The Bull Fight

James "Brazen Bull" Nora wanted his daughter to publish his collection of poetry on mid-list press. She refused. Now, both are engaged in a stubborn legal showdown.

 Marianne Leslie Nora's first clue that something was terribly wrong with her nonprofit press came in a phone call from a Barnes & Noble store in Connecticut. The bookseller was slated to host a reading by Mid-List Press author Lucy Ferriss, but had not received any copies of her short-story collection, Leaving the Neighborhood. Nora, the executive director of Mid-List Press, explained to the bookseller that there was a good reason no copies had been delivered: The publisher had no record of an order ever being placed. She chalked up the confusion to a simple misunderstanding and then called up Ferriss to let the author know that she'd have to bring her own supply of books to the reading.

A couple of weeks later, Mid-List Press received an e-mail from Neil Shepard, whose second volume of poetry, I'm Here Because I Lost My Way, had recently been released by the publishing house. According to the e-mail, a friend of Shepard's had attempted to order the book from a store in Kansas City, Missouri, but was informed that the title was out of print.

"He said, 'What's the deal?'" Nora recalls. "Did you take it out of print?'" She reassured the author that his book was still available and again thought nothing more of the incident.

Michael Dvorak

Then in early October of that year, according to Nora, she received another disturbing phone call, this time from a distributor in Nebraska called Kent News Company. The business had been trying unsuccessfully for weeks to obtain copies of Julene Bair's award-winning memoir, One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter. The caller wanted to know whether Mid-List had gone out of business or sold off its back catalogue to another publishing house. He had been unable to locate any of Mid-List's titles in Bowker's Books in Print, the definitive industry database.

This third interaction with a bewildered customer finally led Nora to do some snooping. She began searching for various Mid-List Press titles on Amazon.com and quickly made a disturbing discovery: Every single one of the publisher's titles was now listed as being distributed by "Mid-List Press Skald Books."

"That's when I went absolutely weak in the knees," Nora recalls. "I didn't even know what Skald Books was."

Thinking back on how sluggish sales had been of late, despite three new titles on the market, Nora began to wonder how many other times booksellers had been stymied when trying to place orders with Mid-List Press. "It's like having a rot in your house," she realized. "If you see one you've got 50."

She attempted to check the organization's Books in Print account, but was denied access. When Nora contacted the Bowker company, she was informed that her name was no longer listed on the account. What's more, all the contact information for Mid-List Press had been changed. The address listed for the Minneapolis-based publisher was in Aurora, Colorado, as was the corresponding phone number. The e-mail address began with the prefix "jsnoopy626".

All of these data were disconcertingly familiar to Nora. The address, phone number, and e-mail account belonged to her father. This realization set in motion a strange and ruinously expensive spat that has dragged on for two years and almost bankrupted Mid-List Press. The dispute has hinged on such seemingly petty details as the numerical designations assigned to different books, a self-published volume of autobiographical free verse, and an unsent Father's Day card. Despite the fact that the press holds scant financial value--at the end of 2002, Mid-List had $5,000 in available cash against some $3,000 of liabilities--the family feud remains unresolved.

 

James J. Nora, a retired medical school professor, founded Mid-List Press as a Colorado corporation in 1988. At the outset, it was primarily a vehicle to publish Nora's own work. The first title ever published by the company was The New Whole Heart Book, a medical guide that he wrote.

From the outset, Marianne was intimately involved in the press. "I brought my daughter into the business because she's the only one of my five children that doesn't have a profession," says James Nora over the phone from Aurora, Colorado. "I thought this might be a way to find herself."

The company was reorganized as a Minnesota nonprofit organization in 1993, and since then has been primarily run by Marianne Nora and her partner Lane Stiles. Over the years, however, James Nora remained involved with the organization. He paid for the residence that houses the press and remained on the group's board of directors. In the ensuing years, Mid-List Press carved out a niche as an eclectic and well-regarded publisher of literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, with a particular emphasis on promoting first-time authors.

In June of 2001, James Nora asked that Mid-List Press publish his new collection of poetry, Songs from a Brazen Bull. The request was not without precedent. In addition to The New Whole Heart Book, Mid-List Press had published The Hemingway Sabbatical in 1996, a thriller that Nora penned under the pseudonym Allan Conan.

This time, however, his daughter and Stiles informed Nora that they were not going to publish his volume of poetry. They argued that it would be a violation of the group's nonprofit status to provide favorable treatment to a board member--even the press's founder and original benefactor.

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