(This is what I wrote back in May) A Bit of Light in the BS Storm over Exhibit A and Strange Chemistry.

No, I’m not an economist, a lawyer, or a banker. However, before I took on the role of a poor hack pounding out novels, I was an executive at two new media startups and worked at a number of large corporations and I’ve gained a fair amount of experience in corporate gamesmanship and…well, finding myself out of work and wondering why.

I read a particularly dumb article in The Bookseller this morning…OK, it wasn’t really dumb, just shortsighted. It laid out yesterday’s closing of Angry Robot’s Exhibit A and Strange Chemistry imprints quite nicely. What was missing was the entire story of what’s happening to Osprey, the parent corporation back in the US. That story, also well covered in The Bookseller, relates how Osprey’s CEO took a walk over to Penguin/Random House and caused the Osprey Group to go into a panic. Well, they didn’t quite CALL it a panic but the general wetting of trousers can easily be deduced from this statement:

Robin Black, chairman of the Osprey Group, told The Bookseller that he did not wish to make a public comment “about a private company.” However, he said: “We are undergoing a strategic review internally following Rebecca leaving, and included in that is the potential sale of any part of the business”.

A translation of this could be, “We have no idea how to run a book company and the only competent person has just left so we’re putting the place up for a fire sale.”

Now, I’ve been through this mangle a couple of times. Once, I asked the VP of the division of the small tech company where I was Director of Content Production why we had a security guard on 24 hour duty when the FBI’s Carnivore internet monitoring system was being developed downstairs–arguably making this the most secure building in 3 states. His response was that if we had, as the company alleged, a $3 Billion operation going, we would have extra security. Of course, we didn’t have a $3 Billion anything. We had a good idea, some very smart software, and a lot of servers filled with smoke and mirrors. The point was that the parent company was up for sale and our existence added $3 Billion of imaginary weight to the sale price.

The other side of that coin was that the second that the merger went through and the price was set, our division was nothing but wasted money and the corporation shut us down. It had nothing to do with how well we performed or the future value of a streaming media system–it was pure short-term economic thinking. Sort of the way they used to put sawdust in the transmissions of Model A’s that were sold to the Okies heading to California. It worked until the buyer got off the lot and then failed.

The other case was, in my opinion, more of a stock scam and so this will be very vague. A big company that had been a leader in innovation was taken over by a very small group of lawyers. To cover the fact that they were closing down massive R&D labs and tossing thousands of great engineers out of work, they put together a few quirky little dotcoms. The dotcoms either failed on their own or were forced out in about a year and the stock slid below a dime per share. Then the proud owners began to enforce the patents that had been built up over the past 40 years. Last time I looked, the stock was over $40 a share.

The lesson I learned in both cases was that if you hear of a purchase or sale of a parent company, be prepared to hear about how terribly the various divisions have been performing and why they simply must be cut. “Sorry about that, old chap, but you just aren’t that good.”

Well, that’s what I see happening with Osprey. Most of the company are publishers of dull, respectable books about Boer War uniforms or birds or something and then they have this outrageous Angry Robot group that’s sitting over in England hiring new and innovative writers, encouraging editors to search out and contract the best work they can find and generally not fitting into the corporate mold.

Well, if you know virtually nothing about the publishing business (and who does, these days?) you think Osprey would be a much easier sale if we whacked off these madmen (and women) at Angry Robot. Then the buyer, who also has no idea what would make a good book, can sleep easier knowing that, if not a good decision, at least it was a defensible one.

Take one more step on. How do you make Angry Robot easier to sell off?

Yes, you cut off the really strange parts where the writers are new and the profits might not be apparent on the spreadsheets yet. This despite the fact that you were giving the editors pep talks and telling them to sign up every author they could find only 2 months ago.  Now Angry Robot is all neat and tidy and can be sold and the victorious Lords of Capital can take their well-earned money and head for the Hamptons.

OK, all this is terribly uninteresting and written by someone with a long record of failure and absolutely NO idea of what goes on in the corridors of power at Osprey (probably foyers of power, actually), but what does it have to do with anything?

The point is that the closure of these two imprints is far more likely to be driven completely by the desire to sell the parent company than for any failure at the imprints. The editors and authors at Strange Chemistry and Exhibit A could have been putting out Ann of Green Gables and In Cold Blood and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. (OK, Green Gables might not have fit into the YA dystopian audience but I was reaching for an example.)

OK, my novel Courier might suck and deserve to be slush-piled. I’ll take that hit (although I don’t really buy it) but the excellent new and veteran writers I’ve met by email at Exhibit A and especially Emlyn Rees and Bryon Quertermous–the editors who put a great, animated, inventive, fascinating list of books out should not accept the blame for “not carving their market niche.”

As they said in The Godfather every time they were about to whack someone for purely personal reasons, “It’s not personal. It’s just business.”


4 responses

  1. […] and author of the excellent novel Courier, Terry Irving, had a pretty damn astute perspective at:…), but it’s a good reminder that publishing is, at its heart, an economic […]


  2. This is new to me.. I didn’t realize the changes were happening… but what does that mean for Courier?


    1. La Lutta Continua.


  3. I think this is a very convincing theory — and sympathy from one affected author to another. (I feel truly terrible for everyone who was mid-contract and the debuts.)


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