12 Common Misperceptions About Book PublishingBy J.E. Fishman
December 01, 2010
Lately I find myself pronouncing a lot on the state of book publishing, an industry that, to my astonishment, I’ve been following for more than 25 years.
I got into the book business just as it began dawning on people that book publishing outfits ought to be run as businesses rather than collected as the playthings of rich men, the way sports teams always had been.
Not coincidentally, by the late 1980’s Nelson Doubleday Jr. had sold his family book publishing venture to Bertelsmann for $475 million and bought a share of the New York Mets.
When I subsequently arrived at Doubleday as an assistant editor, a rumor still floated around that during due diligence the Bertelsmann accountants had found an inexplicable invoice for a cool million dollars. It turned out, so the story went, to be a bill for the new Jumbotron screen at Shea Stadium.
Whether that story was apocryphal didn’t really matter to those telling it, for it spoke to the sloppiness and sense of propriety that had descended on publishing before the shakeup. As a result, the anecdote sure as heck felt true at the time, especially with a few of Nelson’s old buddies still kicking around the halls, one of whom, I recall, had a picture of his own North Shore mansion hanging on his office wall.
The broader point, driven home to all those who remained, was that fresh discipline would be established. English majors would have to learn to read P&L statements. Marketing people — heaven forbid! — would occasionally set foot in the editorial meeting.
To demonstrate their seriousness, the higher-ups at Bertelsmann soon cut Doubleday’s front list — which had grown notoriously bloated — in half. They instituted manufacturing quality control so that the books weren’t falling apart as they’d used to do. The book covers got better, too.
Now, here am I, former editor and agent and non-fiction author, playing a new game on the same field, although some may argue that the field grass long ago yielded to artificial turf.
These days book publishing has become a place where synergies go to die. Every major house is part of a conglomerate, and most of the people who brought those publishers under the roof have been put out to pasture.
Meanwhile, with change afoot — led, as it always is, from the outside — editors, agents, readers and writers are left wondering what will become of us all.
I admit up front that I don’t know, but I’m willing to hazard some guesses.
They’re in the form of lists because, well, ‘tis the season of lists. Five more will follow, but I thought I’d start with the way the outside world perceives book publishing — assumptions that tend to be oversimplifications at best and are often egregiously wrong.
12 Common Misperceptions about Book Publishing
1. It’s all about the front list.
The front list gets all the attention because new things almost always do and the books on the front list are by definition new. Also, an editor’s reputation may live and die with her choices of what to publish next. But a publisher’s real asset — the majority of its good will, in business parlance — is the backlist, those books that deliver steady sales year in and year out. It’s the ballast in the ship, the revenue that keeps the lights on. It’s the main reason why some entity would bother to buy an existing publishing house at all. And the absence of a backlist is the reason why newly formed publishers often prove short lived, even despite occasional front list success.
2. Small publishers care more about books than commercial publishers do.
It seems to be an article of faith among literary types that small publishers put books first while large publishers care mostly about the bottom line. Yet, in my experience, everyone on the editorial floor of a major publisher loves books. It’s why they’re there — part of who they are. And everyone who publishes books — big publishers and small — yearns in their soul for the next book to sell a million copies, even when their intellect tells them it won’t. The main difference is that commercial publishers have bigger overhead to deal with. And — because there are more people in the company — big-house editors have to battle through much more institutional knowledge to get anything done. None of that means they don’t love books.
3. Editors no longer edit.
Someone who used to work at a big commercial house recently told me the story of getting a call a few years ago from his publisher, wondering why he was working from home for the second day in a row. The editor explained that he was working on a crash editing project for a book that was important to the house. “Get into the office,” the publisher urged. “Your problem is that you edit too much.”
While this story may seem to illustrate the opposite of my intention, to my mind it shows the exception that proves the rule. Because the fact is that that editor was taking the trouble to edit.
Just randomly pull some books off the shelf at Barnes & Noble or your favorite independent and read the acknowledgments. You’ll find a lot of people thanking their editors for making their books better. Nobody made them write those thank-yous. They could have thanked their editors for the great lunch or for the advance check, instead.
4. Editors undergo rigorous training.
Unless something has changed since I last spent time on the editorial floor, editors arrive with a presumption that they have strong feelings about how books should read and the willingness and ability to hew them into shape. And, while there are programs out there that teach editing, I’ve never heard of any editor with a job being required to attend such a seminar. More often, it’s trial by fire.
5. Publishers fact check.
Copy editors will pull out the atlas (or, nowadays, pull up the Internet) to make sure Kamchatka is really where the author says it is, but they won’t make a phone call to confirm that the memoirist really attended high school in Peoria. The contract puts the onus on the non-fiction author to tell the truth, and publishers have long relied on those bona fides. Despite being burned, they continue to do so.
6. Bestseller lists feature bestsellers.
A book that never hits a bestseller list can outsell a book that does. How is that possible? Because the bestseller list doesn’t measure aggregate sales; it measures sales velocity. So a book that sells 10,000 copies in one week might make the New York Times list while a book that sells 10,000 copies per month for three years never does.
7. Publishers lose money on books with unearned advances.
This is one of those misperceptions that seem to confirm common sense, but the fact is that a publisher can make money on a book where the author never earns back the advance against royalties. Remember that the publisher is receiving about half the retail price of the book and paying to the author’s royalty account only at most 30 percent of that revenue. If the publisher keeps its costs down, it can use a portion of the 70 percent that’s left to write off the author’s advance and still make money.
