Publishing Problems 2020

As I sit here, trying to decide what to blog about, I turn to the internet. I know, I know. That’s like saying I’m going swimming with the sharks with a bucket of chum being thrown into the water first. Still, someone has to do it. And, it didn’t take long to find more than enough to leave me shaking my head and feeling glad I made the decision to go indie long ago. Between looking at the “most anticipated books of 2020” per Publishers Weekly to identity politics run amok, traditional publishing is as much of a mess as always.

But there is even more going on and I most definitely have not had enough coffee to deal with it.

Let’s start with the first. “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins was supposed to be the next big book. Cummins received a huge advance in a bidding war. According to multiple sources, it was poised to become an instant best seller. Hell, even Oprah chose it for her book club. So it had to be good, right?

Except, gasp, when excerpts started coming to light, that dreaded phrase “cultural appropriation” raised its head. As did “stereotype” and others. Then Cummins was accused of using her Puerto Rican heritage simply to make money or something like that. Apparently, she wasn’t sufficiently non-white before the book came out to qualify as a “person of color”. Now that she’s written a book featuring a Hispanic main character, dealing with Mexican culture, she can’t point out she is Puerto Rican without being accused of being a “person of convenience”.

The book, published by Macmillan imprint Flat Iron, is causing all sorts of headaches for the publisher. I will give it to Cummins. She has been standing up for herself, which is more than the publisher has been doing, in my opinion. Not that the latter surprises me.

Here’s the LA Times article about what’s been going on.

Publishers Weekly has several articles about it. The first deals with Flat Iron’s response and the second discusses how Flat Iron has canceled at least some of Cummins’ appearances. Way to back your writer, publisher. Not only is Flat Iron giving in to a few voices of discontent but it is torpedoing the writer’s career. No employee, which is what an author can be looked at as, wants an employer that doesn’t have her back.

Next up, we have PW’s list of the most highly anticipated books for the first half of 2020. Mind you, “American Dirt” was a highly anticipated book as well. How many of these books will find their authors attacked and derided as release dates near as Cummins has been? Then there are the covers. Very few of them entice me to pick up the book and look at the back cover. Is it any wonder traditional publishing is slowly circling the toilet bowl of success?

And how can we forget the “leaks” from John Bolton’s upcoming book? Oh, I’ve seen the tin foil hat suggestions that the leaks came from within the government. I have a much more reasonable explanation. The leaks (and they aren’t leaks, not really) come straight from the publisher. The book is from the same house that put out Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened”. Have we really forgotten how excerpts from the book showed up before the book was released and how many of those excerpts were critical of Trump? Or how about Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” that came out at the same time Trump took office. Then there was James Comey’s book.

Each of those had “leaks”, often aimed at times which were significant in the Trump administration. Whether you are a Trump fan or not, and I’m not a big fan, you have to look at the role publishing, just as MSM, has played in trying to run him out of office. Remember, this is the same traditional publishing that has been more worried about “educating” its readers than in selling books.

So here’s the thing. I won’t discourage anyone from trying for a traditional publishing career if that’s what you want. But before you go down that road, ask yourself what a publisher can do for you. The only real advantage I see right now is that a publisher can get you into bookstore–if it wants to. But for the average new author, no mid to large publisher is going to bend over backwards to do so. Oh, you’ll be listed in their catalog and such, but they aren’t going to push your work.

In the meantime, watch what publishers are doing. Look long and hard at how they treat their authors. Network and listen to what those who have been in the industry for awhile have to say. Then make an informed decision.

In other words, treat it as a business and you are looking for a new employer. After all, that’s exactly what you are doing. Don’t let the stars in your eyes–or the dollar signs–blind you.

Featured Image by TuendeBede from Pixabay.


  1. I note how everyone whining about “cultural appropriation” does so in English, which is clearly not their heritage language.

    1. Also, “permission” is supposed to make it all right but they never check whether you have it first.

      1. Even if they did, they would find a reason to negate the permission, just as they negate Cummins’ “right” to write what she did because she apparently hadn’t been screaming her otherness to the world before the book was published.

