As our company celebrates 15 years in business, it's time for a look back at our start-up
For years readers had been asking me whether I'd ever write a sequel to The Front Runner. The logical move was to pick up on writing Billy's Boy, which William Morrow had given me a contract to write in the late '70s. I had abandoned the project because its story line of a teen born in 1977 meant that I'd be writing science fiction about the '90s. Now the '90s were finally here.
But now, as I pondered what could be the ongoing story line, it didn't seem right to leap straight into the '90s from The Front Runner's '70s. There needed to be a bridge story in between, to cover the '80s. That bridge turned out to be Harlan's Race. And the writing of Harlan's Race led to the founding of Wildcat Press.
That year, 1991, my historical novel One Is The Sun had just been published by Random House/Ballantine. The novel was based on a true story about a great native American woman chief, and had taken 10 years of hard work, for which the publisher paid me one of those big '80s advances. But Ballantine wasn't doing anything to promote it. Deeply disgusted with them, I had spent most of 1991 traveling the U.S. and promoting the book myself.
By fall I wound up in southern California, working on film development of the book with Philip Labhart of Labhart Production Group. Philip and his development partner, Veronica Claypool, had contacted me through my agent, to say how much they loved the novel. On the strength of their invitation to work with them, I had moved to L.A. They gave me a desk in the Group's crowded little production office on the second floor of a Sunset Blvd. sound stage.
Philip was an exuberant Texan in his mid-30s, best known as a producer of imaginative commercials and shorts for nonprofits and political campaigns (including Bill Clinton's run for President). His office walls were crowded with awards, notably a Bronze Lion at the Cannes Film Festival and medals at the New York International Film Festival. But Philip had an itch to make feature films — hence his interest in One Is The Sun.
Naturally, as an openly gay man, Philip would have loved to produce The Front Runner as well! But at the time, I no longer owned the TFR film rights. They had been sold to producer Frank Perry in the 1970s; they'd gone through a number of hands after that, and were now tied up in the estate of producer Jerry Wheeler, who died in 1990. Nevertheless Philip and Roni read my early draft of Harlan's Race and licked their lips. Wouldn't it be fun to put a whole Front Runner series into film development?
Alas, this wonderful friendship and professional relationship was to last only two years. In January 1994, Philip died suddenly of AIDS-related lymphoma, leaving behind a half-finished screenplay, and a file of letters from studios and agents saying they were not interested in One Is The Sun. Even after the phenomenal 1990 success of Dances With Wolves, Hollywood wasn't ready for a big-budget film about powerful native American women. Philip's business partner inherited the company, and wasn't interested in movies. Roni moved to New York City to pursue old interests in theater.
Philip's death might have left me adrift. But by then I had met Los Angeles media specialist Tyler St. Mark. A native of San Clemente, scion of an old Hollywood family, Tyler had credits of his own, having launched the first-in-history national AIDS awareness campaign, "Mother Cares." An author in his own right, Tyler had won an award for short fiction, and was an admirer of The Front Runner. He and I evolved a wish that it might be possible to retrieve the book's film rights. In 1992 I had hired Tyler to handle my personal publicity.
Tyler read the first draft of Harlan's Race with great interest. He too thought there were film possibilities in a TFR series. But publication as a novel had to come first, and it was proving to be a tough book to write. Harlan Brown's arc into personal healing, after the devastating events in the first book, was missing the same kind of strong story line that propelled The Front Runner. Finally, after new research on the subject of snipers, I realized that the missing ingredient could be found in the idea of "the second shooter." Snipers always work in pairs; I had mentioned only one in The Front Runner. What about the other sniper? He was still out there somewhere, a threat. To help deal with him, the two gay Vietnam veterans (mentioned in the first book) now became Harlan's allies, important characters in their own right.
With this key story-point in place, the novel moved towards its final shape.
In 1992 Tyler showed me a contract he'd just been offered for his short story collection by a boutique publisher. I was shocked at how bad a contract it was. Among other things, the publisher wanted to own his film rights and charge him a fat fee for editing. He decided to turn their offer down.