8. A big unearned advance will kill your next book deal.
Any editor-in-chief who knows what she’s doing understands that the amount of your last unearned advance is just noise. The next book’s value depends only on what a publisher thinks it will sell in the future. That prediction, in turn, may rely on the number of copies that the last book sold in the marketplace, but the fact that your last publisher made a massive miscalculation shouldn’t — and usually doesn’t — influence what happens to the next work.
9. Big advances guarantee publisher support.
While it’s true that a big advance sometimes compels a publisher to give that book a push, if the marketplace signals that the publisher has completely miscalculated its expectations, that publisher will cut its losses. No co-op. No ads. No phone calls. This happens every day.
10. Authors are rich.
The most visible authors are often pretty well off, it’s true. But most authors who rely on writing as their primary means of support are poor indeed. Authorship, like it or not, is a form of celebrity, and we live in a winner-take-all society with very few winners. That said, even the top one percent of richest authors doesn’t hold a candle to the top one percent of creative people in, say, Hollywood. Becoming an author in order to get rich is like going to the desert in order to become wet.
11. Agents are insiders.
If the market is a herd of elephants, booksellers are underneath being trampled to death while the sales force wipes the blood off their faces and other members of the publishing team stand nearby wringing their hands. In this (really bad) metaphor, agents are a mile away, trying to figure out what’s going on by putting their ears to the ground.
12. The cost of paper determines book prices
The price of a book — like the price of every created thing — rests upon what the market will bear. As for costs, printing, paper and binding are often the least of it. In a business that relies on the intelligent and highly educated, people are the most expensive input. This explains why big publishers are in a flat-out panic over e-books. If a $9.95 e-book displaces a $29.95 hardcover because that’s what the market will bear, the revenue differential isn’t commensurate with the savings on printing, paper and binding. One solution to this dilemma would be to pay those intelligent, highly educated people smaller salaries and relocate them to Bangalore. A more palatable solution might be to find a really rich guy who’s bored with his sports team.
Enlightening as always, Joel. Although I don’t know that anyone on these pages harbored misconception #10, alas…
I think that was what Nat said in other words as his #11.
No, Greg. As a misperception #10 is definitely confined to non-writers!
I have so many weird hangups and questions about #10.
Like, I think it goes without saying that with very few exceptions, people don’t get rich from writing.
And it may even be the case that many–even most–writers are not necessarily well off.
No arguments there.
But as I start to to poke my nose into the world of full-time writing–start considering it, considering how to make it work–it occurs to me that, even if you’re not driving a Bentley, if you can afford to write full time, you are rich. At least by some standards.
And yes, yes, even poor Americans are rich by some global standards, but that’s not what I mean.
By “writers are poor” do we mean they’re verging on homelessness, or that they’re in danger of not being able to afford cable for their $1200/mo. NYC apartment? I mean, I’m sure there’s some of both.
I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what some full-time writers do for money.
The money’s coming from somewhere–the money to eat, to have a roof over their heads, even if not to have a LARGE roof over their heads–so where?
Well-employed spouses, well-off parents, a nest egg built up from some prior employment, smart investing, top-secret government espionage?
I keep getting hung up on this and wondering: Maybe people aren’t rich because they’re full-time writers; maybe they able to be full-time writers because they’re rich.
A very Virginia Woolf kind of meditation, and very near to whining and bitching something along the lines of “art is a pastime of the idle bourgeoisie,” but I’ll be gobsmacked if I don’t struggle for other answers.
i fucking wish i could get an apartment in NYC for $1200/month.
I thought for sake of the argument, it was better to aim low and be wrong than high and be wrong.
I looked at a friend’s sublet advertisement for her NY place not too long ago and just about shit my pants.
I’ve got a whole fucking HOUSE for $1200/month.
Let’s also recall that, adding insult to injury, the word “apartment” means something very different in NYC than in the real world.
Having never been there, I don’t know how people can stand that place. It seems abominable. A wasteland of TV and movie locations, falafel stands, muggings, and the one green patch of land where everyone goes to forget they live in a giant serpentine mating ball.
And to get mugged.
The humanity (nevermind the rent) seems unbearable.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on my sensible midwestern winter boots and go pass judgment on some imported, terrified winter drivers.
I’m not entirely sure how much, if any, of this is meant to be facetious or flippant (so forgive me if my pigeon feathers are ruffling for no reason) but I’ve lived in New York City my entire life and have never once been mugged.
Good to hear, Nicole. Funnily enough, and not related to this post at all, I’ve been talking to a friend who thinks that mugging is very uncommon, but hasn’t dared look up any numbers on it. We debate back and forth and make sure to rely on anecdotal evidence alone, because if we ever look things up, we may be able to formulate a concensus opinion, and then our ongoing conversation will be over. And that would make us a little sad until we think of something else to talk about. Nevertheless–I’ll bring this up in our next meeting.
Unfortunately, I was mugged twice in New York when I lived there. But I think it’s fairly rare of late.
It means closet.
And no elevator.
Nicole, it is, in part, facetious. Making fun of my own quintessentially midwestern attitudes about America’s hugest cities.
But it is true that I don’t think I could stand living in such close proximity to so many people with so little space and greenery around.
