A Small Press Implodes: The Inside Story of Aspen Mountain Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Writer BewareA month ago, I blogged about the troubles at Aspen Mountain Press, whose authors report nonpayment of royalties, contract breaches, delayed publication schedules, and other problems; and whose senior staff resigned en masse in early August.

Usually, when this kind of turmoil engulfs a publisher, authors and staff members are reluctant to say too much, and the details don’t become widely known. But recently, in a searing blog post, AMP’s former head editor Celina Summers broke her silence, and went public with the whole sordid story of AMP’s demise.

Celina writes,

My first indication that anything was wrong came when one of my authors at [AMP imprint] Aurora Regency—a writer who was in my writing group, who was a dear friend, who was someone whose integrity I trusted absolutely—wrote to me in concern because she hadn’t received her royalties.

When it became apparent that this was more than an isolated problem, AMP staff attempted to intercede with the owner, Sandra Hicks, to get things straightened out. Ultimately, the owner turned the running of the company over to staff (who were themselves owed substantial amounts of money in back pay), and brought in a bookkeeper to straighten out the royalty mess. But the mess was worse than anyone imagined.

Hundreds of emails in all the AMP accounts, gone unanswered and unopened from authors and staff. The customer service email account alone had over 500 unanswered emails over the previous eight months. That took two people working eight hours to resolve—and in the process, we discovered a frighteningly large number of AMP books that had serious formatting problems for a long time.

Authors who were contracted and never heard back from the company, leaving their books unpublished and their rights tied up. I found books from two years previously that were still stranded by AMP, the authors begging to just get a response from somebody…anybody.

The royalties were such a mess that the bookkeeper, Kerry Mand, elected to concentrate on just getting that month’s royalties out and working on some of the most pressing cases before working backwards through the books and auditing a year’s worth of royalty spreadsheets and reports–a course of action I agreed with. We discovered that in previous months, only portions of the royalties had been paid at any given time.

Celina describes the staff’s all-out efforts to get things back on track. And it looked as if they were succeeding. Correspondence was answered, books were uploaded, release schedules were established, and the royalty accounts were untangled.

The accounts were then sent to Ms. Hicks for payment. But within days, staff began hearing from authors who hadn’t received their royalties. When Ms. Hicks was confronted about this, Celina reports,

…she said that to her knowledge, [payments] all had been [made]. We were online IN the bank account and Paypal, trying to match authors (and pen names) to amounts to see who’d went unpaid. And as I asked her about a specific author, we watched the payment go out from that account. Then she texted me back each time and said that I was mistaken, that author had been paid.

Up until that moment, I believed that all the problems at AMP were unintentional, and that there wasn’t a chance of dishonesty on the part of the owner. But that, when considered along with everything else, made me suspicious for the first time. After that, we couldn’t believe Ms. Hicks when she told us she’d paid for something. So we began to monitor the bank account…It was then that we starting noticing some peculiar activities in the AMP bank account.

The owner was using the business’s bank account for personal expenses.

Staff begged Ms. Hicks to separate her personal expenses from the company’s. She refused. Believe it or not, the story goes downhill from there, with scheduled books left unpublished, rights reversion requests refused or ignored, threats from Ms. Hicks, authors chastised and banned from discussion loops, and royalties and salaries still unpaid. All of this, apparently, has been complicated by Ms. Hicks’ personal and health issues.

There has been some positive movement recently. In subsequent posts, Celina notes that a few AMP writers have received reversion letters. More important, the AMP website is down–and per the AMP contract, if the company suspends operations for 60 days or more, all rights automatically revert to authors. Other problems, however, including outstanding royalty payments, continue to be unresolved.

In conclusion, Celina writes:

Publishers need to be held accountable for their actions. It is time now for Aspen Mountain Press to pay what they owe.

Give the authors their rights back.

Give the authors an internal audit of the books.

Pay the authors and staff what they are owed.

And shut the doors on a one-time great little publisher that is now the biggest cautionary tale of all.

A cautionary tale, indeed.

For every writer and editor caught up in a disaster like this, the situation is unique. But for us at Writer Beware, it’s a sadly familiar story. Small press publishing is inherently risky–for publishers as well as for authors–and while the situation at AMP is uglier than many, it’s also far from unusual. Small presses tend to be much more directly tied to the personal lives and resources of their owners than bigger companies are, and that makes them uniquely vulnerable to not just to money problems, but to logistical and personal ones as well.

The problem is, while some small presses reveal their iffiness on initial research, or demand a wait-and-see approach because they’re untried start-ups, there’s no way to predict the implosion of an apparently established, active publisher like Aspen Mountain Press. No matter how careful you are, some risk is inevitable. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself–some of which are suggested in my blog post, Precautions for Small Press Authors, and also in the brand-new Small Press page at Writer Beware.

Over the past few weeks, a number of AMP authors have come forward with their stories. Here are some of them:

Charles E. Wells
Esther Mitchell
Andy Dunn
Kimberly Nee
Grace Wen
Destiny Blaine
Samantha Combs
Barbra Custer
Celia Kyle

Also, a local reporter is looking for authors who are having issues with AMP; TeddyPig has posted his contact details.

2 Responses

  1. Shockwave

    I would advise that the person responsible for a) the website and b) the DNS entries, change both passwords before leaving the business due to non-payment of wages. Then refuse all contact with Ms. Hicks.

    It would be quite simple for her to get the website back up again within that 60 days, and then claim that she doesn’t have to revert the rights. By changing the passwords on both, she can neither turn the site back on, nor create a new one and point the DNS to the new machine. And this will prevent Ms. Hicks from committing more crimes, normally a laudable thing to do.

  2. Nancy Sanders

    I would suggest AMP authors go to this November 9, 2011 Huffington Post article which lays out the authorities/entities to whom AMP authors can contact to get some help in dealing with this publisher. I worked with the reporter to get that article published.


    Yesterday my husband received a response from the Denver Better Business Bureau – a response to the snail mail letter which he sent to them setting forth the problems at AMP. The BBB letter stated my husband’s complaint has been assigned a case number. It stated that they have reviewed his case and have forwarded it to the business (AMP / Hicks) for the business’ response. It stated that if the business does not respond to his complaint by November 17, a second letter will be sent to the company.

    The letter encouraged my husband to use their Online Complaint System to keep up with the progress of this complaint, giving my husband a password to use along with the case number. The letter stated the BBB “appreciates the opportunity to work with you and the business to resolve this matter efficiently and to your mutual satisfaction.”

    You are writers. Please write to these entities so that they may help you. The more authors they hear from, the more concerned they will become and all the more swift will their actions be (hopefully).