Who has the power?

by Amanda S. Green

There’s been a lot of talk recently about what sort of control authors have over their work.  Never would I have expected the maelstrom of dissenting opinions and downright rudeness I’ve seen on some of the boards as a result.  It seems that almost everyone has been determined to dig their heels in and continue to beat dead horses and insult other folks, no matter what.  I’ve seen it happen in multiple threads on Baen’s Bar, on Sarah’s blog and even, to a degree here.  I won’t even mention the ones on blogs like Classical Values and vodkapundit.  So, let me make it very clear here and now, this is a semi-rant from both a writer’s perspective and an editor’s.

What a writer controls: (Remember, this is in general terms because there can and are caveats at every step of the way.)

1.  The writing.  The writer chooses what he will write.  Genre, length, content.  That is something the writer has control over.

2.  The initial editing.  I say “initial” because if the book is picked up by a publisher it will go through an editing process there.

3.  Submission to an agent.  Notice, I don’t say acceptance by an agent because, like it or not, it can be even harder to land an agent than it is to land a publishing contract.

  • sending a partial or full to an agent who expresses interest in the work
  • accepting representation from an agent who offers is

4.  Submitting to a publisher.  Caveat here:  if you have an agent, that agent will send the novel out.  Some agents confer with their clients about where to send the novel, some don’t.  Even if the agent confers with you, they may send the novel to publishers you might not choose.  But, for this exercise, we’re going to assume the author is not working through an agent.

  • sending a partial or full in response to publisher interest
  • accepting the publishing contract – either as is or requesting changes and accepting or rejecting the contract after the publisher responds.

That all sounds pretty straightforward, right?  In a way it is.  But it is the last bit about the publishing contract that gets so many people in an uproar.  People who aren’t necessarily in the business.  They seem to think authors have as much negotiating power when it comes to publishing contracts as a person does when he is negotiating a contract with a painter or contractor.  Sorry, but that’s just not the case.

What a publisher controls:

1.  What books are offered publishing contracts.

2.  What advance amounts are going to be.

3.  What royalty amounts are going to be

4.  Editing.  No, authors don’t get to choose their editors, copy editors or proofreaders.  Nor do they get the final word on any of these processes.  You can STET and explain all you want about why you think your wording is better than the editor’s but, unless your editor agrees with you, they get the final word.  Sometimes they do listen, often they don’t, especially if that editor doesn’t particularly like the author.  Ask Sarah, or any other author for that matter, about some of the things she’s had happen at the editorial process.

5.  Cover art.  If you are lucky, you may be asked for ideas for the cover.  You may even get to see the cover art ahead of time.  But an author does not get to choose the cover when they are being published by legacy publishers.

6.  Font and type size.  Basic layout design is not something any author has control over.

7.  Size of the book.  Is it a standard mass market paperback or one of those thrice-damned taller versions?  That’s a business and marketing decision of the publisher.

8.  How much push the book is going to get.

9.  Placement in stores.  Actually, this isn’t even completely under the publisher’s control but they have a say in it by what sort of pitch they do to the buyers for the different stores.

10.  Scheduling of release dates for the book.

11.  DRM, text-to-voice, lending re:  e-books.

12.  Price.

There’s more, but you get my drift. (Check out this post by Cherie Priest from a year or so ago for more.)

Bitching to an author because you don’t like the fact their latest title costs more as an e-book than it will as a paperback THAT HASN’T COME OUT YET, does not good.  For one thing, you are comparing the price of the e-book to something not yet available.  If you want that e-book now, when the only other version available is the hard cover, you are going to pay for the privilege.  If you wait, the price of the e-book will probably come down.  You have to remember that legacy publishers are in this to make a profit.  They see hard covers are making them the most money, per sale, so that is what they are trying to save.  It it their opinion that e-books are evil so, if they price them high enough people won’t buy them, they can save their business.  If, on the other hand, they price them at outrageous levels and people still buy them, that’s still money in their pockets.  The author has no say in this, no control over it.  By bitching at the author, all you do is make the author feel bad because a fan is upset.  That does not help the creative process, let me tell you.

Letters to individual editors don’t help either.  In fact, getting an e-mail from an irate fan because they don’t like how an author is being treated can backfire — onto the author.  The author has to work with that editor.  If you feel you need to complain because of pricing, drm, or whatever, write to the publisher.  Write to the board of directors.  Don’t inflame the individual editor for that author.  Now, a nice note asking when a book is coming out can help.  But complaints, well, they need to go to the right place.

