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.

"Whatever may have been your intent when you began the press," Stiles wrote to James Nora in a July 15, 2001 e-mail, "you are no longer in a position to exercise absolute personal control over it."

James Nora was exasperated by the decision. Rather than accept this rejection, he took matters into his own hands. By convincing Bowker that he remained the sole owner of the publishing house, he was able to change the organization's contact information and obtain an International Standard Book Number (ISBN)--essential for placing books in libraries and stores--indicating that Brazen Bull was being published by Mid-List Press. This enabled him to acquire a catalogue number from the Library of Congress and to have the book listed with retailers such as Amazon.com.

Unfortunately, his actions also set off a ripple effect that essentially stripped Mid-List Press of its identity. When distributors or bookstores looked up Mid-List titles, they were sometimes informed that the books were out of print. In other instances, the titles were listed as publications of "Mid-List Press Skald Books." Some payments were mistakenly routed to the Colorado address.

Michael Dvorak

"Our identity--how people reach us, how they access the authors' work that we publish--was gone," says Marianne Nora.

Several months of wrangling ensued. Marianne Nora was withering in her assessment of her father's actions--and his writing. "Self-praising, sophomoric poetry," she vented in one e-mail to her father. "So obviously not of the character or quality of Mid-List Press. You are a pretender."

In November, Mid-List's board of directors voted unanimously to oust James Nora as a trustee. Then in January 2002 Mid-List Press filed a lawsuit in United States District Court charging James Nora with trademark infringement and deceptive trade practices, among other misdeeds. He responded by filing a countersuit, asserting that he is the sole owner of Mid-List Press. After nearly two years of legal battles--which produced a foot-high stack of claims, counterclaims, depositions and affidavits--Judge David Doty ruled in favor of Mid-List Press in July. He granted an injunction barring James Nora from further use of the Mid-List Press name or corresponding ISBNs. Judge Doty has yet to rule on damages; the organization is seeking more than $100,000.

"What the Press has been saying for two years now has been validated by this very clear and very precise decision," says Laura Hein, Mid-List Press's attorney.

The favorable ruling, however, does not mark the end of the dispute: James Nora has filed an appeal. He continues to insist that he is the sole owner of Mid-List Press and is therefore entitled to use its name in any way he sees fit.

"Her attorney really made a good case," James Nora concedes, while characterizing the dispute as nothing more than a petty vendetta waged by a petulant daughter.

"She had a hissy fit because I mentioned that she forgot to send me a Father's Day card," he says, noting that the lawsuit has already cost him $100,000. James Nora argues the dispute is destroying his retirement assets. "That's the most expensive little book of paperback poetry in the world."

Marianne Nora refers to her father almost exclusively as "Brazen Bull" (the only exception being when she's comparing him to King Lear.) Seated at a table in the south Minneapolis residence that she shares with Stiles and that doubles as the offices of Mid-List Press, she insists that the dispute is not about her family.

"These are the people who have been harmed," Nora says, pointing to a pile of books that Mid-List Press has published over the years. "You don't steal somebody's name. You don't cause damage to a nonprofit."

Though Nora sits flanked by Stiles and Hein, she dominates the conversation. Nora wears a black Lily Tomlin T-shirt and black jeans, her bright blue eyes contrasting sharply with her salt-and-pepper hair. Recalling the events of the last two years, she frequently resorts to an exasperated sigh or cackle. The 48-year-old exudes enthusiasm for the work of Mid-List Press and drips disdain for her father.

She's incredulous that the suit has dragged on for so long. "When you have a bunch of titles by your name and you're white and you're male and you're wealthy, people have a tendency to believe you," she says of her father.

The two-year legal battle has wreaked considerable financial havoc on the tiny nonprofit. In the 2002 fiscal year, according to the group's most recent tax return, its expenses totaled $44,522, with roughly half that money eaten up by legal fees. Over the same time period, Mid-List Press brought in just $32,485 in revenue. Even this figure is somewhat misleading, though, as roughly a quarter of that income came from one grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council to redesign the press's website.

Neither Nora nor Stiles has ever received a salary for their work. Stiles earns a living by serving as managing editor of another small local publisher, Fairview Press. "It's difficult," Stiles sighs, "and as time goes on it doesn't get any easier. We don't have any reserves left."

The dip in revenue stems directly from lower book sales. Since summer 2001, according to Mid-List Press, sales have plummeted by 60 percent. They point to the ongoing trademark dispute as the primary cause for this drop-off. Because of these ongoing problems, both financial and operational, Mid-List Press has significantly scaled back its publishing schedule. The organization has released just four new books in the past two years, compared to a normal annual output of five.

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