The Third Child – 06/14/2021

I can’t write about Miles and Ben and me without writing about the third child – the one that made me famous and cost me some important relationships, that led me up to the edge of a nervous breakdown and made me friends all over the world, the one with whom we all shared our lives.

The ovum of that child was released, I guess, when I wrote an article distilling my three whole years of experience into a few thousand words, called it “How to Be a Sexually Dominant Woman,” and fired it off to Cosmopolitan.[1]

The sperm was the owner of a local erotic boutique. She’d invited me to teach a workshop for novice dommes and their partners. She asked me what name I wanted to use, and, more or less at random, I said “Lady Green.” I showed her my article, and she said, “This is great – can we use it as a handout?”

“I’ve already submitted it to Cosmo, so that won’t work,” I said. “But I could rewrite it and we can use that instead.”

And the zygote – I promise I’ll stop belaboring this metaphor now – began to form. The article grew and grew, and Jay said, “You know, that’s enough words for a small book” – and, well, things kind of took off from there.

But at the same time that Greenery Press was being born, my career in advertising was dying.

I was working as a copywriter at a small Silicon Valley agency specializing in high-tech clients. I’d been their cherished darling when they first hired me – the skills that later gave me a career in explaining weird sex to the masses served me well in talking to engineers, figuring out what they were trying to say, and translating that into fun, benefit-oriented prose that an executive or purchasing agent could understand.[2]

I was having fun, I was making more money than I ever had before, I adored my coworkers and they adored me. Until, gradually, they didn’t.

Having just joined the actual kink community, I was newly in love with being able to speak what had formerly seemed unspeakable. Like many newbies, I wasn’t being terribly careful about the boundaries between my erotic self and all my other selves. The kind of issues that would have been unexceptionable if I’d been putting energy into the PTA or my bowling team were a problem when they were about scheduling a play party or mediating a community conflict – and although I tried to be careful to keep my personal business personal, it seeped through.

Things came to a head at a mandatory company retreat. I loathe, as a matter of principle, such exercises in forced bonding (I already have friends, and the reason they’re my friends is that I chose them), but at this one we were being encouraged to drink. A lot.

By this point in the book, you have probably figured out that I am not very inhibited when I’m sober. So you can just imagine what I get up to with four or five drinks in me.

The weekend is kind of a blur, but I have a patchy memory of a series of skits in which we were asked to pretend we were one of our coworkers. Which somehow led to my bright idea that acting my part involved grabbing the assistant media buyer by the crotch.

In short, the weekend was the end of any illusions the company might have had that they had hired a nice girl.

What happened next, quite quickly:

  • A companywide memo went out forbidding personal calls on company time. It was summertime, the Dudes were in day camp[3] but home with Jay in the afternoons, and I had been checking in with them once or twice a day to forestall mayhem – but I obeyed the rule and stopped making those calls.
  • Jay began complaining that his work was being interrupted by six or seven hang-up calls a day.
  • I was called into the boss’s office, shown a phone bill that included six or seven calls a day to my home number, and fired on the spot.

I suppose I could have applied for other copywriting jobs, but I was too shocked and dispirited to try – plus, I’d only been in the Bay Area for a year, and I had no career support network there.

I already had the Sexually Dominant Woman piece drafted. Jay had a manuscript he called SM 101: A Realistic Introduction that he’d been working on for years, and had submitted to several mainstream publishers to no avail.

With my salary gone (and no hope of receiving unemployment, as I’d been “fired with cause”), we were staring bankruptcy in the face.

For his first book, The Bay Area Sexuality Resources Guidebook, Jay had already figured out a strategy that presaged today’s “print-on-demand” system: he’d get an order from an erotic boutique or leather store, then call the copy shop to order that many copies of the book, photocopied and comb-bound. We’d pick up the books, deliver them to the retailer, and rush the resulting check to the bank quickly, before our check to the copy shop[4] bounced.

So we had three books, and we had a (funky but functional) distribution system. I’d spent my decade in advertising looking over the shoulders of excellent graphic designers, so I had a smidgen of understanding of basic layout principles and techniques. I spent money we didn’t have on a copy of Quark XPress layout software and got to work – and within six weeks of my expulsion, we had camera-ready art on both Jay’s and my books.

We started out as two separate companies – Jay Wiseman Books and Greenery Press. It didn’t take long for Jay to realize that he had no ability or desire to be a publisher, so we combined the two companies under the Greenery Press banner, and I got busy.

Within a year or two, I was hearing from mainstream bookstores saying they’d like to carry our books, but couldn’t accept the comb binding – they needed books to be perfect-bound[5].