Cover art.  Give me a break.  Do you really think an author gets to decide what appears on the cover of his book if that book is coming out from a publisher?  Look, guys, the author is lucky if the artist even knows what the book is about.  Complaining to the author because you don’t like the cover or — and this is where I really get P.O.’d — downgrading a review of the book because you don’t like the cover is unfair to the author.  Again, you don’t like the cover, let the publisher know and, for pity’s sake, tell them why in calm, logical tones (maybe even using small words so you don’t overtax their brains).

Now for the elephant in the china store, DRM.  By all that is holy, don’t bitch to the author because you don’t like the fact the publisher attached DRM to the book.  The author can’t change it.  Let me repeat this.  THE AUTHOR CAN’T CHANGE IT.  Most authors like DRM no more than we, the readers, do.  The know it is a slap in the reader’s face.  But that is a business decision made by bean counters.  However, if you feel you need to let the author know how you feel, do it in a way that is supportive of the author.  Tell them you love their work, whatever, but that you wish DRM wasn’t involved.  Don’t threaten never to buy another one of their books until they leave the dark side.  All that accomplishes is making the author feel bad and helpless because, gee, they can’t do anything about it.

Most publishers, especially legacy publishers, aren’t going to make major changes to their standard publishing contract for a new author or even a mid-lister.  That means, if you the author want to sign with a legacy publisher you pretty do as they say.  You aren’t going to be able to withhold e-rights to the book, no matter what your objections to DRM.  Contract negotiation in publishing has been and will continue to be for awhile — at least where legacy publishers are concerned — a case of “here’s the contract, do you accept it or not?”

Sure, an author can walk away from the proposed contract and the advance that would come with it and go the indie route.  But there are major pitfalls to that.  Not only is there no advance, but the author now has to foot the bill for everything the publisher would have paid for:  isbn registration, copyright registration, editing, copy-editing, proofreading, art work, layout, promotion.  Even if the author does it all himself, there is a cost.  Time.  Time that could have been spent writing.  Time that must be spent promoting the work before and after it becomes available to that it isn’t lost in the hundreds or even thousands of titles newly available each week through the kindle or nook stores.  Many authors simply can’t take that kind of financial hit right now.

So telling an author they can go another route besides traditional publishing is akin to telling that mid-lister who is still being offered contracts by legacy publishers to do without a paycheck.  All the author has to fall back on until the indie work takes off, if it takes off, are royalties from books already out in print.  Royalties that may dry up because the publisher decides not to push the book any longer.

In other words, the author, especially the mid-list author is walking a very fine line between trying to write a novel that excites his fans and maintaining a presence in this rapidly changing publishing world.  Writers also have to make sure they maintain their chocolate supply as well as their source for caffeine.  So don’t expect a writer to cut all ties with mainstream publishing just because the publisher does something you don’t like.  And don’t punish the writer either by threatening not to ever by anything else they write as long as the publisher attaches DRM, charges too much, etc.  It only upsets the writer and that means it interrupts the creative process.

Now, before I get the comments that say they’ve written to a publisher and there was no change, well, guess what.  It takes more than one e-mail.  It takes more than an e-mail to an editor.  As I said earlier, write the publisher.  Write the board of directors.  Use social media.  Look at what happened with United (I think that’s right) over the smashed guitar.  Or look at what’s happening right now with American Airlines and the lost cat debacle.  Consumers have more power now than ever before, thanks to social media.  But frothing at the mouth rants aren’t the way to do it.  Well-reasoned, well-thought out and well-written blogs, Youtube videos, facebook posts, etc., will have much more impact because they will be taken more seriously.

Feed the writers, let them hear what you liked.  Give constructive feedback (no, this doesn’t mean sending a list of typos in a book already out.  Remember what I said about editing and proofreading?).  Don’t go off on them about things they can’t control.  Most of all, remember that writing is a business for the author, not just a hobby.  So they can’t always just chuck the contract and walk away simply because there are clauses in that contract they don’t like.


  1. “Talk to the publisher.” is wonderful advice, but implementing it is a whole lot more difficult.

    I’ve *gone* that route, and discovered that the basic business model of almost all mainstream publishers (they’re still the ones publishing most books) is: Stores talk to distributors. Distributors talk to publishers. Publishers talk to God (IF they’re willing to bother.) Readers/fans/customers? Who the hell are THEY to tell us what to do?

