Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Trash Talking Tuesday: Publishers Aren’t Always Wrong

I’ve gotten embroiled today in another Twitter conversation about piracy and one on Dear Author about authors airing their grievances with their publishers in a public forum. The two might seem totally unconnected, and in most ways, they are, but one thing that strikes me is this–when these discussions come up, the first party to get “thrown under the bus” is always the publisher. It’s always the big, bad publishers who irrationally want to be paid for their product. It’s the big, bad publishers who choose sucky covers for books and then force authors to accept them. Authors are at publishers’ mercy; readers are at publishers’ mercy. No one gets what they want EXCEPT the publishers.

Okay, so, I’m not here to be a cheerleader for the big publishing houses, because I don’t think they’re always in the right, but I’ll tell you what–I don’t think they’re always in the wrong, either.

For example, I know DRM is a touchy subject for the ebook readers out there and that they are unfairly being tarred with the brush of “pirate” because they just want to share their digital books the way they’d share print ones. I completely sympathize with that point of view. But by the same token, I understand why publishers feel they MUST use DRM and why they equate peer-to-peer sharing with piracy. For book publishers, the reality of digital formats means that a single copy of a book can be shared infinitely without any degradation in quality.

It’s as if we were living in world where Star Trek style replicators existed and any manufactured item could just be popped into it and reproduced ad infinitum at virtually no cost. If people could do that with print books (instead of having to copy them painstakingly page by page), you can believe that publishers would be trying to do something to paper books to prevent that, too. DRM may suck as a solution and do more to piss readers off than to protect digital books from being pirated, but publishers are over a barrel on this one. While it’s a poor solution at best (and doesn’t even really work), until the digital book market settles on a single file format a la mp3 and a model like iTumes comes into existence for books, they’re just trying to stick their fingers in the dyke.

And then there’s the issue of authors airing their grievances with the publishers. This particular round has to do with cover art. You can read the post on Dear Author if you’re interested in the specifics of the discussion.

Here’s the thing: when it comes to cover art (and by extension, titles), I’m inclined to believe publishers generally DO know what they’re doing. Even if the author hates the result, even if the models don’t look like the protagonists, even if the title makes the author cringe in mortification. All of the major publishing houses have been in the business of designing, marketing, and selling books for longer than any living author has been writing books. They haven’t succeeded in staying in business for 100+ years by being clueless. Authors are often surprised to discover that the title/cover that made them want to cover their faces in shame are actually beloved by readers and precisely what drew them to the book. This isn’t to say that every title/cover produced by a publisher is a winner, but on balance, I think it’s safe to assume the publisher has a better grasp of what sells than the average author.

Part of the reason I think authors don’t complain a lot in public about the publishers isn’t just that they’re afraid of the consequences (which is certainly an issue, especially for authors without a significant track record), but because in the final analysis, the publisher is taking the lion’s share of the risk (at least if it’s an advance-paying, traditional print publishing house) and therefore, you tend to err on the side of suspecting the publisher isn’t all wet. If you do think they’re all wet, then once your contract is up, it’s time to go looking for another publisher, and again, if you don’t have much of a track record, the last thing you want is to gain a reputation as someone who makes a big stink over things you really don’t know much about.

So, yes, there’s some fear there but also prudence and a sense of respect. You wouldn’t want your publisher complaining publicly about what a pain in the ass you were to work with and how you were completely clueless about how to write a book that could sell. That being the case, I think it’s just decent to return the favor and not trash talk1 your publisher–even if you’re sure it’s all true and your publisher fatally sabotaged your career. There are just some places you’re wise not to go.
1I hope no one will construe this to mean I think the letter by Barry Eisler that was posted at Dear Author constituted “trash talking.” It was actually anything but. Which is precisely why I think writing and distributing it isn’t likely to cause Mr. Eisler any damage. That said, if I were to be moved to complain about something my publisher did, I doubt I could be so well-reasoned and insightful, which is one of the reasons I won’t go there.


  • Zoe Winters January 26, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    I agree with you on DRM. There is no easy solution here and it is true that when readers share books with each other indefinitely when and where and how does the author or publisher get paid?

    As for the “publishers have been around for 100 plus years” argument, well yes, but they were managed by different people. The people in charge right now aren’t the people who were in charge at the beginning and I don’t really believe in standing in gaping awe at large corporations just because they’ve managed to survive. In a lot of cases that survival is due to just dumb luck since publishing is run largely like the horse races with the publishers being the gamblers.

    Unlike you I’m not overly convinced that publishers really have much of a clue about what they’re doing. If they did they wouldn’t be so shocked when so many books tanked and so surprised at the ones that don’t.

    Most of the books I’ve read that have later gone on to become NYT bestsellers, I knew before they hit the list that they were going to. So why is this such a mystical thing for publishers to figure out? To me it isn’t really a question of what sells at any given point, but can I produce it? I may not be able to, but I sure as hell know it when I see it.