And I do suspect that my odds of getting mugged would be better in NY than here in the Twin Cities, but who knows? I work next door to one of the worst neighborhoods in Minneapolis, so I could be proved wrong at any moment.
Don’t knock New York till you’ve tried it.
My heart’s with Chicago, man. Sorry.
Oh. Chicago’s great, but if we’re talking about heart, mine’s in Florence. And I don’t mean Florence, Kentucky.
I think Carl Sandburg’s poem was among the first I ever liked, even when I hated poetry.
I can’t get over the place. Old one-eyed dog that it is, I simply cannot resist my tender feelings towards it.
Girls stop fighting!
I should clarify by saying that writers, while not rich in dollars, are rich in other things. Like, um, metaphors…
HOW DO THEY PAY RENT?????
I want to know because I would like to do it. Whatever it is.
I don’t know if it’s endemic to my area, the staid old-money northeast…but trust-fund-babies are thick on the ground around here.
They’ve got two things: basic sustenance taken care of for their lives, and license for any eccentricity they feel inclined toward.
I knew it.
I’m not normally a class warrior, but I’m thinking of becoming one.
In my own idiom, of course.
I caught the “rich in metaphors,” Joel. Thanks.
Why didn’t I? *stares blankly*
@dwoz Didn’t know you were a northeast guy. Whereabouts?
Bahston and evirons.
I’ll be in Newton tomorrow. want to grab a Starbucks and put some rum in it?
I would but it’s 300 miles. Let me know next time you’re down in New Yawk. I’ll come up from PA and buy you that drink. Better yet, skip the rum and make it a Corpse Reviver at Pegu Club. If you don’t know what that is, don’t ask. Just be sure to sip it.
I’ll be in Jersey City on the 21st/22nd. Producing a radio show. (internet radio)
You are indeed rich in metaphors, and I, for one, am happy about that.
Now, about that light saber…
Let’s just concentrate on the two moons, eh?
(On the other hand, I do think that the light saber makes me stronger….)
Chalk one up over here for the homeless writer. Spent two years like that, going hungry frequently, unable to afford meds, often not knowing where I would be living next. Just coming out of it now, could be back there any second, taking it one day/week/month at a time. When things are going relatively well, I make a living through a combination of writing, mentoring, teaching, arts consulting, speaking gigs, occasional royalties, even more occasional writing grants. I don’t use credit cards. I don’t own a car; I live in a city with great public transit. My only phone is a pay-as-you go cell phone; if I don’t have the money to buy minutes, I can Skype or use email. I shop at thrift stores, cook many of my own meals, recycle leftovers into new dishes, make my own yogourt, try to use all the edible parts of the produce I buy. I can make a meal for two from a cup of flour, a tablespoon of sugar, an egg, and some orange rind. I sew. I don’t own a television; ergo, no cable. I largely borrow videos and dvds from my public library, rather than buying or renting them. Ditto many books. I generally don’t take holidays; I’m being flown all over hell and gone anyway, so I’m kind of seeing the world. As soon as I possibly can, I will own a home again. That has generally turned out to be cheaper than renting. Plus it appreciates rather than costing you money, and it’s more difficult to turf you out if you, say, become too anaemic to be able make a living. I do spend money on my hobby (crafts). Sometimes I sell what I make. I spend money on tools; got a table saw, know how to use it. (Currently, most of our furniture was either made by us or was a gift from friends.) I spend money on tasty, fresh, good quality food. On books, computers, printers, paper, internet connection. On a proper steno chair. A couple pairs of good walking shoes a year. A bicycle. Prescription eyeglasses, cause I can’t see to write without them. One gets by. Income’s precarious, but there’s stuff you can do to conserve it or make it appreciate, and having a certain amount of public recognition means that I receive a decent number of requests a year to do speaking engagements. One or two of those can cover a month’s living expenses, if I’m careful. A lot of the money-saving things I do are things I would do anyway, because I enjoy them. It’s not rich, and it’s not easy, but by many people’s standards, it’s luxury. In practice, it’s an apparently contradictory combination of poverty and luxury. I may get flown somewhere for a weekend and put up in a nice hotel while I’m there, but I may be living off the sugar packets from the coffee station in my room. That’s happened before.
“…(I) got a table saw, (and I) know how to use it.
That sounds like something to be shouted at the person chasing you down a dark alley, late at night. A warning that they’re messing with someone they ought not to be!
I have found, personally, that money is not a tangible thing, as much as it is a flow. All through my life, any increase to inflow has been fairly matched by an increase in outflow, leaving me pretty much in the exact same position, moment-to-moment. In all that, the worst aspect of the higher income is the increase, dramatic increase, in the time it costs to maintain that higher flow.
So, net-net? maybe having more cash isn’t worth it, once you’re above the “is the house gonna be warm tomorrow” threshold.
People at commercial houses may care as much about books as those at small presses, but I suppose I wonder what it means to “care.” There are executives at major studios in Hollywood who would say, correctly in their view, that they care about movies, but they still greenlight mediocre projects, and I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of their hands being tied; I think it’s a genuine demonstration of their taste.
Also, I have heard, again and again, that there’s very little editing done these days, while noticing much talk about editors among writers, which didn’t add up. I wonder at the origin of the editors-don’t-edit myth.