If Jay’s precognitive contribution to Greenery was print-on-demand, mine was crowd-funding. I found folks who were willing to front us money for a print run, in exchange for a credit in the book and repayment of the loan out of book sales.

The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous[6] Beginners was our first “real” book, followed in short order by The Bottoming Book and The Topping Book. Our next big step was publishing a book that neither Jay nor I had played any part in writing, Miss Abernathy’s Concise Slave Training Manual. (All four books are still in print in some form.) By then, we were well and truly launched.

This was about the time that the world, especially the Bay Area, got wildly excited about a buzzy new concept called the World Wide Web. Huge amounts of money were getting invested in startups, and I wanted some of it.

I’d met a man – a former member of the Kerista family[7] ­­– at a polyamory conference, where he’d announced himself as a financial consultant specializing in publishers. With his help, I crafted a (wildly overoptimistic) business plan, incorporated the business, found some investors, hired some employees, and committed to a minimum of four books a year.

The odd thing is that in that couple of years, I published more books that would go on selling well for years than I ever did afterwards – but it still wasn’t enough. Greenery Press made itself an ironic name by running constantly in the red. I got incredibly lucky in the folks assigned to our tax accounts – the guy from the IRS collected vintage Chinese erotica, and the guy from the California Board of Equalization was the biological son of a publisher whose obscenity case had gone to the Supreme Court – and they truly did want to help me. But the fact was that we were hugely, terrifyingly in debt, and likely to go on getting more so. I owed money to printers, to authors, to suppliers, to back payroll. (The authors were a particular source of tension, as many of them were personal friends. I started to avoid scene events because of the likelihood of running into people to whom I owed hundreds or thousands of dollars.)

The constant financial and emotional stress (this was also happening concurrently with Miles’s illness) spelled the end of my relationship with Jay. But the company owed him a lot of money that we couldn’t repay, and I couldn’t see any way to separate without putting him out on the street.

Then, I woke up one morning with an epiphany: If I rented an industrial loft and moved into it, I could lose the monthly cost of the office Greenery was subletting, and Jay could have our place[8]. I let go all but one employee and cut that one back to part-time, and started in on the next chunk of my life.

That was a very bad few months. I am not by nature an anxious person, but I’d been pushed far beyond the amount of stress I could manage. The breakup was the only really acrimonious one I’ve ever had; Miles was in and out of the hospital; I was drowning in debt; my closest friends were angry with me over the royalties situation. But slowly, aided by a lot of medication and the support of the friends to whom I didn’t owe money (and the few, god bless them, who were able to compartmentalize our friendship away from our finances), I gradually began to craft a new life. I sold my place in San Francisco, signed the proceeds over to the company, and paid off one debt at a time – first the printers, then the tax guys, and then the authors. Bit by bit, I clawed my way back from the brink.

I’d reached the point where I wasn’t living in a state of constant panic, but the company wasn’t in the black, or likely to get there anytime soon. After a couple of years of brinkmanship, I cut a deal with our distributor for them to buy the company from me over a five-year period. The proceeds were enough to get us caught up with the authors, and SCB took over all the company finances. They kept me on board as an editorial consultant, and we went on producing a book or two a year.

But the tide, inevitably, turned. We’d been very lucky to have caught the wave of kink culture just as it was cresting, and we rode that sucker for a couple of decades (with a huge boost, I regret to say, following the publication of 50 Shades of Grey). The Ethical Slut, which was our biggest title, had been sold to Ten Speed/Random House some years before, and the handful of other polyamory books we published never came close. Sales of all the kink books ebbed as BDSM stopped being a hot new trend (and as kink education became increasingly available on-line).

It was time. In 2019, I resigned my consultancy and Greenery stopped publishing new books.

There was, of course, the small issue of all the infinitely patient shareholders who had invested in us back during the halcyon days of the dot-com boom. I did eventually get them paid off too – I actually, no shit Sherlock, had a maiden aunt who died and left me some money. So that final debt was paid, and I was free to move forward into whatever comes next.

So, that’s how I raised Greenery to the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It’s still out in the world making a living off the backlist. Greenery made me famous (in my own odd way), and it supplied me with as much joy and as much misery as any human child could provide. It was a great run – but, honestly, I am so glad it’s over.

[1] Fat fucking chance. Cosmo accepts that kind of material now, but in 1992 its fare was more along the lines of “How to Make Him Like You as Much as You Like Him,” “Cover Girl Meets Rocker and… It’s Magic,” and “For That Fantasy Romance Among the Too Rich, Read Ivana Trump’s ‘For Love Alone’.” You can’t make this stuff up.

