• Brooke Warner
  • Will Traditional Publishing Retain Its Dominance by Mandating That Its Authors Keep Their Distance...
This blog was featured on 08/29/2016
Will Traditional Publishing Retain Its Dominance by Mandating That Its Authors Keep Their Distance from Self-Published Authors?

Imagine my dismay this week to discover that one of the Big Five houses has a policy that bars its authors from endorsing print-on-demand books. Sadly, it’s not surprising. Traditional publishing actively works to position itself against nontraditional publishing yet has no issue whatsoever with scooping up self-published success stories. Double standard? Yes.

I’ve written previously about discrimination against POD here, and against independently published authors here, but this takes things to a whole new level.

That a traditional publisher would institute a policy against blurbing POD books suggests a few things:

1) They’re equating print-on-demand with self-publishing. Inaccurate. Many self-published books are not print-on-demand, and many traditionally published books are flipped to POD status, oftentimes as soon as a year following publication. During my years at Seal Press, I sat in on countless meetings where we decided, based on sluggish sales, which books should become print-on-demand, since it makes no business sense whatsoever to reprint 500 books (what offset printing requires to benefit from economies of scale) for titles that aren’t moving. And I know for a fact that the big houses practice this as well.

2) They’re operating from the worst kind of scarcity mentality. They must believe that endorsing POD (or self-published) books will shine a negative light on their authors. Guess what, Big Five—you are shining a negative light on yourselves with your own acquisitions choices: turning Duck Dynasty into a literary dynasty and publishing such standouts as Growing Up Duggar (even before the recent scandal, this should have been red-flagged as a problem book) and Fifty Shades of Grey (which admittedly made Random House tons of money, but does anyone really think this was a good series?).

Peruse the deals listed on Publishers Marketplace any given week, and you’ll cringe at some of what the big houses are buying. I’ll never forget what one New York literary agent said to me back when I worked for Seal Press about a book she’d sold to a big house that she knew had little literary worth: she called it “cannon fodder.” So help me, god, I thought, the day I acquire something I consider cannon fodder should be the day I get up and walk out. To this day, I’ve never felt that way about any book I’ve acquired or published.

3) They’re distancing themselves from their own bad decisions. Simon & Schuster has a self-publishing imprint called Archway, run by Author Solutions (of very questionable ethics who’ve been sued by authors and whose track record you can Google), which, awkwardly and oddly, is owned by Random House/Penguin. (Apparently Simon & Schuster has no qualms about the self-publishing arm of their business being owned by their biggest and direct traditional competitor.) One of the great promises of Archway is that you might get published by Simon & Schuster—if your book sells well enough. But their traditionally published authors apparently can’t and won’t blurb you. So there you go—you’re the pissed-upon little sibling. They happily run a self-publishing imprint, but they do whatever they can to distance that “subset” from the preferred children.

I wish I could just take a breath here to calm myself, but I’m angry. Why? Because this information came from a traditionally published author after she’d already agreed to blurb a She Writes Press book. She checked in with her editor, who pulled the plug. And it’s clearly not because the book (which, she said, "should have been traditionally published"), which we intend to print offset, is POD. Instead, the traditionally published author said, it boils down to a difference in values, because she fundamentally believes that publishers should invest in authors, and that authors should not invest in themselves.

Kamy and I started She Writes Press with the goal of being transparent about what we do and how we do it: the author pays to publish but retains drastically higher royalties. For years I have witnessed traditional houses cutting all kinds of creative deals—where authors pay production and print runs; where creative royalty splits are negotiated. This is not new. And yet being up front about it automatically classifies us, in some people’s minds, as “vanity press,” a term I despise, by the way. That traditional publishing is actively engaged in undermining emerging and valid models by slandering them propagates a lack of transparency in the industry. As one fellow publisher (who cuts hybrid deals) recently told me, “We don’t like to advertise it, because, you know, of the stigma.” I suppose the author who invests in herself behind closed doors qualifies for endorsement consideration without having to justify her process.

I’ve been arguing since the conception of She Writes Press that what should matter about a book is how well written it is—not the author platform or brand or how many followers a would-be author has. And yet, from a business perspective, of course it makes sense that this is what publishers today must focus on—or risk decimation. I left traditional publishing after a particularly symbolic experience, when I was actively discouraged from acquiring a book I believed in wholeheartedly but then met with excessive enthusiasm (and a large advance to back it) for a proposal propelled by a fancy agent, celebrity endorsements, and a whole lotta hot air. It wasn’t cannon fodder, and it ended up doing well for the company, but I’d compromised. I left three months later.

