Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Publishers Hate Authors: A Response to an Article that Doesn't Deserve a Response

So what does it take to bring this blog out of mothballs for the first time in almost two full years? This article by "nationally acclaimed thought leader on the subject of the future of book publishing" Michael Levin, one of the most thoughtless, troll posts in this history of blogging: Why Do Publishers Hate Authors (which I link to while holding my nose and apologizing to my family). Aside from the irony of a 'thought leader' amassing a whopping 150 Twitter followers, or having a clearly self-written Wikipedia page, this Huffington Post piece is one of those delightful posts in which no real thought is used, no examples are cited, because the entire post is designed to get people riled up (consider me duped) without using any sort of critical thinking. I also chose to publish this response here rather than HuffPo, where I'm a regular contributor, because I didn't want this to be one of those 'flip sides of the same coin!' deals, especially since Levin did not present one side of a coin but rather a piece of ground up mulch he's presenting to you as currency. So let's go point-by-point through Mr. Levin's Opus:

Authors are admittedly a strange lot. There's something antisocial about retreating from life for months or years at a time, to perform the solitary act of writing a book.

What does this have to do with publishers hating authors? Nothing. Why is it included? No idea. And you know what? Some authors like to write books. Some enjoy the writing process. You don't want to write? Don't write. You don't want to exist in solitary while writing? Go write at a Starbucks. Nowhere in the non-existent writer contract does it say you have to retreat to a cabin in the woods and cut off all signs of life in order to pen your manuscript. Truth is the vast majority of writes have day jobs, many have families, and they don't shirk their responsibilities. Writing is a privilege.

On top of that, authors are flaky. They promise to deliver a manuscript in April and it doesn't come in until October. Or the following April. Or the April after that. This leaves publishers with several options, all of them bad: revise publishing schedules at the last minute; demand that authors turn in projects on time, regardless of quality; cancel books altogether; or sue the authors (as Penguin has begun to do) for undelivered or poor quality work.

So we're now three paragraphs in and it seems like the only one who hates authors is Michael Levin. Yes, writing is a creative endeavor, and creative endeavors are generally at odds with typical 9-to-5 work days. And no publisher wants to be put in a position where an author doesn't deliver on time, leaving them without both the manuscript they wanted (note: wanted) to publish, or out possibly thousands of dollars in advance payments. Publishing an author is inherently a risk-taking venture because you aren't always sure if the author will deliver, or if the book in question will make money. Generally you don't spend thousands of dollars in a risky venture with a class of people you 'hate'.

Authors are also prickly about their work. There are few jobs on the planet in which people are utterly free to ignore the guidance, or even mandates, from their bosses. Yet book authors are notoriously dismissive of their editors' advice. When I was writing novels for Simon & Schuster back in the late 1980s, my editor, Bob Asahina, used to tell me, "You're the only writer who ever lets me do my job."

Will you stop hating on authors already? First off, NO author is utterly free to ignore guidance from their editor. Nearly every publishing contract has a clause to this effect:

  • The Publisher shall inform the Author in writing whether the Work is acceptable within sixty (60) days of receipt of the complete Work. If the Publisher, in its sole editorial judgment, concludes that the Work delivered is unacceptable but could be revised to the Publisher’s satisfaction in a timely fashion, the Publisher and the Author shall agree on an appropriate period of time for the revision process and the Publisher will provide written editorial comments to the Author with respect to the revisions required. Should the Publisher find that the revised Work is still unacceptable for any reason, the Publisher may reject the Work by written notice to the Author.
The only authors who can ignore this kind of advice are the ones whose sales and/or influence at the house are at a level where they can get this type of clause stricken from their contract. And those types of deals are reserved for the mega-bestsellers who possess a rarified clout. Otherwise: ignore guidance at your peril. But here's the thing: if an editor asks for changes, and an author refuses them and gives a rational reason why they should be ignored, the editor will, far more often than not, concede the point to the author. It is the author's book after all, As literary agent Jonny Geller so succintly put it on Twitter: "A good editorial note should intimate a change, not prescribe it."

The three R's of the publishing industry, the strategy for survival, quickly became "Reduce royalties and returns." Returns are books that come back unsold from bookstores. Printing fewer copies typically ensures fewer returns. Reducing advances and royalties -- money publishers pay writers -- was the other main cost that publishers sought to slash.

When exactly were royalty rates reduced? Far as I can remember, standard royalty rates have been:
10% on first 5,000 hardcovers sold
12.5% on next 5,000 hardcovers sold
15% thereafter
7.5% on trade paperbacks
8% for first 150,000 mass market paperbacks
10% for every mass market paperback thereafter
In fact, ebook royalty rates (and audio as well) have gone nowhere but up the last few years. You could argue they're still not as high as they should be, but that's not quite the same as 'reduced'. Have advances declined? In some cases yes, in others, no. It's done on a case-by-case basis. Like, you know, any other industry.

