The Virtual Crash–Triskelion and Some Random Thoughts

Dear Francis,

I’m back from a short trip to see my mom. She asked how the writing was going, and I said, slowly but fine. That was honest enough. I told her the first company that ever bought one of my books shut their doors. “Why?”

I thought about this a bit, but I don’t have access to their books, so I can’t really answer. But I worked in nonfiction publishing for a good while, at four companies. I saw takeovers, downsizing, the internet devastate certain lines, etc. I used to write those P&L (profit and loss) statements on titles. Most of the companies I worked for stayed afloat, but relied on other assets while they regrouped. A start-up like Triskelion didn’t have that luxury (I don’t think they did).

I remember the long lists of signs a company is in trouble (I generally bailed about a year early, sensing a coming storm. In one case I bailed about three years too early, as McGraw-Hill is still in business, but my division is no more). I got out of publishing and into a university setting because I was sick of the instability.

So what were those warning signs, and can authors (or anyone!) learn anything from them? They aren’t so different than ones you hear about with small publishing companies.

1. Constant staffing shake-ups. Not one editor leaving, but big-whigs leaving. Cliques within the ranks. The “know it alls” and the “what the hell is going on?” types at odds. Demoralization. Poor communication.

2. Divide and conquer politics. Treating the human assets as immediately replaceable (except the finance guy), because loyalty isn’t much of an issue. Or, making promises to keep people loyal that aren’t fulfilled.

3. You can’t get supplies because vendors aren’t getting paid.

4. Constant restructuring of product–one day you’re making baskets, the next brooms. New reporting structures, quick new product lines–grasping at straws.

5. Too much growth too quickly. Businesses of any size are notoriously poor at managing growth. Small financial problems become huge ones.

6. Employees jumping ship, lots of them.

7. Product quality can deteriorate in an effort to get it out the door and collect cash. (I am NOT saying that is the case with Triskelion books).

These are just a few I saw in three large publishing houses. I left out things like “guys in three piece suits you’ve never seen before sit in the conference all day long looking at spreadsheets”.

So, what’s an author to do? I dunno, I wish I did. Because sometimes things look bad, and they aren’t. Sometimes, the signs aren’t there, and you get the shock of your life.

But one thing I know for sure–look at companies as businesses, not families. They are not your family. When the cow patties hit the fan, you’ll find out quickly.

Most people employed by small publishing houses are earning their bread and butter by doing so. They are making business decisions. After sweating blood for one of my “real world” jobs and being cast aside in a pre-closure slashing of costs, I decided I’d never look at a company the same way again. I forgot that for a while, but Triskelion closing their doors reminded me of it.

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