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Whatever Happened to Booktrope?

Updated: Aug 4, 2019

At the end of May 2016, the paperbacks of my books, Gristle & Bone and Salvage, were unpublished for a brief period of time, due to my publisher Forsaken, an imprint of the Seattle startup Booktrope, having closed its doors.

This seems to be an ongoing trend with small press, unfortunately. Companies overextend themselves to produce a ginormous back catalog (everyone knows the back catalog is where the money lies), which leads to a lack of quality control, often involving a lack of any viable business plan, etc. etc. To paraphrase South Park's Underpants Gnomes: ​Step 1 - Open the floodgates and let the writers pour in.

Step 2 - ??? Step 3 - Profit.

The founder of Booktrope was quoted as saying "Booktrope is on the cutting edge of what publishing will look like in the future. I think publishing as it has been will soon go away." It was something new, and in principle it could have worked: a collective of writers working individually with teams of their choosing. Write the book, have it edited by a professional Editor, proofed, managed by (ostensibly) a professional Book Manager, and a cover design provided by a professional Designer. These team members worked for a share of the royalties, referred to in the indie film business as "deferred payment." This should have been a sign of bad things to come, but I, like many, had stars in my eyes.

Twenty-five author copies! For free! With self-publishing, I was shelling out fifteen bucks to get one proof copy delivered!

In its final few months, Booktrope did a lot to help push its books. They created a mailing service, Runaway Goodness, that promoted daily deals. They added features like BookBub promotions and Netgalley listings at a reduced cost, they featured books in a Humble Bundle package, which ended up grossing approximately $60,000 for a charitable cause, HB, and Booktrope authors.

They created audiobooks (something I was unable to do at the time through Amazon ACX because I happen to live in Canada). They had something called the Amazon Inclusion Program (which I never fully understood, but was ostensibly a partnership with Amazon for promotion purposes with specific books). I was also approached by their Film and TV development head to write a television pilot treatment. (I still think it would make for a brilliant horror anthology series—PM me for details, Hollywood wink wink.) They were hiring new staff to take care of Art Production, Logistics, etc. They brought in some new heavy-hitter marketing guy or COO or whatever. In retrospect I think maybe this Chief Operating Officer might have been like the consultants in Office Space, sent in to clean house and get everything in order before they liquidated assets and dissolved the company.

"What do ya do here?"

And in the background, in our message groups and on Facebook, things were developing that didn't look so bright. The leader of my imprint Forsaken, Maddie Von Stark, either departed or was let go very soon after my self-published horror collection, Gristle & Bone, was republished under the Booktrope imprint. A month after the release of my debut novel, Salvage, the book imprints Forsaken, Edge, etc., were dissolved and their individual Managing Directors let go. Jesse James Freeman later stepped down as VP of Community Management.

Meetings were missed. Emails unanswered.

Inevitably, Booktrope made the announcement on April 31st that effective June 1st Booktrope would be no more, and all books published by Booktrope would be off the market. It was said that they were not going bankrupt, that this decision was made when they were still in a financial position to pay off royalties owed to team members. I have no ill-will toward the people at Booktrope. I believe their intentions were in the right place. Maybe like me, they had stars in their eyes a little. It seemed like the perfect time for a hybrid publisher with a new vision for the publishing industry to thrive. Unfortunately, all of this left hundreds of authors scrambling to pick up the pieces in the final month of Booktrope's life, to make sure their books and reviews and rankings on Amazon didn't disappear forever. To make sure they could secure the rights to their cover artwork. To make sure all of their hard work wasn't thrown out with the bathwater.

Many of these people had no idea how to self-publish, had very little knowledge of the business outside of their own writing. These people were hit the hardest, I believe.

As far as my own books are concerned, I'd decided to republish the under the Shadow Work Publishing banner, along with a handful of other Booktrope refugees. I love small press. I love the work that they do.

I had no pretensions this would be a huge thing. We're just a bunch of writers doing what we do, hoping some people will read our books. In this world where just about everything is given away for free, that's all we can ask for.

Since then we've put out several novels, novellas and a couple of charity anthologies. Our first anthology VS: US vs UK Horror has done extremely well for its charities so far. The sequel, VS: X (or VS: Extreme) will release in the fall, featuring stories from a ton of excellent indie writers as well as generous extreme horror heavyweights Wrath James White and Jack Ketchum. (Graham Masterton had previously been involved but had to drop out. Jasper Bark, who wrote the superb Stuck On You, has taken his place.)

Dark Designs, our second anthology, is a fun and terrifying look at the Mad Scientist subgenre of horror. The stories in here are genuinely creepy, and definitely worth a look.

Working with the writers on these two anthologies (three, when you factor in VS: X) has been a delight. And it's great to see their hard work and dedication to a cause pay off in a big way.

In addition to our anthologies, Shadow Work Publishing has also released the debut novella of Dawn Cano, I Am Karma, and Jeffery X. Martin's first novel Hunting Witches and novella Parham's Field, both books from the world of Elders Keep. We've put out a quintet of novellas from Thomas S. Flowers (Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmo and Feast), as well as his first collection The Hobbsburg Horror.

We've also created paperback versions of Glenn Rolfe's The Haunted Halls and my own WOOM (both ebooks published by extreme horror maven The Matt Shaw), as well as the paperback for my Kindle Press novel The Method.

Some of our titles as of last summer.

I've just released a new collection of dark fiction, the followup to Gristle & Bone, called Video Nasties. Putting together the paperback (with Studio77's Peter Frain) and the trailer for this one has definitely been one of the highlights of my time as an indie / small press publisher.

Yes, it's a tough business. Yes, it's sometimes difficult to "find" sales. But in the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, "Life, uh, finds a way."

"Not sure why I'm in this movie but I'll damn sure chew more scenery than the 'dinosours.'"

In regard to the situation I left with my former publisher, a word of advice: if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. When tragedy strikes, you'll know who your friends are by looking around to see who's still standing in the rubble, ready to help you to your feet. ​And keep chasing that dream, even when it seems impossible.

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