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.

Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 20: Crossing Borders: A Eulogy

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 22: Marketing ‘Theme’ in Fiction

Follow me on Twitter: JEFISHMAN

Visit the Verbitrage website.

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.

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

19 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 21: Nine Lies Your Publisher Told You”

  1. […] Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 21: Nine Lies Your Publisher Told You […]

  2. Quenby Moone says:

    Holy cripes. This is fascinating. I mean, of course these things come out of their mouths, and you believe them because you really, really want to, but wow. To just read the fabrications makes it seem like…a ponzi scheme.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      A more benign explanation may be that they really wish these things were true. But, as mama used to say (everyone’s mama), wishing doesn’t make it so.

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    This is off-topic, but what do you think about Amazon’s slick end run around Apple’s 30% for in-app Kindle purchases?

    I was impressed. It isn’t only the publishers who are greedy — so’s Apple.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Honestly, Don, I haven’t been following it with great care. It’s like watching Godzilla battle Mothra. Get too close to that action and mere mortals will be stepped upon.

      I don’t know if Amazon and Apple are greedy per se, so much as they’re hyper-competitive. Of course, the only mutually agreed upon measure of that competition is money.

      The scarier thought is that to these guys the book business is a pimple in their nose. Every time they sneeze the entire book world gets a cold.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    You’re a sex sandwich on TNB today.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Is that a publishing term?

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Yes. It means you moved me to reply to your comment. Thank you for reading. Now be a good person and go buy the book. You can be one of the first on your block to have one.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    I tried, Fishman.
    I must’ve misunderstood what ebook publishing is, because I could only get hardcover and not an ebook for my kindle.
    Is it not available as an ebook?

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      The e-book will be available within the next few weeks, perhaps sooner on Amazon. Thanks for your patience (and your future business).

  7. JE,

    You mention that eBook royalty rates are out of whack. What do you think they SHOULD be? How much SHOULD the author get? I’m in the middle of negotiations right now. 60% seemed the minimum. I’m pushing for 70%. Too much? Or about right? If you self-publish at Amazon, and price your book at $2.99 or higher you get 70%, so that seemed like the right amount to me (or higher).


    • J.E. Fishman says:

      It depends upon what the publisher is doing for you. Did they write you an advance check? Edit the book? Design it? Do they plan to market it? Or are they essentially just a distributor?

      Some e-book-only publishers are offering 50% of net proceeds, which may be fair if they are spending money on an editorial and marketing process. If they’re only distributing you, 70% of net proceeds to you is a reasonable position to take. But beware: just because it’s reasonable doesn’t mean you’ll get it.

      • They offered 60%. 75% over sales of 7500 copies, which probably won’t happen, so I countered at a flat 70%. They’ll edit and design and distribute it. No advance. Some marketing and PR, but not a ton. Sound good?

        Thanks for getting back to me on this.

  8. Don Mitchell says:

    Primacy arrived a couple of days ago, speaking of not-lies. You promised it. It came. It’s being read.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      That’s great, Don. I hope you enjoy it and — if so — that as an early reader you’ll give it a word or two on Amazon or what have you.

      Wishing you hours of entertainment,


  9. […] Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 21: Nine Lies Your Publisher Told You […]

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