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He Beats Me But He’s My Publisher

By Sarah Hoyt

First let me point out no one beats me. Not literally. For those of you who’ve read Athena (Darkship Thieves) this should not be an incredible surprise.

The title is denoting of the relationship existing in traditional publishing between the writer and the publishing house. It is also the sort of thing I heard many women say about their husbands in the village where I grew up. Portugal, like most countries whose cultures were strongly influenced by Islam, had a streak of wife-abuse running through the poorer or more culturally backward classes. Since in the village where I lived my dad was one of the very few white collar workers, this meant my mother and my grandmother were forever saving women who ran away from home when they were two steps from landing in the emergency room… Only to see them go back to their husbands because “He beats me but he’s my man.” Or “He beats me because I’m not good enough.” Or “He beats me because he loves me so much.” Or even “Whom should he beat but his own.”

Needless to say, the one thing my family told me, from – I think – before I could toddle (I could talk before I could walk. No. Don’t ask.) was “If your husband ever so much as slaps you, you leave. That day. And you don’t go back.”

Unfortunately my family never knew about publishers and the status of the mid-list author.

I wasn’t going to talk about any of this. I wasn’t. I like at least one of my publishers immensely, and I do understand how their hands are tied. On the other hand the last few days have been very trying. First, is it my impression or are all the establishment’s blue eyed boys going out of their way to tell us how we’ll starve in the gutter without traditional publishing? They remind me of my first agent, who btw, ONLY made official the sale I had already made to the publisher, and who then told me I’d die in the gutter without her, when I fired her. (Yeah. That… didn’t work as she thought, curiously enough.)

But then yesterday, in the Baen bar, someone posted that he sent letters to WRITERS complaining about their publishers’ DRM policies and pricing for ebooks because, I don’t know, the Kool-Aid man is red? Oh, wait, no, it’s more nonsensical than that. Because and – clears throat – I am quoting: writers choose their publishers. I want them to choose publishers who don’t do these things.

And that pushed me over the top. Call it hormonal, all right? I’m getting to be the same age when my mom was more likely to take off with the cast iron frying pan to talk to one of the abusive husbands than she was to simply bandage the woman’s wounds.

So, to begin with, let me tell you right now that the chances of a midlist author dictating terms to his/her publisher are about the same as those of a village working class woman finding a man who doesn’t beat her. She might get lucky. She MIGHT. But she can’t count on it. In fact, a village woman once told me “If you think you’ll find a man who doesn’t beat you–” (And let me say, yes I have.)

Heck, as some of you know I have a lot of friends who are bestsellers. The way the market is right now, the chance of a bestseller dictating terms to his publisher are close to nill as well – unless he’s one of those blockbuster bestsellers that defy all classification. In our field you can probably count those in the fingers of both hands and have some fingers left over. And unfortunately none of them are close enough friends for me to ask if they, too, are worried.

Now, let me describe to you how much power the typical author has. Let me tell you how traditional publishing works for the unconnected, the non-fashionable and the doomed.

First of all, it’s a buyer’s market. Since the mega mergers of the eighties, there are five overarching houses. There might be more imprints, but, at least when submitting through an agent, you can’t submit twice to the same house. (Well, at least not using any agent I’ve had.)

Second, for each slot available on the publishing schedule there are thousands upon thousands of submissions. Even assuming the vast majority of those are either horrible or “don’t fit” the publisher’s “needs” there have to be at least ten books that would fit the slot at any given time.

So, let’s say YOUR book takes the editor’s fancy. Or maybe they owed your agent a favor. Or maybe they liked the title better than the other ten. Who knows?

You’re a brand new author, and they pick you out of slush. Oooh. Oooh. You’re in the money now, right?

Um… maybe. But first let’s talk about the important considerations: how powerful is your agent? How much does he/she believe in you? And do you know anyone in a publishing house? If all those are negative, you have one more chance at the big money – are you a “sexy package”? Part of this is literal. Are you cute and young? Can they count on displaying you and having people tumble over themselves? Part is metaphorical – do you have a hard luck story? Do you have something interesting about you? Do you perhaps have a well-followed blog? Or are you a politically correct refugee? (When my first series tanked the publisher told me she would buy me again and “make me a bestseller” if I wrote an autobiography. I was thirty eight. I’d done nothing but get married, have kids and write three failed books. So… she wanted me to write about my childhood in Portugal and make it “sexy.” No, I didn’t. What, am I stupid? No. I respect my family and friends there too much. I want to sell my books, not my unremarkable self. Also there are other reasons which are none of their business. Or anyone else’s.)

