As yet another small publisher closes its doors at the end of the month (Musa–thankfully in a way that doesn’t take their author’s books with them into bankruptcy), my mind turns once more to how hard it is in this business to figure out who to trust.
Especially if you’re going the traditional route of agent and publisher. There are tons of agents out there. Many of them are hard-working, dedicated individuals who will do their best by their clients.
Others have no experience in the industry or with running their own business, but they have really, really good intentions.
(What’s that saying? The path to hell is paved with good intentions?)
And the same goes for publishers. Especially the smaller ones. They love books, they love getting stories out there. But as the Ellora’s Cave and Musa and any number of other small publisher implosions have shown, that isn’t always enough.
Which is scary, because if you go into business with the wrong person, it can destroy you. Or set you back years.
In a completely unrelated field, that’s what happened to my brother.
My brother has to be one of the hardest working people I know. He has a full-time sales job that takes probably sixty hours a week and he’s a high school sports coach on top of that and does the coaching pretty much year round.
He’s a phenomenal sales person. He could sell snow to Eskimos as the saying goes.
In his twenties he ended up in a sales position at a small company. Twenty or so employees. And he quickly rose through the ranks until he was head of the sales department and probably responsible for 2/3 of the company’s revenues each year. As a reward, the owner of the company gave him a small ownership interest in the company.
All good, right?
Until the owner got himself into some financial trouble, because he was more interested in smoking pot in the back than running an efficient business. Not an evil guy, and he’d run his company for twenty-some years at that point, but not a savvy businessman by any stretch.
What happens when small businesses run into trouble? They tend to stop paying people. And my brother was one of the first because he was supposedly a part-owner of the company. (Didn’t keep the real owner from buying himself a new truck, though, did it?)
Week after week, month after month, this guy found excuses not to pay my brother. The guy kept the company going with lots of promises and moving money where it didn’t belong, but that didn’t really help my brother and his missed mortgage payments.
Long story short. My brother left that company. Months later than he should have and long after it had destroyed his credit.
See, our father raised us to be loyal, too, and walking away just isn’t in my brother’s DNA. (It took me years to see how that ingrained loyalty was used against me by employers or bosses and I still struggle against it myself. That’s how I ended up in DC last year. A pure loyalty play.)
My brother is now at another small company. (That’s pretty much all there is in his industry). Completely different experience, though. The man who runs this company is a former executive of a Fortune 500 company which means he approaches everything as a business. He can be cold and impersonal at times, sure, but the odds of this guy not paying his employees? About 1%. He has cash reserves for bad times. He doesn’t do business that doesn’t pay for itself. Or if he does, only once.
I’m not saying big companies are better. Although in my experience they tend to pay their good people better and to pay all of their people like clockwork.
You can still get screwed by a big company, it’s just in a different way. It’s in the contract terms you sign on day one, not the paycheck you receive six months later. With big companies, it’s generally not personal. It’s business. And if you understand that, you can work within that framework and do quite well.
I’m also not saying that small operations are always bad, either. But with small operations the variability is HUGE and you’re much more likely to run into an outright scam or theft, so you have to have to have to vet smaller operations. Have to.
And know that they’re much more likely to be susceptible to life stresses. CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets divorced, there are hundreds of people working below him who will keep the company going forward. CEO of a twenty-person company gets divorced? Duck and cover, because things may go south fast. Same with health issues.
And whoever you do business with, you have to remember that they’re not your friend even when you have a friendly relationship with them.
It pains me to write that since I’ve generally been friends with my bosses or employers. (I can’t work in an environment where I don’t have friendly relationships with my bosses and employers.) But I can also point to a situation with every single boss or employer where they put the business ahead of that friendship. Every single one.
Businesses work best when there is mutual trust and support among all the players, but…
Be careful who you trust. Always. (And don’t be afraid to re-evaluate as needed. People change. Companies change.)