gotten compliments and encouragement not just from your friends and beta readers, but from agents and/or editors--and you still can't find representation or publication?

One of the ways writers can sabotage themselves is to pin all their hopes on a single work. I hear surprisingly often from writers who are in this position--who've been doggedly submitting the same novel for years, and simply cannot abandon it, despite being unable to attract interest from a reputable agent or publisher. They continually research new agents and publishers; they regularly rework their query letters; they even rework the manuscript itself. They do everything they can think of to maximize their chances--except give up on a non-selling book. Some even stop writing, convinced that until they can sell this manuscript it's pointless to produce another.

This is when persistence, otherwise the writer's friend, becomes a vice. There are many reasons why your manuscript may not be selling--perhaps it's good, but not quite good enough. Perhaps it's out of step with current publishing trends. Perhaps it's one of those quirky cross-genre efforts that publishers can't figure out how to market. At some point, though, continuing to query a non-selling work ceases to be a submission strategy, and becomes stagnation--especially if you allow it to sidetrack your writing.

Putting your writing on hold while submitting is absolutely one of the worst things you can do. Writers are like sharks; they can only survive by moving forward. The only way to increase your chance of publication is to progress as a writer, and the only way to progress as a writer is to write. Each manuscript you produce is likely to be better than the last. Remember, also, that many writers don't break in with their first book, or even their second or third. I know of one New York Times best selling author who produced three unsuccessful novels before she finally wrote the one that landed the agent who found the publisher that launched her career.

Another danger of getting stuck on one manuscript: winding up with a questionable agent or publisher. The more rejections you've racked up, the more frustration you've endured, the more vulnerable you may be to the false praise of a scammer, or the false hope of an amateur.

Abandoning a book is extremely painful. I know--I've been there. Unfortunately, there's no formula to tell you when enough is enough, or how many rejections you must endure before you decide to stop (although if you've been querying for five years--and I've heard from people who've been trying for even longer--you've probably gone past the limit). Try to retain perspective--if your goal was a Tier 1 agent and you now find yourself considering obscure agents with dubious track records, it may be time to re-assess. Or consider changing strategies--instead of querying agents, try approaching reputable smaller publishers that will accept submissions direct from authors; instead of submitting to print-first publishers, consider reputable epublishers. At some point, though, you will need to confront the possibility that it may not be worth continuing to submit a work that's consistently getting rejected.

And whatever you do, don't give up on your writing. Even if you can't bring yourself to give up on your cherished manuscript, don't allow the hope and frustration of the submission process to immobilize you. Keep moving forward.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Assertions and Statistics

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

My last post, Getting Published is Not a Crap Shoot, provoked a number of interesting comments, including this one:
I think the reason people continue to believe that the road to publication is paved with luck and favoritism -- despite constant assertions to the contrary by publishers, agents, and published writers -- is that assertions are all they get...

One thing I find incredibly frustrating reading industry blogs is how few hard numbers are presented. For example, I would love to know the average number of times debut best-sellers were rejected by agents and publishers, compared to debuts that flop.

We need more stats, more facts, more objective proof of the efficacy of standard processes, not only to convince disgruntled Writer Beware readers that they should regruntle themselves, but also to confirm that what are subjectively assumed to be best practices based on experience and professional culture really hold up to objective scrutiny.
It is, I think, entirely reasonable to wish for objective information. But this comment sets up a bit of a straw man. Making an assertion without offering accompanying numbers does not mean the assertion isn't supported by objective facts. It may just be that the facts involve personal experience, or have been gleaned from reading or study or conversation with others--things, in other words, that can't always be linked into a blog post.

Speaking just for myself, when I say that most of what turns up the slush pile is unpublishable, it's because I've actually seen a publisher's slush pile; I've also judged a number of writing contests, which are slush piles writ small. (Nor is my opinion isolated. For instance, this, from a pseudonymous literary agent; or this, from a slush pile reader for a UK publisher; or this somewhat kinder assessment from agent Nathan Bransford, who still cannot help but admit that "the world is divided between those who have read slush and those who haven't.") Or when I say that I'm aware of many writers who've found first-time publication over the past few years without connections, platforms, or even previous publishing credits, it's because I actually know or am acquainted with these folks--sometimes from Writer Beware contacts, sometimes from writers' forums that I frequent, sometimes from SFWA or another writers' association. (I also keep my eye on PW and other industry resources that report on book deals.)

