Stand up, speak out and take control

Yesterday I had occasion to go to the local Barnes & Noble. I’ll admit, I don’t go there often. These days, when I do it is because I’m meeting someone there. Part of the reason is the decline in customer service. Part of it is the continuing decrease in the number of books in the store. Part is simply visual. When I walk into a bookstore, it is nice to be able to tell it’s a bookstore without having to walk into the back half to find a book.

After a successful meeting, and there will be an announcement about that later this week, I wandered the store with a friend. Part of it was habit. I’m in a bookstore. I love books. I had a few bucks in my pocket. So why not see if there’s a book I want to buy?

But the other part was curiosity. So many author friends have been dropped by their publishers or have had series killed because “they just didn’t connect with the readers”. Well, there’s one way to judge the veracity of that comment and that is to see if the book(s) is still on the shelf. So imagine my surprise — not! — to find the books for almost every one of the authors I was looking for still on the shelf. Gee, does that mean these authors are popular in Hurst, TX or were the publishers shoveling so much horse excrement? Considering how bookstores, and we are talking the large chain bookstores, order their books, it is a very safe bet that the answer is the latter option.

The big box stores have gone to stocking based on numbers across large regions and, as is too often the case, national numbers. Stores are told when to pull books from their shelves, not from a regional manager but from national. The standard shelf life for a novel can be measured in weeks and months, especially if that novel isn’t on the NYT’s best seller list. So, to find books that have been out for several years still on the shelves — and yet to know that the series has been dropped by the publisher because the publisher says they didn’t sell — means either the publishers are completely incompetent, which is possible, or they are crooks, which is also possible.

I’ll give you one example because I did facebook about it last night. Yes, I was a bit snarky about it, but not nearly as snarky as I wanted to be. Part of me wanted to call out the editor involved by name but, well, Sarah is a nicer person than I am and suggested that I might want to think about it some. Well, I have and I still want to call that editor out. After I have another cup of coffee, I may.

Any way, the series in question that I found on the shelves without any problem was Sarah’s Refinishing Mysteries. Dipped, Stripped and Dead was published in October 2009. There hasn’t been a time since then when I haven’t been able to walk into Barnes & Noble — and even Borders before it went under — and not find DSD. Yesterday was no different. Here’s a book that has been out for two and a half years still on the shelves. And not in the sales area. Oh no, it was in the main stacks and selling at full price.

Oh yeah, these aren’t the same books that had been there months ago because they weren’t signed. Sarah, when she was here in September, went to the BN and signed the copies in stock. These weren’t signed. So the publisher can’t say the books aren’t moving.

But there’s more. The second book in the series, French Polished Murder, was also on the shelves. FPM was published in May 2010. So, it has been out two years and is still on the shelves.

And yet, the series didn’t connect with the reader.

Sorry, Berkley (which is a division of Penguin, one of the Big Six), I just don’t buy it. This is either a case of the publisher robbing Peter to pay Paul — in other words, using monies earned by mid-list authors to support the monies they have paid out to best sellers as much too inflated advances which results in the publisher having to drop the mid-lister and hope that author doesn’t ask for an accounting — or it is a case of a particular editor thinking she could kill Sarah’s career by dropping the series. My personal belief is that it was a bit of both.

Part of me, on finding the books, could only shake my head. After all, the kind of incompetence the find represented amazes me. If a book is selling, you don’t cut the author loose. You especially don’t do it if that author is making you money and you are a publisher in trouble. And Penguin is. Remember, Penguin was not only one of the five publishers named, along with Apple, in the Department of Justice’s price fixing suit, but Penguin is one of only two publishers not to settle with the DoJ. Penguin also faces litigation filed by a number of states’ attorneys general.

Another part of me was angry. Not so much for Sarah and her fans because I know the series will continue through other channels, but for those authors who find themselves in the same boat as she is with this series but who don’t understand they have options.

Then the fury set in. This publisher is still making money on Sarah’s books, and on books by the other authors they have cut off just as they did Sarah, and yet telling these same authors there are no sales or minimal sales. If challenged, they blithely claim they made the decision based on the Bookscan figures. OMG, give me a break. Folks, if you haven’t figured it out yet, those figures are inaccurate not to a single decimal point but into double digits. They do NOT track every sale from every physical bookstore, nor do they track sales from every online outlet. But publishers are willing to pay for their reports because these lower figures work to the publishers’ benefit.

