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The Wake (Part Two)

...from Martin Conaghan saying that nobody from Insomnia was going to the Expo after all. There was a story behind it which later turned out to be bullshit, but the upshot was that Martin and I would be there on our tods, and - with Martin at his day job and his baggage allowance maxed out - the only way we'd have any books to sell would be if I could somehow get some from Crawford that afternoon.

It's a good job I don't like flying.

As it happened, I was on my way into Glasgow to pick up a couple of things for the trip anyway; so a couple of hours and some phone tennis later, I met Crawford and Insomnia Business Manager Richard Murphy in the the Buchanan Galleries and took delivery of twenty copies of Burke & Hare, any proceeds from the sale of which they told me to split with Martin as a thank you for riding to the rescue. I didn't argue. Between the soulless atmosphere of the mall, the nondescript brown box and their haunted, hunted expressions, the whole thing felt like a scene from a low-budget conspiracy thriller, and all I really wanted to do was get out of there and go home.

I caught the London Sleeper that night, and on Friday morning in a Paddington internet cafe read the apology Crawford had emailed to the sixty-odd writers and artists who'd been waiting over a month for the chance to ask him face to face what the hell was going on. It wasn't very enlightening, and by the time I got to the bar of the Bristol Ramada that evening the rumour mill was grinding into action.

But the show went on. We sold a few books, and Martin and I managed to turn the erstwhile Insomnia table into an informal base camp where associated creators could hang out from time to time and leave their portfolios on display if nothing else. The most distressing thing for me was having aspiring artists turn up for the widely-advertised pitch sessions and telling all of them, no matter how talented, that I simply wasn't in a position to be any help at all. I had no idea if the company would even still exist by the end of the month - certainly it would be a different beast if it did, the way editorial people were continuing to quit as the weekend wore on. It wasn't the best convention I've ever had, but they can't all be. I used to work in marketing, and I was a self-publisher before that: I've manned exhibits alone or with minimal support before, and I'm quite sure I will again.

What made things really interesting was when Alasdair Duncan turned up on the Sunday...


The Wake (Part One)

Readers of m'colleague's column at Bleeding Cool, and anyone who attended the Bristol Comic and Small Press Expo at the end of May, will be aware that all is not entirely rosy at the House of No Sleep.

The company expanded quickly through 2009 - possibly too quickly, but with the lead time needed for an original graphic novel to reach fruition it's hard to tell. It's not easy for a small publisher to punch above its weight the way Insomnia was trying to do, and having a substantial release schedule was clearly a priority for them. When Martin began talking to them at the end of '08, it was still a tight little group of ambitious enthusiasts - I think Burke & Hare was the third or fourth book signed; by the time it came out ten months later, sharing a launch at the Birmingham International Comic Show with Jeymes Samuel's and Michiru Morikawa's Buskers, there were dozens more books in the pipeline and a deal had been done with Sony to distribute digital editions on the PSP. Which is not bad progress as these things go.

The first indications that anything was up came when the company blog stopped being updated quite as regularly as hitherto; but that's hardly a rare phenomenon. My book was out by then, and although positive press and successful talks and signings weren't translating into hard over-the-counter bookshop sales as quickly as we'd have liked, as late as March I had no inkling that anything was actually wrong.

That bubble burst on the 19th of April, when co-founder and Managing Director Crawford Coutts sent all Insomnia staff and contractors a long email which began by apologising for poor communications, continued with assurances that the company was "continuing to move forward" into unspecified new markets and modes of distribution, claimed that management had just been too too busy busy busy to take advantage of a "prominent position" offered free of charge at the London Book Fair*, and then moved on to berate "small numbers of creators who are causing trouble" with their "unprofessional behaviour" and thereby threatening the "creator-focused and friendly environment" and "family feel" of the company.

(*The organisers denied this when I spoke to them this morning. Yes, they had discussions with Insomnia about a presence at the comic & graphic novel pavilion, but no free space would have been or was offered.)

I didn't know what any of that meant, but gradually it emerged that a couple of key personnel had stepped down. Creative Director Nic Wilkinson had come to the realisation that while overseeing half a dozen books at different stages of production might be fun, riding herd on forty-odd was maybe more than she could handle pro bono on top of other commitments after all. (Here's something I've noticed time and again in all walks of life: Why is it that the people who're swiftest to start banging on about professionalism always want other people to work for free?) More seriously, co-founder and Sales Manager Alasdair Duncan - the guy responsible for physically shipping stock to retailers, and himself a shareholder in the firm - was also out, in circumstances that remain unclear. There are competing versions of the facts and I don't know enough to try and unpick them all, but suffice it to say that the company line about him resigning for personal reasons is not the way he tells it.

Clearly, that left the company with some logistical problems, to say the least - but after a bit of a wobble, creators were assured at the beginning of May that although there might need to be some adjustments to the release schedule, everything was still go and Insomnia would still be attending the Bristol con.

Radio silence descended again thereafter. Then on the morning of Thursday 20 May, a little over twelve hours before I was due to catch the train south, I got a text message...