Massimo Coppola’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

Massimo Coppola’s “big explanation” for what happened at ISBN Edizioni is too little, too late … and too typical.

In the end, Massimo Coppola, the publisher of the embattled (and, apparently, now officially defunct) Italian independent publisher, ISBN Edizioni, rolled out his long-awaited “explanation” of the ISBN Edizioni situation just like it was a summer blockbuster movie.

First came the teasers and the hints, then a pre-screening in limited release, and finally the main event.

In the wake of writer Hari Kunzru’s “tweet-a-day” campaign to ask Coppola why he and ISBN had disappeared completely in the face of demands for payment from (it appears) dozens of writers and translators, Coppola initially remained completely silent.

Then, on May 8th, Kunzru “offended” Coppola by referring to “this asshole Italian publisher @isbnedizioni [which] published my friend’s book and won’t pay her advance,” and Coppola roused himself long enough to respond, three days later, to a retweet of Kunzru’s comment by No Peanuts! with the pithy, “If the question contains the word ‘asshole,’ it deserves no answer at all.”

Kunzru apologized immediately for his “intemperate language,” but Coppola has continued to pick the scab of that wound and to refer repeatedly to the “violent insults” directed toward him.

In his most recent posts, in fact, Coppola has declared himself a “random scapegoat” and repeatedly asserted that complaints against him and ISBN are a “lynching.” He even joked at one point that lynching had at least one good side: he had a ton of new Twitter followers.

In other words, if people energetically and angrily complain about a business owner who a) doesn’t pay his legitimate creditors and b) lapses into silence, refusing to respond to emails or phone calls, that business owner is being “lynched.”

When Clarence Thomas tried using that word in 1991, he at least had some sense of the history behind it. Coppola clearly doesn’t understand how ignorant and offensive he sounds when he uses it.

In any case, Coppola tweeted vaguely on May 15, that “You’ll be reading something of mine on this topic—something serious, not insults.”

The “something” turned out to be a trailer of the coming film, written for a limited audience on Facebook by Nicola Giuliano, who described himself as a businessman and a friend of Massimo Coppola’s. For those who don’t read Italian, the gist of Giuliano’s apologia was three-fold:

1) the people criticizing Coppola don’t understand the tremendous pressure that business owners are under these days in Italy; 2) Coppola is a true champion of culture who poured blood, sweat, and tears into ISBN, continuing to sacrifice in order to do a thankless job because he cared so much about literature; 3) the real problem is that people don’t read; and if people don’t read, they don’t buy books, and if you’re a publisher and they don’t buy your books, what are you supposed to do?

That same day, Coppola tweeted that his “spiegone”—the big explanation—would arrive the following day. And it did—in the form of a post by Coppola on the ISBN Edizioni site entitled, “Cosa Succede a ISBN Edizioni” Or “What’s Happening at ISBN Edizioni.” A statement, not a question.

The “spiegone” is Coppola’s account of the rise and fall of his publishing-house. According to him, it was all up, up, up for a time: 300 books published, great reviews, and a paid staff of nine.

And then things begin to go badly. In this case—and pace Tolstoy—unhappy publishers are all alike, and the decline of ISBN follows the predictable course of reduced production and layoffs (beginning in June 2014) until (Coppola says) January 2015, at which point the publisher’s “resources were completely exhausted.”

Until then, he claims, ISBN had continued to pay all the employees who remained on staff. With regard to his other “collaborators,” however, he says—with no apparently sense of the contradiction—that:

Up until 2013 everyone [who worked with us] was paid regularly—there might be an exception here and there, but in general terms, that’s how it was. So let’s say that 95% of these people received, during the life of the company, what was owed to them.

So “everyone” became “some exceptions” became “in general terms” became “let’s say 95%” who were not actually paid “regularly,” but at some point “during the life of the company.”

Never let it be said that Coppola doesn’t have a way with words.

The problem is, it isn’t exactly true.

Several translators have come forward—either on Twitter or on translators’ mailing lists—to say that ISBN was seriously delinquent in paying translators and authors much earlier than that. In one case, delay in a translator’s payments began as early 2008 and continued through 2011. In other cases, translators were paid only after they threatened to contact a lawyer. Adam Wilson tweeted that his translator hadn’t been paid for a book that came out in 2012.

In fact, ISBN appears to have had a reputation as a reluctant or partial payer for years, and not solely beginning in 2013, as Coppola claims.

To be fair, Coppola’s “Cosa Succede a ISBN Edizioni” contains no less than five apologies, including to that “5%” that didn’t get paid “regularly” although, in the typical apology-non-apology language of the perpetrator, Coppola said, “[I]f we failed to give someone a clear, understandable response, we apologize a second time” (our emphasis on the “if”), and framed his entire statement in this context:

At this very moment, ISBN and I personally are experiencing a violent attack by a small group of people who insult us by means of those marvelous social media…. I accept full responsibility, but I don’t believe I deserve violent and uninformed personal attacks.