Then there are the onerous contractual terms these same publishers are trying to force on their authors and, all too often, do. Look, you will find authors telling you you can strike out those terms you don’t like or negotiate limits on them. Guess what, boys and girls, that only works if you are one of the publisher’s darlings or a best seller. If you are the work horse for the house, it ain’t gonna happen. Instead, you will be giving them right of first refusal, your right to publish with any other house under your name (not all publishers require this yet but more are going to it), ALL digital rights and other rights, even for technologies not yet invented, etc., etc., etc. And what do you get for this? Minimal payment.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you are a writer, it is time to grow a backbone. Review your royalty statements. If you have been cut loose by your publisher and you think the statements are as much a work of fiction as your books, then demand an accounting. Gone are the days when questioning your publisher meant you could and would be blackballed by the industry. If you are offered a contract by a legacy publisher PLEASE take it to an IP attorney with publishing experience and have him vet the contract before you sign it. If you have been cut loose by a publisher mid-series, take your contract to an IP attorney and see if you can continue the series on your own. If you can, and if you think the series was selling, then by all means continue it. You have built-in fans already.

If you are a self-published author who suddenly finds himself offered a contract by a legacy publisher, consider your options carefully. Think about those golden children of self-publishing who signed with the big name publishers and who have seemed to disappear into obscurity.

If you are a publisher, get your head out of your butt. Seriously. Or quit gazing in rapture at the lint in your navel. Your ivory towers are tarnished and in need of repair. If you continue to abuse your authors and readers as you have been, you will fail. When that happens, you will find few mourners because you will have alienated much of your “family” and “friends”.

Remember, there are options out there that have nothing to do with the Big Six publishers, options that include small presses that know how to treat their authors all the way to self-publishing.

Perhaps, considering the state of the industry and the terms legacy publishers are demanding from authors, the creators, it is time to call for a strike. I don’t know, but I am moving closer to doing just that. There is a reason why Kate classifies editors for the big houses as minor demons in her ConVent books. There would be no publishers without authors and yet the legacy houses treat us like we are the lowest rung on the ladder. Not only to they not value our work the way they should, they also seem to think we don’t have the capacity to think and reason and question. To a large part, that is because we have allowed them to think that. Worse, too many of us have started thinking that way ourselves. That has to stop.

So, here and now, I am asking each of you to read your contracts and have IP attorneys look them over. If your agent seems more worried about keeping their relationship with editors and publishers than in looking after your best interests, reconsider just who that agent is serving. If your publisher cuts you loose, don’t be afraid to demand your rights and your contract gives you the right to a full accounting. In short, it is time for writers to take control of their careers again. The tools are there. All we have to do is use them.

27 comments

  1. Wonder what the legal options are when a author finds out that a publisher has not been truthful?

    1. Well, if you belong to an authors’ association, for example SFWA, your association is supposed to provide assistance, but by far the most useful thing is to sue and use the right of discovery to find out what they are really doing…and provide RICO evidence to DOJ (Or at least tell the publisher’s attorneys you are doing so). If enough of us do it, they will back off. They can’t afford the bad PR when they are trying to sell themselves and if you don’t think all the big publishers and most of the second tier are for sale, you haven’t been paying attention. Like rats deserting a sinking ship, they are.

      1. Walt, in theory you’re right about the organizations. However, I don’t see them doing much of anything to protect their author members. All you have to do is look at the responses from Author’s Guild and a few others to the DoJ’s law suit to see that these organizations are more worried about publishers than they are writers.

        The problem with filing a law suit is it does take money and time and, let’s face it, the publishers are the ones with the deep pockets. They will simply bury the sole author under flings unless the author settles with them.

        The key is going to be either a class action suit being brought or the DoJ getting involved. The latter is why I’d be terrified if I was one of the publishers involved in the price fixing law suit. What Justice discovers during the course of trial prep and motions for this case could very well lead to other charges being filed.

      2. Also there are those of us who don’t belong to authors’ associations, or at least not the ones who are apt to take action like that, because – surprise – they have their own gatekeepers.

    2. I know there has been legal action taken by some. Usually it ends up with a settlement and a non-disclosure agreement, so we never know what happened. Until a class action suit is filed and litigated, things really aren’t going to change.

    1. I have been, Paul. Maybe that’s why I’m getting so tired of the current situation. We do have options and it is past time to stop kowtowing to legacy publishers.

