• The Life and Death of an American
    Indie Press

    What Exactly Happened to Curbside Splendor?

    When author Chelsea Martin published her novella, Mickey, in 2016, Lena Dunham declared her the “preeminent chronicler of Internet age malaise.” Electric Literature, in a glowing 1,200-word review, called Martin “the kind of author who has her finger on the pulse of this style of writing.” “Beyond superlatives,” said another reviewer.

    Despite the critical acclaim, Martin has never seen a dime from the book. In the three years that have elapsed since then, her publisher, Curbside Splendor, has withheld all royalties owed to her, according to a series of tweets she wrote on March 21. Victor David Giron, founder and publisher of Curbside, “didn’t honor our contract and kept the money he was supposed to pay me,” Martin wrote. “It was a complete nightmare and enormous waste of time trying to get paid and ultimately I failed and I’ll be pissed about it forever.”

    This may not come as news to those who’ve been around the block, in Chicago (where the press is based) or elsewhere. It’s a grievance about Curbside that writers have whispered at readings and open mics for years. Issues with Curbside have occasionally surfaced on social media, but this open secret remained just that until Publisher’s Weekly reported on the payment issues earlier this year.

    “It honestly feels like an author’s Fyre Festival up in here,” said Rebecca Jones-Howe, an author who has only received one payment since publishing Vile Men through Curbside in 2015. Literary Hub reached out to Curbside’s authors, contractors, and former staffers, and more than 20 of them came forward and spoke on the record about their struggles not only to get paid, but to even get responses from Giron, who describes himself as “El Jefe” on the masthead of the site.

    The press was named “Best Indie Book Publisher” by Chicago magazine in 2014, featured on Bustle’s “13 Indie Presses You Should Know” list in 2017, and even profiled in Lit Hub’s 2016 story on retail stores opened by indie presses. Aimed at “rewriting the tradition of Midwestern publishing,” Curbside released as many as 20 books a year at its height around 2015, ranging from novellas, horror novels, memoirs, and oral histories, to those works of art that couldn’t easily be sold to a traditional publisher.

    But as Evan Bryson, an illustrator who spent seven months chasing down Giron for a $200 check, can attest, “you can’t mail a chapbook to your landlord.”

    How could this have happened to so many people, and for so long?


    Curbside Splendor has its own “garage” origin story, not unlike the hallowed startups of Silicon Valley. Named after his short-lived 90s punk band, the company was launched by Victor David Giron as a vehicle for self-publishing his first novel. Giron was an accountant by trade, yet he saw promise in Chicago’s vibrant literary community. What started as Giron posting his favorite short story and poetry submissions to his website became a hard-bound journal (Curbside Splendor Issue 1), which became three more volumes. Giron then set his sights toward book publication.

    “It honestly feels like an author’s Fyre Festival up in here.”

    Starting a business isn’t easy or cheap, but the barrier to entry has fallen over the years. Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing and intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles, called the internet’s impact on the publishing industry “historically significant in the same way that the Gutenberg press transformed publishing in the 16th century.”

    But unlike many other small businesses, this “vanity project,” in Giron’s own words, eventually took on a life of its own. In under five years, the press aggressively expanded its publishing schedule and its roster grew to include beloved local writers like Megan Stielstra, Tim Kinsella, and Samantha Irby. (Curbside published Irby’s first essay collection, Meaty, in 2013. The book was the press’s first runaway success, according to a few people familiar with the matter. Penguin Random House bought Meaty from Curbside and reissued it under Vintage in 2018. Irby did not respond to requests for comment.)

    Despite the growing workload, Curbside was always a small team on a shoestring budget. As publisher, Giron stayed out of the day-to-day and entrusted operations to his staff, mainly Naomi Huffman and Catherine Eves, who came on board in 2013 and ended their tenures in 2017 as editor-in-chief and managing editor, respectively. Giron handled all contracts and accounting while Huffman and Eves spearheaded acquisition, editing, marketing, and distribution, with support from part-time staff and unpaid interns. Because Curbside lacked the money for a dedicated office space, Huffman volunteered her apartment as the press’s office, storing inventory in the spare bedroom.

    For Eves, working at a press like Curbside was a dream come true, especially alongside Huffman, who had become the face of the press. “Naomi was a force. She had a vision and I believed in that vision wholeheartedly,” she said. “I was learning and growing every day.” Beyond day-to-day office work, Huffman and Eves also hosted monthly readings, sold books at Pitchfork and Printers Row Lit Fest, ran an annual novella contest, and made regular trips to New York City for meetings with agents and annual appearances at AWP and other festivals.