  2. The “anticipated books” selection just leaves me cold. Not tempted by any of the covers, and as far down as I read … nope, nope, nopety nope.

    The fury over cultural appropriation just gives me a headache. Honestly, it’s just another Kafka-trap. Write about characters who are not of your racial/cultural background: scream cultural appropriation. Write only about characters who are? Exclusionary! Raaaaacist Hatey McHateyson!

    Just another reason to stay indy: I’ll write about whoever and whatever interests me and makes a good story. My daughter and I talked this over, when one of our readers (who is a neighbor, and fiercely proud of being Hispanic) absolutely loved the first Luna City book and is certain that somehow we got to know some of his older relations, as they are very like a couple of the characters. This neighbor wondered how we could get the Texas-Hispanic culture so right, since we are both Anglo. It’s like fish not being aware of water, we theorized. You almost have to be from outside a specific culture, and immerse yourself in it totally – and then you can see all the odd bits, the curiosities which stand out, and wouldn’t be noticed by a native to that culture.

  3. I’m actually looking forward to Scott Oden’s Twilight of Gods. He writes more in the way of the late David Gemmell or Poul Anderson, with grey, heroic characters, and PC be damned.

    I don’t think my Fantasy Monster-in-progress would sit well with traditional publishers. Imagine offering a 300K+ manuscript written in a mix of third limited and omniscient, with a warning that there are five or six more where this comes from. By an unknown author.

    Not going to work. 😉

    I might check those waters with my Roman historical fiction, though, depending on how trad publishing developed by the time l I whipped one of those (there are three, very loosely connected) into publishable shape.

    1. At one point, Robert Jordan was unknown. I think The Wheel of Time matches that description pretty well.
      When it’s ready, be sure to ask for a promo here. I like long books in a long series – and I find most of my new reading here.

      1. Jordan wasn’t completely unknown; he’d already written some Conan novels. And he sold WoT as trilogy. It was the publisher who suggested it might rather be six books. 🙂 Back then when the publishing world was a bit nicer than today.

        I’ll tell people where they can find that monster. But it will be a long time still. 😉

  4. Honestly, I’ve got to declare both of these to be “not my circus, not my monkeys” affairs. American Dirt sounds like it’s primarily designed for the PC crowd looking to get self-righteous about immigration restrictions. No, the wokefolk shouldn’t be going around screaming with their underwear on their heads, but I’ve only got so much outrage to go around, and this doesn’t sound like an author or book I want to waste it on.

    As far as the “most anticipated books” list, I have to wonder, anticipated by whom? Most look like things I wouldn’t touch with the proverbial 10 ft. pole. A couple had premises that sounded intriguing but the PW description made me say, “No thanks.” I suppose I’ll give the article the benefit of the doubt that someone outside the publishing industry is foaming at the mouth for these, but all I can say is that it isn’t me.

    1. Zora N. Hurston’s is the only one I might read, because I like her other work. But she’s also not writing for the modern market (unless the editor is using a ouija board.) None of the others sound fun, and N. K. Jemison’s is described as “social realism.” Er, I know what magical realism is, and Social Realism sounds even less fun.

    2. Now you made me curious about the “most anticipated” list. I was already anticipating the Zora Neale Hurston one because Instapundit blogged about it a year ago. It’s not a “VC Andrews” where someone is writing in her name, it’s her own work that publishers refused to publish in her lifetime.

      Otherwise, I discovered that an author who I read in my childhood is still around, and I see that Hilary Mantel has finished the trilogy she began with “Wolf Hall.” I was interested in Wolf Hall back when it was first hyped, but didn’t want to read it until Mantel completed the trilogy — I feared she’d pull a George R. R. Martin and take 20-plus years to finish it. It appears she’s finished in 11 years, so good on her.