[2] This sector of the advertising industry is called “business-to-business,” and is looked down on as more workmanlike and less glamorous than consumer advertising. My talents have never been a great fit for consumer advertising. I was, however, a very, very good business-to-business writer.

[3] It may be relevant to note that only one other person in the company had kids, and he had a stay-at-home wife to take care of them.

[4] There was a small disturbance when the copy shop found that their practice of binding discarded pages into scratch pads for distribution at local schools had suddenly become a problem. Fortunately, it wasn’t our problem.

[5] The kind of binding you see on nearly all paperback books, with a flat, printed spine.

[6] Another Jay contribution: I was going to call it A Workbook for Eager Beginners. He was right.

[7] Too much to explain here. Look them up; they’re fascinating.

[8] He decided not to stay, but at least I’d made the offer.

Distributed Mean – 02/05/2021

I actually drafted this piece nearly a decade ago, as an assignment when I was earning my MFA. I’m glad I did, as neither the details nor the sense of betrayal and anger are still with me. And this story is definitely part of my story – I hope never to be any closer to what people call a “nervous breakdown.” – JH

Here is the way a small sex book publisher works. You have something you want to say about sex. You want to turn someone else on with the fantasy that’s been bedeviling you for years. You want to teach someone how to tie the perfect bondage harness. You want to explain your amazing insights into sex as a form of meditation or radicalization or dieting. You send your manuscript off to Knopf, and get back a form rejection letter with coffee rings on it. So you buy a copy of InDesign for Dummies, do a clumsy but legible layout, pay someone the money you were saving for rent to print it for you, clear away enough space in your garage to stash fifty cases of twenty books each, and voila, you’re a publisher.

Here is the way a book distributor works. You have sold forty copies of your book and, encouraged by the trickle of money, sweet-talked the landlord into waiting another month or two, published your best friend’s sex book and your ex-boyfriend’s sex book, and now you’ve got a “line.” You are noticed.

You are taken out to an expense-account lunch, which is the first time you’ve seen cloth napkins in months. You sign a contract: your distributor will warehouse all your books (at last, room to park your bike again), represent them to chain bookstores and independent bookstores and on-line bookstores, and send you a report every month on what you’ve sold. In exchange, they will charge a percentage of sales over and above the enormous bite the bookstore’s discount has already taken from your profit margin.

And, you know, it can work. Stories like this one are the reason you can walk into Barnes & Noble and buy a copy of Doc and Fluff or The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex alongside hoary big-publisher classics like The New Joy of Sex or The Story of O. Chain buyers are not interested in small publishers: they have 500 new books from Simon & Schuster to peruse; they simply don’t have time to look at your fabulous release of The Compleat Spanker. But if you team up with a bunch of others like you, there’s a fat four-color catalog and a sales rep in a non-thrift-shop suit, and someone will actually pay attention.

This story is my story. I began self-publishing my own books in quick-printed, spiral-bound editions in 1992. After a few years of that, I borrowed from friends to print 1500 “real”[1] copies of my first book, The Sexually Dominant Woman: A Workbook for Nervous Beginners. The book sold well enough that I was able to pay back the loan and repeat the strategy with several other books by other authors. And then, somehow, without much volition or planning, I was a reasonably successful, struggling, frustrated, perpetually broke small sex publisher (every adjective in this sentence is redundant, except “successful”).

And I was approached. The approacher was one Mr. W, president of a small distributor specializing in “edgy” topics: sex, radical politics, underground comics, that sort of thing. He wore a tidy ponytail and a diamond earring, so I knew he was dedicated to the counterculture, and he smiled a lot, so I knew he liked me. He bought me a very nice lunch indeed, and, dazzled by visions of A Hand in the Bush: The Fine Art of Vaginal Fisting on the shelves at Borders[2], I signed.

Flying on the strength of that contract and a big hit of dot-com-boom optimism, I incorporated the company, sold shares to friends, signed an expensive lease on an office sublet, hired three employees, and churned out six to eight new books a year.

And at the end of four years it was falling apart. All around us the economy was gracelessly collapsing, like a hot-air balloon over a dying fire. I was taking several different psychoactive drugs for anxiety, depression, near-daily crying jags. Something was wrong at Mr. W’s company: stories were not matching up, calls were not being returned, checks were showing up late or for the wrong amount, books that ought to have sold brilliantly were gathering dust.

