The End of ChiZine?
As I wrote last week, the Canadian speculative fiction industry has been shocked by the sheer number of accusations against ChiZine Publications, a small Canadian publisher of horror fiction. What started with allegations of non-payment of royalties from a few authors exploded into dozens of stories of non-payment for editors, publicists, and other professionals, as well as allegations of sexual harassment, threats, gaslighting, and various other forms of emotional abuse.
As someone who generally doesn’t pay much attention to either scandals or social media (much less scandals on social media), I’m usually the last person to hear about these things. However, it turns out that I’ve been in close proximity with someone who was directly mistreated by the owners and operators of ChiZine but had been silent for fear of reprisal. However, once she heard others go public with their stories, she went public with hers, as did a number of others. For the first time in my life, I was watching from the ground floor as an industry scandal exploded over everyone’s heads. Trying to keep up with the stories that unfolded daily was almost impossible, but there were always new stories.
In the past week, there has been plenty of disgust and disbelief flooding Facebook, Twitter, and science fiction and fantasy listservs. Some simply can’t or won’t believe that Sandra and Brett (as well as some of their author friends) would deliberately contribute to a culture of abuse. Some are despondent because ChiZine was a heavy-hitter in the small publishing industry, and they fear that losing ChiZine will create some unfillable chasm in Canadian publishing. Others are ready to (figuratively) burn ChiZine to the ground and start over. I, for one, have my flaming pitchfork at the ready.
I’ve been falling down this seemingly bottomless rabbit hole for eight days now and still have some trouble pulling all the pieces together. There are a lot of pieces. For those who are feeling overwhelmed by the scandal or simply don’t know much about it, The Horror Show with Brian Keene has released an in-depth episode focusing on the ChiZine scandal. They have spoken to various people who were published by or who worked for ChiZine, and they’ve even had a chance to review the financial statements of some, particularly author royalty statements.What they find does not look good for ChiZine.
A Rapidly Changing Industry
But aside from the immediate concern of seeking some sort of justice for those who have been harmed by ChiZine’s predatory practices, it’s clear we have some much bigger issues to wrestle with. Perhaps my biggest concern is how we can help authors and other publishing professionals, particularly those who are new to the industry, avoid the traps that ChiZine’s victims fell prey to.
Publishing is a tough business—an expensive business—and finding a publisher to work for or publish with is incredibly difficult. For authors, self-publishing may sound like a great option, but to do so much as a half-assed job producing a single book can cost $2,000 or more. Starting a freelance editing or publicity services business or a small press is a huge risk. You either need to have significant funds on hand (not easy for everyone) or you have to work it as a side hustle, which means you might not have the time to actually get the business off the ground.
I am both a published author and a freelance editor, and even after a decade in the business, I still don’t know all the ins and outs. The writing and the editing I know pretty well, but seeking an agent or publisher is still nerve-wracking, and figuring out marketing and publicity is a struggle. So much of the work involved with publishing is invisible to the public, so it’s no wonder many get lost just trying to get started. I’ve worked with a number of first-time authors, and many of them know very little about the publishing process or the industry in general because they lack experience and have not found a mentor.
It doesn’t help that the publishing world has evolved rapidly since the 1990s, when the internet became widely available to the public. Large publishers have become reluctant to take on new, untried talent, and small publishers operate on razor-thin margins and may need to fund their work through crowdfunding and/or grants. With so many people trying to get their writing published and so few understanding the nitty-gritties of the process, it’s no wonder that wolves in publisher’s clothing can get so fat. ChiZine was not the first company to take advantage of its authors and it won’t be the last. The challenge now is to find ways to protect members of the publishing community and keep the wolves out in the cold.