This is an interesting point about “caring,” Duke. Is it a matter of taste, though? People in the arts are trying to make decisions for their perceived audience. If the perceived audience is mass market, the selected book may err in one direction. If the perceived audience is, say, high-end literary, the selected book may err in another direction. In the end, plenty of mediocre stuff gets published in either context and plenty of good stuff gets missed. Take my last novel, for instance…
I think this says it all, a great quote from today’s Shelf Awareness:
Life in 1500: ‘Sheer Mass of New Books Was Distracting Readers’
“But around 1500, humanist scholars began to bemoan new problems: Printers in search of profit, they complained, rushed to print manuscripts without attention to the quality of the text, and the sheer mass of new books was distracting readers from the focus on the ancient authors most worthy of attention. Printers ‘fill the world with pamphlets and books that are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their goodness,’ wrote Erasmus in the early 16th century, in the kind of tirade that might seem familiar to anyone exhausted by what they find online today.”
–Ann Blair in her Boston Globe article, “Information overload, the early years.”
There really is nothing new under the sun.
I’ve long believed that the lamenting of quality books and movies is really just a form of survivor’s bias. It’s not that there hasn’t always been a lot of junk out there, just that we only remember the good stuff.
Great share, Sean.
Seriously great find.
So the main question, I suppose, is, in 1500, did good work–like life–find a way? I like to think it did, but I know Marlowe didn’t come around until the latter part of that century, and Shakespeare later yet. Then again, Chaucer was earlier, so there’s probably a solid shot if you’re good.
To Duke’s point: there seems to be a dichotomy between good business and taste. The two sometimes–but don’t always–coincide. This came up I think most recently in Becky’s defense of James Franco’s literary career. It was established in the post itself that Franco’s writing was of a quality not equivalent to a standard a professional editor would consider publishable–unless said editor was concerned not with the merit of the work but rather with the potential of said work to move units. Did Esquire’s fiction editor make a sound literary judgment when he (or she–I don’t know, to be candid) ran Franco’s “ketchup randomness” story over all the other submissions the magazines had received?
But did said editor make a sound business decision by running that story, and highlighting Franco’s name on the cover?
There are rare instances that render the discussion–and its inherent argument–moot, I think. Keith Richards and his book Life are probably the most notable recent example. $7 million to publish something that can be considered absolutely nothing less than a seminal work of rock and roll literature, full of insider knowledge and candid stories, as well as what basically amounts to a master class taught by one of the greatest guitarists in all of music history and that’s, most importantly, actually well written besides?
Publishing Sarah Palin’s books might not necessarily be incompetence, but not publishing Keith Richards’ would have been.
The problem then becomes that not all such decisions are so clear. Especially when taking risks on new writers and projects. I think that’s among the greatest challenges for new writers nowadays; not everyone looks good in a meat dress, and not everyone wants to wear one, but most of all, wearing a meat dress doesn’t actually make the work any better than it already is.
I don’t worry about that Franco stuff too much. Esquire’s job is to sell magazines and James’ dreamy smile helps do that. They’re under no obligation to discover unknowns. Anyone who writes short stories should be well aware of the fact that they aren’t owed anything by anyone, but particularly not some slick-rack mag full of perfume inserts.
As far as Keef Richards, I think finding out that he’s referred to Mick as “Brenda” for thirty years is worth 7 million, easy.
I think, if you’re a publisher, Palin is a harder call. Or, at least, you have to be willing to absorb some complicity for giving her a voice, and the ultimate effect of that voice on our country, regardless of how many copies sell.
I’ve never seen anyone look a cutlet less than fantastic in a meat dress.
Does anyone else think Glenn Beck’s publisher should be tied up and stoned like in Leviticus for printing his Christmas books? (Sorry, someone mentioned Sarah Palin and got me thinking Old Testament justice)
First, on the timelessness of mediocrity. As that brilliant quote from Sean illustrates, each era has a body of published work, some of it rises to the top of the tank and enters into the canon. But each work that is recognized for it’s seminal importance is the tip of an iceberg of dreary, unreadable dreck.
Same for any nostalgia-based assessment…’40s movies, ’70s music, etc. We all forget how much CRAP was on the radio in 1974. Horrendous, unlistenable manure with an occasional brilliant diamond.
Second, yes, absolutely, publishing a Glen Beck Christmas book is an instant, non-refundable, non-transferrable one way ticket to the worst boiling lake of misery in the worst-smelling place in all of Hell, for eternity if not longer.
Maybe it’s simply all the typos in books now.
There never used to be typos.
They light up in neon to me.
It makes you wonder if anyone proof-read it.
I think the typos are more a reflection of time pressure than anything else. Plus, over reliance on computers.
Back when I worked in publishing, I would walk past a designer’s desk festooned with raw galleys off the typesetter, and point to typos in 9/10 Goudy condensed italic.
Typos had a distinct COLOR.
Sadly I’ve lost that skill, but in return I’ve gone back to being able to read for meaning.
BTW, I’m in Southern NH, work in Portsmouth, am in Boston a fair bit.
[…] post at The Nervous Breakdown about how the publishing industry really works these days. Takeaway for […]
Is “Cadaver Blues” coming out in print or as an e book?
I got behind and I’d like to read it from the beginning.
Not at this juncture, but it still exists in its entirety on TNB.