    “It was kind of rock and roll” for the first couple years, said Peter Jurmu, who worked part-time as editor of Curbside’s Artifice imprint from 2012 to 2015. However, cracks started to form in the foundation. “We were acting like a big press, but we weren’t one.”

    This phenomenon—of small business owners getting in over their heads—is not unique to Curbside, said Michael Gross. It’s systemic. As director of legal services at the Author’s Guild, Gross assists authors with contract reviews and publishing disputes, and what’s happened at Curbside is occurring across the country, he says. The rise of e-books and print-on-demand publishing since the turn of the century has made the historically expensive publishing industry more accessible, which is a double-edged sword—it’s easier than ever to get published now, but it’s also easier than ever to get screwed.


    In 2014, Dmitry Samarov, a writer and artist in Chicago, was just about ready to “self-publish the thing.” His first book, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, on his adventures as a Chicago taxi driver, had success through the University of Chicago Press a few years prior. Selling a follow-up memoir was another story.

    But then Curbside came calling. “I didn’t know much about them but heard Victor was an accountant, so I thought there was a chance this wouldn’t be [a] pie-in-the-sky idealistic young person with no business sense,” Samarov said.

    Five years later, he has only received one royalty statement for Where To?: A Hack Memoir. The contract promised quarterly updates. “My last contact with Victor [a couple years ago] was to buy out as many copies as I could so I wouldn’t have to interact with that company anymore. They’re a disgrace and give indie publishing a bad name.”

    Curbside’s editors first became aware that authors weren’t being paid reliably around 2015.

    If you approached someone with a money concern, a brush-off response like “don’t worry about it” or “I’ll take care of it” would likely set off warning bells. But what if the person saying it was a CFO? Surely, Giron—a career accountant, now vice president of finance and business development (previously, chief financial officer) of Chicago restaurant group, 16 On Center—can pay the bills, his staff thought.

    Curbside’s editors first became aware that authors weren’t being paid reliably around 2015. Authors started reaching out to them for updates on royalty payments and sales numbers that Giron was supposed to share regularly. Each time, the staff would forward the concern to him, after which it was presumably lost in a black hole—or at least it might as well have been. Former staff described it as almost a rite of passage to get the runaround from Giron.

    “Victor had a way of becoming abruptly unreachable,” Jurmu said. Having to send follow-up emails over several weeks and months was the norm. And even getting a reply wasn’t a guarantee that your check or report would arrive soon. “It appeared, to me anyway, that he was deliberately obfuscating, [like] getting the address wrong or, you know, ‘The check hasn’t gone out yet. It will go out soon’—all the delaying tactics,” Jurmu said. Then, like clockwork, “the author would reach back out [a month later] and say, ‘Hey, I haven’t received anything yet. Where is that?’” Giron admits to falling behind on royalty payments, but did not respond to claims of unresponsiveness.

    Beyond timeliness, accuracy was a constant issue. Under Curbside contracts, authors typically receive 50 percent of profits as royalties, after expenses are accounted for—an agreement that many authors considered generous. But that’s assuming book sales and expenses are tabulated correctly. At Curbside, they often weren’t.

    Daniela Olszewska, who published Citizen J in 2013, noticed glaring errors in her royalty statement. Under the expenses incurred by the publisher, Curbside alleged that it had paid for someone to edit Olszewska’s book, despite her not having spoken to any editors prior to publication. The book design was also listed as $500, but when Olszewska reached out directly to the designer, they told her they’d been paid $200 for the gig.

    Chelsea Martin, the author who’d tweeted about her troubles with Curbside in March, has experienced similar errors. Martin told Lit Hub, “[Giron] told me he created the reports himself, which made me think the obvious errors were intentional, or that he didn’t care about accuracy, and not because he wasn’t capable of accurate reporting.”

    Curbside’s money troubles “placed an unbearable amount of strain and responsibility on us,” Huffman said. “In my last year at the press, Victor started describing openly the potential consequences if our sales did not improve: he would not be able to pay [staff]; authors would not be compensated; the book store we’d just opened would shut down.” Giron also became increasingly defensive and would take follow-ups on royalty payments personally. In email exchanges with authors, he would often cast himself as the victim, equating their annoyance at not having been paid with his annoyance at the financial and familial sacrifices he’d made for Curbside that had gone unrecognized.

