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The Publisher/Author Relationship—The True Story
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
November 2012
Outlining
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
November 2012
Outlining

This post is in response to Michael Levin’s Huffington Post article, “Why Book Publishers Hate Authors,” in which he asserts an antagonistic and frankly distressing perspective about how publishers feel toward their authors.

This is a timely piece, and one that’s so far received a lot of high-five-style comments (except from a select few commenters who actually work in publishing), because authors are trying to wrap their minds around why their work is not getting acquired. Or, if it is, why their books aren’t selling well.

Levin suggests that publishers despise their authors, which is ludicrous. Publishing is changing (and has been for the past decade), and authors are freaking out because their fantasy about getting published doesn’t match up with today’s reality. Many authors have a concept of getting published that’s nostalgic of an early twentieth-century publishing model that no longer exists. Back in the 1930s and ’40s there were fewer publishing companies and books being published, and mediocre writers did not aspire to publish. Today everyone thinks they can and should be an author. I personally advocate for this in my work with my clients, and when I speak to groups, but it doesn’t mean that every writer is writing the kind of book that “deserves” to be published by a traditional press.

Authors who do get published traditionally can sometimes have very high expectations. I know this from my years in the publishing industry. Everyone has the dream of being a bestseller, and authors typically come into a publishing house with zero concept of what’s actually involved in getting their books pre-sold (meaning the quantities major accounts agree to take before a print run is even set). Authors don’t understand that major accounts pass on their books when there’s no confirmed publicity, and that they’re competing with many many other books for a very limited amount of shelf space. They are distressed when their books don’t do well, and everyone likes to talk about how much publishers aren’t doing for their authors. But let’s consider how much of a broken model book publishing actually is.

Publishers risk a lot when they sign an author. That’s just a fact of publishing, and Levin’s write-up about how publishers want their authors to fail, beyond not making sense, can only stem from entitlement or personal disappointment or both. Publishers that give advances to their authors are automatically in the hole for the amount of the advance. Then add in the cost of staff, the cost of producing the book, and the cost of marketing and publicity. Even for a low-cost book, the publisher is putting out thousands.

Let’s take a Seal Press book by way of example. A typical advance is $10,000. The cost of production may be somewhere between $6,000-$10,000 (much higher for high-design books). Then there’s the printing of the book—another $4,000-$7,500 (depending on the print run). Then there’s marketing and publicity costs. On the low end they probably spend $2,500. On the high end much much more. Then there’s the cost of the staff and overhead and a million other things to run a business. And they have to take returns if and when the book doesn’t sell!!

Any author who doesn’t think they should have to work their asses off when someone is giving them an advance on their book is living in last century’s model. There are very few authors who are actually making a full-time living at being an author. If you think this isn’t fair, I suggest a reality check. It’s not that publishers hate authors—far from it; but they do get frustrated when they invest so much money on books that mostly fail. Again, it’s a broken model. But this doesn’t mean they blame the author. When over 80 percent of all books fail to earn out their advances, that would be a lot of blame and a lot of finger-pointing. Publishers know that these failures to earn out are simply part of what the industry deals with—and has dealt with for a long time. It’s very disappointing to publishers and editors alike when a book they bring in doesn’t do well. I have looked at royalty statements over the years and felt sick over them. Who in their right mind would look at something that didn’t perform as well as they had hoped and feel glee? Mr. Levin paints industry professionals as so sinister, when in fact they’re mostly idealistic book lovers who go to bat for their authors time after time after time, even as book sales are on the decline.

There is some truth to the a few of the points Levin makes. For instance, he writes:


"Today, any time an agent or acquisitions editor considers a manuscript or book proposal from an author, the first place they go is BookScan to get sales figures. These numbers used to be proprietary to the house that had published the book; now they're out in the open for all to see. And if an author's sales numbers are poor, no one thinks to blame the house for failing to market the book. The author's career is essentially over. One and done. Next contestant, please."


It’s true that editors check Bookscan numbers, but Bookscan numbers only represent about 70 percent of all sales, and they don’t capture specialty sales. And you’d be shocked by numbers that publishers consider “decent.” A book that’s sold 5,000 copies, for instance, shows a pretty solid performance. And my experience with publishers (both those that I’ve worked with and those I’ve done business with—small and big houses alike) has been positive in terms of the publisher/author relationship. I also know a lot of publishers and a lot of editors, and they’re actually quite protective of their authors. For every story I’ve heard of an author's career ending because she was unable to earn out her advance (and yes, this does happen, though I again point back to the broken model and the fact that $100,000-plus shouldn’t be thrown at first-time authors), there’s been another story of a publisher that went the distance for their author, signing their next book or advocating for them in some way despite a “failed” attempt. More than blaming their authors, publishers blame the culture. We live in a culture in which fewer people are buying and reading books. I’ve made the case in the past that digital books are saving publishing, because technology is bringing more readers.