  2. Okay, so let’as make this a more formal survey: let’s get a bunch of people to go to a bunch of bookstores and inventory titles and authors on your list.

    1. That would be depressingly easy, Charlie, and quick when you consider how smaller the inventory is at the big box stores now than it used to be. That was one thing that really hit me when I entered the store yesterday. To the left was the check out area with all the gee jaws, etc. Directly in front of me was the Nook store. Buy your e-reader and associated covers, etc. Then to the right were the periodicals. Along the right side and going half way back was the cafe. Maybe, and I am being generous, half the floor space was dedicated to books.

      1. Hell, five years ago, prior to the ebook thing, I went into b & N to buy something quickly, while Dan went to another shop. Long story short, our car hiccuped, so I stayed in that entrance to B & N for two hours. Almost everyone who left left with: games; puzzles; music; reader-associated-crap including reading lights, reading pictures and stuff proclaiming them a reader, including mugs with “Read” etc;in the entire TWO HOURS someone left with a book: a little kid with a book on how to make paper planes. It was back them that I started wondering where the book business was headed. Amazon, in a way, is serving a market no one else was, anymore.

        1. That’s pretty much what I saw yesterday. I know how the stores yell about how they get tired of folks coming in and browsing and then going him and ordering off of Amazon, etc. or ordering their e-books. But, golly gee, these are the same stores that make it so easy to do just that. They put in a cafe that takes up close to a quarter of their floor space and encourage folks to sit and read, etc. So what do people do, they read titles they are interested in and, when they are ready to leave, instead of paying $25 for that hard cover, they go home and order it somewhere else. Maybe instead of spending thousands of dollars for a cafe, they could better invest the money in a reader reward program that works and in hiring employees who are dedicated and who actually read.

          1. Right, you can buy the hardback in store for $25 or go home (or order it on your smartphone, while browsing it instore) and buy it brand new from Amazon for $14-17. Or if your pinching pennies you can wait a couple months and buy it used for $5-6 off Amazon. I saw a used copy of Sarah’s Gentleman Takes a Chance in B&N a while back, (I was killing a couple hours waiting for an appointment, I don’t usually visit B&N) they wanted $14.99 for it. I can buy it new for that price off Amazon, and used for pennies on the dollar!

            They wonder why nobody is buying books from them, really? There is a comedian who has become famous for one line, he should repeat it for B&N. “Here’s your sign!”

            1. It’s more than that. People will pay that much for instant book gratification — if they can find the book in the first place. Or if there is someone working in the bookstore who is concerned enough, and informed enough, to make recommendations based on the customer’s reading preferences. But instead of that, when you walk into the big box bookstores, you aren’t given the impression the suits upstairs care about books. Instead, you see e-book readers and supplies for them, games, knick-knacks and other things, long before you see a single book.

              1. This is all strange to me. At the B&N near me, the Cafe is less than 10% of the floor space, and probably 70% of what’s left is books.

    2. Even easier to do in Canada, as the big chain allows you to check in store stock from their website, and have been doing so for years. I find it strange that B&N doesn’t do that.

      Granted, shows as in stock on the computer doesn’t always mean you can actually find the book in the store. Though that’s generally a matter of “we’ve been too busy to shelve the newly delivered books this week” and one of the employees can grab the book from the back/saran-wrapped cart for you.

      1. BN does do that. But, as you said, it isn’t always accurate. Plus you run into the situation where they won’t go get the book or “can’t find it”. Now, that isn’t what you get all the time. But when you get it often enough, you quit asking and buy the book from somewhere else.

  3. We’ve covered this before, and every time it’s been about how Sarah was being treated by Berkley in regards to a series [3 musketeers mysteries. ring a bell? If it doesn’t blame those useless twits an bitches at Berkley.}and it generally leaves me in the depths of a black rage wanting to kill someone…..several someones actually. Anyway…onward.
    Most of what I buy nowadays has 2 sources, publishing house wise.
    1. Baen. Anyone who knows me and DIDN’T have that pop into their head right off the bat, needs to examine the inner workings of their brains because I think the cogs need oiling my friends.
    2. Black Library. *shrug* I recently discovered the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
    Other than books out of those two scifi/fantasy and gaming houses…I wouldn’t touch the bulk of whats out there with a 20foot extension pole, while wearing full biohazard gear. Yeah there are the odd exceptions. A book called Babylon Steel out of the Solaris house. Now I’ll freely admit that the bulk of the reason behind that is by and large, if it isn’t scifi and sometimes fantasy; I won’t bother to look at it, let alone read it.. I never go in the popular fiction or mystery aisles anymore.

