End of the line

The history of Big Engine, part 4

The clue was when I first needed to put the printing bills on my credit card. Getting into debt on the card was something I had successfully avoided all this time, despite Mastercard’s kindly sending me unsolicited chequebooks drawn against the card, with friendly invitations like ‘why not write yourself a cheque and give yourself some funds?’ I finally succumbed. I remember sitting at the computer, shuffling about amounts of money from one account to another on the spreadsheet to see how it could all be made to work … and throwing back my head and howling, “I hate 3SF!”

3SF managed one more issue, February 2003. The fourth was in preparation. Meanwhile I was about to publish the twelfth and last of Big Engine’s initial founder member titles, after which I intended to publish Charles Stross’s Festival of Fools (which went on to be published as Singularity Sky: see his version of events here) and Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine. (That’s Chris, as in, Clarke winner this year.) And Kit Reed’s Weird Women, Wired Women and Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers series. The big names had heard of me by now.

But I looked at the spreadsheets, saw the bills that were falling due within the next couple of months, and then balanced that against projected sales, the amount of money presently available, and the maximum credit that I could squeeze out of every available resource, up to and including my own credit card. It just didn’t work out.

There was another choice, because by now I was getting the hang of running the company. I’d made all my youthful mistakes, I knew what I was doing, and I could have gone down the path of finding some secure backing and really, really committing to the company for the next… oh, five years minimum. But by then, to be honest, I’d had enough, and I didn’t think I had five years’ worth of belt-tightening and poverty in me.

I also looked at all the writing I could be doing instead. I knew the company had to close.

I made the decision on a Wednesday evening and called Liz, because I thought she had the right to be the first to know. I felt absolutely terrible about it because it made 3SF the second magazine to be shot from under her by a publisher through no fault of her own and she deserved so much better. Then I called my parents and told them. Then I dropped my accountant a line and asked how one actually did this; she told me about liquidators. And then I retired to bed with Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, the first book I could read in three years without feeling guilty that I wasn’t reading manuscripts instead. The next day I called up two liquidators out of the phonebook. One of them wasn’t in and never called back. The other was in Witney, just down the road from the day job, and I could make an appointment for that afternoon.

Word soon got out.

The next to hear, after Liz and my parents and my accountant and the liquidators, was Chris Priest; I thought as a veteran author with so much experience tucked under his belt he might have useful hints. Everyone up to and including Chris kept quiet about it, pending the official announcement, though Chris was soon champing at the bit for me to go public because he really wanted to tell Dave Langford. I had every intention of telling Dave ASAP, not just because he was an author but because I wanted to make an announcement in Ansible.

Then I told the authors. At this point in my life I had very little conception of the power of blogs. Charlie Stross put it on his blog and later the same day people were getting in touch to express condolences. Before long half the SF community knew.

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun, but I’m pleased and proud to say that no one really lost out. The contributors to 3SF #3 didn’t get paid, which isn’t good by any means, but it was out of my hands. I hadn’t realised that, immediately I declared my intention to liquidate, I could no longer write a cheque to anyone – from them on every payment had to be at the liquidator’s discretion. Otherwise, a subscription to 3SF is the most that anyone lost out on – and of the six planned issues for the first year, they all got the first three.

It was far from ideal but it wouldn’t break anyone’s bank. I emphatically didn’t blaze a trail of red ink across the ledgers of half the publishing industry, and I’m very pleased about that. Big Engine disappeared with barely a ripple.

All the authors had the right to take their books back if the company folded – I had been careful to put that in the contracts – and most of them exercised that right straight off, which of course diminished the company’s resale value at a stroke. (The more traditional course taken by insolvent publishers was to sell the company and then let the authors know about it, which gets round that problem, but I didn’t want to treat the authors like that.) A loyal remnant hung on in case a buyer could be found, but none could, so all rights reverted.

John Betancourt of Wildside Press put in an offer of £500 for the books but not the magazine. He then got so fed up with the liquidator’s dallying (I don’t think the poor man was used to companies that only had intellectual property, with no physical assets to flog off) that he withdrew it so Big Engine didn’t even get that. It was well and truly over.

And I had no regrets. It was a great three years; it meant I could have my fun while I was still young, free and single, with no one to hurt but myself; it opened doors and helped me make new contacts and friends that I value; and it means I will never be haunted by the question of ‘what if I ran a company?’ because I now know the answer. I think the world is better off that way.