    By that time, Huffman had already been seeing a therapist to treat the chronic stress, insomnia, and panic attacks that came with such a demanding job. Huffman worked every day, 60 hours a week on average, and since her apartment was the office, leaving work wasn’t an option. “Everything that needed to get done loomed—infinitely and ever-growing,” she said. Philosophical differences with Giron, along with severe pay cuts she and Eves received, forced Huffman into the job market. In February 2017, she moved to New York to work at MCD and FSG Originals as an editor and digital director. Eves left Curbside soon after to teach English in China for a year.

    Afterward, in April 2017, Joshua Bohnsack, who worked full-time at Curbside’s indie bookstore, took over as managing editor. He kept the press afloat for a year, but the cycle repeated—60-hour workweeks, dwindling morale, authors still unpaid. Bohnsack left one year later after Giron told him that he couldn’t afford to pay him anymore. Now, all that remains of Curbside is Giron, who put the press operations on hiatus, and the bookstore, which is still open.

    (I visited the store in April, and it was, as former editor Catherine Eves put it, “an artifact.” No longer staffed by a full-time Curbside employee, you must talk to the staff at the nearby bar within Revival Food Hall in order to buy any merchandise. Giron works for 16 On Center, which is located in the same building and operates the food hall. He says that sales of its indie record and wine bottle inventory fund the store, so he intends to keep it open.)

    Curbside’s reputation precedes itself, achieving horror-story status within the Chicago literary community despite the high quality of books it’s published. Bohnsack stayed on with the press for fear of the books going out of print, but now, he said, “I’m embarrassed to have it on my resume. … It’s just a big black cloud hanging over me.”

    For some, the years they worked with Curbside have taken on a darkly funny, almost absurdist shade. One author, who didn’t want to be named, said that he recently met a colleague who had also published a book through Curbside. His introduction?

    “You and I have something in common. Victor Giron probably owes us both money.”


    It’s unclear to former staff what the draw of running an indie press was for Giron. According to editors, Giron would regularly promise writers he knew that Curbside would publish their books, but those ideas would end up getting vetoed by them for not fitting the press’s literary mission or aesthetic. “I feel like Victor was lucky that Naomi and I cared so much,” Eves said. “I didn’t really understand why he was in this business if he didn’t have a passion for it.”

    Michael Gross of the Author’s Guild said, “I believe that they opened [their business] for the right reasons, but they were not equipped to deal with everything that they would be confronted with. And then problems arose, relationships sour. I see that all the time. There are a thousand Curbsides.”

    “It is very likely that Victor will try to guilt you if you ask about payment.”

    If there are indeed a thousand Curbsides—the Curbside in question being a particularly egregious case—then how could this have continued for so long? The issues that Curbside authors and contractors faced represented mismanagement at a fundamental level; many of their problems were exactly the same. But this wasn’t simply a matter of awareness. Chicago’s literary community, cognizant of Curbside’s reputation, had also become complicit, enforcing its own culture of silence.

    In 2017, Daniela Olszewska posted a note of caution on Facebook, advising other Curbside authors to email Giron “incessantly” if they hadn’t been paid. Tired after four years of battling Giron via email, she wrote, “It is very likely that Victor will try to guilt you if you ask about payment. It is also likely that he will try to distract you by telling you how grateful you should be for all the press has done for you. Don’t let him make you feel bad about asking for what you are owed. You deserve to have the terms of your contract honored.”

    Instead of solidarity, Olszewska received three direct messages from Curbside authors who voiced opposition to her post. If the press were boycotted, they said, it would hurt their book sales since theirs were newer releases. Olszewska ended up taking the post down, discouraged and not wanting to be responsible for hurting other authors. “Everyone knows [the issues with Curbside], but no one wants to write it down on the internet” for fear of lawsuits or seeming difficult to work with, she said.

    Unfortunately, for writers in these situations, there is not much recourse. According to Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing industry attorney, lawsuits are not the answer for everyone, or even most people. “When I started out [in law], people would say a $20,000 claim cannot be litigated in a cost-effective way. Today, I wonder if a $100,000 claim can be litigated in a cost-effective way. So that’s one issue. It’s just expensive.”

