Jeff Salyards has endured what can only be described as a year of tremendous ups and downs. It was twelve months ago today that his first novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, débuted to encouraging critical and commercial success. That good news was followed several months later by the revelation that one of his daughters required major surgery. Complications followed, forcing Jeff to bow out from attending the 70th World Science Fiction Convention held in Chicago last year.
It was during this harrowing medical crisis that Foes of Reality first interviewed Jeff back in August, 2012. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that, since then, we have been pulling for Jeff as a writer, a father, and a fellow Chicagoan.
And as the days went by, good things began happening for Jeff. Scourge of the Betrayer popped up on a number of “best of” lists for 2012, including Elitist Book Reviews: The Best of 2012, Barnes & Noble: The Best Fantasy of 2012, and culminating with a nod as finalist for the 2013 Compton Crook Award presented by the members of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, Inc.
So, it was with great anticipation that we made a date to check-in with Jeff for a progress report on the second book in his Bloodsounder’s Arc series, Veil of the Deserters, towards the middle of March, 2013. Questions were sent, a couple of weeks went by, and all was strangely quiet. We decided to check in with him again the first week in April, and that’s when the floor fell out from beneath Jeff, the interview, and scores of other writers published by Night Shade Books.
Night Shade Books was going out of business. Suddenly the impetus for the interview had changed overnight along with Jeff’s career trajectory.
What follows is part one of a two-part interview. The first installment tackles the recent implosion of NSB and subsequent contractual gymnastics it has necessitated. Part two discusses Jeff’s journey as he continues writing Veil of the Deserters.
Dan—When did you first get wind that not all was right at Night Shade Books?
Jeff—A year or so before I signed with them, the SFWA put Night Shade on probation because they were delinquent with payments and had made some questionable decisions regarding author’s rights. Some folks chalked this up to a number of factors—Borders closing, NSB promoting their “New Voices” program and growing too quickly without the infrastructure to support all the new titles and development, knucklehead business practices, etc. Then, not long before I signed, they were taken off probation. Presumably they’d done enough to demonstrate that their affairs were in order.
I was a little nervous about agreeing to terms, but it was more of an orange flag than a red one. I figured, what the hell, who doesn’t have problems, right? I can barely balance a checkbook, so who am I to throw stones at a couple of guys who are doing the best they can to run their operation and make a name for themselves in the SFF arena?
And for a while, everything went great. They did a bang up job during production of Scourge of the Betrayer, and I was really impressed by how responsive they were, and how good at talking me off ledges when, as a debut author, I freaked out about things. I got the first chunk of some advance money I was owed, and all was good. Until it wasn’t.
So, I wasn’t stunned when the latest Night Shade news broke, because they’ve had issues for years. But I figured you get put on probation for a reason, you get a reprieve for a good reason, too, so I hoped they had turned things around.
Dan—How did you find out about Night Shade’s plans to dissolve the business and start selling off assets?
Jeff—There were some ill tidings leading up to the story breaking—some key NSB employees were let go, they publicly announced plans to tighten their belts and retract the program a bit, which was pretty sound, actually, but should have been implemented, oh, years ago maybe. Then there was the pronounced lack of payment. I didn’t know how widespread that last part was, though—I thought maybe it was a rookie hazing thing or I was just last in line, being a relative newbie.
So when the announcement of Night Shade’s asset sale hit the Interwebs, I wasn’t exactly shocked, and definitely not awed. Just saddened. And pretty freaked out.
Dan—How many books were you contracted to write for Night Shade?
Jeff—The Bloodsounder’s Arc series, or most of it, anyway. They hold the rights to three books, and I’m still not positive if it’s going to be a three or four book series, presuming everything works out and there are any more books. I’m trying to prepare myself for all eventualities, even the most depressing.
Dan—Where does that leave the rights to Veil of the Deserters?
Jeff—Well, Night Shade still owns the rights, pending the potential asset sale by Skyhorse Publishing and Start Publishing. If that falls through, then we’ll see what we’ll see. The rights could conceivably get all tangled up in a bankruptcy proceeding. Which would be all kinds of ugly and drawn out.
Dan—Does that get you to a place where you begin to start formulating an entirely different series so that you can publish something outside of the NSB rights vortex or is it too early to tell?
Jeff— I’ve tried to prepare myself for any outcome, so I have considered what I would do next if my series was frozen in carbonite and I had to wait for a rescue. I’ve toyed around with some ideas, but I honestly haven’t allowed myself to travel down that path too far. Before all this, my plan—and I use that term loosely—was always to finish the series, and then possibly do some standalones in the same world, or perhaps veer off and do something completely different. Like cozy mysteries about a Luddite librarian with a fondness for absinthe and Twinkies. Still working the details out.