Good post. Esp this one; “big-house editors have to battle through much more institutional knowledge to get anything done. None of that means they don’t love books.” It does seem as though they have to battle more than they used to. My understanding is that there used to be an unspoken arrangement between the ‘money forces’ and the editors, where the editors would acquiesce to certain marketable books (perceived big sellers) in return for their pet projects (books of higher ‘literary quality’ that they loved that were perceived as not big sellers.) There were 5-6 editors who were hot for my book, but couldn’t get it past the marketing people. Much of that may have been the timing, summer 2008. Not a good summer.
About #7. Do you think that’s true even in a case like The Gargoyle? 1.25 mill advance and sold 30 thou? (if my info is correct) Because I heard that and Dan Brown not being able to come up with his book on time are what sunk Doubleday
The sad thing is that The Gargoyle is a seriously great book. Which makes the problem then something interesting: as a publisher, do you spend the $1.25 million on a great book, or one that’s guaranteed to sell, knowing that the two might not necessarily be the same. Does the fact that so many people want to read Twilight and Dan Brown’s lack of punctuality/professionalism mean that Davidson’s book is less good?
You’re an acquisitions editor, and you have $1.25 million. Do you buy Sarah Palin’s new book or do you instead acquire the rights to the novel of a writer nobody’s ever heard of but whose manuscript you just read and found yourself wanting to champion?
I was in Wal-Mart today (DON’T FRIGGIN’ ASK WHY!!!!) and I checked in on their book selection.
Religious Promisekeeper types peddling self-help.
Pulp Franchise Fiction.
It was shocking, yet exactly what I expected. an ABYSMAL selection.
Walmart, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Dan Brown are making a shit-ton of money (a shit is more than a giga but less than a tera), as are Double Day, Harper, and Simon & Schuster (irrespectively). Great selection for them, right? If I were a publisher interested in profits, I could do worse than publishing Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.
(Though if I were a publisher interested in good books, I couldn’t.)
I bought my laptop from Walmart.
Yeah. Davidson even came and did an online chat thing at my grad school and we had an interesting discussion about burns (American Junkie was originally titled Burn Chart, after one of my medical charts) Cool guy, and a good writer.
Yeah. Given that Davidson was a first time author, you can bet your ass their was a bidding war on The Gargoyle. And it would be interesting to know the fortunes of the editor that made that happen. It would be interesting to know what the editor who gave 7 mill for Life also has going on. Is he only interested in celebrity books? Or does he have some other books cooking, some more ‘literary’ projects? Alas, we will prolly never know (and does it really matter?)
Editors can usually survive a misbegotten advance because that decision is made by the whole house these days. Books like Sarah Palin’s, by the way, are usually bought by very senior people, often the editor-in-chief or the publisher himself/herself.
Advances aren’t a measure of how great a book is or isn’t. They’re a bet that the publishing house makes about future sales.
By the way, I think it’s a little harsh, Will, to characterize Dan Brown as unprofessional because his book was late. Regardless of what you think of his books, the guy was working to make the book as good as it could be, as I understand it. It’s not like he was off partying. I hope this doesn’t sound like a reprimand, but even the writers some people don’t like are doing their best. I don’t think George Eliot could have written like Danielle Steele any more than Danielle Steel can write like George Eliot.
Not having read either George Eliot or Danielle Steele, I can’t speak to your point there, which is good, because I’m not really sure what it is, either.
I figured one mark of professionalism was fulfilling the terms of contractual obligations. In completing my master’s degree in professional writing, we studied contracts, the marketplace, and publishing. We learned about how advances are paid, and that most are paid not in lump sums but rather first on signing, then on delivery of the manuscript, and finally on publication. Given that, I’d figure Brown had received a rather large sum of money on signing the contract, which would have stipulated not only how much he would get on delivery of the manuscript but also a date for said delivery.
As I understand it, he failed to meet that deadline. Tom’s not the first person I’ve seen mention that his failure to do so resulted in financial woes for Doubleday.
I know it’s not unusual for a book to be late. But I also know that delivering what is promised is part of what constitutes professional behavior.
That was what I meant. But you’re right; I’m sure he was trying as hard as he could to make sure his book was as good as he could make it. Which I guess makes it an ethical dilemma of professionalism: do you fulfill the terms of the contract with a book you know could be better, or do you violate the contract to deliver the best book you can? I would have chosen as Brown did, but I would have done so with some guilt, knowing I’d violated a contract from which I’d already received remuneration for my work.
Man, I’ve seen people who were literally eight years late on delivery. Not that that’s something to aspire to. Nor do I want to hold Dan Brown up as a paragon. But imagine the pressure that guy was under. (Okay, okay — the kind of problem we’d all like to have.)
My point about Eliot vs. Steele was simply that I think everyone writes the book that’s in them and is earnestly trying. The value of the product is for others to judge. Maybe I’m being a little too forgiving, but this shit is hard, as we all know. The one person who perhaps who has earned harsh judgment is James Patterson, who doesn’t even bother to write his own books. And what’s with this guy Twain, dead 100 years and crowding out talented living authors!
P.S. As for Doubleday betting the house on the guy, well — with all respect to my old friend Steve Rubin — whose fault was that? Not the author’s.
I don’t think Patterson deserves harsh judgment, actually. I’m not saying his books are any good, but he’s arguably the extreme end of the old “art versus commerce” debate (the merits of which are a different discussion entirely). His books are product in pure form, bound paper with sufficient words on them that serve as mindless entertainment. Judge that all you like, but they’re perfectly executed as exactly that, and he’s turned writing into a pure business.
Provided, I think that business neglects any art whatsoever, for the most part, but he really is, in a very literal way, the Big Mac of the publishing industry. McDonald’s is so successful not because it’s good but because it has developed a process for creating the same exact product repeatedly. Like Patterson.
He many no longer write the books, but he is the mastermind behind the process operation, which is what the publication of his books has become.
I say all this without judgment of it. I’m not a fan; I don’t think I’ve managed to finish even one Patterson novel, though I’ve tried a few (Roses Are Red springs most immediately to mind).
He is, however, successful as an author in his way.
Can you imagine if digital technologies had been where they are now twenty years ago? I seriously can’t imagine how much different Patterson’s career would have been. I think he’d have a Rupert Murdoch-level of power in the publishing industry.
There used to be a time when a well-respected editor at a big house could buy a book based upon his or her sheer enthusiasm. Those days are probably gone.
With regard to #7, I’m not saying that publishers always make money when the advance is unearned. In fact, it’s probably likely that they won’t make money with an unearned advance. But my point is that these two things don’t necessarily correlate.
The issue of the late Dan Brown manuscript was the lack of anticipated contribution to revenue (therefore overhead). Of course, the fact that some other big bets went a-wasting at the same time didn’t help Doubleday’s fortunes. And, yes, you can be sure that a $1+ million unearned on a book that sold 30 thousand copies was a money loser. But a $1 million unearned on a book that, say, sells 1 million copies? That publisher didn’t lose money, I guarantee you.
I read this and don’t have any clever thing to add. I appreciate the insights and the discussion.
I had the opportunity to work with Ooligan Press my senior year of college and I met a lot of people who loved writing and publishing – the good guys for sure. That was my first dose of reality about what publishing a book actually looks like – the hours and hours and hours of work (from everyone – the author, the editors, the layout and design team, etc) that goes into it versus the amount of money that generally comes out of it.
Interesting piece. I’m a huge fan of lists.
“These days book publishing has become a place where synergies go to die.”
Yes, yes, yes. Which is why is so important that we can do it ourselves these days.
Great stuff, Joel.
Do it ourselves these days… Interesting you should say that. Stay tuned.
In the words of Lorrie Moore: Get down here in the muck with the rest of us.
Like I am?
Great post overall, too. It’s so important that these misperceptions stop being misperceptions; with a little education, publishing is going to become a lot more exciting as more writers seek out and make use of more information.
Excellent post. Can you clear something up for me? Is it true that big houses don’t pay any royalties after they’ve paid out a big advance? (maybe the question is more appropriate to an era in which big advances were more common…). I’ve heard that if a book earns out, some houses send statements in which they show expenses (for marketing, etc.) the author’s out the author’s royalties. But I’ve never really heard that confirmed anywhere…
No, not exactly. You’re conflating the book and movie biz. In Hollywood, if you’re lucky you get “points” in the film, which is to say a percentage of the net profit in addition to whatever you already got paid. The problem has been that the way they do the accounting, no matter how well the film does, unless it’s a total blockbuster they never seem to show a net profit — at least for the P&L upon which the points depend. There has been the suggestion that this is dirty pool, but I don’t have enough first-hand knowledge of Hollywood to confirm that it’s so.
I’ve never heard of a publishing house where this kind of thing is done, but I suppose it’s possible. More common is the mere fact that big publishing advances frequently don’t earn out. Anyone who gets a big advance should presume he or she will never see another nickel from the publisher.
One interesting note about large advances…the agent/manager/finder’s fee is USUALLY taken from the artist advance (writer’s advance). Thus, naturally, the agent/manager/lawyer is personally motivated to push for a big front-end, and to hell with the back end.
It’s all really the exact same thing across all Intellectual Property publishing, whether it be songs or images or movies or books, with the devilish details being the differentiating factor.
Show me someone who signs a contract written by the publisher’s lawyers, be they musician or wordsmith or pretty face, and I’ll show you someone who just left a substantial amount of money on the table.
Having said that, its also true that in the long run, you only get out of it what you put into it.
That’s true about agents, but with so few books earning out it’s usually advisable for the author to take the money and run. I know a guy who went for the second highest offer he had, leaving a substantial sum on the table. He now regrets it because his book won’t earn out anyway. The money he walked away from would have paid his mortgage for a year or two.
The deeper problem, of course, is the whole structure of the business, which, as you suggest dwoz, relies on the work product of creative people and then, to some extent, takes advantage of them on business terms. I should note here that, in my experience as an agent, the contracts of many small publishers were more egregiously unfair than those of big ones. So it’s not a big conglomerate thing. It’s more complicated than that.
I think the best way to think about it, as a creative, is that you are a STAKEHOLDER in an investment.
If the investment finds a market, then you get a payday. Otherwise, er, it’s Ramen for you.
Your job is to discern and implement Quality. Their job is to sell it.
In any record label, the most powerful guy at the table is not the guy who brings artists to the table, its the guy who brings signed and validated purchase orders to the table.
Same deal in books, I think.
Accounting is accounting no matter what industry you’re in. The accountant’s job is to record the smallest possible outlays that don’t egregiously violate the contract. They pay late because money has a time value. They under-pay because that’s what they hire lawyers for. It’s just the way business is done.
“Their job is to sell it.” Very old-school statement, unfortunately, unless by “sell” it you mean the very narrow definition of getting it into distribution channels. But to the degree that selling it means marketing it to an audience, that onus falls mostly on the author these days, with very rare exceptions.
Definitely, no objection to that.
By “sell it” I mean, “put product into hands that used to have money in them, only a brief moment previous.”
Most definitely, the artist/creative has to be involved in that process, in that they at the very least have to ENABLE it. What’s a book tour, but a marketing gig?
But when you get down to it, the guy/gal who’s primary function is emptying the warehouse and filling the chequebook, is the guy who needs to be on your side.
No doubt we take the salesperson for granted at our peril.
. . . excellent post, mr. fishman!
I second Jonathan… Excellent post!
I think people like to hold onto their ( sometimes wrong) impressions of publishing and other such industries and it only serves to reinforce negative belief systems about all matter of things.
Like you said in your intro about marketing – people have opinions about the horrors of marketing – when in fact, it is an essential part of any successful business.
You do a great job of knocking down myths in this piece, thank you.
You know, Derek Jeter, shortstop for the Yankees, says baseball is a game of failure, where you’re considered a success if you fail to reach base 70 percent of the time. Most book publishers would be over the moon if 30 percent of the books they publish worked commercially.
My old publishing teacher used to talk about the glory days, when three people would go for lunch, and walk out co-Presidents of a new publishing company.
Of course, his background was in educational publishing in Nigeria, working in an office in the middle of nowhere, two weeks from any real line of communication. I had a vague suspicion the sun had cooked his brain, and he spent his lunch hour drinking Scotch and firing an unloaded pistol at invisible enemies.
The industry has changed – and drastically – since the first release, but have you read Greco’s The Book Publishing Industry?
No, I haven’t. I’m not a big reader of books about the publishing industry. At the risk of sounding like a snob, most of them seem to be written by people no one in book publishing has ever heard of. Interestingly, the Amazon page for that book doesn’t say a word about what qualifies Albert N. Greco to write about the industry. To be more generous, perhaps he’s very famous and I’m just uninformed…
Good points all. Thanks for clearing the clutter. Funny to see the discussion devolve into one about rents in NYC though. I guess people will use any available forum to talk about what they’re really passionate about. In New York it seems, rents trump books.
Ha! There was recently a rather turgid piece on Slate (via some journal) about the evolution of two literary canons: that coming out of MFA land (academic short story writers often being published by small or university presses) and that coming out of NYC (novelists trying to make it commercially). What the piece might have mentioned, but didn’t, is that the short story writer teaching in Iowa is probably renting a three-bedroom house for $500 per month and the struggling writer in Brooklyn gets a room-share for that in a fourth-floor walkup. If the latter circumstance won’t make you begin in media res, I don’t know what will.
But this reminds me of something the award-winning poet Philip Levine once said. Something along the lines of…”When I’m teaching I can’t wait to leave the college campus and get back to the city, where I can smell gasoline and have people spit at me.” Location, location, location.
I saw that Slate piece. I’m not sure if I sensed the MFA literary canon when I was doing my MFA (at UBC in Vancouver-a great place) or if I just had delusions of grandeur, but early on I decided no short stories and only book length works
In my defense, my original point was utterly serious.
I just never got a serious answer.
Failing that, I just went with the flow.
A serious answer as to what writers do for cash? As I have understood and experienced it, very few people earn a full-time, livable wage from writing. The vast majority do something else besides: teaching, repairing motorcycles, making the occasional movie, etc.
With digital innovations, the question becomes stickier yet. Seth Godin has generally forwarded the thesis that there’s no such thing as a writer anymore; there are people who teach, or speak, or appear on television, and happen to write books besides, seems to be his general stance.
For example, I don’t think we’ve yet figured out a term for what, exactly, Sarah Palin really is. She’s sort of a lot of different things: politician, pundit, author, reality-television host, interviewee, mother of D-list star dancer, etc. But really what she actually is is as ineffable as what Lady Gaga is. Life as performance art, and I don’t think either is any less sincere than the other.
As far as people who write full-time and actually manage to afford apartments in Manhattan (two bedroom in Jersey City: $1400. Same in Brooklyn: generally several hundred dollars more. Same in Manhattan: usually several thousand dollars per month, at least, and that’s not even factoring in square footage of said apartments. I have a friend who pays slightly more than I do, per month, for a first-floor studio apartment on the upper-East side, the entirety of which could pretty much fit in my living room), writing full-time is generally a hustle. Ten thousand words per day, polishing articles and front-of-magazine pieces, income earned a hundred or so dollars at a time and filtering in from places like Maxim and Stuff and Penthouse Forum, often published pseudonymously. If you really want to write full-time, you have to legitimately write full-time, including sending out queries, self-promotion, and incessant marketing, not to mention publishing in places that will pay. Sadly, many of these efforts are remarked upon derogatorily by writers who want to write full time but don’t dedicate the required effort.
You should really stop obsessing on Sarah Palin. It’s getting conspicuous.
You defended having asked a serious question that never got “a serious answer.” I endeavored to provide one, including examples I felt germane to the discussion. I highlighted both Palin and The Ga as examples of what creating full-time looks like in the contemporary entertainment marketplace.
You didn’t answer my question even nearly.
What do you think my point was? The point wasn’t the price of apartments in Manhattan.
I thought I summed it up pretty well when I implied that art was the pastime of the idle bourgeoisie.
Do you have anything on that tip?
Sure I do. I don’t think it is. I would disagree with Woolf. I thought I was pretty clear when I explained how many full-time writers earn their cash, which I thought was what you were asking. You’re the first person in the discussion to say “Writers are poor”; Joel merely noted they aren’t rich, which are two entirely separate distinctions. You state “Writers are poor” and then asked for clarification about what that meant, when I’d figure no one but you would have an answer for it; given that you stated it, wouldn’t you have the standard by which the rubric was defined? Nobody said it previously, and then you ask whether we mean they’re homeless or unable to pay NYC rents.
You also state that you can’t figure out what writers do for money and state that you can’t figure out where it’s coming from, so I attempted to provide some explanation of how a full-time writer–one who earns his or her living, and pays his or her rent, by way of writing–would do so.
Personally, I don’t think that any writer who managed to pay his or her rent via writing would be idle. Because, as I stated above, writing, querying, and submitting require quite a fair amount of hustle. I’d wager a beginning freelance writer who wanted to make writing his or her living would have to dedicate a lot of time, energy, and dedication to all three activities for the better part of a year, and probably wouldn’t manage to meet rent requirements for the first six months of it while the full-time writing career got off the ground.
Listen to Joel. Joel knows whereof he speaks.
People love publishing talk, don’t they–probably because the whole thing is so mysterious and maddening or downright wonderful (sort of like whether or not the lottery can realistically be won).
I’m not sure the people in publishing even fully understand it. They’re like bishops at the Vatican, trying to figure out what’s going on behind the gilded door. Sometimes it helps to have some distance.
Good piece. My favorite quote (as an author living in the desert): “Becoming an author in order to get rich is like going to the desert in order to become wet.” Boy, does that say it all!
I do like the point about agents, too. I’ve never had one, but still managed to have 70+ books published since 1990. Maybe I’m just as much as insider (if not more) than they are.
70 books in 20 years is an impressive number by anyone’s calculation. Congrats.
[…] The Nervous Breakdown has a great list of the most common misperceptions in book publishing. […]
Nice piece, Joel. Good to get an insider’s perspective. Poets & Writers have been publishing articles to this effect for a while now, and none of them (that I’ve read) have been this insightful.
I’ve not got much to add to the discussion, alas, but I’m fascinated by all of this.
Excellent piece. It’s refreshing to read the truth about publishing. I follow a lot of publishing blogs and so many just don’t have it correct. After 25 years at various publishers, I tend to agree with all your points. Thanks.
Interesting article, the point about authors being rich and the last point were very informative for me. Some insightful comments too…
Neat. NYC is what it is. Publishing is a mess, but I detect a round circle here.Number 12 probably won’t happen, at least, not in NYC. Generally we’ve become entirely too greedy. But there are more publishers in the country today than ever before and a lot of them don’t give two hoots ab out the Best Seller list. Likewise, there are a large number of authors out there who feel the same way. Some of them care more about the product and being paid a reasonable sum for their efforts than they do about spurious “respect” or aclaim and being on a useless “best seller” list.
Whooo. What an idea. writing and publishing significant books, just writing and publishing. my my.
It’s being paid the “reasonable sum” that presents the challenge, isn’t it? But, you’re right, there’s a lot of activity out there, away from the old core.
What would a “reasonable sum” entail? Some people have enormous egos and would flatter themselves into thinking that their time/effort/end product is worth far more than it actually is. Others might have no clue as to the real value of their time/effort/end product.
I care very much about the quality of my writing, but I don’t think I’d have the temerity to turn my nose up at a best seller list.
That’s for each of us to judge, isn’t it? Or, if we’re lucky enough, it’s for our agents to judge!
Very interesting list, Joel. As a definite outsider I was surprised by a couple of these. Number ten, though, didn’t shock me at all. I’ve read a lot of similar posts but this was definitely more informative.
[…] 12 Common Misperceptions About Book Publishing. “But most authors who rely on writing as their primary means of support are poor indeed. Authorship, like it or not, is a form of celebrity, and we live in a winner-take-all society with very few winners.” Not too surprising. Reminds me of something else…. […]
@ BECKY, You complain about not having enough $? Nov offense but if you probably had a nickel for every hour you’ve spent leaving comments on blogs you would have more $ than TWILIGHT has earned!
Get offline and go to work?
When I first realized the truth of number five, I was horrified. Anything wrong would be on me! Safe to say, I scrutinized the hell out of that first ms. before it went to galleys and was very careful with my next. And still I made mistakes.
I love this list because of reality of it. From someone who would know.
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[…] Fishman explains the 12 common misconceptions about book publishing. One misconception is that authors are rich. Who would’ve […]
[…] Another link posted by a different GoodReader offered some background as to why the publishing industry executives are reacting so poorly to change: Twelve Common Misconceptions about Book Publishing. […]
[…] — 12 common misconceptions about publishing […]
[…] — 12 common misconceptions about publishing […]
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[…] fact, as agent-turned-author J. E. Fishman explains, “A book that never hits a bestseller list can outsell a book that does. How is that […]
[…] JE Fischmann, 12 häufige Fehleinschätzungen über das Veröffentlichen von Büchern, Der Nervenzusammenbruch, 1. Dezember 2010. Abgerufen am 27. Juli […]