      I was confused when the OP referred to Madeleine L’Engle’s characters as the Wallace siblings, but I think she meant to write “Murray.” At any rate, they’re publishing a collection of stories she wrote about them. I never knew sci-fi / fantasy existed in written form until a friend had me read “A Wrinkle in Time” when we were kids, so I might try and complete the circle with this one.

      Most of the rest of the authors / books I’ve never heard of, so there’s no halo effect to get past the off-putting descriptions the OP (or the press releases she’s likely rewriting) gave them.

      1. There are maybe two books on the list I would pick up to look at, mainly because I’m either familiar with the author already or because folks whose recommendations I trust say I should give it a shot. But, on the whole, these sorts of lists are usually a “run, run far away” sort of thing for me.

  5. In a post on 7 January, 2020, Mike Shatzkin said:

    “Today it is not uncommon for titles on a major publisher’s list to sell almost nothing, low hundreds of copies or even less.”

    If going with a trad pub deal might result in only 99 units sold in a 6-month interval—that does not sound like a good option to me.

    I’d heard sales in the low hundreds mentioned before, but hearing it again from Shatzkin makes me think that this is, indeed, common.

    1. That figure doesn’t surprise me for a number of reasons. Among those are the fact trad publishers, especially the Big 5, have yet to accept the fact that the book market has changed from 50 years ago. They still don’t embrace e-books and audio books even though those markets are continuing to grow by leaps and bounds.

      Then there is the so-called accounting method employed by traditional publishing. Bookscan is rife with errors on how many books were sold at any given time. For one, it doesn’t teach every shop and store and online outlet. For another, years ago, it was admitted the numbers were probably off by 30% (which probably means 50% or more). That means money that should be going to the author and isn’t.

      Also, publishers aren’t promoting books like they used to. Oh, they’ll hype the best seller or the newbie designated as the next “best thing”. But they don’t do much, if anything, for the mid listers or other authors. In fact, over the last decade, traditional publishing has pretty much killed off the mid-list which is extremely stupid because each one represented a number of books they could pretty much guarantee a certain number of sales.

      Frankly, if Shatzkin is right, my worst selling book does better than most trad publishing books and that is scary when you think about it.

      1. The industry looks very disrupt-able, which is terrifying if you think about it, and have anything invested. Even so much as investment as a bunch of purchased ebooks.

        Of course, that may simply be my dislike of risk speaking.

        The non-fiction side has a bunch of interesting vulnerabilities that I’m not seeing any obvious successful exploitation of.

        On the other hand, what Shazkin describes as a successful model sounds a little like Dover. I have four books from Dover on my desk here, and have a feeling that I will be reading at least three of them recreationally.

  6. Now that she’s written a book featuring a Hispanic main character, dealing with Mexican culture, she can’t point out she is Puerto Rican without being accused of being a “person of convenience”.

    Let me guess, that means: “Hi, I am a total racist who didn’t realize you’re in the demographic that I claimed you were stealing from, so I need to make it your fault,” right?

    1. Maybe Puerto Ricans have a long and extensive history of anti-Mexican racist bigotry that is very well known, and inconvenient to admit.

      1. From what I remember, they’ve got the same attitude that almost everybody except for “whites” does– as the movie said, “if it’s not Scottish, it’s cr__!”

      2. I’m not sure how true or extensive it is, but I’ve been told that Mexicans tend to treat other Hispanics like second class citizens at best.

        1. As I understand it, barring those folks with decent manners, high class Mexicans tend to treat everyone who isn’t high-class-Mexican as second class citizens at best.

          Got to see it, too, although only a few instances were so obvious as to be not possibly waived off as a momentary lapse of manners.
          ….go on, guess how lil ol’ kinda Irish American me responded to the big (censord) who tried to order me to let him use my Costco card for gas.
          Just guess.

          Blanker seriously mistook his target. Although it was kinda spooky how **** quick El Paso Costco gas attendants zoomed in, like they expected violence from someone not responding positively to such interaction.
          (Taking the fifth on that, but… I am calling a dude minimum twice my size a moron. Nuff said)

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