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.