    With the sole exception of Baen, I can’t think of a single publisher where anybody in power talks to the customers. You can’t find any information on their websites that’s anything other than a glorified PR department, and issues like pricing and DRM? Just TRY to find the lawyers and accountants who really dictate policy and convince them that f***ing over your customers is a bad business model. Good luck on *that* quest.

    1. Actually, Ed, I have to disagree with you here. You can find the information. It may take a bit more digging that most are willing to do. It might take a nice email to the author asking for the information, or to at least be pointed in the right direction, but it’s there. I’ve managed to dig it out for myself and others when needed.

      As for pricing and DRM, well, as I said, if you don’t like the advice of going to the source, then go the social media route. Put the pressure on the ones who have control — the publishers and their shareholders. The thing that gets to me is why folks think they can berate and bother authors about it when the author has not control over it.

      Just because it is easier than ever for authors to self-publish, that doesn’t mean it is the best route for them. Just as employees have to accept things their employers do that the employee doesn’t like or agree with, so do authors who go the traditional route. And, let’s face it, most authors who want to have a chance of making a living at writing right now have to go that route.

      Is Baen different? You bet. That’s why I love it. However, they are the exception and they are facing their own unique challenges right now.

    2. Ed — this is the issue — just because you can’t talk to the publisher, doesn’t mean you SHOULD talk to the writer. I completely agree that the larger corporations can be cryptic and you don’t know where to push to get a result. OTOH neither do I. Telling me you’re not going to buy anything else of mine because No Will But His was priced higher in ebook than tpback — and no, no Baenite did this, only some romance readers — doesn’t do anything — literally — other than make me think “F*ck!” Now, making me think that might be an objective for some people, but it won’t change reality. My publisher for that book is the same that wouldn’t listen to me on covers of #3 musketeers, on changing the titles of the next two books so they don’t “belong” to the series OR on what name to use for my contemporary mysteries. “My hands are tied” is about it. They don’t talk to writers, either. It would be like a person talking to their hamster re: which job to take, as far as the publishers are concerned.

      Amanda might have something with using social media. A truly pissy post (see mine on Frontier) won’t get you apologies, but it will get up their noses, and it’s forever. (Still getting hits when someone googles Frontier.) It also gets picked up by other blogs, retweeted, etc.

      Other than that, stand and wave bye bye because, guess what? their model doesn’t work. And what happens to things that don’t work… yeah. (Oh, and as for going indie — I’m going to give it a try because of mounting issues and also because, as Dean Smith has pointed out, at this point ANY book sold to a legacy publisher might end up tied in lawsuits for decades before you CAN bring it out — but make no mistake, I’ll take a financial hit. IF anyone is wondering why I’m not doing as many cons these days, that’s why.)

    3. It’s a bit closer to:
      Distributors hand down mandates.
      Publishers and bookstores drink heavily and try to make sense of them.
      Writers and agents try to decrypt what the publishers and bookstores have made of the distributors stone tablets.
      Readers are baffled at the lack of variety, and talk to people who mostly have their hands tied.

    4. Are any of the pertinent publishers publicly traded?
      If so buy a share and speak at the annual stockholders meeting. If this is not possible under the US laws you can still write to investor relations. You do not have to be an investor to tell them that you won’t invest because of their stupid policies. 😉

      This also works with many other companies and issues. Problems with customer support? Buy a share and complain -as an owner- about the quality of service. 😉

  2. It is odd really. Just thinking back to the pre-internet days, unless your favourite author had a pretty well known fan club, the only way of getting in contact with them was via the publishers(Who I presume forwarded all my fan mail). It was one of those “extra services” I always thought publishers justisfied their cut of the profit with.

    Now of course it is a lot easier to track down the contact details for your author than their publisher.

  3. Just to bang my head against the wall about 7.

    Size of the book. Is it a standard mass market paperback or one of those thrice-damned taller versions? That’s a business and marketing decision of the publisher.

    For some unknowable reason Terry Pratchett’s publishers have decided to nix the YA size paperback release of I Shall Wear Midnight in favour of a standard MM release. Now considering this is the last Tiffany Aching book, and all prior books were released in the other format, does this move make sense to anyone?

    Of course I am just showing my Nerdy desire for matching sets here, but ARGGGHHHHHH!

    PS: On the whole I agree that the taller versions(unless it is a proper Trade Paperback release) are an abomination. They don’t stack on my shelves properly!

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