BLACK BED SHEET NIGHTMARES –AN INDEPENDENT HORROR PUBLISHER’S RANT
by Nicholas Grabowsky
I think this is the very first time I felt I had to openly address negative issues and certain frustrations some of you may have as current or non-current BBS authors, so I figure I’ll just go all out and throw everything on the table from beginning to end. The first time I set to write this, I steadily drank until 5 in the morning and it was originally titled “Why Horror Publishing Makes Me Want to Just Shoot Myself in the Head and Die.” For four years I’ve been doing this, this Black Bed Sheet Books thing, and absolutely only that. As most of you know I have no side job, no other income except from my own books. Some of you hear me talk about how I labor endlessly until 5 am working on one thing or another, someone’s edit, someone’s book cover or trailer, or that a computer broke down, or how I’m so intensely gosh darn hellishly busy it takes me sometimes two weeks to even months to answer some emails.
For now, I’m going to take a deep breath and reflect a bit for you, self-evaluate my performance as a publisher, address all the issues, explain a few things, and hopefully something good will come from what I have to say and I won’t need to write another one of these essay-length things.
There was a time I thought I had a good job managing a large retail book store. That went out of business and everyone lost their jobs. Then, after living all my life in Southern CA, my sister was abducted from her school and I went to join the search for her in Northern CA. When her body was found, I decided to stay there with my folks. In a month’s time I got a job at the Walmart down the street from them and worked for them full time for five years doing everything from mixing paint to being in charge of the front check-out lines. One week in December before the year 2000 hit, I smoked some pot. The next week at work, someone needed me in the Garden Department to bring down some Xmas tree stands from atop the tallest overstock risers (back when there was such a thing} from the top step of the highest wheeled ladder in the store, and when I retrieved them, as I was making my way down, I stumbled and spilled those stands everywhere in front of a ton of customers and employees. After I got up off my ass, I announced to everyone that I was okay, there was nothing to see here, and I limped away. Next day, my ankle was hurting so bad I opted to have it seen by a doctor, but a drug test in the process told Walmart about the pot I’d smoked the previous week, and regardless of how much of myself I’d given that store, I was let go.
I got a job with Homebase right after, a hardware chain that at the time in our area rivaled Home Depot, and I gave that job 100% too. They went out of business, laid off everyone. Employees that worked there for twenty years lost everything. Then there was House 2 Home, a brand new big home decoration/improvement chain were I was hired as a department manager and so many other people had quit very respectable positions at Target and other places to work for them. Within not even six months, the entire chain went under and when we all got the news at a morning meeting, people actually fell to their knees and wept.
I got a part time weekend job with Volunteers of America as a mentor to foster teens in a transitional housing program which I ultimately managed to keep for five years afterwards, but I needed full-time employment. So then I also found a job at Lowes, another huge home improvement store. I worked full time in Garden, got my forklift license, and fulltime from six am I busted my ass stacking bags of fertilizer and cement blocks with supervisors telling me to hustle all the freaking time.
Then one day when I was working, a supervisor came up to me and escorted me to the manager’s office, where I was joined by the manager and a security guard. The manager asked me if I had a DUI in 2000. I thought he was trying to get to some other point. But he told me when I filled out my application several months prior that I put a check mark on the wrong box where it asked me if I had any misdemeanors. It was the only misdemeanor I’d had in my life, but I apparently marked “no.” So I was fired, I was escorted to my locker, cleaned it out, and was escorted to the front exit with all my fellow employees looking at me like I stole something.
That summer, I looked and looked and looked for jobs. I went through so many interviews and was trying to go for retail management and had many second and third interviews at the same places. During that period, I started putting on my resumes that I’ve had this rich history of being a respected horror author for quite a while. I thought it would help, let possible employers know I don’t screw around with my life and have ambition and the whole nine yards. You’d think if I were sitting down with a manager at Safeway or Home Depot or Hollywood Video for a third interview that I got the job. Instead, what I got, believe it or not, were supervisors sitting behind their desks handing me manuscripts of books they’d been writing, asking me for advice or if there was any way I could help them in getting their book published. My inability to get a job was confounding, and by then I was living in Roseville in a house with a woman I’d worked with at House 2 Home whom I was going to marry and where we were raising our baby son Charlie.
That October, I was under all kinds of pressure to make ends meet, and one night I visited a friend, had some beers, and tried out his motorized skateboard scooter. I was drunk and stupid and fractured and dislocated my shoulder after flying over the handle bars and landing shoulder-first in the middle of the street. I was screaming the entire time I waited in the hospital emergency room because it really hurt like hell, and when the doctors saw me they didn’t realize my shoulder was dislocated. So I couldn’t move my arm for two months. Then some other doctor told me my shoulder was indeed dislocated and had healed over, and recommended I sue the hospital because I could’ve been fixed that same night. I went through surgery where my shoulder and arm had to be essentially taken off and put back on right. I spent several months with my whole upper torso and arm in a big metal sling-like contraption and underwent all kinds of therapy to be able to use my arm and feel the nerves in my hand again, from taking a rubber ball and rolling it up a wall dozens of times each day just to get my arm to lift and go back down because I couldn’t for the longest time get that sucker to raise past my waist.