If you ascribe to Levin’s belief system, I can promise you one thing: you will never get published. It doesn’t behoove you as an author to go into your publishing relationship feeling like you’re a victim, or like your publisher is out to get you. Publishers love to work with authors who have a positive attitude, who are go-getters, who are willing to try as hard as they can to get the word out there about their book. So authors who protest, “But I don’t want to do social media,” or who say things like, “I thought the publisher was supposed to do that for me,” really are acting a bit spoiled, in my opinion.

Getting published is a privilege. I have always felt this way, and authors who come into a publishing relationship with entitlement seem to be coming to publishing with a sense that they deserve to be published. Most authors I’ve worked with, I’m grateful to say, have not exhibited this sort of behavior. But some have. I have worked with authors who never said thank you, who expected so much and gave so little, and who seemed to believe that the publishing staff was at their disposal, even though we had forty other authors we were attending to.

Aspiring authors out there, do not buy into this idea that publishers have begun to hate authors. Publishing professionals are awesome people. We hold onto hope that every book will succeed. I believed in every single book I ever acquired. There was not a single book I ever brought in that I believed (or for that matter hoped!) would fail. And I believe that most editors and publishers share in this sense of possibility. Book publishing happens to be one of those industries that, while riddled with problems, also witnesses magic. Breakout books happen. There’s no such thing as buying your way to becoming a New York Times bestseller. Good writing stands on its own. And anyone can become a bestselling author—and there’s no recipe for it. But you always want to start with a good attitude. I believe that people like Michael Levin, who clearly want to see book publishing’s demise so that they can say “I told you so” are no friends to authors.

Keep dreaming big, but don’t dismiss how hard you have to work for it. Remember the truism that anything worth having is worth working hard for.

 

Read more about publishing and the true future of book publishing in my book, What's Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You from Inspiration to Published Author

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Comments
  • catherine meara

    Okay. I'm just going to say it. I think that if my book is not good enough for traditional publishing, then it's just not good enough. I've been told that self-publishing is a black hole. And, I do publicity. I can sell anything -- but not myself. The thought of promoting my book gives me hives. Right now I am on the second edit (and the last one) and will soon send it to an editor. Then what? Someone tell me what to do!!!

  • RYCJ Preparing to Publish

    Publishers are not an evil entity. It's like as @Brooke pointed out; the process is broken. I fully respect the monies publishers layout to see a return on their investment, but only question the risks of taking on book projects outside of what generally has been proven to sell well (i.e., proven already best-selling authors, and/or those with the sensational stories); and more so question this, if laying out deep advances that heightens the risk. On that note I'll back-step a bit in agreeing that the onus should not be on a publisher to educate a writer, or hopeful author about this type business decision.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Yes, well said, Elizabeth! It drives me crazy to see all these people talking about how self-publishing should cost $50. On what planet? We can't devalue books by doing no editing, no design, no formatting. I totally agree that digital publishing needs to hold high standards, too. It's nice that there are a lot of people holding that line, though.

  • Elizabeth K. Burton

    The ease of self-publishing at little to no cost has created a body of people who feel they must justify their choice to do so by making traditional publishers (and even nontraditional ones) into a faceless evil entity who treat authors like cattle. Thank you for pointing out that no one invests large sums of money in someone just to ensure they will fail.

    It costs us between $4,000 and $6,000 to produce and market a book, and that's without paying an advance. Nevertheless, because we're a digital press, many authors seem to think it costs us little to nothing to provide them with a published book. Perhaps it's time we started sending out paid invoices for each one as a means of education. :-)

  • Kenny Bodanis

    Great article!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for sharing and for your insights, @Rita.

  • Rita Arens

    I'm on round two now with two different publishers. The first was mid-sized, the second is small. Both are indie. The first gave me an advance, which I earned out, the second did not give me an advance. My first publisher didn't have the best bedside manner for a newbie but was always fair and professional. I've yet to release the novel so it remains to be seen how upbeat my publisher will be when we start contemplating actual sales, but my guess is that it will be easier for them to be excited over little victories since there was no advance. I also learned so much about the publishing industry and which types of book marketing worked then and work now -- the ways in which we market books have changed so dramatically since 2008 I can't even begin to describe them -- and I consider myself a full partner in whether or not my novel will succeed. I take full responsibility for that, whereas before I felt confused and unsure of what I could do outside of talking about it on my blog, which started to feel forced after, oh, ten seconds.

