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Author Christopher Evans's book deal was cancelled at the last minute with Insomniac Press.

Curtis LeBlanc/Handout

A dozen projects that had been slated for publication with Insomniac Press and about 45 more under consideration will not be moving forward with the independent Canadian publishing house – whose own future is now in question. The cancellations came as Insomniac’s new publisher, who was lined up to be the next owner of the company, stepped down a year into the position amid concerns over the state of affairs at the press based in London, Ont.

Andy Verboom, who joined Insomniac as associate publisher in January, 2020, says the contracts were terminated because he was unwilling to pass on the publishing house’s past obligations to its new authors. He says alarm bells went off over outstanding author requests for royalty statements and rights reversion. “Given how long some of these past authors had published with Insomniac – and for the sake of the new authors – I had to assume this problem was so pervasive that it couldn’t be addressed in a reasonable time,” Verboom e-mailed in written answers to questions sent to him by The Globe and Mail.

“I [now] believe any ‘new’ Insomniac founded on ethical policies,” he stated in a letter to authors, “would be overburdened with redressing contractual obligations to past authors and would be unable to do right by new authors and books.”

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Now the long-time press is in trouble. Its founder says sales dried up completely with the pandemic. There are no books slated to be published.

“I have been in the publishing business for more than 30 years, and this has been the worst year, both professionally and personally,” founding publisher Mike O’Connor told The Globe, also in written answers to questions. “To keep the publishing house running long enough for the handoff to Andy, I had to empty my [retirement] savings. This leaves me in a very precarious position.”

Verboom stepped down on Jan. 16. He remains in Halifax, where he is publisher of Collusion Books and co-founder of long con magazine.

O’Connor says he doesn’t know how he is going to proceed. “At the moment, I’m trying to find ways forward. I was heavily invested in this transition. With Andy pulling out of the plan so late, it has caused a real problem.”

Insomniac Press was founded by O’Connor as a poetry chapbook press in 1992. It has grown and evolved, selling books in more than 40 countries around the world, according to its website. But over the past few years, O’Connor had scaled back to a one-person operation.

The plan – never fulfilled – had been for Verboom to take over ownership of the press from O’Connor, who is dealing with an illness and was planning to retire. Verboom brought in fresh blood, with a new editorial board and mandate: to publish anti-oppressive writing. Verboom, first named associate publisher and then publisher, says once press ownership was transferred, he planned to operate it as a not-for-profit entity. Part of the deal, he says, was that all press debt would be eliminated before the transfer of ownership. Neither Verboom nor the new board members – who served as in-house editors – were paid for their work in 2020.

He estimates that that year, he worked 800 to 1,000 voluntary hours and the editors collectively worked 1,000 voluntary hours “at the very least.” Two external editors did receive payment in October, he says. And the in-house editors have submitted invoices for separate contracted work editing actual book projects – in addition to the volunteer hours.

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The board and Verboom had contracted, committed or offered to publish 12 titles in 2021 and early 2022, he says. In addition, last summer Insomniac put out an open call with the reimagined mandate, and received more than 120 manuscripts. About 45 of those were on a longlist for consideration to publish; authors were to be informed of the decision in the first half of 2021. Most of those writers were debut or early career authors.

But as the time for the transfer of ownership was nearing, Verboom became concerned about the state of the operation.

“I could not see how a ‘new’ Insomniac would be able (in terms of labour or finances) to fulfill its obligations to both past authors and new authors. I was unwilling to pass on these obligations to the editors or new authors. I did my best to communicate this to the new authors,” Verboom says.

Verboom says the contracts were terminated with the authors’ consent – and rights were returned to them.

Christopher Evans says it was gutting to find out his book wasn’t going to be published. His short story collection of darkly comic and sometimes speculative fiction, Nothing Could Be Further from the Truth, was accepted by Insomniac for publication initially for fall 2020, then pushed back to spring 2021. But after Christmas, he learned of the troubles and was given the option to dissolve the contract, which he opted to do. Edited, designed and blurbed, the book – which Evans spent seven years creating – is now looking for a new home.

“I don’t blame Andy for anything that happened; I really think he was trying to build something wonderful,” says Evans, who is based in Vancouver, where he teaches speech arts and creative writing to children.

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“All of this happened during the pandemic, which of course has been a really fraught time, where good news is so hard to come by. So it was a real boost when it was accepted and then pretty gutting to find out that it wasn’t happening, especially when it was so close. And it’s embarrassing, too.”

Penn Kemp, a London-based writer who has published two poetry books with Insomniac – River Revery in 2019 and Local Heroes in 2018 – had a book under consideration over the past year, and she is unaware of its fate.

She speaks highly of both Verboom and O’Connor. She loved Verboom’s plans for the press and had good experiences working with O’Connor.

“Once he gets the manuscript I’ve never heard a publisher work so fast and quickly or follow all my suggestions and demands. He let me run the show in terms of the design of the piece, which is important to a poet.”

O’Connor says he was doing his best to keep up with the paperwork, but acknowledges he fell behind on royalty reports. “But there is no money owing to authors,” he says.

Dina Del Bucchia, who published Blind Items, a book of celebrity-inspired poems, with Insomniac in 2014, said beyond receiving her $200 advance, she never received any royalties – or any royalty statements. She acknowledges that she might not have earned out her advance, but she would have liked a response when she made inquiries (including communication not specifically related to the advance).

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She said she just moved on. “It was $200, poetry doesn’t make a ton of money; what am I going to do, freak out?”

Del Bucchia, who co-hosts the literary podcast Can’t Lit, says the other two Canadian independents she has published with, Talonbooks and Arsenal Pulp Press, were much more attentive. But she hadn’t given it much thought until she saw recent social-media posts about the dissolution of these contracts. “That makes me really sad; it bums me out,” she says.

“Small press authors do not make a lot of money, poets especially do not make a lot of money,” she says. “And I think the industry can feel very predatory or like you’re not being valued. So I hope that everyone who had a bad experience is able to get some kind of resolution out of this. Also that all these amazing books that are not going to print find really good homes with presses that respect them and are excited to share their work with readers.”

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