So I’m not positive what I’ll do if I have to get my head around this series being on hold indefinitely. But I intend to keep writing for certain, with the same goal: to make each book better than the last, improve my craft, and hopefully pick up some new readers along the way.
Dan—How have the current rights ambiguities affected you personally as far as your writing goes? Have you pretty much stopped all work on Veil of the Deserters?
Jeff—I slowed down in the last month, for sure. But this wasn’t just due to ennui or uncertainty about how the dust would settle, although that played a part. This is the busiest time of the year for the day job. ABA Publishing is trying to get all the final books into production for the fiscal year, so it’s a mad scramble and time sink. Between the frenetic work stuff and some decided lack of motivation, the last few weeks haven’t been my most productive on the writing front. But I’ve gotten back to it recently. I figure, one way or the other, this Night Shade mess will be sorted out eventually (barring absolute worst case), and I’m not George R.R. Martin—what readers I have won’t wait around forever for the next installment. I’m going to make sure Veil of the Deserters manuscript is still complete soon, and then just hope for the best.
Dan—What are your options at the moment regarding existing book rights to Scourge of the Betrayer, previously contracted sequels with Night Shade, and any “next step” as far as publishing goes?
Jeff—Right now, I’m pretty much stuck in a holding pattern, along with over 100 other Night Shade authors. I won’t rehash the Skyhorse/Start dealio here—plenty of other folks have addressed it at length (Dan-a particularly good summation can be found here). But the only real option I had was to decide to agree to the terms offered, or pass and face the looming prospect of the rights caught in the bankruptcy court vortex. But every author was in a different spot, so it’s not as black and white as it might sound, even with Skyhorse and Start offering new more favorable terms after some community backlash over the initially proposed deal and terms. Some NSB authors aren’t owed much, or in the middle of a series, or newbies, or. . .
So, regardless of what we chose, it’s just wait-and-see mode now. Which I suck at. For real. So not patient. But there it is.
Dan—How much is any next step contingent on the decisions of other Night Shade authors and vice versa?
Jeff—Well, there are a lot of things that need to happen in order for the Skyhorse/Start/Night Shade deal to go through. I can’t really go into some of them much, but one hurdle was a certain threshold of authors agreeing to the deal. That wouldn’t by itself ensure the deal happened, but it would potentially keep it from going down the drain. At this point, I can’t really tell you exactly where things stand. It’s not smart of me to disclose more than that right now—a lot of people’s books, rights, and dreams are at stake—but I’m also not positive what the next hurdles are precisely, and it’s not my place to speculate or rumor monger. Though I do like some good mongering from time to time.
Dan—We’re all about the facts around here. How much rumor mongering about the deal have you stepped in since the asset sale announcement?
Jeff—Well, when news of the potential asset sale hit, there were some wild reactions right out of the gate. There were some measured, balanced ones as well, though those seemed to be in the minority, at least at first. You heard all kinds of things, some accurate, some. . . less so, and some that were generally accurate but edged with so much anger or frustration or confusion that it was hard to know how much stock to put in them. But there was no shortage of information out there about it. While it didn’t go viral like “Gangnam Style” (more’s the pity), a whole bunch of blogs and sites posted details about the potential sale, especially immediately following the initial offer. So it was definitely a mini-outbreak, and pretty hotly debated and hashed out by those directly affected and plenty outside observers who just hoped all the authors, freelance editors and artists, printers, and other creditors would get a square deal out of this and have some kind of equitable closure.
The whole thing has been pretty stressful. I wouldn’t wish it on any author, but one of the good things that came out of it was that a pretty decent group of Night Shade writers banded together on a private forum, which was a great venue for information sharing, hollering, sobbing, gallows humor, self-pity parties, more information sharing when it came to light, and basically all the stages until we finally accepted the situation for what it was and all made the best of it in our own ways. It was really collegial with a spirit of generosity, and it made me realize that the Night Shade authors weren’t only incredibly talented, but just great all around people, too.
Dan—Traditional publishing has always come with the upside of someone else managing the business end of writing, but at the price of artists surrendering the rights to their work. Self-publishing is losing its stigma among many readers while simultaneously affording authors better and less expensive options for distribution and self-promotion of their work, but forces various expenses and responsibilities connected with producing, marketing, and selling a book onto the writer, which in turn takes time away from writing. How does the dissolution of Night Shade change the debate between self-publishing and traditional publishing, if at all?
Jeff—That’s an excellent question. There are some true believers on both sides of the fence, some of whom are pretty dang dogmatic, zealously claiming that anyone who doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid and either join the traditional publishing or self-publishing camp, respectively, is a flipping myopic moron. I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t think there is one approach that is perfect or without flaws or challenges/compromises, and what you try to do depends on a variety of factors, some of which you might not be able to control (i.e., if you decide traditional is the route for you, you still need to clear all the gatekeepers in the game to make it happen) and some that are very personal—how much time do you have, how comfortable and competent are you project managing as well as writing, etc..