This incident got us talking about being business partners in our own small publishing company and publishing our work independently. Two of my earlier novels — The Last Centennial, The Beauty Queen — were out of print. We launched plans to get the rights reverted and re-publish them. I also had a whole library of magazine pieces I had freelanced over the years, that could produce anthologies on different subjects. We could have our own backlist in no time. But it seemed sensible to direct my new front-list titles — like The Front Runner sequel — to a big trade publisher with promotional clout.
So in mid-1993 I found a new literary agent. This was Mitch Douglas, veteran associate at ICM in New York City. Mitch loved Harlan's Race and was sure he'd have no trouble placing it. So he organized an auction, and sent the manuscript around to a dozen gay editors at New York houses, inviting them to bid. Surprise! They all hated the book. My dark tale of hate crime and combat veterans did not appeal to PC gay males in the publishing industry. One Simon & Schuster editor called me up and asked crisply, "Why don't you write another golden romance?"
I thought this was an odd thing to say after 10 years of AIDS death in the gay community. "In case you haven't noticed," I told him, "the age of golden romances is over."
Mitch Douglas was shocked at the reaction. But Tyler and I had made our decision. "Don't worry," I told Mitch. "We'll publish it ourselves."
By now it was January 1994. If we got into high gear, we could launch the book in June at the ABA in Chicago. Sponsored for many decades by the American Booksellers Assn., this national convention was the most important to U.S. publishing.
At that time, we were working out of Tyler's tiny home office on Spaulding Ave. I had my home office in Malibu, and commuted into town a couple of days a week.
Tyler's past professional experience, and mine, were a good match. Thanks to my years in books at The Reader's Digest, I knew what was needed on the production and manufacturing end. A good freelance typesetter, Barbara Brown, was located in nearby La Crescenta. We solicited bids from several printers, settled on Patterson Printing in Michigan, and ordered 5000 hardcovers. Tyler knew what to do on design and promotion. We had to have a fantastic cover, and a friend of Tyler's was the perfect graphics designer — noted photographer Jay Fraley of Open Eye Studio in Laguna.
Best of all, venture capital had materialized when my mother's trust fund became available. It was the ultimate serendipity — from the time when I was little, my mother had always supported my aim to be a writer. We designed a logo with a small wildcat, to send the message that Wildcat Press was little but feisty. Advance proofs were rushed to Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, The Advocate, Lambda Book Report.
The launch happened in a wild whirl. It was too late to buy our own booth at the ABA, so we arranged to share one with a lesbian-owned publisher, Paradigm, on the Gay & Lesbian Row. The Row included feminist publishers as well, and customarily exhibited in a convention annex, the Small Press Hall, where a booth cost only three figures instead of four. All out of breath, we flew to Chicago and sat at our end of Paradigm's table with our new business cards and the book.
Harlan's Race finally got the reception we felt it deserved. The biggest U.S. distributor, Ingram, was familiar with The Front Runner's sales record — their rep rushed over to sign us as a vendor. Shortly we also had distribution contracts with Baker & Taylor, Bookazine, Inland, Koen, Pacific Pipeline, Bookpeople and the gay distributor Alamo Square. Outside the U.S., we got with Turnaround in the UK and EU, Bulldog Books in Australia, and Marginal (later Disticor) in Canada. Reviews were mostly good. Best of all, the book stayed on the Lambda Book Report gay bestseller list for an entire year.
Foreign publishers showed interest, as they had in TFR. Eventually Harlan's Race went into German, Danish, Japanese, and Spanish editions.
So much for golden romance.
Building Our List
One swallow doesn't make a summer, and one book doesn't make a publisher. It was time to build our list. Tyler and I retrieved or licensed all my old properties. In 1995, Wildcat published its second title — The Front Runner in a 20th-anniversary hardcover edition.
