For the past three weeks or so, authors published by Chicago’s Curbside Splendor have taken to social media and spoken to PW to complain about the small literary press’s failure to communicate with them in a timely fashion, pay them royalties, and honor contracts.
The social storm began on March 21 when Chelsea Martin posted on Twitter, “Curbside Splendor i.e. Victor Giron never paid my royalties for Mickey (2016). He didn’t honor our contract and kept the money he was supposed to pay me. It was a complete nightmare and enormous waste of time trying to get paid and ultimately I failed and I’ll be pissed about it forever.” Martin’s tweet prompted others to tell similar stories of nonpayment of royalties, while some Curbside customers vowed to withdraw their support of the press. Book blogger Mandy Shunnarah-Reed tweeted, “I go out of my way to support small presses, even buying direct from their website [because] I know that puts more [dollars] in their pockets. I’m disappointed in Curbside Splendor [and] will never give them another dime of my money.”
Martin told PW that she never received an advance after signing with Curbside in 2015 for Mickey. She also confirmed that she has never received royalties, saying, “Giron [Curbside’s founding publisher] kept telling me he was sending checks but then wouldn’t,” Giron and Martin eventually agreed that she would receive all remaining hard copies of her book and that the contract was terminated.
“I don’t feel I am owed anything else,” she told PW last week, “I spoke out about my experience because I was extremely upset at how I had been treated while trying to get what was contractually owed to me, and had talked to other authors under Curbside who had experienced the same treatment. I also wanted to let new or unpublished authors know about what I had learned from this situation. My hope now is that Victor will pay what is due to the other authors who have not been paid royalties.”
Another author, Tim Taranto said that he’d been trying for many months to receive the royalties due him for his literary memoir, Ars Botanica (2017), as well as the return of any remaining hard copies of his book and the termination of his contract. The day he spoke to PW, he’d just heard from his agent that the contract had been terminated and he would be receiving all remaining hard copies of Ars Botanica.
“My book sold really well and yet I didn’t see a penny,” he said, recalling that he’d been contracted to receive a $500 advance as well as royalties. Curbside also set up a national tour, but he ended up driving to the bookstores since Curbside did not finance his travel. “I drove from New York City to Portland, Ore., but had to cancel a few dates because I couldn’t get there in time,” he said, “That’s when I started to realize something was wrong.”
As with Martin, Taranto says, he and Giron finally agreed to having the rights reverted to him as well as a termination of the contract in lieu of any royalties. “I don’t want the story of this book to be one of failure – because it wasn’t,” he said.
Books Pulled, Contracts Not Honored
One author pulled her debut novel, How to Adjust to the Dark, which was scheduled for release this spring. Rebecca Van Laer says that when she signed a contract with Curbside in February 2018, she “was thrilled, they’d published dozens of books by so many authors I admired that it never occurred to me that there might be an issue.” But the press began losing staff, until Giron became her sole contact there. It was a difficult decision to leave, she says, but also the right one.
Another author, Shannon McLeod, says that she won the Wild Onion Novella Contest in 2017, which included publication by Curbside as well as a cash prize. While Curbside never signed a formal contract with McLeod, she started working with its editors on edits. After asking Giron about a contract, she was sent an author questionnaire and informed the book would be published in spring 2019. After both editors she worked with left Curbside, she inquired again about a contract and was told by Giron that Curbside was experiencing “cash flow problems.” She says that Giron wrote in an email, “’At this point I'm not sure when your book will be able to come out with us. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.’ I never heard from him again." And she never did receive that cash prize.
For his part, Giron says that publishing books “is a very difficult business” and that Curbside has been struggling financially for the past five years since he began running it less as a “passionate hobby” and more as a business. Citing the need to pay printers upfront as well as his employees, Giron explained that oftentimes, this left no funds to pay authors what they were due. Recalling that at its peak, the 10-year old press published 20 books each year, and has launched the careers of a number of critically-acclaimed authors, Giron says that he has downsized and is not publishing any books in 2019 – although he is working on two projects scheduled for publication in 2020 and hopes to publish five-10 books each year “after the dust settles.” Giron now is Curbside's sole employee.
“I ran out of money. I lost my personal life savings,” he said, “”I could have declared bankruptcy, but I am paying off royalties as I can and I am almost caught up. But I had to cancel a few contracts due to cash flow.”
Giron said that Curbside’s bookstore, Curbside Books & Records, located in the National Building’s Revival Food Hall in Chicago's South Loop area, will remain open for business.
Naomi Huffman, a Curbside employee for four years, who was editor-in-chief for two years until she left Curbside in 2017 to serve as senior digital marketing coordinator for FSG’s MCD Books imprint, says that in 2016, a “handful, four or five authors” began emailing her, inquiring about their royalties.“I demanded to know what his plans were to pay these people,” she told PW, “I assumed he’d work out a payment plan.”
While, Giron's mismanagement adversely impacted so many authors, not to mention employees, Huffman maintained that Curbside’s treatment of its authors and employees is not unique in the industry. “It’s not limited to Curbside,” she said, “This goes unchecked a lot and I hope it sparks a larger conversation about how writers, who are vulnerable, are treated in the literary sphere. I hope this is an opportunity to correct it.”
Literary agent Kent Wolf of the Friedrich Agency, who represents two Curbside authors although he himself did not broker either deal, can attest to the difficulties both have had trying to obtain their royalties in a timely fashion. Wolf said that he knows of at least one instance in which Giron was sent a cease-and-desist letter because Curbside continued to sell a title after a larger house had “paid handsomely to buy out an existing contract.” And in 2017, Wolf says, he unsuccessfully requested a termination of rights on behalf of one of his clients “due to Curbside's repeated fiduciary failure.”
Wolf agreed with Huffman’s take that while Curbside’s business practices are particularly egregious, it is easy for indie presses to run into trouble. “A lot of authors feel they shouldn’t make waves when they’re offered a book deal and then accounting concerns rise. They’re afraid if they speak up, they'll be blackballed, their careers ruined. That's why it’s so important to have an agent in this situation.”