So I do have experience to call on. Agents and editors, of course, have far more. However,  I acknowledge that even the most solidly-founded assertions present a difficulty. If you don't know the source, or don't trust them, or doubt their expertise, there's no reason why you should accept what they say, just because they say it.

(I totally support this kind of skepticism, by the way. "Experts" are a dime a dozen on the Internet, and plenty of them haven't a clue what they're talking about. It's always a good idea to investigate whether someone who is offering advice or commentary is qualified to provide it.)

Believe me, I would love to provide hard data every time I discuss what my commenter calls "the efficacy of standard processes." Where I can, I do--see, for instance, my post about the limited data available on first novel sales, or my post about the level of income the average book writer can expect. But though the book industry is swimming in statistics, these tend to cover the business of book production and selling, rather than the business of manuscript submission and acquisition. Despite isolated attempts at compilation, and piecemeal reporting by industry journals, blogs, etc., hard data on the latter is very hard to come by.

Why should that be? Why is there so little non-anecdotal data on things like first novel sales, average advances, rejection percentages, and so on?

One reason, I think, is that so much of this information is highly personal, and writers may or may not be willing to reveal it. As eager as one writer may be to tell war stories of the 75 rejections she received before she finally sold her novel, another may find this too humiliating to mention. One writer may proudly blog about how her novel sold at auction within two weeks of her first submission; another may fear being perceived as bragging. One writer may have no problem discussing her advance or sales numbers; for another, divulging such info may seem equivalent to revealing family secrets (especially if the numbers are disappointing).

Another reason: publishers tend to be secretive too. This is why, for instance, it's so difficult for people outside the industry to dig up precise data on book sales numbers, advance amounts, sell-throughs, and the like. Alternatively, the data you do find may not be reliable--publishers routinely puff up announced print runs, for example. Diligently reading industry publications and blogs can yield nuggets of information--but nothing like the crisp statistical roundup my commenter longs for.

Yet another reason: the publishing industry's interest in a manuscript begins at the point of acquisition. What happens before that--submission, rejection, etc.--is of interest mainly to aspiring writers, and they are not a constituency to which the groups that compile statistics about the publishing industry cater. In other words, you can't find the data because no one sees the need to gather it on an ongoing basis.

It would be great if someone did see the need. (Though who? Professional writers' groups, perhaps?) But while such data would certainly be fascinating, would it really be useful? How helpful, for instance, would it be to have the statistics my commenter uses as an example--the average number of rejections received by debut best-sellers, as compared to debuts that flopped? Or even just the average number of rejections received before finding a reputable agent or signing with a trade publisher?

The problem is, there aren't many "averages" in publishing. Every writer's experience is different, and the range of experience is almost infinite, with any number of unpredictable variables influencing outcome, including chance, timing, your research skills, even the genre you're writing in (writers in smaller genres may experience fewer rejections simply because there are fewer agents and publishers to query). As interesting or inspiring or depressing as it may be to know that Famous Writer A toiled in obscurity for five years before finally selling a book that no one targeted for success but became a word-of-mouth sensation, or that Hyped-Up Writer B's manuscript was sold within weeks in a frenzied auction but tanked at the bookstores, or that Breakout Writer C was taken on by the twenty-second agent she queried, who on the tenth try found her a publisher that was willing to invest in a major publicity campaign that catapulted her to best sellerdom, these individual experiences can't predict any other writer's path to success or failure. Even if the statistics existed, they would not necessarily tell you anything useful about what to expect on your own publication journey.

Aspiring writers are understandably hungry to know what they can expect. I receive any number of questions about average agent or publisher response time, average rejection rates, average advance amounts, average debut novel sales, average annual writing income. In most cases I have to say that I can't answer--not just because the data isn't out there, but because no two writers experience the process the same way. For now, I'm afraid, we are mostly stuck with assertions.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Getting Published is Not a Crap Shoot

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Many of the writers who contact me with Writer Beware-type questions seem to be convinced that the process of getting published is equivalent to a crap shoot. There are enormous numbers of people trying to sell a book, and very few publishing slots to go around. What slots there are go mostly to insiders and celebrities, rather than new writers. Agents and editors are so [pick one] busy/arrogant/sadistic that they're as likely to toss your query as to read it. All in all, you’ve got a better chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of getting published.

