Something for your pocket?

So I had this outstanding invoice, the second and final payment on a book project for a medium-sized publishing house.  It was well past 90 days overdue.  My emails to the assigning editor were forwarded on the accounting department.  But I wasn’t gettting any response from the ‘accountant’ – my calls went unanswered, my emails not returned. 

Another week goes by and I decide I need to be a bit more proactive.  I call, and I call, and I call.  I leave messages with reception, I leave messages on the accountant’s voice mail, and I go ahead and phone the President and Publisher of the house and leave her a message detailing my frustrations.  A late-paying invoice, unfortunately, isn’t altogether uncommon these days, but the fact that I was being ignored was both unprofessional and annoying.  In addition to the call to the Publisher, I sent an email to eveyone I knew at the publishing house including the editorial director, the assigning editor, and the creative director.  Call it a cheap shot, but I let them know that I’d put that probing call into the Publisher.  I was, for the first time in my career, a bit worried I might not get paid….so I got serious.      

Less than an hour later I was contacted by both the accountatnt and the editorial director.  This entire publishing house is full of sweet, smart, and genuine people, but they’d dropped the ball with my invoice and my probing, and they excused themselves.   They tried to make it clear to me how they would fix things.  I’d be given a check number in two days.  And the check would release two days after that.  “What exactly has been the problem?,” I asked. 

The clearest response to my query was given to me by the Publisher of the house the next morning when she phoned to apologize for all the trouble.  I’d like to report on the highlights of this conversation because it helped me make sense out of everything I’d been hearing.  And it’s always helpful to know and understand the market news and how the trickle-down affects us…and our pockets. 

The Publisher detailed for me the history of AMS (Advanced Marketing Services), an entity that for over 20 years led the publishing industry in book wholesaling and distributing.  They were responsible for shipping over 100 million books each year.  AMS distributed books to the big box stores like Sam’s Club and Costco as well as Amazon to name a few.  The technology AMS harnessed was able to capture book sales at every location, allowing the book publishers to track books and book stock in real time – a real plus to the warehouses and book publishers as they maximized their profits.  AMS also captured a propreitary system called ACUPAK – which allowed them to handle less-than-full cartons of materials/books.  AMS serviced hundreds of publishers thoughout the US and abroad.

But executive corruption plagued AMS as early as 2003.  Their funding by Wells Fargo was pulled in 2007 and they filed bankruptcy.    Baker + Taylor, another big name in book publishing, bought the assets of AMS and formed BTMS in late 2007.  The sale agreement has been tricky as both companies are fighting to moderate their cash flow.  The details and paperwork are still being untangled – millions of dollars is held up in this quagmire.  The bigger publishers have had a much easier time stomaching the holdup of $$ while the mid-size and small publishers are hurting.  Random House is rumored to have 10 million dollars in assets held up this mess and the small publisher I was dealing with had “100’s of thousands of dollars” they were waiting on.  BTMS is decidedly confident that everyone WILL reclaim their book stock and money.  Definitely.  But the quesiton of WHEN remains uncertain.

(Please note here that I have indeed been paid by this publisher and I don’t have ‘overdue’ invoices out anywhere else – seems most if not all of the affected publishers are making it work, somehow.)  

The Publisher, making light of this tough time during which she sees her house struggling to make timely payments, optomistically went on about other current issues hurting bookmakers:

  • Changing labor laws in China directly affect our cost of printing.  The changes, speaking from a human standpoint, are for the BEST, obviously, but they will drive printing costs up.
  • Natural disaster and increasing oil prices drive printing costs up as well.  The Publisher suggested a 30% increase in printing costs in 60 days this spring alone. 
  • Decreasing sales and restructuring at Borders weakens the market: smaller sales = less demand. 

So what does this all mean for all of us?  And how can freelancers help themselves in this tough publishing climate? 

Well, the Publisher I was speaking with went on about how it would take innovation and creativity on behalf of the book publishers to look for and create books that ‘make sense’ in the current market.  Books, perhaps, that could work on many different levels – interfacing with web platforms and social networks, for instance.  And, yes, these sorts of books just might call for an illustrator(s) that have experience in all areas of this ‘interface.’  Illustrators for these concepts are likely to require not only digital submissions but vector art creation, basic knowledge of web development, animation, etc.  Are you all ready for that?   

I’ve spoken with some illustrators who ARE very excited about growth in this new direction.  It IS exciting, new, and different and several publishing houses are setting precedents with their new projects – check out Scholastic’s 39 Clues, and Harper Collin’s which is still gaining momentum.  There is plenty of artistic opportunity – albeit not altogether traditional artistic needs – in this emerging genre.  And that’s how I like to think of it, as a genre of children’s publishing.  

And welcoming this genre doesn’t mean that we’re closing the door on traditional picture books.  Just the other day my husband spoke to an editor at Harpers who said she was trying to bring back ‘the classics’ – whether in a new format with new illustrations or re-telling of the classics, either way, she thought kids were losing touch with those classic stories because of all the NEW licenced and branded characters they were being inundated with.  Hmmmm, what a concept!     

Additioanlly, in the past six months alone, I’ve seen a slew of new imprints make headlines – in the wake of the Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin merger, Allyn Johnston has started work on her own (as of yet unnamed) imprint at Simon & Schuster.  David Macaulay has been given his own collaborative “studio” with Roaring Brook Press.  Haper Collins has welcomed Donna Bray and Alessandra Balzar (from Hyperion) for a new imprint, “Balzar & Bray.”  And there’s more…Bowen Press (Brenda Bowen) at Harper Collins, growing lists for publishers like Sterling and FS&G.  This all means NEW titles and the need for picture book illustration.

The turbulence in children’s publishing – form AMS/BTMS to the restructuring, mergers, and layoffs we’ve seen over the past six months to a year (in both trade and educational publishing) – cannot be overlooked.  All combined, it IS making for a currently slow and uncertain market.  But what comes out of tough times – the new genres, the new topics of interest, revisiting how old stories are told – it’s all EXCITING.  And I encourage you all to embrace and think about this.  Let it fuel your work and your passion for this business. 

Optimistically Yours,



Related Article (and better written!) that was pointed out to me just minutes after my blog post:  Proof that like rhetoric is circling. 


6 Responses to Something for your pocket?

  1. What a very informative and interesting post! Thanks, from an illustrator who likes to keep up with the industry.

  2. HOLLi says:

    Wow! Excellent post!

  3. Jannie Ho says:

    Incredibly informative. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. kathy weller says:

    Thanks Nicole, for sharing this situation, and the larger issues involved.

  5. nataliavasquez says:

    really interesting words about children’s publishing industry and the new exciting new direction. 🙂

  6. Janet McDonnell says:

    It is very helpful to learn about this. It’s easy to feel like you’re working in a bubble, alone in the studio, so thanks for keeping us posted on what’s happening out there!

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