The upside to that was I did file a lawsuit and we settled out of court. Said and done, I got thrity-five grand out of it. It’s the story of my life sometimes: certain tragedy turns itself into something positive later. I took ten of it and split it between my parents and my fiance’s parents. I put some into improvements to the house we lived in. I put the rest of it toward my writing career. Among the first things I did in that regard was set up convention appearances across the continent over the next couple of years and invited up-and-coming authors from as far as the UK to join me at these conventions by paying for their tables and supporting them.
Then my publisher, a guy who basically ran his business from his home for five years up until that point successfully, just up and flaked on everyone, disappeared leaving authors at book signings with no books and owing 125 authors royalties, it was a complete mess. He was supposed to publish RED WET DIRT for me and with lots of hoopla. I was so disappointed. But I had a history of disappointment with publishers for as long as they’d been publishing me, up until then about nearly 20 years. I was never paid anything for Halloween IV or any of my books as Nicholas Randers. Back then I had to promote myself because no one else was doing it. I made my rounds to local supermarket distributors and developed relationships with them so my paperbacks could be alongside King’s and Koontz’, did my own flyers and mail order ads. Back then everyone with a published novel was published the hard traditional way unless they had spent thousands and thousands on a vanity press.
Once there was a time my early books were everywhere, and I was working at Video Giant. There were times where people would buy Halloween IV and Pray Serpent’s Prey at the Albertson’s supermarket that shared our parking lot, come in while my boss was busy yelling at me for not straightening the shelves fast enough, and ask me to sign books I would never be paid for.
There were many reasons I started Black Bed Sheet Books, and one of the strongest was because I’d been through so much with publishers that I vowed to do better. But an equally powerful reason pertains to why I gave you a brief history of my recent working life. I stopped believing there was such a thing as job security anymore. Most of what I learned in life had become to me a redundant adage, the thing about doing something yourself if you want to get anything done. But it was more than that, I wanted to take control of my life. I didn’t want to have to worry about endlessly looking for a job anymore, or ever getting fired, or the company going out of business. This time, I was in charge, and my success was up to me. I had absolutely every reason you can think of to decide that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life and I was going to do everything it took to make it work.
To make me even further determined, I lost the weekend job I had for the last five-plus years as a youth mentor. I’d been actively making a difference in the lives of foster teens, helped found a library for them, taught them healing through writing, and was even going to publish a short anthology they would all write so they could all have one big book signing and it would inspire them. Being they were a conservative Christian organization, they had a problem with me influencing their group homes with cool horror literature and movies like Pan Labyrinth and used an instance where I couldn’t make it to work one day to fire me.
In launching BBS, people emerged from all life’s avenues to show their support, from the writing world to the local business world to my family of relatives who largely had never been enthusiastic about my being a writer, to my fiancé. The first order of business was to start where my last publisher left off, to publish RED WET DIRT. After that, I worked night and day publishing other people, focusing on those who just needed a break. I poured the rest of my shoulder money into the business, had a screenplay/movie deal going, picked up some good author friends’ works, had a deal with Mountain Mike’s Pizza where my face was on a box of every pizza in town.
8 months later: I found myself sitting on my parent’s front porch with my laptop running Black Bed Sheet, living in their guest room like I did when I first came up there in ’95. My laptop and my parents were the only things I could count on. The pizza thing didn’t go over well, little girls’ birthday pizza parties weren’t a good atmosphere for selling horror books. I was flat broke. I was only allowed to see my four-year-old at a park for three hours on Tuesdays with one of my ex-fiance’s lawyers spies watching me to make sure I took him potty every hour. My only possessions were dumped in front of the house I once lived in and were placed in storage. My parents were spending money they didn’t have for a lawyer. I wound up in the emergency room after having something like a heart attack in front of my parents. The prior months had been filled with increasingly countless arguments where my money ran out and I didn’t make a profit right away and everything turned into “get a job” this and “you’re nothing but a hopeless loser” that, not just from her, but her family. So one morning when I was getting our son ready for school my fiancé came at me after drinking all night and that time I slapped her. And then even the courts started telling me I was a hopeless loser and to get a job. Funny how things can change in eight months.