    As much as I would've loved to have an advance to help defray the cost of redoing my business cards, my website, my Twitter page, my Facebook and all the rest of it, I would not have hired a publicist and would've done it myself anyway. I'm excited to be publishing and getting another chance to get my words out into the world, even the very, very crowded world that it is. I think blogging since 2004 and seeing that space change and grow and get crowded and get disillusioned has prepared me more adequately for what is happening in publishing.

    I also don't understand at all the concept of returns and think we should just print on demand, personally.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Tasha, yes, let's hope. But publishing tends to be slow on the uptake. I think that industries that have been around for a very long time are really slow to change. They don't want to admit that they have to. The problem is that these outrageous advances are happening all of the time, and it really doesn't make sense to the author, as much as they might feel really good about it. The only authors who ever have a hope of earning out $100K+ advances are those who are practically brands, or those crazy runaway bestsellers. Lots of times there is buzz for those books among NY scouts and editors, though, and that's what starts a bidding war. the author at the center of it can't help but be swept up in the excitement. I would be! So I don't know. I have hope, but I don't see this changing any time soon among the Big 5 because they're still competing with each other for those high-profile authors and hopeful breakouts.

  • Suzanne McKenna Link

    I would imagine every publisher wants to find the next big thing (or at least a substantial thing) and understanding how expensive it can be, it's not hard to see why they would be extremely picky about what gets published. Thank you for your insight, Brooke.

  • Tasha Turner

    I think many authors would be better off negotiating for smaller advances and better royalties that way they have a better chance of meeting the advance and seeing a longer term income, specifically with ebooks.

    The model is broken. There is anger and frustration on both sides (at least among a number of friends on both sides). I'm sure things will sort themselves out but the model will look very different. Publishing goes through changes.

    New authors need to be more realistic about what to expect. Understand the industry better. And realize that whether they go with the big 6/5, a mid/small press, or self publish they have to be out there creating a market for their books. Yes their will be fluke books that make it without much personal marketing but just like with best sellers one should not assume/count on being the exception.

  • Katherine Scott Crawford

    Fabulous post. I'm a huge fan of my own publisher--happy to be working with a small press who champions me. Thanks for sharing!

  • L. A. Howard

    This was awesome, and has actually given me a lot of hope!  :D  

    I'm still very much in the newbie stage, but this makes the publishing house world seem much, much less scary.  

    Also, thanks for putting a positive spin on social media!  I tend to dismiss it out of ... I don't know, world-weariness? ... but on the other hand I know it can be the best way to advertise!  

  • Grace Peterson

    Well, Brooke, not a total success by a long shot but I'm on my way.  :) 

    You're kind of cool when you're worked up. :) 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Julie, thanks. I can get a little worked up on the topic. :)

    Wow, @Grace. You're a total success story then!!

  • Grace Peterson

    I agree Brooke. I could read Mr. Levin's consternation between the lines. I just thought maybe he was going a little overboard for effect. And controversy. Not a very healthy way to gain readership, I suppose but it works. 

    I received over 230 rejections before getting a thumbs up from a publisher so I can vouch for the need for perseverance. 

  • Julie Luek

    @Brooke I would have to take your word for it-- you have much more inside knowledge than I do.  Thanks for sharing your insights and thoughts. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Julie, I maintain the model is, in fact, broken. Giving six-figure advances to debut novelists based on hype is not a good way to do business. These are the authors who end up falling far. They get all excited about their new careers and then when their books don't earn out (which would entail selling through 100K-plus copies), their publisher doesn't want to do their next book. this doesn't make sense, but it's how the Big (now 5) work at the top level. I think the author has to understand the risks going in, and the small publishing model is maybe a little better, but it's hard to compete, and it's even hard to earn out a $10K advance. The publishing model of offering an advance to an author that they have to earn out comes from the last century, and I personally think we should get rid of advances. Then there's the issue of returns!! Don't even get me started. That publishers have to anticipate returns and hold royalties against returns is also just silly, and another thing that needs to be "fixed." My two cents anyway.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Grace. Interesting interpretation. I definitely felt like there was a personal story here for him---of disappointment, or having been dropped by his publisher perhaps. Publishing is a frustrating industry, and so much of my work in guiding authors is about trying to help them through the maze. But pitting authors against publishers is so problematic. The last thing we need as authors is fall into this seething, blaming place. Books fail just because there are too many of them out there, and books don't get bought for all kinds of reasons. I've also known people who've gotten tons of rejections and then have ended up landing something brilliant after years of perseverance, so you just never know.