One day, on vacation in Oregon, I got a call from my office. The latest check from Mr. W was shy about $7,000, a third of its total. Nobody would explain why. I called Mr. W and told him I wanted out, and he let me break our contract and go. Less than a month later, the distributor filed for bankruptcy.

Apparently Mr. W had tried to save his company by opening a line of credit using “his” inventory as security. But here’s the thing: distributors don’t own their inventory – they warehouse it, and sell it on consignment. When the bank found out and called the loan, seizing hundreds of thousands of dollars that were supposed to be in escrow for publisher payments, the company folded.

Because I’d ended the contract before the bankruptcy, I was able to get our inventory back, and at least some of the money we were owed. I let the staff go, moved into a loft where I could keep warehouse shelving, and got to work trying to save my little company. Another distributor made me another offer, which included fronting us some money to keep us going[3]. I sold my condo in San Francisco, lent the proceeds to the company, cried a lot, took a lot of Klonopin, hosted fundraising events, wheedled my printer into extending unconscionable amounts of credit, and slowly, agonizingly, brought my little press back from the brink.

Several of my fellow publishers were not so fortunate, and if you want to do some homework you can make a list of the fierce, talented, innovative companies that didn’t survive the crunch. But small sex publishing soldiered on, sort of­­­­. Until 2007, when the same story happened on a much larger scale.

Publishers Group West was the distributor we all lusted after: you knew you’d made the big time when PGW offered you a contract. They distributed indy heavyweights like McSweeney, Cleis and Seal, as well as edgy attention-getters like Soft Skull and one-book wonders like Goofy Foot Press (publishers of The Guide to Getting It On, arguably the best young-adult sex title ever published and certainly one of the top sellers in its category). They were high-visibility, high-credibility, financially responsible.

Nobody worried much when they were purchased by AMS, a San Diego-based firm that specialized in large-volume sales to discount outlets like Costco. That’s the way of corporate America these days, little fish get digested by big fish, so what else is new, and when’s some rich outfit gonna buy me?

And then in 2007, AMS folded – apparently their finances had been shaky for some time. And PGW went down with it. And suddenly there was no mechanism left for getting The Leather Daddy and the Femme or Public Sex onto the shelves. And because PGW was the Titanic, suddenly everybody was paying attention.

An editorial in an indy-publishing trade magazine called for an industrywide system of legal protection for independent publishers whose distributors have failed them, including insurance and a voluntary code of practice for financial accountability[4]. These would certainly have been excellent barn doors, but horses had been getting stolen all over independent publishing for decades. PGW was purchased by Perseus Books in 2007, and Perseus was purchased by Ingram, the publishing industry’s 500-pound gorilla, in 2016.

Of course, Amazon came along, making it possible for many niche publishers to stay in business, and for many more to start publishing in ebook formats, whose barrier to entry is a day or two at the keyboard and a decent (or sometimes not) cover design. But I worry about these Amazon-dependent publishers: Amazon makes no secret of its desire to monopolize publishing, particularly ebook publishing. Does anyone out there think that they will continue to offer respectable terms to micropublishers once they’ve achieved that goal? I admire but do not emulate that optimism.

I have to wonder whether the commodification of sub-sub-cultures, so vital a part of our next-big-thing-seeking society, must create this story over and over again. When the desire for self-actualization, new modes of thought and really mindblowing orgasms rubs up against the cold hard realities of capitalism, it may be that any buffer placed between them must inevitably fray.

But I also know that I, and many other talented and dedicated publishers, fell victim to genuine dirty dealings. The opportunistic Mr. W was at the helm or behind the scenes at a significant percentage of the failed­ distributors, and I’m sure others of his ilk lurked in other book distributors, financing expense-account lunches and two-carat ear-bling with the sweat of the poor schmos who still cared about small publishing.

So: if you want to become a small sex publisher today, here’s my advice. Sell your books from your website, in articles you write for other people’s blogs and websites and zines, and at the workshops and events you set up. Sell on Amazon if you must – the discount’s a killer but a lot of people will only buy books there. Keep your day job. When it starts to be no fun any more, stop. And if you see someone coming toward you with a ponytail and a diamond earring, run like hell.

[1] e.g., “perfect-bound.” Perfect-bound books are the kind with flat spines that have the title printed on them. Most bookstores will not carry books that are not perfect-bound.

[2] Many of the business entities in this piece no longer exist, including this one.

[3] I later sold the company to this distributor. I went on serving as Editorial Director under contract for quite a few years, and retired early in 2020. Add it up: I spent 28 years running Greenery Press. That can’t be right, can it?

[4] As far as I know, no such thing ever happened.