    Kirsch notes that small claims court is an option for those who cannot afford a lawyer, but with the caveat that each state tends to have strict dollar limits with regards to what you can get in an action. Things get dicey, too, if you don’t live in the same place as the institution you’re up against. “If the publisher [and its bank account sit] in Chicago, but you’re holding a small claims judgment from California, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get that judgment enforced,” Kirsch said.

    When asked what advice they’d give to aspiring authors, Curbside writers and staff emphasized the importance of not only the contract (which dictates all rules of engagement) but also word-of-mouth. Speaking to authors who’ve previously published with the press, before accepting any offers or signing contracts, could make all the difference. As Kathleen Rooney, author and co-founder of Rose Metal Press in Chicago, advised, “The best way to learn how you might be treated is to talk to people who’ve already been there.”


    Although many authors are still owed money by Curbside, a lucky few have seceded by forfeiting owed royalties in exchange for the rights back to their books. One of the reasons why Martin felt comfortable speaking out was because she’d been able to terminate her Curbside contract after several months of back-and-forth with Giron. Martin received the publishing rights to Mickey, plus all remaining copies (about 250), which she put up for sale on Etsy.

    “I have been really surprised and encouraged by the outpouring of support,” Martin said. She estimates that she’s made twice as much money selling her books on Etsy (around $800-$1,000, after shipping) than the $416 in royalties she was owed. But beyond personal success, “I really hope that something good can come from this coming to light, and that Victor decides to make things right and pay the royalties he owes other authors.”

    “It was almost a joke. I’d meet people and say I’m a writer. ‘Oh, do you have a book?’ I do, [but] don’t buy it because I’ll never get a penny. I would give you one, but I don’t have one.”

    A couple authors said they’d recently received checks and reports from him after not having heard from Curbside in a long time. Giron denies that Martin’s tweets were the cause, saying he’s not active on social media, but he claims he’s “almost all caught up.” According to him, Curbside owes $3,000 to authors, a number Lit Hub could not independently confirm. The company has paid more than $62,000 in author royalties and $285,000 in compensation to employees and contractors since 2013.

    Author Tim Taranto was also able to reclaim his book, Ars Botanica, from Curbside. Up until this year, Taranto didn’t own a single copy of it. “It was almost a joke. I’d meet people and say I’m a writer. ‘Oh, do you have a book?’ I do, [but] don’t buy it because I’ll never get a penny. I would give you one, but I don’t have one.” Similar to Martin, Taranto had also encountered major discrepancies with his royalty statements and issues with payment. But after witnessing online that he wasn’t alone in the situation, he consulted his agent and was able to get Giron to revert the rights back to him, along with all remaining copies of Ars Botanica.

    Taranto found out the news from his agent on the day he spoke to Lit Hub. He was excited, dazed even, that he could finally move on from Curbside. “There’s plenty of ways to rip folks off,” he said. “But to choose to rip off authors is cuckoo, you know? We make so little money in the grand scheme of things.”

    “The most important thing now is that I know I own the book. I’d like to sell it with my next book and give it to a home where the publisher will take good care of it. That’s all I care about, so the people who need the book can have it when they need it.”


    In an emailed statement to Lit Hub, Victor David Giron is apologetic—confessional, even, like he’d been waiting for the moment to get some stuff off his chest, even to a journalist. Presented with various claims of mismanagement, he denied only the assertion that he didn’t read the books he published.

    “We were pretty much losing money from the beginning,” Giron admitted. “But I thought of it as an investment, that we were building a brand and gaining a reputation and acceptance that would pay off in the future—that future catalogs would sell better.”

    “In hindsight I should have stopped publication much sooner, but I kept believing that what we were doing was going to pay off,” Giron said. “I have spent lots of time spinning around in what-ifs, replaying the past few years, but I’ve finally come to peace with that and am just working to move forward.”

    Whether or not he can, though, is unclear. What Giron paints as personal mistakes are business practices that, in black and white, violate the contracts of his authors, who along with the press’s former staff spoke of emotional anguish and professional setback. But despite all this and his own admission of the mistakes he made (“The publishing industry wasn’t for me”), Giron is optimistic that he can start anew. “When the time is right,” he wants to resume press operations, but with a more conservative catalog—one or two books a year.

    “I’m thinking later this year I may start to publish short stories and poems online again, just me reading and selecting what I like and want to share.”

    Taylor Moore
    Taylor Moore
    Taylor Moore is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has written for Chicago magazine, Chicago Reader, Electric Literature, Chicago Review of Books, and more.

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