More and more publishers moved to a minimal or even zero advance business model.

What publishers did this? Can you name any reputable publishers that moved to a zero advance business model? Vanguard Press, launched by publishing veteran Roger Cooper, was founded on a zero-advance, higher royalty model, but it did not 'move' to one. Certainly some independent presses offers lower advances than, say, a Random Penguin House, but it's not like indie presses were offering seven figure sums then suddenly said, "Here's five hundred bucks, take it or leave it. And by the way, we also hate you."

Zero advance combined with zero marketing to produce... that's right. Zero sales. And then who caught the blame for the book's failure? Not the publisher. The author.

I'm assuming Levin doesn't mean 'literally' zero sales, but the rest of his piece is no non-sensical he just might. First off, there are tons of books that receive large advances and don't sell. Similarly there are many books that receive modest advances then sell like bronzer to the Kardashians. And if a book doesn't sell at all? And that's an epidemic at that house? The publisher loses money. They then often have to reduce staff. And in the case of Vanguard, go out of business. But what was Levin saying? Oh, right, the publisher always blames the author. Go on.

Today, any time an agent or acquisitions editor considers a manuscript or book proposal from an author, the first place they go is BookScan to get sales figures. These numbers used to be proprietary to the house that had published the book; now they're out in the open for all to see. And if an author's sales numbers are poor, no one thinks to blame the house for failing to market the book. The author's career is essentially over. One and done. Next contestant, please.

Bookscan was NEVER proprietary, you nimrod. (trust me, I know this firsthand). Sales figures, yes. Bookscan, no. Anyone can purchase Bookscan access, and the press has access to it at any time. Book reporters use Bookscan figures all the time. Splitting hairs? Maybe. But since Levin makes no effort to delinieate or make any sort of thoughtful analysis (shocking, I know), it's worth pointing out. Oh, and career over? Anyone with Google or who pays attention to publishing knows dozens of cases where authors had meager sales, then wrote such a wonderful book that another publisher said, "damn the sales figures, this writer is worth publishing and we'll do right what the other publisher did wrong". I've acquired probably a dozen books from writers whose sales tracks weren't ideal. Some worked, some didn't, but we felt it was worth taking a chance. Is it tough to come back if a book tanks? Absolutely. But to say a career is essentially over is constipated thinking in an article that's full get the idea.

It's completely unfair, but destroying the options of a writer actually has some benefits for publishers. Which leads me to think that maybe publishers are actually happy when authors fail.

Also: lungs hate air.

As authors gain traction in the marketplace, their fees go up. They can charge a publisher more money for their next book. The problem is that there's no guarantee that the next book will sell well enough to justify the higher advance the publisher had to pay the author. So if publishers can turn writing into a fungible commodity, they no longer have to worry about paying more, or potentially over-paying for a book.

The second part of this graph has absolutely nothing to do with the first part. Publishers are still paying large advances when they are deemed justified, and I can send Levin links to all the times publishers were criticized for over-paying for a book but that would take more time than he took to write this article and we all have Google. But just in case: here.

If publishers can commoditize writing, they're no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable and unpredictable writers.

Dude, stop with the writer hate. Seriously. It's getting weird.

The problem is that they destroy the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book. As the quality of books diminishes, book buyers are less likely to turn to books the next time they need to get information about a given topic. They'll go to Wikipedia, they'll do a Google search, they'll phone a friend. But they won't buy another book. Publishers have begun to hate authors. But seeking to squeeze out the individuality and admittedly the eccentricity of authors is just one more reason why book publishing as we know it is going over the cliff.

What in the blue bloody hell are you talking about? Destroying creativity? Do you have any idea the vast amount of incredible and brilliant works there are available to readers in nearly every format imagineable? This is one of those maddening statements that is predicated on absolutely no fact, not even the courtesy of a single piece of anecdotal evidence, but it thrown out there like a fistful of monkey poop just so people will recoil. Publishers want creativity. They need creativity.  Book publishing is going over a cliff? Listen man, if you used one shred of actual evidence, statistical or anecdotal, to prove your point, I'd consider. Happily. I've worked in publishing a decade and there are legit things about it that drive me crazy. But I don't stand on a corner naked under a sandwich board that reads 'The World is Ending!' because you know what, nobody will take me seriously. As nobody should take Levin's article seriously. The irony is that Levin describes himself (note: describes himself) as a thought leader, yet there's not one shred of actual thought in his putrid essay.