So, I’m not sure that the demise of Night Shade changes the grand debate in any significant way. Those self-publishing advocates will cry, “You see! Had you chosen to do it all yourself, not only would you be getting a larger piece of the pie you so rightly deserve and have control of your destiny, but you wouldn’t be shackled to a publishing house perched on a ravine, only one small tremble away from crashing into rubble and potentially dragging you down with it!”
And those who still think the traditional publishing model has something to offer would exclaim, “The demise of Night Shade books, while very sad, and a loss to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror communities, speaks more to the savvy of the people who ran it than it does the vitality of small independent presses as a whole.”
The publishing landscape is changing, for a certainty, in exciting and daunting ways. With ebooks taking up larger shares of the marketplace, the expansion of the Borg (uh, sorry, Amazon), the mergers of some of the big publishers, and, unfortunately, some casualties, like brick and mortar bookstores closing their doors, and smaller publishers either unable or unwilling to adapt, and shutting down too.
But I think both models are still viable, and I’m sure before it’s all said and done I’ll give the hybrid approach a shot, and experiment.
Dan—Night Shade seemed like one of the few SFF publishing houses prepared to go out on a limb and promote new writers and new writing. How much of a loss is Night Shade to the SFF writing community, particularly to those looking to get a start professionally?
Jeff—There has been some vitriol out there from a lot of writers who felt stiffed, betrayed, or swindled by Night Shade folks along the way. And I’m not here to say they’re wrong. I get the frustration, and I’ve only been with NSB a little over a year.
But no matter how this whole thing plays out, I will always thank Night Shade Books for taking a chance on me, for helping me to realize my dream of being a published author. They made it a practice of gambling on a number of books that were challenging, interesting, unafraid of taking risks, pushed boundaries a little. Whatever else Night Shade might have done poorly, they put out books that a lot of other shops might have shied away from, even other smaller houses that have fewer built in gatekeepers to appease to get anything approved. Night Shade writers like Paolo Bacigalupi, Courtney Schafer, Bradley Beaulieu, Kameron Hurley, Glen Cook, Stina Leicht, Nathan Long, Mazarkis Williams, John Hornor Jacobs, John Joseph Adams,Teresa Frohock, and countless others are all exceptional, and recent standouts like Zachary Jernigan and Betsy Dornbusch kept the tradition going. Even if you weren’t crazy about a particular Night Shade author or book, it was hard to deny the exceptional ability and the sheer exuberant and crazy scope of fiction canvassed.
There are some independent publishers who seem willing to take risks too, but Night Shade went out of their way to identify books that straddled genres, or pushed at the tropes in interesting ways, sometimes with uneven results, but always with energy and bravado and verve. Of course, some critics might claim their questionable acquisitions strategy contributed to their cash flow issues—it’s hard to sustain yourself on gambling unless you are exceptionally skilled, lucky, or good at counting cards.
But no matter what, I commend them for it. Readers seemed to really respond to their unusual books and talented authors, debut and seasoned alike. And so I do think it’s a loss to the community. And I’ve heard enough bloggers and reviewers echo that sentiment to believe that I’m not saying that just because I’m a homer. Night Shade didn’t corner the market on originality or exploration, but I’ve read comments on tons of forums from folks who had bookshelves chock full of NSB titles, and lamented the fact that the current iteration of the publisher will soon be gone for good.
Dan— What other publishers do you see filling NSB’s role as a champion of new SFF writers?
Jeff—Night Shade is hardly the only one. Angry Robot, Pyr, ChiZine, Small Beer Press are some just to name a few. That said, Night Shade got behind their debuts (or at least the idea of finding the next fantastic new thing, even if their support was sometimes spotty) with rare enthusiasm the last couple of years, or made a concerted effort to get new names and voices out there.
And this is me being uncharacteristically optimistic, but I really hope the deal goes through and Skyhorse/Start do more than just maintain the Night Shade imprint in name or appearance. I hope they continue the tradition of championing exciting new titles, to make some bold moves that were the hallmark of Night Shade and really made them stand out.
But identifying new talent isn’t enough. To make the operation work, you need the right people in place, professionals familiar with the genre that have the expertise to edit it, market it, promote it. If the deal happens, the entire community will be watching to see how Skyhorse/Start handle things going forward.
Dan—Do you think that’s likely to happen?
Jeff—Who knows? But even if I had no stake in the game at all, I’d hope they pull it off. I hope they build the right team to continue publishing exciting new SFF authors and titles.