In case it isn’t clear, Coppola is the real victim here.

But what is really significant is what Coppola reveals in his “Spiegone,” despite himself, about how the Italian publishing industry frequently operates.

First, Coppola notes that, in the course of a ten-year history, ISBN’s paid staff grew to a maximum of nine, adding that

All of them, with one or two exceptions, arrived [at ISBN] through an internship. They all were between 24 and 27 years of age when they came on board.

That is very likely true, but what hides behind the word “internship” is the disastrously common practice in Italian publishing-houses (and many other businesses)—and there’s no reason to think ISBN did things any different—of not paying interns a cent. In Italy, in fact, young people can count on working for free, for months and sometimes for years, in the hope they might someday be rewarded with a more permanent job. Most of them aren’t.

So nine people—give or take one or two—ultimately became employed at ISBN after working for free for a period of time. What Coppola doesn’t say is how many other unpaid employees ISBN continued to “employ” during its ten years, apart from the few he hired.

“Through books, we created jobs,” Coppola boasts. Well, in part it was through books. In part, it was through the unpaid labor of young people who’d do just about anything to break into publishing.

But there was another reservoir of unpaid labor that permitted ISBN to go on as long as it did: writers and translators. And that’s a practice that’s as common in Italy as espresso.

ISBN continued to publish books up until October 2014 (Coppola says). Quite obviously, then, Coppola continued to pay his printers, or there would have been no books. He (apparently) continued to pay rent on ISBN’s offices (up until late 2014) and to cover utilities. He says he paid his staff, including revisers, copyeditors, designers, etc.

Who didn’t he pay—at least not fully or on time? Writers and translators. In fact, Coppola makes it clear:

Beginning in June 2014, we used the [available funds] in this way: First and foremost, we paid employees and our permanent “collaboratori” (what Coppola appears to mean here are vendors and suppliers] who, up to today, have been paid everything they were owed. Immediately afterward, we paid writers and translators, at times in installments, until January 2015, at which point our resources were completely exhausted.”

And, in that particular, Coppola’s business model for ISBN was not exceptional. Writers and translators are frequently the weakest link in Italian publishing, and debts to them are all too often considered discretionary and non-binding, at least unofficially.

They get paid after everyone else gets paid. They get paid if a book does well. They get paid after 90 days or 180 days or a year. They get paid late, or only in installments, and without interest. They get paid if there’s extra money.

The issue is not that business owners on hard times must make difficult, even painful choices about how to allocate dwindling resources. The issue is that the practice of putting writers and translators last is common among Italian publishers, which is the real reason the Coppola/ISBN case has garnered so much attention.

The issue is that Coppola — who knew in late 2014 that ISBN would cease publishing books and also certainly knew, at his then-current burn rate, that his funds wouldn’t last through January — offered no response in public and largely stopped responding in private to people who wanted to know when they’d get paid. If Kunzru hadn’t come forward and, with him, others in the same boat, would Coppola ever have offered any “spiegone”?

Why seven or eight months of silence when the handwriting was, by Coppola’s own account, on the wall?

If he hadn’t been cornered and embarrassed, would Coppola have felt a moral compunction to explain to anyone at all?

So let’s not let empathy for a man who lost his business (only to land almost immediately in a position as the Editor in Chief of Rolling Stone Italy) obscure the fact that Coppola is no victim.

Nor, despite Coppola’s view of himself, was he chosen as a “random scapegoat” or is he being “lynched” by a “small group” of “violent” people who don’t appreciate his abiding commitment to culture.

Rather, the issue is that Coppola, like many Italian publishers, was willing to float his business on the backs of people—individual freelancers who aren’t represented by a union and who weren’t likely to do much more than complain in private (if at all)—whom he didn’t feel he had to pay when times got tough.

And, in fact, the testimony of more than a dozen writers and translators makes clear that Coppola didn’t stop paying them in January 2015, but that he hadn’t been paying them, or paying them in full, for quite a while.

Those people are the victims, if this story needs victims.

What Coppola did was a business decision. As such, it is open to criticism, even bitter criticism, especially by the people who now find themselves holding the (empty) bag.

It is a corrupt practice, this business of putting translators and writers at the end of the line, and Coppola’s apologies, even accepting them as utterly sincere, don’t get him off the hook. He knew where he could cut corners when cash flow was a problem, and he exploited that knowledge.

Coppola is not a victim and he’s no scapegoat. For Italian writers and translators, however, the ISBN situation may well be the last straw.

About No Peanuts! for Translators

No Peanuts! supports professional translators & interpreters in demanding & receiving fair pay for their work.
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