The following year, 1996, we were back at the ABA to grandly launch an entire paperback line — The Front Runner, Harlan's Race, The Fancy Dancer and The Beauty Queen. Four titles at once was a huge effort, but we slogged our way through pre-production of the 5 1/2 x 8 size books. We couldn't have done it without the enthusiastic participation of Jay Fraley, Barbara Brown and our new printer, Banta Book Group in Wisconsin.
1996 was our last year at the ABA. But we did make a big pounce that year. We were the first LGBT publisher to hang a 25-foot banner in the foyer of the Convention Center, along with the banners belonging to several big corporations. GAY PAPERBACKS, our banner screamed. Conservative Christian exhibitors circulated a petition protesting, but the ABA refused to take our banner down. We were also the first LGBT publisher to exhibit on the convention's main floor, thanks to an ABA invitation and the availability of a half-booth we could afford, that somebody had defaulted on. We jumped at the chance for more visibility — not many convention visitors went into the Small Press Hall. Further fundamentalist lobbying scared Ingram into taking our paperbacks off display, but after we went to their booth and had a little talk with them, they put our books out again.
After 1996, Wildcat stopped attending the convention, which had been sold by the ABA and was now BookExpo America. The whole BEA thing had gotten too expensive, with exhibitor fees, air fares, hotels, meals, shipping books. Booksellers no longer attended in numbers, to write orders and help defray publishers' costs. For a small press, it was just not worth it. We were among the first to decamp, and some other LGBT and feminist publishers followed suit.
Soon the Gay & Lesbian Row was no more. The publishing world was being jarred by growing challenges and change — especially for small presses, who are compelled to show a profit on just 45 percent of the retail price that they get to keep on every copy.
In spite of the high-profile advent of Internet bookselling, a slow but general downturn in book sales was visible everywhere. Independent bookstores were closing everywhere. Chain stores were downsizing and regrouping. Spearheaded by Amazon.com, the online used-book market was growing by leaps and bounds, cutting into sales of new books — and authors and publishers don't collect a penny on used books. Some niche markets were hard-hit, especially feminist and women's books.
Worse, the growing problems with mainstream distribution were affecting every niche market that depended on distributors to get into stores. A few of the older landmark LGBT presses — notably Naiad and Firebrand — had closed their doors following bankruptcies of their distributors, Inbook and later LPC Group. Several other distributors lurched into Chapter 11 as well.
Alyson Books, one of the oldest LGBT publishers, dealt with the challenges via the corporate route — the imprint was bought out by LPI, which was bought in turn by PlanetOut, amid a big news hoo-rah that made PNO the first LGBT-owned listing on the NASDAQ. But down the road, as Alyson was torn apart by ongoing shakeups within PNO, it wasn't clear how the publisher was going to benefit from corporatization.
The rest of us struggled to craft new marketing strategies. On the upside, new gay- and lesbian-owned presses like Bella Books, Bywater Books and Suspect Thoughts Press were appearing. Not to mention the appearance of other author-owned imprints like ours. Indeed, there was clearly no lack of wonderful new talent among young LGBT writers, who were launching their careers with the age-old hope that they'd make it.
Wildcat was getting a lot of submissions from other authors, but we were having to say no. Often people asked us why Wildcat Press didn't publish other authors. The answer is to be found in the relentless way that book-business arithmetic works. With Wildcat limiting its list to our own work, Tyler and I didn't need to be paid any royalties or advances. It was enough for our company to keep the bills and our healthcare paid. But the minute we took on other authors, the duty to pay them royalties and/or advances out of Wildcat's 45 percent would change the profit picture drastically.
This narrow profit margin, in a nutshell, is why most small presses don't pay advances to authors. It's also why many small presses wind up unable to pay authors much in the way of royalties.
New Things to Come
1996 was the year that Wildcat Press moved to new quarters.
