March 18, 2014

Not even that platypus romance novel could save her: the sad saga of Norilana Books


Whatever else their faults, you cannot say that Norilana books didn't look awesome.

Whatever else their faults, you cannot say that Norilana books didn’t look awesome.

Publishing will get you in the end. It’ll gobble up your great-aunt’s fortune, it’ll make you ask more of your friends than you or they would have believed, and in the end it’ll break you. Only a few publishers make it out alive, and even the very greatest are forgotten a generation after their death, their namesakes all since merged and merged again, their bestsellers long ago pulped.

The latest victim of this cruel business is Vera Nazarian, the publisher and sole employee of the wounded, faltering, Norilana Books. Norilana is a small publisher of fantasy, romance and science fiction, much of it Nazarian’s own work, as well as books by some more celebrated names, including Tanith Lee. They also publish a whole series of Austen mashups which I’d like to believe are false books, mocked up to tease the folks at Quirk, but which I suspect are probably all too real. Other than the jacket art—which I’m pretty sure demands its own room in the American Folk Art Museum—the most notable thing about Norilana is Nazarian’s avoidance of all things e-book. That’s highly unusual in genre publishing which tends to have a greater digital readership than publishing as a whole.

Well, that was the most notable thing. It’s since been supplanted by the spectacle of Norilana’s long demoralizing and contentious self destruction playing out, as with all publishing disasters these days, on twitter and the blogs of various authors.

Aja Romano has a rough (and critical) timeline of events here, but the gist of it is that Nazarian has a successful history of crowd-sourced fundraising, even before the rise of Kickstarter and similar platforms, to help her get past rough patches and to keep the press afloat. The patches were rougher and the press less seaworthy than hoped, however, because sometime around 2010, Nazarian stopped paying royalties to her authors, even as she continued to publish new books and reprint older classics. This past fall that fact became publicly known (if only in specific genre circles) because one of her authors, Eugie Foster, lamented the lack of royalties in connection with her difficulties paying medical bills. In response to the ensuing recriminations, Nazarian sent out (and posted on Facebook, because that’s how contracts work) notice of reversion of rights to all of her authors.

Of course the thing with giving someone their book back is that it doesn’t mean you don’t owe them the money you promised. Nazarian knows that as well as anyone. That’s why last week she launched another crowdfunding project, this time with the express goal of paying her authors owed royalties. Her description for the project will shape your face into a deeper and deeper wince with every line.

Within a very short period of time I was faced all at once with the cancer of my mother, death of my father, the loss of my home to foreclosure, bankruptcy, a cross-country move from California to Vermont, and having to start my life over on a severely reduced income, after having to undergo major life-saving surgery myself. …

At this point I am still struggling, still not back on my feet, still fighting every month to barely cover the rent and the bills.

But my authors should not be made to wait any longer, and deserve their hard-earned money NOW. The fact that I cannot pay them is killing me.

The response to this project was immediate and skeptical, though some people began to donate. Nazaraian still has many fans and supporters among her authors and certainly among her readers. There seems to be broad agreement that she’s quite nice. Eventually, however, as ire about this new crowdfunding effort spread, negative responses grew overwhelming, including from those who had previously helped in her fundraising.

Eventually Nazarian decided to suspend her Indiegogo campaign. What’s more, she’ll only be publishing her own work and books in the public domain.

Royalty nonpayment issues are all too familiar for genre authors—we discussed the painful end of the great Nightshade Books last spring.

And in a strange way I think the genre is a factor here. Fantasy, like all genres, is a frothing sea of discussion and music and conventions and costumes and dancing and fanfiction. Hobbyists, enthusiasts, are endemic to the culture. The line between a passion and a business is thinner in genres than in other types of literature. Nazarian, and Nightshade before her, seems to have been the case of a hobby that snowballed into a business rather than being started with all the diligence and forethought a business might require.

That’s why I feel for Nazarian. Publishing is an absurd industry and it will surely destroy all of us—and that much more swiftly if we treat it as just a hobby, if we conflate ourselves with our presses (and our authors’ money with our own.)

I have sympathy for Nazarian. But damn, she screwed this thing up.


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