This kind of thinking makes me crazy. I'm not saying there isn't some truth in it--there are thousands of manuscripts in circulation at any given time. The number that find publication is very small. Agents and editors are overworked. But the assumptions that accompany these nuggets of truth are incorrect--and so are the conclusions drawn from them.

The first assumption (unless you subscribe to the "you have to know someone" myth, which we've debunked several times on this blog) is that all those thousands of manuscripts are on an equal footing in the marketplace--that they all have basically the same chance. This isn't so, as anyone who has ever looked at a publisher's slush pile, or judged a writing contest, knows. Most manuscripts are terrible. Maybe 10% (some people would say less) of what’s out there even approaches publishability--and of that small number, even fewer are polished, original, or interesting enough to be attractive to an agent or publisher. Granted, agents’ and editors’ decisions are at least partly subjective. But if you’ve written a marketable book, you’re not in competition with every other writer scrambling to get published--just with the publishable less-than-10%. In other words, the odds are better than you think.

The second assumption is that the publishing industry doesn't want new writers. New writers, this assumption holds, are lonely outsiders banging on the doors of an elitist club hell-bent on excluding them. Risk-averse agents and publishers are only interested in reality-show stars or the latest Stephenie Meyer clone. And if you haven't already established an audience, forget it--no one wants a writer who doesn't have a platform.

The importance of platform, unfortunately, isn't a myth. But it's much less of an issue for fiction than for nonfiction, and if you're an aspiring fiction author, a marketable manuscript is still a lot more important than how many followers you have on Twitter. Over the past few years, most of the fiction writers I'm acquainted with who've found first publication have had little or nothing in the way of platform (or previous publishing credits). As for agents and editors being unreceptive to first-timers, that's a notion that's not only easily disprovable (by reading the reviews section of Publishers Weekly, for instance), but defies logic. Every published writer was once unpublished. If the industry shuns newbies, how could they ever have sold their first novels?

In fact, all other things being equal, A. Newbie can be a lot more attractive to a publisher than Joan Midlister. True, A. Newbie is an unknown quantity, which means his book may tank--but also means it might succeed (J.K. Rowling was once A. Newbie, and every publisher is looking for one of those). Whereas Joan Midlister, who’s got several books under her belt but has never quite crossed the line into wide popularity, is a completely known quantity--and not in a good way. Perhaps her books sell steadily but not in spectacular numbers. Perhaps her readership is dwindling. Either way, A. Newbie may seem like a better bet--which means Joan is out, and the newbie is in.

I do understand, if you're constantly receiving rejections, how tempting it is to believe that there’s something at work other than the quality of your work. In fact, this may be so. There’s no question that good books fail to find publication--for a whole range of reasons, including what a publisher is already publishing, sales or marketing concerns, poor publisher/agent targeting on the writer's part, or sometimes simply because the writer gave up too soon. But far more often, rejection is based on quality and marketability, or the lack thereof. No writer wants to believe this, of course--which is one of the things that keep scam agents, dishonest publishers, and incompetents of every stripe in business.

If you’ve written a marketable book, if you done your research, if you’re smart and persistent, you have a very reasonable chance of finding publication. If you haven't...you don’t. Either way, though, it’s not a crap shoot.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Red Rose Publishing: Alert

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Dear Author has a post detailing internal problems at Red Rose Publishing:
Authors are reportedly not getting their work published within a specified time. If rights are requested to be reverted because of this breach, the publisher is reportedly sending the authors bills for cover art and editing for those books. Notices of editors and cover artists that they are quitting are reportedly being ignored...Statements were not being sent out and emails to the publisher went unanswered.
Other complaints reportedly include publishing books without contracts.

When a few Red Rose authors posted about non-payment in the Red Rose author loop, Red Rose's owner went ballistic, accusing the authors of whining and being unprofessional, and trotting out the kinds of excuses you so often see when small presses have difficulties: family problems, an audit.

This is such a sadly familiar story.