With Tyler's home office bursting at the seams, we went on the hunt for a space that would meet our business needs. Office space in L.A. is very expensive, so we decided to buy a house. The City of Los Angeles had just legalized doing business out of a residence — people in the film industry had been doing this illegally for many years. Home values in the area had crashed recently, and we found a bargain — a Spanish Revival house in the Mid-Wilshire area, with the perfect layout for a small corporate headquarters.
In May 1996, we moved in. The front half of the building was adequate for our small staff — Tyler, myself, the CPA/bookkeeper, a sales rep or office assistant. Everybody else — typesetter, graphic artist, etc. — were independent contractors. The garage accommodated some books and a shipping department, while the rest of the books went into local storage. The back of the building was essentially a duplex with two apartments, one for Tyler and one for myself.
With old titles in hand, it was time for new writing. Tyler had been working on that series of short stories, which we published on our website one at a time. We planned to put out his book of short stories when he had it completed. Meanwhile, he wanted to do a big novel titled The Gay Messiah.
In 1997, we published the hardcover of Billy's Boy, that third book in The Front Runner series. At that time I was having the incredible good fortune to spend time in the Los Angeles Unified School District as a volunteer teacher and commissioner of education, so daily contacts with LGBT high-school students were important for me as I wrote the book. Billy's Boy sold as well as Harlan's Race. It won an Editors' Choice from the Lambda Book Awards, stayed on the bestseller list almost a year, and went into German and Spanish editions.
The following year, 1997, we issued the Billy's Boy paperback.
By then I was at work on new material. This was a rewrite of an abortive fiction project that I had started way back in the late 1960s before coming out and while still living in Spain. It had never worked, and I had put it in the bottom drawer for many years. Now it was retitled The Wild Man, and I finally got the story to work. We published Wild Man in 2001, and it climbed the Lambda and Amazon g/l bestseller lists. I regarded this book as probably my best fiction effort to date.
Meanwhile we had been actively marketing subsidiary rights on the other books. The Front Runner was going into a new round of languages — Latvian, Chinese, Italian, German, Spanish, in addition to the French, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Japanese editions of its early years. We also had some success with book clubs (Quality Paperback Book Club and InsightOut). In Japan TFR appeared for the third time as a wonderfully illustrated serial in the manga Imaju-Club.
The old anthology idea was still there, and ultimately I'd finally step into it while writing about sports for Outsports.com. The series of articles that I did for this successful online sports publication would become my first nonfiction book, The Lavender Locker Room, in 2006.
Strategies on Cost
Unlike many other small presses, who were going heavily into "print on demand," we stuck to conventional printing technology. Why? Because, over the long haul, paying for a big run on a standard web press is cheaper per copy than paying for a POD short run on a digital press.
In printing, anything under 1000 copies is a short run. POD is designed for smaller publishers with a limited cash flow, who would rather pay for a $500 short run now and then (even if the unit cost is much higher) instead of one large run at $5000.
A good example of this choice came in 2002, when Tyler and I got One Is The Sun back into print. Ballantine had reverted the publishing rights to me, and I was able to obtain the production materials (consisting of offset film) from them as well. At 625 pages, this thick historical novel was a huge financial effort for a small press. If we had gone POD, we would have done it 50 or 100 copies at a pop. But printers gave us POD estimates ranging from $15 to $20 a unit... a minimum of $1500 for 100 copies. We wanted the book to retail at $24.95, so we wouldn't have made a dime this way.
So we went with 1000 copies and a web-press job. The set-up was expensive, because the print industry had gone digital in the last few years. We had a new printer, Phoenix Color in Maryland, that was famed for their cutting-edge 6-color printing. Phoenix didn't want to deal with the old-style offset film that we had for OITS, so the film was converted to digital at a cost of $1500. This pushed the first printing's total invoice to $7000, meaning $7 a unit. The next printing of 1000 would come down to around $5.50 a unit.
The difference — between $15,000 for a thousand copies on POD and just $5500 for a 1000 copies on a web press — was major. Even with the added cost of storage for a large printing, we'd still save money by sticking with a web job. Tyler and I felt that, over time, our cheaper printing costs would become a survival factor for us.
