Tuesday, November 1, 2016

That One Time I Had to Strike Against the IWW (#ASDay 2016)

So last year I didn't get the chance to do one of these posts properly. I was too swamped, between teaching 21 credits, doing freelance copywriting, and pushing myself to publish 6 books I was editorially responsible for in 6 months, two of which I wrote. I'd already maxed out my labor investment in Autonomous Press, and I was just hauling ass to try to get the titles off the ground so they could be marketed and soled. So that we could get profitable and get paid.

I essentially silenced my own voice in the name of the collective, and in return I got... eight thousand dollars of short-term debt. I haven't realized profits from the press yet, and it's in no small part because my books did not receive the kind of basic book marketing I'd even been able to sustain for myself as a self-publisher. The press was going at a breakneck speed, but when I inquired about issues like a Goodreads presence or investing in trade shows (or even specific academic conferences), I was alternately told that I was making things too much about myself, that I was being too demanding, or that the press was "too focused on autistic books."

Excuse me?!

1. I capped my investment in the press at $2500 to hold parity with the other partners, because I value the structure of a cooperative that much, and it would have taken structuring the company as a traditional employee stock-owned company to value my labor at its market rate. And in that case, the labor I have put in to date is worth $8000--coincidentally very close to the same amount of medical debt I am currently carrying.

2. That's just my labor expressed directly as typesetting projects. I've also worked two full conferences in our sales booth, edited two single-author books, edited an anthology, trained an apprentice typesetter, run all of our labor logistics for production, oh, and the entire production model and cost of goods and services estimate from our labor plan was mine.

3. When they wanted me as a partner, the press was pretty quick to want multiple books from me. My partners originally optioned Imaginary Friends and Defiant, and they were happy to solicit my extra books--The US Book and The Spoon Knife Anthology when there were gaps in the calendar. It was only after I started inquiring about my sales performance relative to other partners and about general marketing for the press as a whole that the focus on autistic people was an issue and that there was a problem with us publishing too many books by partners.

4. Let's take a moment to examine that too--there was exactly one partner who raised this issue, and another that defended it. The rest of us were here precisely because we were being given the chance to build a cooperative community platform where we could use our strength together to magnify each other's voices. We want to share this platform and to offer it to authors outside the press partnership as well--but we are building this for ourselves first, because we're the ones here doing the work of setting up the stage. That's not self-absorbed, that's investing in your own labor.

5. The fact is, once we use partner labor and partner books to get profitable, we're then able to offer both better sales projections and more marketing options for our non-partner authors. It's essentially the same brand model you see in popular music, especially hip hop. The artist establishes a platform, raises money with her own work, invests in new artists, mentors them through opening acts that also serve to enculturate them into the industry, and then turns them loose to create. Our process is similar. Artists publish with our journals or our anthologies. If they are ready to go, we bring them in for books. If they are opening acts yet, we invite them to do more anthologies until we feel ready to ask for a book. The ones who also have the gumption and the skills to do publishing work, we hire as contracted labor or bring in as partners. That model only works when the partner books are strong and form a backbone that can carry the company.

6. Book sales and book quality have nothing to do with one another. Fucking hacks like John Locke can game the marketing of books well enough to sell cheap Jack Reacher knockoffs to people who don't care because they just want to read cheap sex scenes and firearms. It doesn't matter what someone thinks of my books, if we're in the same boat financially, they should be motivated to market them. There is something fundamentally toxic and not at all related to the profitability of the company or its ability to support the uplifting of marginalized voices going on if a partner is willing to ditch this model and make excuses that revolve around the content of the publishing.

The Crisis

This came to a head between November and February of last year, when my continued clashes with the two partners who seemed to have soured on my work progressed into their open harassment and incidents of gaslighting related to editorial decisions I had made. Mind you, I was not editing books with these partners. Rather, one of them felt that being a contributing author gave her the right to continue making editorial demands during the typesetting timeline, long after edits were being accepted from writers.

When I stuck up for my editorial autonomy, I was pursued with lectures about my position being inherently ableist and accusations that I was recasting the other person's words when I kept emphasizing that I had already asked her to stop, that she was overstepping boundaries, and that this discussion was over. The harassment pushed me off Facebook and into a nervous collapse and series of meltdowns and fragmentations. All told, I lost eight days of work, and the only reason our March books were out on time was because when I pushed my editorial responsibilities onto Ian Nicholson, who at the time was not a partner but an outside contractor, he accepted the work as just part of learning how the company worked. He saved the NQ Books launch, and that's why I gave him the imprint when he came on board.

During the time I was working with him on the books, I refused to communicate with the partnership. I was querying agents, to be honest. I was done. I wanted to fulfill my duties to myself and the authors I had committed to, but I was considering resigning in June when the books came out. The only reason I didn't quit was because Nick Walker talked me back into the fold and made a behavior plan with the partner who had abused me repeatedly and escalated into open harassment. Despite that agreement, any attempts that I made to talk about marketing were met with hostility, and when I attempted to get the partnership to agree to simple labor maximums that would curb the amount of extra duty I had to cope with before profitability, I was met with obstruction, excuse-making, and demands that we "slow down" and "discuss things."