  • Grace Peterson

    I kind of interpret Mr. Levin's article as somewhat tongue and cheek, especially the first half where he admits that authors are "a strange lot." (Are we?) :) Perhaps authors have been too eccentric with a broad sense of entitlement and now publishers have their guards up and are very shy about taking risks. To keep the bottom line in the black publishers have to be very careful about which authors they're willing to sponsor. I understand this and I don't envy them their predicament. However, with this business model, you have to admit that likely many, many worthy books are being passed over. Many talented authors are being snubbed because they don't have the money-making credentials that wow publishers. It's a very frustrating for writers especially when you read a book published by one of the big six that reads like drivel. Is it about quality or money? 

    With my limited knowledge, I'm not quite sure Mr. Levin's conspiracy theory is on track, but who knows? I'm sure with your insider-knowledge, Brooke, you know what you speak of when you say that publishers love the authors they sign and believe in their work and want them to succeed. It's the authors they reject that have hurt feelings and are grasping at straws in an effort to figure out why. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Nora. I've heard this same story countless times, and it is a huge relief when you make a decision that settles with your soul. This is the poem I opened my own book with---speaks to exactly what you're talking about:

    Thinking Like a Butterfly, by Mark Nepo

     

     

    Monday I was told I was good.

    I felt relieved.

    Tuesday I was ignored.

    I felt invisible.

    Wednesday I was snapped at.

    I began to doubt myself.

    On Thursday I was rejected.

    Now I was afraid.

    On Saturday I was thanked

    for being me. My soul relaxed.

    On Sunday I was left alone

    till the part of me that can’t

    be influenced grew tired of

    submitting and resisting.

    Monday I was told I was good.

    By Tuesday I got off the wheel.

     

  • Julie Luek

    I read the original article and the responses to the article.  I have heard of authors developing their own publishing company and working through the bigger 6 for distribution.  There are certainly a lot of options out there.  The system isn't broken, just in flux. Seems to me flexibility and adjustments are necessary on both sides of the fence to make it work best for publishers and authors.  I doubt "hate" is the issue, but maximizing exposure, profits and sales is of course the bottom line for both parties.

  • Nora Gaskin Esthimer

    Thanks for calling the Levin piece to our attention, and for your thoughtful comments, Brooke. A year ago, I was devouring all of this kind of discussion I could because I was debating self-publishing versus a third attempt to beat my head against the agent-publisher wall. I chose to set up a publishing company and do it myself. Once I made that decision, I had that instant sense of relief that comes from making the right choice at the right time. For me. Now I have to plug the book, and I know you'll understand: Until Proven: A Mystery in 2 Parts by Nora Gaskin. Both print and ebook.

  • Daphne Q

    Interesting... thanks for posting this.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @RYCJ. Thanks for this. I'm sure it's true that authors perceive hostility from their publishers at times, or outright feel it. There are those in the industry, like any industry, who are burned out. But by and large the frustration around not selling books doesn't get taken out on the author. The sad thing that happens with big publishers is that they offer these huge advances. The author is then on a high and feel like this is going to be the start of their new full-time career as a writer. But if the book doesn't earn out, the next advance is not going to be as big, or worse, the author isn't going to get a next deal with that publisher. If publishers were more honest up front, and yes, if the model were changed, then there wouldn't be this confusion on the part of authors. I do think it's an industry problem, and authors get caught in the middle, but the folks who buy books, I still ascertain, always hope that they'll succeed. It's just that most books don't. Sigh. What to do about that??

  • RYCJ Preparing to Publish

    Brooke, this is a very interesting topic. I looked into this a long while back, wondering what was up with what I perceived as a hostility against authors, spending more than a good minute thinking about many of the points addressed. The long and short of it from my view, is for any business model to excel, all constituents within it have to work well together. Publishers must take care of their main product, the authors, which includes feeding them many of the truths you've laid out here. Often, I think sales and readers are confused with the core product. 

    Now I have to check out this Levine article and other links you have here... just to see what spins are being put on the matter. Again, an interesting subject indeed.