    Two examples, when I read Pleasure Unbound before Larissa Ione hit the list, I knew she’d hit the list with her books, no question. I also read Twilight before it got crazy famous, and saw that one coming too. I’m not saying I’m a publishing oracle or anything but I do seem to be able to spot these things frequently.

    As for cover art and titles, publishers know what sells to bookstores. They may or may not know what sells to end readers, because most of them except for Harlequin aren’t that deeply plugged into any of that.

    Nevertheless the reason I indie publish is because I don’t really care “what” a NY publisher thinks is best for the cover and title, I want what I want. Which is why I’m willing to back it 100% and do all the work.

    Also sometimes you can have three different cover concepts and three different titles with no discernable difference over which will sell better, but the publisher still has the power to pick the one “they” want.

    Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. If they take all the financial risk on an unproven author, then they should have those rights. But that’s why I haven’t asked for their money, because I don’t want their input into my work.

    I also notice that as an author moves up the ranks in sales they develop more negotiating power to control things like title, cover design, and editing (though sometimes it’s to the detriment of the overall book but by that point they have the publisher over a barrel.)

    But… I don’t think publishers are evil. They’re just running a business.

  • Jackie Barbosa January 26, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    I actually think most publishers have a pretty good idea of which books have a good chance of hitting the NYT, because the metric for determining the list involves a minimum print run. Also, publishers regularly set “hard” release dates for books that they believe have a chance of hitting the list to ensure that a big chunk of the early sales will hit in the first couple of weeks.

    The point I’m trying to make about publishers having been around for a long time isn’t to say that the current people working there have been around that long. But still, there’s a thing known as institutional wisdom. Companies that don’t remember what their employees learned in the prior generation generally don’t survive very long.

    I know you’re not interested in being published by a NY house, but a large percentage of authors ARE. And yet, I see the opinion expressed in more than one place that these publishers are clueless and incompetent and only manage to turn a profit by sheer luck. If that’s REALLY true, why do these people STILL want to be published by these publishers? Color me baffled.

  • Zoe Winters January 26, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    You make a good point about the list, but they still seem shocked by the outcome way too much. Then again, me “calling it” four or five times, doesn’t make me like a publishing ninja or anything. 😛

    True too about the companies issue. I guess it just feels like what you were saying sounded too much like being too impressed with them without much reason. Everything publishers “do” know, is knowledge anybody can gain if they take the time and study publishing and how to do it. It’s the same place all small presses find themselves in when they start out. But you do make a valid point especially in relationship to the average trad pubbed author who likely isn’t going to bend over backwards to learn all the in’s and outs of publishing logistics they don’t have to know.

    HAHAHA yeah, that’s funny. I wouldn’t say I personally “disdain” publishers but I’m not impressed with them. I’m not in awe. Though I do agree that if someone DOES want to be published by these publishers but they *still* feel this way about it, it’s all rather confusing. Nothing worse than a backseat driver and it seems that an author who wants to complain about publishers and yet isn’t willing to take all the financial risk and the initiative themselves is doing just that.

    • Jackie Barbosa January 26, 2010 at 9:17 pm

      I never sense publishers are particularly shocked by what hits the NYT and what doesn’t. With some exceptions (e.g., Her Fearful Symmetry).

      I don’t think I have great awe of traditional publishers. I just think too often, their expertise is undervalued and underappreciated. That isn’t to say they are always right. As I said at the beginning, I’m not intending to be the rah-rah cheerleader for major publishing houses. But I do have a problem with the mentality that says they are totally irrational entities that make decisions without any solid data or reliance on previous experience. No, they aren’t infallible. But who is?

  • Zoe Winters January 26, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    LOL that is where we differ. I do think they’re pretty irrational. And if they aren’t… then they should stop letting the irrational ones take the podium, because my view of “irrational publishers” is based on some of the inane stuff they’ve said in interviews with major publications. If publishing isn’t a horse race, then they should stop telling us it is. If they don’t want to be seen this way, why do they allow so many people like that speak for them without any kind of formal reply or rebuttle? That’s what baffles me.

  • Jackie Barbosa January 26, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    See, I’m not sure what they say that you find irrational. I’m speaking purely from my experience as an author working with and submitting to publishers. And while I may not LIKE all the decisions any publisher makes vis-a-vis my work (I particularly do not like when they reject it, lol), I understand that they aren’t deciding these things in a vacuum. They have access to a lot of data I don’t, including how similar books have sold in the past. They’re not just rejecting (or accepting) books without ANY clue as to WHY. They know.

    Again, they’re not always right in their decisions. I will claim to my dying breath that publishers who passed on my books were just plain fools, lol. But I also recognize that publishers are not in business to give struggling artists a break.

  • Zoe Winters January 26, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Well that last part we agree on. I just think some of the things they do are goofy. Though it’s not fair to paint every publisher with the same brush. Except for the Harlequin Horizons debacle, I had a lot of respect for Harlequin as a publisher.