If you are asked to blurb a book, what should matter is whether you believe in it. If you don’t, you don’t blurb it. If you care enough about the author or the book, you offer your endorsement. End of story. It’s your choice. A blurb is a gift to the author. Authors do not pay for blurbs. They work hard to get them because the industry tells authors that they matter, that they sell books. She Writes Press authors have scored amazing blurbs—blurbs from New York Times best-selling authors and champions of people’s dreams. A publishing company, in my opinion, does not have the right to mandate whom its authors advocate in an attempt to control its reputation or to distance itself from “the other.” To do so smacks of elitism, one of traditional publishing’s lasting and detrimental flaws. We’ve already arrived at a place where people judge books on the writing, not on how those books make it into the marketplace. It’s time for traditional publishing to catch up, to pull its head out of the sand. That it’s lost sight of publishing’s mandate—to champion good books—speaks to its values. And those are values I certainly don’t share.

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  • I'm feeling this post ! Thanks for rant.

  • Suzy Soro

    The irony of the blurb business is that blurbs don't sell books. Word of mouth sells books. Or an author's reputation. I read some big author's website who has now gone indie and he suggests putting up old reviews to sub for blurbs because the public doesn't care. He encouraged one author to use an old yearbook quote. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Dana, feel free to repost, and thank you!

    Getting your book to #1 has nothing to do with your track unless you are actually selling print books as a result. Right now the industry still only cares about print sales, which also speaks to how behind the times it is. Your ebook sales don't count toward your track, and most of those campaigns to get to #1 are all about ebooks.

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    Thanks for responding Theresa and Brooke. I haven't really studied the stats on "successful" self-pubbed books. To the extent that I've read posts on Goodreads, FB and various other platforms, there seems to be a lot of raving about getting to the #1 spot by offering your material for free. Is that part of your track? The only reason to go with a traditional publisher would be support in promotion, book tours, getting your book into bookstores and/or libraries. I know many small press don't or can't offer that support and that the author still needs to do a lot of the groundwork.

  • Shakuntala Rajagopal

    Hello Brooke,

    I am pleased you express your indignation on this issue.

    What more can we do? Where else do you think we should express our opinion? Shaku

  • Dana Alexander Writing

    Thank you, Brooke! I want to publish your post on my website.  Too often good writing is overshadowed by the 'biz' of traditional versus Indi (I understand the often obvious reasons) and the focus on the great divide.  Some of us are out there investing, writing good work (according to the contest judges and requests from agents we have been fortunate to get after so many futile efforts to attract their attention before we are anyone) and willing to take the slower road to success to not be associated with values we don't share.  Thank you for standing by what you believe in and stating the facts as they are. At this moment, I couldn't be more proud to be a member of She Writes, The Alliance of Independent Authors, and the commitment to ethical integrity and good writing I find with both.

  • Christine Keleny

    Here, here!

  • Lisa Thomson

    Thank you, Brooke for this well informed and written article about the muddy world of book publishing. I can't think of a more grey profession than traditional publishers. It seems they want to cherry pick to make money while dissing honest, hard working authors. I mean, celebrity books are all over the place. Are they good? Some are and some are NOT but it doesn't matter to the big name publishers. So long as they're raking in the $$. Was it always this way? Are they threatened by the She Writes Press and other Self publications? I think so.

  • Rebecca Forster

    Great post, thanks so much. This saddens me to no end. I was traditionally published for 25 years. I have been indie for 5. There are a ton of reasons I went indie and it has been an interesting adventure. I am better off now as an indie than I was with the big publishers.  You post did remind me, though, of that feeling I always had when I was traditionally published: If I didn't toe the line' they would get rid of me. The unspoken message was, there is always someone ready to take your spot.  How awful this new directive must make their authors feel. the other sad thing is that I have many friends who are still traditionally published would be happy to give me an endorsement. I can't imagine how hard it would be for them to say no. Also, does this mean that when they ask me for a quote because I have successful indie books that the traditional publisher will not print it? What a pity. There is seriously room for everyone. Thanks again.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Hear, hear, Zetta!

    Jean, I agree with you about this author, but she is self-professed "old school," someone who's been supported by the establishment for years and who honestly doesn't understand how much the world of publishing has changed because she's never been in a position where her publisher has not supported her work. What a luxury! SWP authors are being blurbed all the time by authors who do not feel compelled to ask their editors for permission, but in this case the author did, and also shared with me the policy, which I'm very sure the big house is not looking to be public knowledge.

  • Jean Ellen Whatley

    Brooke, good for you for getting so fired up and getting the rest of us riled up in the process. You are absolutely right about all of this.