Mind you, the same two partners who were happy to see me put in 50 hours a week at an unpaid job while teaching 6 college writing courses were suddenly very concerned about making actions slow and deliberate when I wanted to bring in a partner who was qualified to take my overage and define workplace protections against exploitation for both of us.

Oh, yeah. Ian is also our first partner of color, and the only partner that there was any obstructionist discussion about bringing in. I eventually had to basically accuse Corbett OToole of race trolling while Dani worked on getting people to accept that a 5 out of 6 vote could carry motions. Once Ian was onboard that became 5 out of 7. This is important. Oh, and there's one other important point.

I walked.

I told the partners that they could accept my entire restructuring, labor rates, quotas, Ian's partnership agreement, merging with Barking Sycamores, and my new partnership agreement, or I could walk. Dani could come collect the stock, and hopefully Ian would be able to figure out the parts of dealing with the printer that I hadn't gotten to yet. I wasn't even going to put out Spoon Knife.

They brought Ian in and gave me what I wanted. It seems that there were really only two partners who had a problem with it at all.

Over the course of the month of March, I attempted to engage with Ibby Grace in various ways to keep the company moving forward. As she requested, I began to work on our workflow documents so that we could understand where people were at with their projects and when they would be ready to publish. To that end, I made a short questionnaire that editors could fill out for each book.

I was abused immediately. I was accused of violating Ibby's ADA accommodations (which she had never discussed with me in the context of an editor/production coordinator relationship), of being worse than the corporate university that she feels does nothing to work with her, and I was told that I had to sift through all the past email threads to figure out which books she was working on and who the authors were. I was given no information about how I would discover which developmental steps were completed.

Again, Nick intervened. I requested a restructuring that removed me from daily contact with Ibby. She was moved out of her imprint coordinator position at that point, and was supposed to deal with marketing and acquisitions.

Over the course of the next few months, I continued to monitor our sales, which continued to decline. When the opportunity arose to work with Fable the Poet and to bring in new voices, new audiences, and possibly even new sales channels, I moved on it. In fact, Fable's book got a spot that one of mine was going to have, because I'm just that selfish, right?

The point is, when I asked about marketing, no one had the time to do it, least of all the partners who claimed to be about marketing, outreach, publicity, and events. When we had new authors from communities whose voices were new to the press and we needed marketing support for them, I was accused of being self-promotional for bringing up the lack of marketing for titles, because of course the fact that I have published the most titles means I'm always talking about my own, right?

I have been AutPress in 2016

Every book we have put out this year was brought into the press by me. I talked Ian into the Barking Sycamores partnership and eventually taking over NQ Books, making it the first ever NDQTPOC-driven literary imprint. I typeset seven of our first ten books, and Ian did the rest as I trained him to take over in the event that my current burnout incapacitates me.

I wrote three of our first ten books. I edited two of the single-author ones. I edited one anthology with Ian. I also contributed to four anthologies. That means I'm in seven of the first ten, the same number I typeset. I brought in our first two outside poets and made one a partner. I found our legal partner, who also happens to be a fantastic science fiction author.

But you know what? The titles I have put out without having any formal relationship with our marketing department are strong enough that we are replenishing our coffers and getting ready to put out more books that you will love, because we are still reinvesting and expanding this platform to service a more diverse range of disabled authors.

As we do that, though, I am not going to be accused of being selfish and self-promoting when all the authors in my anthology got paid and I am $8500 further in debt than I was when this show started.

I am too damned strong for that.

This company is MY VOICE

I want to share it with you. I want to share it with my partners--the ones that remain. Yesterday, the Autonomous Press partnership chose to remove the two partners directly responsible for putting the pressures on me that caused my burnout/PTSD spike/fibro flare of the last six months. But make no mistake, in 2014 I had no credit debt, a partner I had been in a loving relationship with for over a decade, a home that had increased in value every year since I bought it, two stable jobs, and health concerns that were on their way to being addressed as I prepared to transition.

TODAY, I am single. My tits hurt all the time. Physical therapy took care of my limp so know I know I will need reconstructive surgery in my knee to be pain free. I'm on estrogen, but it costs me a full day of work and a trip across the state every time I need to see the doctor. I had to quit one of the jobs because the constant anxiety attacks and the fibromyalgia pain together made me too disabled to keep working. I didn't get to attend the award ceremony for my book for the same reason. My house is falling apart because I can't afford things like new lightbulbs.

But the company is mine. And the people who hurt me aren't there any more. The five of seven needed to carry a motion were all it took.

It's safe now.

You can come in. There's room for you. But first--it's time to accept that they hate you.

Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon