August 10, 2011
In these dog days of August one can easily feel adrift. Emails go out and automated out-of-office replies come instantaneously. London burns. Wall Street is tanking. The bookstores seem empty. Unless you’re in the Hamptons, it requires monumental effort just to raise a tennis game.
At bottom all I ever wanted was to tell stories, to write. Yet so much else needs doing. On hot and lazy days, the summer doldrums are enough to make one question the choice of publishing independently. Therefore I must remind myself that publishing conventionally is no spring picnic either.
Not because traditional publishers are all mean or incompetent. It’s just business. Still, their institutional behavior has consequences, and one of those consequences is that authors don’t always get God’s honest truth from their editors. To wit:
Nine Lies Your Publisher Told You
1. “You have a unique voice.”
The Hollywood agent Michael Siegel once explained to me that producers are looking for something “fresh and original — but not too fresh and original.” One might say the same for publishers. If you had a truly unique voice, they probably wouldn’t publish you. Their only gauge of future success is past success. Everything they publish is a little derivative.
2. “We have the best publicity department in the business.”
There are some great people leading publisher publicity departments, but are you going to have the department head as your publicist? More likely you’ll get someone just a couple of years (or months) out of college, someone who’s not likely to be in that job or the business five years hence. He or she might be smart and talented but probably won’t have the rapport with media execs to deliver top-notch results.
3. “We’re interested in your long-term success.”
This used to be true. Now it’s “what have you done for me lately?” If your first book tanks, a publisher will be reluctant to face the uphill sledding required to sell the second.
4. “We’re behind you because we have to protect our investment.”
So, they wrote you an advance check and the book’s going nowhere. The corollary is: “We’re not throwing good money after bad.”
5. “Everybody here read it and loved it.”
Not everybody, not even close. For all the cutting, big houses still publish hundreds of titles a year. Who has the time to read them? More likely a couple of editors read it and maybe a rep or two. In most cases, the top executives skimmed it at best. Remember: these people are in meetings all day. They go home and have lives.
6. “There’s a marketing budget.”
Ha, ha, ha, ha! Unless they wrote you a really big check or laid down a lot of books up front, it’s not enough to matter.
7. “We don’t make any money until your advance earns out.”
I recently heard Simon Lipskar of Writer’s House dispute this assertion on a panel using some typical numbers. It was a relief because I used to tell this to my clients all the time when I was an agent. Bottom line: publishers can make money on your book even if your advance doesn’t earn out.
8. “Consultation is as good as approval.”
Theoretically, who are you to demand jacket approval? This is their business, after all, and they’re experts at it. Don’t they have more experience designing jackets than you do, little author? But the problem is that your jacket will often end up designed by committee — everyone getting in their two cents until the designer throws up her hands. What is your two cents in that pot? A penny ante, that’s what.
9. “Our e-book royalties are fair.”
From his seat on a panel at the International Thriller Writers conference, Paul Aiken of the Authors Guild elegantly dissected the publishers’ position on e-book royalties, arguing convincingly that there is little basis (in precedent, logic or math) for the currently prevailing rate of e-book royalties. They should be much higher. The fact that they aren’t is completely a matter of publishers having leverage over authors when contracts get negotiated. With e-books accounting (anecdotally) for upwards of fifty percent of all sales in the thriller category, this last point beyond all others reminds me why I decided to publish Primacy independently.
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 22: Marketing ‘Theme’ in Fiction
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Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time. This post is late due to an office power outage that resulted from yet another round of severe thunderstorms in the Wilmington, Delaware area. Please be advised that neither these thunderstorms nor last month’s near-record-breaking heat can be specifically attributed to climate change. In a related note, not a single case of unemployment can be specifically attributed to our politicians.