Let’s suppose you’re either white-bread American and unconnected to the publishing industry in any way. (Or you’re not white American but are stupid or honorable enough not to let them make a big deal of your life or treat you as an oppressed minority.) Let’s also suppose you wasted your twenties trying to break in, and in your thirties you’re blousy, somewhat overweight, with two small children.

Ah, my dear, welcome to hell. Here’s your accordion.

Having looked at this, your editor “forecasts” your numbers. I have it on good authority this doesn’t involve the bones of sacrificed animals. What they do is go “White, American, unremarkable and not sexy.” And you get the standard beginner’s advance. It used to be the princely sum of five thousand dollars (what, you can’t live on that for a year? Foolish you. Appliance boxes are free, and there are some nice underpasses. You can write at the library.) It is now three thousand.

Now the book and its advance pass on to the marketing department. Who… barely glance at it. To get back the money they invested in you, they don’t really need to do anything. No, look, I know what you’ve heard. They say that printing the average book costs 100k or some fantastical sum. But that’s because they’re charging to every book the same percentage of editor/publicist/secretary/etc salaries. (Many books at this level, if bought on proposal, never get READ in full. Except presumably by the copyeditor. That’s how much time you take of those salaries.)

Next, you get assigned to someone – probably someone’s secretary – who procures a cover for you. Usually you get a beginner artist (and some are darn good) but they might also use some form of out of copyright art – like my first three books. And then… and then you go to copyedit. And thence to the marketing department again.

I’ve been privileged to listen to a book reps spiel back before I was published, at my favorite independent bookstore, while I was waiting to ask the manager a question. Back then this was done with a huge catalogue with covers, and one or two books in actual advance printing. First these came up. They were either bestsellers or those the publisher had slated as bestsellers. They got handed to the bookstore manager and the manager was told “Well, we have strong confidence in these books. You’ll want to take…” twenty of each, I think, at a minimum. Might have been fifty. It’s been a long time. Then came the books in “second slot” for that quarter. For these the rep had the covers. He’d hand them over, do a little song and dance, and say “you want to take” – five or ten of these. He’d tell you how the publisher was promoting these books this way or that, or how interesting the life story of the author was, or what have you.

AND THEN, at the end, he’d say “You also can take these.” THAT, Mr. or Ms. Whitebread, is where you are. And if your cover is exceptionally pretty or the manager recently watched a movie that sounds somewhat like your book, they might take one or two.

At that point, you’re in the midlist zone. You’re also more than likely in the sales death spiral (no, I’m not going to explain that. This would run to ten pages. Google Books and Death Spiral.) After that, any book you sell, those numbers will be brought up. Can you escape the midlist, once you’ve been cast into it? I don’t know. One hears stories, but those are usually from before the computer number system. Perhaps, as with hell, you can swim out of it but I doubt it’s on a sea of tears of true repentance. More likely you’d have to marry a movie star, or perhaps run for president.

Note that SO FAR the writer has had exactly zero choice. Oh, he can chose NOT to sell his book and remain obscure forever. Does how good his book is influence anything? Well… it could. Supposing that word of mouth got going among readers. Except that, for all but one of my publishers (yes, you know which one) until very recently, it was one print run, one time, it sells out and the book is no longer available in any format. Too bad so sad. One of my publishers until the last two books made it a point of taking the books out of print at the year mark or when the book started earning royalties.

This meant the chances of your being discovered in back inventory were… you’re right. Zero. (I know through my fanmail a lot of people are NOW discovering my Shakespeare series which came out eleven years ago. I get no money for those, because they’re out of print and either used or remaindered. I don’t even get statements for them anymore. And there weren’t enough of them printed, so even if they all sold twenty times, my name recognition would be limited.)

In fact, if your book had been completely blank, or a compilation of nursery rhymes, it would have got exactly the same distribution and sales as it got with your words in it. You didn’t choose the cover. You didn’t choose the price. You didn’t choose the push. You didn’t choose the distribution.

More importantly and more than likely, the person who chose these things chose them NOT based on the book – which they might or might not have read – but on YOU and their perceived marketability of YOU. (And let me tell you, as a reader, that’s many shades of wrong.)

Most people don’t know your book even exists, and therefore they can’t ask for it. And if they do, they might get told it can’t be ordered.

And then… and then the fun starts. When the numbers are in, you’re told your numbers are only “midlist” and barely good enough (if you’re lucky) for them to buy the next one. And the next. they all get the exact same treatment. You might grow your fans, but it will be very slow. And even if you sign with a publisher who wishes they could do more for you, at that point the publisher is hamstrung by the numbers in the computer about your previous distribution.

You might (or might not) be asked to change your name again and again and again (one of my publishers has a fetish for this.)