    Here's what I want to know: in my heart of hearts, I do not believe that the traditional publisher can really muzzle this author. If they valued her work enough to publish her, what are they going to do if she blurbs a book she feels is worth it, take her book off the shelves? I doubt it. And, if the She Writes book does well, the traditionally published author has just gotten some valuable cross-promotion. All that being said, it's up to the "blurber" to do what's right for her career and her relationship with her publisher. This smacks of intimidation -- albeit somewhat toothless to me. I'd tell them to go &*%$ themselves. Can I say that?

  • Zetta Brown

    Ooh, please tell me the name of the author--in a private message, of course--who believes authors shouldn't invest in themselves so I can never invest my hard-earned money in reading their work.

    THE READING PUBLIC DOES NOT CARE HOW A BOOK IS PUBLISHED. They just want the book! If they can't get a book in the bookstore because the bookstore doesn't carry indie titles, they can get it online because, in case trad publishers haven't heard, there's this thing called the Internet and another thing called an "online bookstore" that makes it possible to get almost anything anywhere. 

    Authors, do yourself a favor and don't drink the Kool-Aid the trads are pushing. It's the twenty-first century--not the nineteenth.

  • Toi Thomas

    Why are publishing companies making enemies with authors? It makes so sense. Because they can't control Indies they're going to try to stop them. How...I have no words.

  • Michele Harvey

    With regard to a scarcity mentality, I couldn't agree wIth you more! The endorsement of intellectual property should based on the merit of the work!  Most readers are unaware of the decisions authors face when deciding which publishing route to travel, and they should not be swayed by business decisions that benefit the Big Five.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    S. Ramos, I wouldn't take legal action here even if there were grounds for it, but to your second question:

    If an author has self-published one book, is she wasting her time trying to market a second book to an agent and/or traditional publisher? The easy answer is of course it's not a waste of time, just show that you've sold a 1000 books (or whatever the magic # is.) Based on your info above, it would seem that once you've "sullied" yourself by self-publishing, there's no going back. Am I wrong?

    Self-publishing is really not in and of itself seen as a bad thing anymore. So many more people are publishing independently. A lot of authors are giving up on traditional publishing for reasons that include control, flexibility, and economics. But if you have a self-published title and want to shop traditionally after that, you're right---you need good sales. And 1000 is not enough. This is called a "track" in publishing, and if your first book performed poorly then that track is going to follow you wherever you go. So it's definitely a strike against you, but it's not just because of being self-published.

  • Thanks for posting this.  What a tangled web!  Publishers need to get it that readers care about quality. But let's face it, they buy what they think is "hot," too and that's where pubs make their money--either buying something they know will be hot or making it hot. 

    S. Ramos O'Briant--to give an attempt to answer to your good question:  My first book was published by a small press that went out of business and is now POD and self-published.  My second book (totally different subject) was picked up by an "traditional" indie press (not POD, at least not yet) and third book I struggled with finding a publisher, but it was published by an indie press out of the country. So, I would say, if you first book was self-published and did not do well (i.e., sold 10,000 copies in past 2 years!) you might be better off by either looking at a publisher like See Writes or alternatively, writing something really different. If you write well, a publisher may be saying of your first book--maybe that subject is not "hot," which could be death to another such project.  That said, unless you are counting on making a living writing and are starving, write what your heart tells you to write.

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    First, your outrage is well-founded. I wonder if there is any room for a legal strategy based on anti-competition? Probably independent publishers, self-publishers and POD organizations would need to band together, have a unified code. Easier said than done, and I'm not a lawyer.

    Second, a question arises: If an author has self-published one book, is she wasting her time trying to market a second book to an agent and/or traditional publisher? The easy answer is of course it's not a waste of time, just show that you've sold a 1000 books (or whatever the magic # is.) Based on your info above, it would seem that once you've "sullied" yourself by self-publishing, there's no going back. Am I wrong?

  • Susan Johnson Hadler

     Bravo to Brooke for seeing what is going on and naming it.

  • Patricia Robertson

    So, if you publish with a traditional publisher, not only do they "own" your work, they "own" you. Sad situation.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    This is so well said, Brooke! Thank you.

  • Toni Piccinini

    Brooke, we love it when you're angry!  Fine intelligent writing driving the personal to the universal. I will surely share this piece. Thank you, as always.

  • Such a disturbing trend. Thank you for bringing this to light, Brooke.

  • Julie Maloney

    Brooke, Fabulous! Thank you!

  • Melanie Bishop

    Well-said, Brooke, as always. I will share this one widely. Thanks.