But there I was, with my laptop and cigarettes and beer and reasons enough to crawl under a rock forever, and I popped out seven books that summer, designed, edited, covers and all, on time for their release dates. One of them was one of Forest J Ackerman’s last written works, and that year I won 5th Best Publisher in the Predator’s and Editor’s Reader’s Poll, and came out with more releases later that year. My determination has been like that ever since also, and I can understand how on one hand I can be so persistent and obsessive filling all my time with Black Bed Sheet that I neglect my significant others and they get frustrated, but on the other hand that same persistence has overcome ridiculous adversity.
That first year and ever since, my personal life has tossed me around a bit with adversity that I face and somehow conquer all the time. Having to pay child support hadn’t been part of the plan, and leftover books from author book signings and other book returns started swallowing up profits because they force you to pay back almost twice as much as you thought you made when the stores first ordered them. That would wipe out pay periods where I had to pay royalties out of pocket. Every month I have bills to pay to maintain BBS, from credit card companies, virtual registers, website hosting fees, printing fees, distribution fees, regular fees to keep titles active. I rarely have any money left over for myself, it all goes right back into BBS or to catch up on bills at my current apartment with Francy. Just after that happened with my ex, my BBS business account went into collections, and I eventually fell behind on child support. So there’d be times when an author would send me money for books, or times when rent was due, and suddenly that money would be gone because child services would seize it out of the blue. I’d have to get a loan, or earn that money back right away by doing yardwork for my dad, for example. On the surface, authors never know, because the author book orders always get filled, royalties always get paid, releases come out, everything gets done. I don’t like talking about that, because as a rule in business you never let any more problems out of the bag than you have to, lest in my case the authors lose faith in you, and who would want to be with a publisher who complains about problems all the time in the first place?
Computers and circumstance and ghosts in the machine: this is outright my biggest headache, and half my time is wasted on it….problem solving, troubleshooting and dealing with computer problems. That’s half my time being forced to be unproductive. Emails get lost, computers go out, programs fail, and I don’t rest until everything is functional again. It happens all the time, always putting me off schedule and eating into valuable time when things really need to get done, and everything piles up on me. And then there’s the fact that I can’t always count on printers and distributors and people I do business with to be timely. Often, they seem to have stupid people working for them, or they change their policies, or I have to wait two weeks for them to do something that normally takes two days. And oh the irony, some companies I’ve relied on with BBS go out of business themselves, just the type of thing I was trying to get away from.
And then there’s the authors themselves. I have the utmost respect for authors, authors of any kind. But I’ve always had a special kinship with authors of horror and genres close to it, and a mutual respect. Before BBS, I was already known for years to help independent struggling authors. It’s embedded into my entire life: writing and inspiring others to write, since before most kids my age even learned to write. But I tell you, in many ways it’s a whole different world when you’re a publisher. You’re in a position where you can truly make authors happy, or on the other hand let authors down. I’ve done both these four years, time and again, more happy than otherwise, but the ones who felt let down……some of them really get pissed off.
For me, authors are a lot like customers in a busy retail store, and I’m running the store by myself. Although they are there for my services, I paid for them out of my own pocket to be there from as soon as they walked through the front entrance, and the longer they stay, the more I have to keep paying. And just one or two simply won’t do, I have to have an amount reasonable enough to keep the store open, at least an average of twelve new titles a year with releases disbursed through the seasons to keep us fresh with new product to compliment the old, I can’t stagnate. Most of the time you’ll see me running in every different direction around the store, trying to fill all my obligations and a multitude of special needs. One time I’d be stuck at the paint counter while a line of impatient people are piling up at the Sporting Goods counter waiting for help, and I’d excuse myself to run over there and bring the line down, then on my way back someone would catch me to ask me questions and to take a bike down for them in the toy department, then I’m needed at the service desk, then UPS is banging at the back door, then customers complain that nobody’s answering their phone calls, someone spills hazardous waste on aisle 12 and the plants in the Garden Center haven’t been watered in over a week. Some days are better than others, some days I don’t have to run around as much, some days everything works. Then other days I can’t even use the restroom without people pounding on the doors.
I lost a few friends over this business, let alone a fiancé. One was an author who was extremely enthusiastic at first and was determined to sell a million copies. Then he ordered 500 copies for himself, drew most of the attention to selling those copies, and then wanted out of his contract because I wasn’t selling enough for him. I had a close author friend who signed with me, and the day after a real successful Francy show with her as the guest, I received a very bitter email from her complaining how I failed to get her into a particular Books-a-million like I’d promised. It turns out the manager had turned her down time and again and according to her my promise to get her in that store was the only reason she signed with me, otherwise she would have published the book herself. There was a juicy anthology of about 12-15 authors that would have gone over well if only all of them lifted more than a finger to promote it instead of a small few. I’m really shocked at the kinds of authors who come in, expect me to do everything for them while they disappear somewhere, and some of them I never hear from again, even after their contracts expire. I took on one author who was supposed to be well-known but struggling with publishers who insisted I did everything her way, from cover to edit, and I spent so much time with that edit that it was eating away my work with Xmas releases. Then her and her co-author demanded I take the book to a pro editor that charges $2,000. I dissolved the contract, and the next week she was up on a site raising that same $2,000 for an editor. The book came out two months later with a publisher that had only two releases, and I bet the edit’s exactly the same as mine.