Generally, our bigger-selling titles started out with 1st printings of 5000 copies, and were usually reprinted 2000 or 2500 copies at a time.
Likewise, we finally made a cost decision to phase out hardcover books. Hardcovers are vulnerable to damage during shipping and distribution, especially the dust jackets. The industry's outrageously high rate of returns means that hardcover returns are a killer. Especially for small presses, who can't afford to toss their returns into the shredder the way the big guys do.
So in 2001, with The Wild Man, we went directly into a trade paperback original, skipping the hardcover. We pushed our trim size up to 6 x 9 to give the book more visual importance. Our artists — Jay Fraley and Calvin Ki — continued to give us eye-catching covers. Tyler incorporated some of the new special effects — like embossing and foil stamping and cut-outs. These don't add much in production cost, but are an extra attraction for bookbuyers.
A special case was our 1995 leatherbound edition of The Front Runner. This was designed to tap the collectible market for my most popular books that Tyler had quickly recognized. Retailing at $159, with each copy signed and numbered, the leatherbound is available only on our website or by special order.
But Wildcat was not just about books. The Press's parent LLC, Wildcat International, was also intended for film and TV development. Our work would have its biggest income potential if we could diversify and develop the performance rights — not just for The Front Runner, but our other titles as well.
In 1993, with Tyler's support, I started a legal process to retrieve The Front Runner film rights. Four years later, in 1997, came a settlement out of court, and an agreement that gave me a five-year option to exploit the film rights. To exercise that option, I would have to make a payment. With gay independent films now a reality in the movie marketplace, we hoped that we could get financing for a Wildcat International production, with Tyler on point as producer. Surely we'd have a deal on the table within five years, and make that payment with somebody else's money.
For many years, TFR fans had been writing me to insist that The Front Runner was an ideal story for film. But few of them realized that getting this film made was not a slam-dunk. Even after watching all the previous efforts fail, I didn't realize how daunting the task would be.
Long-time industry paranoia about LGBT themes was slowly waning, so the challenge for a Front Runner production was less about the content. It was more about the budget. Profits had been made by a few films that relied heavily on gay stereotypes acceptable to straight moviegoers — like The Birdcage (1996), which became the all-time money-making "gay themed film" with over $185 million in worldwide box office. But most people in the industry (including the gay people in it) still saw LGBT films as extreme high risk, to be touched only with the 20-foot pole of low-budget productions.
A range of "low budget" was being established — from the $10-million cost of 1998 Oscar-winner Gods and Monsters, to the $2 million cost of 1999 Oscar-winner Boys Don't Cry. Profit was never shown by Gods and Monsters, which earned only $6.5 mil in domestic box office. Boys Don't Cry became the poster child of profitable low-budget, with domestic box office of over $11 million.
Generally these low-budget movies were seen only in limited theatrical release. They made the rounds of film festivals, played for a couple of weeks in a few big cities where there were sizeable numbers of LGBT filmgoers — and then went straight to video and DVD, with cable also hopefully in the future. Even Gods and Monsters started out in limited release. After it won the Oscar, the producer tried putting it into wider release, but mainstream theater-goers didn't respond in large numbers. Another flop in wider release was Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998), which eked only $2 million at the box office.
But The Front Runner story, with its panorama of big-time sports and the Olympic Games, seemed to require a budget in the $15-$20 million range. Well-known line producer Britt Lomond, veteran of over 100 films, had joined our team. Britt did a number of detailed budgets and felt that the higher figure was needed for the right production values and talent. But nobody in Hollywood was ready to go there — especially with a new little production company that had never made a film. Not even the gay independents were willing to give us the time of day.
One gay independent producer told us crisply, "I'd rather make ten little films for one million each, and show a profit on all of them, than spend ten million on Front Runner and maybe lose my shirt."