    A good many of the books I buy outside of those two publishers come from one place…used bookstores. Pay half the price, and hey..the publisher don’t see a dime of it. Neither does the author but *shrug* some of the stuff I’m picking up is by people who left this world long ago or just replacement copies of stuff I’ve read so much the spine fell apart. Between that and Amazon, I rarely set foot in the brick and mortar big box retail book chains. Hmmm perhaps that should be CHAIN since the only left around here, is of course B&N
    Having worked for one of the ‘smaller store format’ chains that preceded it and Borders…I think this particular store format for the book industry was a fuck up of monumental proportions. If they’d STAYED with the smaller store format I think we’d all be better off. Why? Take for instance the employees. Then? Everyone who worked in those stores were avid readers. They were as big a group of bibliophiles as any other customer that walked into the store. Hell I know a good chunk of ALL my paychecks when I worked for them, went straight back into the company coffers. So we as employees knew the merchandise intimately. We could find on the shelf or knew exactly where to find in the backroom ANY book that anyone came in asking after. Also customers weren’t just CUSTOMERS and “walking money machines to fill our coffers” like they are now; they were friends as well. I knew the regulars that came into my store by sight and by first name. ALL of them. At any given time if the store was relatively quiet during the week and a regular came in, I could stop and have a conversation about ANYTHING with them. They’d buy lunch for us, loan movies and tapes of events..etc. Now? Most of the people who work in bookstores are just drones earning a paycheck. Before you get offended with that last sentence pay attention..I said “most” NOT “all”.
    Another difference…back then if a publisher had a new author…they pushed the stores to push the new authors to try and drive sales and see if people would really like the authors? Now? Unless it’s one of their NYT selling darlings…the publishers flat out don’t give a fuck. Forex..ever heard of Vince Flynn? He was once a no namer. I was there when he first hit, hell BEFORE he hit the market. The publisher sent out ARCS to the stores for the employees to read A. to see what they thought and B. so they’d have knowledge ahead of time of what they were being asked to push. I’ve got an original arc of Flynn’s first book Term Limits. One day I hope to get it signed and I don’t even READ Flynn’s books anymore because they’ve become waaay too formulaic, BOOOORRRRRING. Clive Cussler? boring. James Patterson..not that I really cared for him anyway… boring. etc etc etc. Sue Grafton…seriously? Writing a novel/murder mystery with titles for every single letter in the alphabet, in order? Really? It’s all the same shit, different day, just the names and the faces of the people being hunted or hated by the main character change. Cookie Cutter books. It’s why I don’t read popular fiction and mystery anymore. All the genres have that problem to a certain extent it’s just that it doesn’t seem as prevalent in scifi/fantasy because it’s never been “cool” to read scifi so it’s never been as huge a following in the past. And because the big publishers hold sci fi in contempt and therefore don’t have a clue so they don’t TRY to market it like they do their big name NYT stable of authors.
    Hell the only reason I bought the 3 Musketeers Mysteries and the Refinishing Mysteries, or as I call em..the Dyce books; was because it was Sarah and I wanted to give them a try because I like Sarah…she’s good people. ๐Ÿ™‚ Otherwise…meh probably wouldn’t have bothered. In doing so I decided I like the way she writes. Her characters etc.

    Christ..I’m sitting here in this chair yawning because I’ve been writing on this so long. You should have the gist of what Im saying by now. Soo..later.

    1. Wolfie, you said it and I agree with it and that’s why I work for NRP instead of one of the big publishers.

      1. Of course you agree with it. We’ve had this convo before. ๐Ÿ™‚ Now if certain people would just get certain books turned in and published so I can read them…
        BTW I’ve probably asked this before but..Did Kate give you guys the Hunt book? Or as I call it since I was made an example of, by being skinned alive in the middle of a orgy……Eeevviiil Elves

  4. Are there any publishers or imprints at bigger publishers that _are_ doing things right with decent accounting, decent contract terms, and decent support for the authors?

    1. Thomas, the major publishers, and a lot of the mid-sized ones, all follow the same basic program of relying on Bookscan for their numbers (think Neilsen TV rankings because they are run by the same folks) and use the same basic boilerplate in their contracts, contracts meant to put more money in the publishers’ pockets than in the pockets of the creators of work.

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