  • Jody W. January 27, 2010 at 10:05 am

    Jackie, in the comments you asked why writers seem to have such issues with NY pubs but still strive to publish with them. IMO, it’s because so many of us are not cut out for indie, self, small, etc publishing! The self-marketing aspect required to be a success outside NY is a whole different skill-set. I for one don’t have it and I swear I’m going backwards insofar as developing it. Just like some people CANNOT write a book, CANNOT make small talk, CANNOT sing, CANNOT win races, some people CANNOT sell and market 🙂

  • Termagant 2 January 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I think some of the disconnect comes when the author must do so much more than write the books. In recent years, we’ve been asked to “partner” with the publishers as far as promo, publicity, marketing, etc., often with little or no background in such activities. Some publishers pay small or no advances to help with such things. But we’re considered co-workers in the book’s success.

    That’s a double standard, in my opinion — for if we’re partners, where’s the give-and-take about “this cover really doesn’t work for me and I cannot see how to market it”? Instead, we’re told “the cover is what it is”, and there’s no sense of partnership in one party dictating to another.

    Were the advances more palatable, maybe I wouldn’t feel this way, LOL.

  • Jackie Barbosa January 27, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Jody, I completely understand why authors want to sell to NY, since I want to do so again myself. But if I really thought NY publishers were generally clueless and incapable of selling and marketing my work, I’d have to start thinking about other alternatives. I mean, realistically, if you feel that publishers don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to packaging books to help them sell, you have to believe you have a BETTER plan (or could devise one). In which case, why NOT go the indie route?

    Termagent, I agree with you about advances and the amount of promotion we’re being expected to do nowadays being out of sync with each other in a lot of respects. But at least in my case, I blame my total lack of marketing/promotional savvy at least partly on the fact that I was too shy/too embarrassed to contact my publisher and ASK what they thought I could do that would be both effective and relatively inexpensive. Now, it’s entirely possible they would have blown me off and/or had no advice to give me, but since I never even attempted, we’ll never know. So now I know, should there ever be a next time, not to be so shy and retiring.

  • Laura Kinsale January 27, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    What tends to be overlooked (from all sides) is that publishing is a contractual agreement. A fairly one-sided one, for most authors, but the bottom line is, the time to get cover approval/consultation is during the contract negotiation. And the way to get it is to be ready and able to walk.

    Most authors aren’t ready to do that, and the publishers know it. Barry Eisler’s letter is just closing the barn door long after the horse has bolted.

    I don’t think it’s as difficult to get cover approval as some of the commenters on the DA thread suggested (altho probably impossible for a category line, obviously.) First thing you’d have to do is make it clear you want it UP FRONT, not after you’ve accepted the offer.

    This goes back to my old old article about what to do when the editor calls and makes an offer. DON”T ACCEPT. Write down the details and say you’ll call back.

    Then take the time to figure out what’s important to you and what your sticking points are. Talk this over with your agent, if you have one. The agent may or may not be on your side, which should tell you something, either about the agent or the sticking point. Then bring those points into the negotation BEFORE the contract is written.

    But even if you ask for cover approval, and don’t get it, and decide to not to walk, every author who knows enough to ask, and when to ask, helps make a little chip in the wall for the next time.

    I tend to think covers and titles might as well be voodoo, they are so unpredictable. I would object over something egregious about the cover, and I’ve certainly been disappointed in some covers I’ve had–but others like my Fabio ones, which I thought were a bit silly, really helped make my career.

    It’s like TV ads, some are hits, some are flops, there’s an art and a science to it. I sure don’t know what it is.

    • Jackie Barbosa January 27, 2010 at 6:25 pm

      Hi Laura. Thanks for dropping by!

      I agree with you 100% regarding contract negotiations. If an author is dead-set on having approval over packaging, then that’s something to be hammered out at the time the deal is being inked, not to be kvetched about afterward because things didn’t turn out to your liking.

      The same is true, to be honest, about the size of the advance. If an author feels what’s being offered by the publisher doesn’t provide her with fair compensation for the rights to her book and to allow her to take the role in promoting it that her publisher is expecting, then honestly, it’s the author’s job to either negotiate a larger sum or (gulp) walk away.

      Walking away from an offer of publication is something few authors (especially if they are just breaking into the market) are going to be willing to do, though, whether it’s over the size of the advance or veto power over packaging or what-have-you. The publisher has more cards than the author, to be frank, because they have many good books to choose from. Unless you’re lucky enough to have your book go to auction or be bought in a pre-empt, most authors want the publisher a LOT more than the publisher wants the author. And even in an auction or pre-empt, there are probably some things a publisher won’t concede, even if it means losing the book/author. It’s pretty hard for authors to know what those non-negotiables are or when to concede vs walk away.

      But yes, once the deal is ironed out and signed, it’s too late. Oh sure, you can bellyache all you want, but in the final analysis, it’s probably not going to do much good.l

  • Charles Frenzel February 22, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    I’ve read all too many books by new authors who picked their own titles using some mysterious algorithm that fails to relate in any way to the content, either factually or emotionally. It’s like the poet reading their own poetry–usually a very bad choice of reader.


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