Some authors expect I’m going to sell them tons of books, some expect I have to do things their way. Some expect me to take their book on and then when it’s published point to every other place under heaven but BBS for readers to buy their book, barely mention BBS on their site, nothing. Sometimes their numbers at Amazon are the only thing important to them, or don’t understand the debilitating reality of book store returns and still insist it’s vital to their careers to get into Barnes & Noble. Some authors are completely happy one week, then the next are extremely frustrated, then get happy again, and go back and forth that way. Some demand a lot of my time at the expense of the other authors and the business. Regardless, in all situations, I’m always finding myself struggling to make everyone happy all the time. Whenever anyone’s not happy, I get worried and depressed and even that sometimes slows things down.
Whether I’m to blame for one thing or someone else is to blame for another, it’s hard doing this. Neither my relatives nor family nor the court system acknowledge this is a real job. When I watch American Idol, the part where the final contestants get to visit their hometowns and there’s always lots of fanfare and keys to the city…..if I get truly successful doing this, I’d be lucky if my triumphant homecoming would have all of three people in a backyard with a piece of cake. And believe me, the people I get the most complaints from are not authors, but bill collectors, child support people, and my mom. Even Francy complains. I’m always busy, I’m always feeling like I’m a week away from being homeless and I pound and pound away at my computers because I’ve got this stubborn undying certainty that this is all for my future, the future of my family, my calling in life. Writing too. I keep forgetting about writing.
I’m not saying I’m blameless and never fall short. Some writers are serious and well-meaning, and I always encourage them to speak up and tell me what’s on their mind and we work together to resolve issues. And I get tons of emails, some get lost. Some of my emails to them get lost. Sometimes I only have a half hour each day to answer emails because I otherwise get nothing done, and the first fifteen minutes is spent sorting out the nonsense. It’s rarely really a communication problem, it’s more of a responding-to-communication problem on my part. I also come from a background where it was common to take six months for my own agent to get back with me, let alone a publisher, and now I see all the reasons why other people in my shoes have always taken so long in the past. The bulk of the reason why I chose to do this newsletter/essay was to address some of the complaints that I get, and I’ve really turned over the matter of it taking awhile for emails for four years. I don’t know what else to say about the matter except I apologize, I still have no idea how I can be quicker unless it requires my attention right away. I don’t even know why that’s so much an issue. I talk to BBS authors all the time on Facebook on a regular basis. Shoot me messages or chats, remind me of things, don’t be afraid to be a pest sometimes and always voice your concerns. Just never assume I’m giving anything less than one hundred percent, that I’m neglectful or slacking or trying to get away with anything I shouldn’t. I’m entirely the real deal.
I’m in the business of giving writers a break, particularly horror authors. I do that. I accept a handful a year out of maybe two hundred, invest time and energy and money into them, produce as professional a product as what I’d expect from my own works. I also act as their agent for that product, looking for foreign deals and adaptations, movie deals, comic book deals. I spend time gathering partners and affiliates, promoting my titles wherever I go in person and online and through all the outlets and networks I’ve built over the years, feature them in our catalogs, create merchandise and web marketing tools for them. Sometimes that looks to authors as if I haven’t yet done anything for them, because sales are too low or they feel like I’ve neglected them, they haven’t a movie or comic deal yet, or I haven’t hooked them up with a live podcast like I promised.
If you want your book to go further, it depends on you. You must realize that a one-year contract isn’t much time at all for a publisher to market a book. By the end of that year I always feel like I haven’t done enough even though I have. I also need you to get with other authors, exchange and review each other’s books, help in the effort to work as a team. Not very many of you do that. A lot of BBS authors get their book signings, appearances, readings, interviews, book reviews, publicity and hoopla with no problem, with my help and without, and their experience with me has brought them a few steps up the ladder in their careers and further in the industry.
This was supposed to be a rant about the negative things, to get points across and address issues. I’m not known for complaining or negativity. I just really felt the need to get this out. We are in the midst of exciting growth and expansion, a great Fall/Winter season, our authors are getting comic and movie deals and getting their works and names out further in the world, we have remarkable partners and created many memorable events and appearances across the country, been responsible for innovative industry firsts which raise the bar for the rest and continue to do just that. We have a popular radio show, a web TV channel and the ambition to take over the world. We’re recognized as among the best and most sought after small independent publishers of book-length horror fiction in the world. I do my best to run it and sometimes I fall flat on my face, but it will always be here as the other publishers come and go, and we’re always moving forward.
Inspiration & Horror always,
Black Bed Sheet Books