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.

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.

"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.

"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.

The slowdown has caused a logjam of publications that Mid-List Press hopes to eventually issue. Mary Logue, a St. Paul writer who has published two volumes of poetry with Mid-List Press, has seen her third collection languish. "They have had to wait to make decisions because this lawsuit has taken such a large amount of money to battle, and also energy," says Logue.

The favorable July ruling has Nora and Stiles hopeful that their publishing venture will soon be able to return to normal. Mid-List Press currently has five books, all by first-time authors, slated to hit stores in the coming months. How To, a collection of poems by local writer William Reichard, will be available in December.

Yet sporadic problems with distribution, stemming from the trademark dispute, continue to plague the press. After Gregory Spatz's collection of short stories, Wonderful Tricks, received a glowing review in the Seattle Times in January, bookstores or consumers who logged onto the Book Sense website in hopes of ordering a copy were informed that the title was no longer available. Nora explains with a sigh, "All of the Seattle bookstores were showing it as out of print."

At least one party in the dispute is not allowing the recriminations to stifle his literary ambitions. Last year James Nora published another book, Panacea, a thriller dealing with a pair of United Nations weapons inspectors who discover that Saddam Hussein has produced weapons-grade anthrax and botulinum toxin. (Booklist deemed it an "enjoyable novel.") Fortunately for Mid-List Press, this time around he published it under the name Skald Books.

James Nora maintains that all of his actions have been taken with the best interests of Mid-List Press in mind. "I want this house to succeed," he says. "I founded it; I love it. And I want my daughter to succeed. I don't know why she's having this hissy fit."

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