And all along you’ll be told the fault for your lackluster sales is … yours. Yep. You wrote the book, and if it doesn’t sell, it’s ALWAYS your fault. No matter how demonstrably it ISN’T.

And under the old model, you swallowed and took it. You did what the village women did when I was a kid. You bandaged your worse wounds, and you made up stories. “I fell down the stairs.” “I bumped into bad sales figures in the night.” “I am so clumsy.” “It’s all my fault.” “They beat me because they love me.” And you crawled back. Because the alternative was unthinkable. The alternative was to never publish again.

And if you complained – if you so much as opened your mouth and said something along the lines as perhaps the crash of the books wasn’t ENTIRELY your fault (I’m not a conspiracy theorist, for instance, but I’m100 % sure that the crash of my first book was exacerbated by coming out exactly one month after 9/11 and while I’ve done many weird things in my life I’m SURE I never committed any terrorist attacks. But those numbers were SOLELY my fault, as far as the industry was concerned.) you got told how grateful you should be to the house for continuing to publish your worthless self, how each of your no-good books cost them 100k to get to the printing stage, and how they only did it out of the goodness of their hearts. And you had to swallow it, no matter how nonsensical it was.

THIS model. THIS MODEL is what the bright eyed harbingers of the establishment, the blue eyed boys of privilege want me to get maudlin about. Both as a reader and as a writer, let me say RIGHT NOW that I’m not going to.

No, I don’t know where the buck will stop in digital publishing. No, I don’t know what will emerge or what shape it will take. I do know just being able to say “It wasn’t my fault. I’m not the world’s best writer, but there’s something mighty weird with the system.” Or “I will not be grateful for hind teat” is good enough for me.

A biography of Marlowe claims that among his last words were “Just to tell the truth once, would be worth dying for.” This, it turns out, is also true when the result is the metaphorical death of a career. Particularly when there are alternatives.

No, I will not eat what’s put before me. No, I’m not the world’s most wonderful writer – every year I look at what I wrote the year before and cringe, so I know there’s room for improvement – but I KNOW I’m not a million times worse than J. K. Rowling. Sorry, that’s not just impossible. That’s obscene. I also know that until Pratchett got a new agent and editor, he was lost in mid-list hell in the US while a bestseller in the UK. His writing did not change. His marketing did.

Will I continue selling to big houses? Only if I like them. I write for a house I like, and there’s one other house I wouldn’t mind writing for.

As for the rest of them, they can go to hell. I’m going Indie.

*Crossposted at According To Hoyt*

13 Comments
  1. Bravo!
    (At the risk of having some prat say ‘er… what?’ )
    The 100K costs of printing your book of course include an equal share of the premises (your book is really much better because the office is in New York City, and quite a showpiece), an equal share of the interest cost of those really big advances, just to help explain some of the legacy overheads.

    August 31, 2011
  2. THIS model. THIS MODEL is what the bright eyed harbingers of the establishment, the blue eyed boys of privilege want me to get maudlin about. Both as a reader and as a writer, let me say RIGHT NOW that I’m not going to.

    You think you’ve got problems? At least you can get by on your competence. Those “blue eyed boys” act as if they can’t. They get their privileges, or they go hungry. I assume their self-evaluation is honest – they really are worthless on a level playing field.

    Let them whine. That’s the only thing they can do.

    August 31, 2011
  3. Lin W #

    Magnificent. Utterly magnificent. Brava!

    I think we should all start wearing little cast iron frying pan pins at cons in support of “we’re not going to take it any more”!!!!

    August 31, 2011
    • Sold. I’ll have one please. (a new business niche opened up)

      August 31, 2011
  4. Great post, Sarah. I found it oddly inspiring:)

    August 31, 2011
  5. Thanks for telling it like it is Sarah. It’s refreshing to hear the truth every once in awhile.

    August 31, 2011
  6. Responding to Kate and Sarah: what is it about today that’s brought all the idiots out? First on the bar and now at Vodkapundit. I’ve spent more time shredding folks, and trying to be nice about it, than I have in ages.

    August 31, 2011
    • I didn’t try to be nice about it. I’ve had just about enough.

      August 31, 2011
  7. Ooh, Sarah, very well put. Like the Stockholm analogy the other day, too.

    September 1, 2011
  8. Rae L #

    Woot! Go on, Sarah!

    Thank you so much for posting the truth about how publishing works. Between you, Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch, I hope the truth keeps coming out. Writers need to hear the whole truth and not the sugar coated, ivory tower agent and editor stories that put them on a pedestal and us outside the golden gates. I love your last two lines. So true!

    Best wishes to you!

    September 2, 2011

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