Executive producer Gregory Zanfardino of Alliance Filmworks, who had brought the British series Queer as Folk to Showtime for a U.S. series, also joined the team. Greg helped us continue to shop for financing. As the five-year window drew to a close in December 2002, we were facing the deadline for that payment and still had no deal. Fortunately at the last minute, a private financing source showed up, with enough money to secure ownership of the rights and pay some bills. The three of us kept shopping the project, but our file of rejection letters was getting pretty thick.
Finally, with the expenditures on development driving Wildcat International steadily towards the wall, we decided to let it be known that we were ready to sell the rights again.
In 2005, the huge financial success of Brokeback Mountain proved our point that a real gay film — one that broke ground and didn't rely on old stereotypes — could go into wide release and make a huge profit. To date Brokeback has earned nearly $180 million in box office worldwide, close on the heels of The Birdcage.
Brokeback's example has not been lost on private-equity finance people who are interested in entertainment investments. As I write this corporate history, we continue to have promising film-deal meetings, and are optimistic that production of The Front Runner will soon be green-lighted somewhere.
Real-life cats have their own example to teach. They are very patient. My cat Squeaky will sit at a mouse hole for days, waiting for dinner to come out. We're learning to be that kind of patient. Sometimes it takes a few years to get ahead on a particular front.
We have inquiries about a Front Runner stage production. In Germany and the U.S., we've finally broken into the audio market with The Front Runner and One Is The Sun. There is finally film interest in One Is The Sun. Wildcat's newest book title, The Lavender Locker Room, is being considered for a gay TV sports series.
Meanwhile, Tyler and I have each developed a personal portfolio of film projects. Mine is heavy on documentary films, including a little-known but extraordinary Australian angle on Amelia Earhart's disappearance on her world flight in 1937.
As I write this, Wildcat International, with its subsidiary Wildcat Press, has been in business for 15 years. Quite a number of LGBT-owned publishing houses have come and gone in that time. Wildcat is proud of its achievements in various areas:
- Bestsellers: Most of our titles have made it onto different LGBT and mainstream lists, and continue strongly with backlist sales.
- Awards: Many of our titles have won national awards, whether a Lammie or a mainstream award like the Independent Publisher Gold Medal won by The Lavender Locker Room.
- Professional Product: We don't put out cheap books. To compete in an ever more critical market, a small-press title needs to have the ultimate in professional quality and visual appeal, from the cover design to the layout and choice of paper. We have never relied on the ever-more-stereotyped "naked torso" for cover appeal.
- Market Pioneering: We were one of the first small presses to demonstrate that new bookbuyers and steady sales can be found at Pride Festivals and other community events that feature vendor participation, like the Phoenix Rainbow Festival and Chicago's Halstead Market Days. For several years, we were seen at all the major Prides and events, and many smaller ones, around the country. Availability of LGBT books at local events is especially important in cities where there is no longer an independent community bookstore.
- Civil Liberties: Wildcat is the only LGBT-owned book publisher to have been a long-time ACLU plaintiff against the Justice Department, in battles against government censorship of the Internet. We helped win the 1997 Supreme Court decision that struck down the Communications Decency Act, as well as the 2007 decision against constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (though this one is on appeal by the DOJ). The ACLU named Wildcat as a "Champion of Free Speech."
- Supporter of Causes: Through book donations to silent auctions and other types of fundraisers, we've supported countless organizations, from Friends of Project 10 to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. We've also donated books to most noted LGBT library collections across the country, as well as community-center and youth-center libraries.
- Literary Support: Wildcat is one of the annual sponsors of the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, now looking at its 6th successful year. I also am involved with a growing effort by U.S. Latino authors to create a bigger marketplace for their books. This new series will be published by Floricanto Press, and edited by Puerto Rican author Carlos T. Mock.
- Youth Support: Our "Youth Writes" program, a brainchild of Tyler's, provides a free day-long workshop for interested groups of young people in any city, who want to learn more about writing and publishing. Our most recent: at Youth First in Dallas. For more info, see http://wildcatintl.com/enterprises.cfm.
Copyright © 2007 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.