Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Mad Max Survey, Vol IV: They Lied

After two books at a midsize house established suspense novelist RICHARD as “one to watch” (relatively modest advances, and a high success-to-expectations ratio), a bigger house came calling. He’d been pleased with the efforts of Publisher #1—when the publicist he’d hired (at his own expense) got some traction, they responded nimbly to the opportunities by increasing distribution and extending (substantially) the co-op spend. Both books earned out their advances, and there was good feeling on both sides.

But Richard’s editor left, and other changes were anticipated as well. Publisher #2 came forward with a larger offer (a two-book deal) and a promise to position Richard’s third book as its lead title—major promotional support whose stated goal wasn’t just to break Richard out but to establish him as a brand-name author and get him “on the lists.” Given the change underway at his original publisher, the move to Publisher #2 seemed a no-brainer.

As it turned out, it nearly ruined his career.

Six months after the deal was struck, my new publisher signed an established bestseller for a huge sum of money. You think: this can’t possibly have an impact on my situation, since the publisher’s goals for me are the same now as they were when they signed me. You tell yourself—thinking like a business person (how naïve…)—that they really do have to keep at least one eye toward the future; and so while a big-name author helps them in the short run, and perhaps even raises the visibility of the imprint for the good of the rest of us, in the long-term they understand that if my career takes off, there’s an even greater upside for them. And if not me, then another writer at my level: point is, surely they understand that they’ve got to continually restock the pond, make sure they’ve got fresh brands on the rise as the old ones lose steam. They do, right?

They do not. The arrival of the big name changed completely how they viewed me, and apparently made it OK for them to bail out on all of their promises to promote me and my books. The marketing budget, the tour, the co-op—all out the window. From Book 2 (Publisher #1) to Book 3 (Publisher #2), my sales dropped 60%. And this for a book (which was finished when they bought it--in other words, they knew exactly what they were getting) that everyone agrees, even today, is the best I've written.

The worst part of it is that I had no clue about any of this—about their change in attitude, or priorities—until the die was cast. I don’t know what we’d have been able to do if they’d been honest with us, or that the additional efforts (and money) I might have expended in the service of doing the publisher’s job would have stopped the bleeding entirely; but I’m certain I could have had an impact, because I’d done some of that with Publisher #1, to good effect.

But the promises that convinced me to move publishers in the first place had been so emphatic that there seemed to be no doubt about their vision both of what my future might hold and what they’d need to do to get me there. So I stupidly buried the paranoia and doubt that any sensible author has about such promises, and trusted “the plan” without having any sense—until it was far too late—that they’d effectively pulled the plug on my budget (and those of others too) so as to shift that budgetary pool to their new, already-established bestseller.

Yes, of course: in hindsight I wish I’d stayed w/ Publisher #1, despite the departure of my editor. But there’s no lesson to be drawn from that, really, because you never know how things will turn out. The bigger mistake, the one I beat myself up over, was taking for granted that anything my publisher promised would come to pass without endless vigilance on my part.

That’s the lesson I draw from this: that as a writer, it’s my responsibility (I mean mine and my agent’s, jointly) to make sure the details are being attended to. To know what the right questions are, and to never underestimate how early I should be asking them, nor how persistently. I’m not saying that you should anticipate having an antagonistic relationship with the publisher per se. But approach the endeavor with a clear-eyed professionalism, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and require answers to those questions—make it clear through your demeanor and responsiveness A) that you’re not going to give them a reason to go anything but all-out; and B) that they’re not going to be able to bullshit you.

Which doesn’t mean they won’t. Nor does it mean, of course, that one’s success is guaranteed—obviously the odds are always against us, even under the best circumstances, we all know that. But the bottom line is, I also know, now, that I’ve got to work every bit as hard at all facets of the publishing process—including marketing myself—as I do on the writing itself. I hate doing it—but I can’t risk the possibility that somebody else might not come through. And so I don’t.


Anonymous said...

What a painful situation for an author. But what if author owned a publishing company? A group of Swedish authors formed an upstart company called Pirate and is doing very well on its fifth birthday. Its authors are doing well too, with a 50-50 split and a publisher that takes marketing seriously. Translated excerpts from a Swedish article about Pirate is at http://www.branscum.net/stuffola (scroll down).

Tracy Sharp - Author of the Leah Ryan Series said...

Wow. This is really enlightening, eye-opening stuff.

Anonymous said...

What a powerful lesson! I hope that other authors learn from it, so they don't go through the same pain. (I know it's too much to hope that publishers will learn not to lie.)

I'm going to share this story--with attribution, of course--in my Book Promotion 101 workshops and an interview I'm giving on May 4 on SF Bay area radio station KJFC.

In response to Bill Peschel's comments, from what I've heard, publishers are loath to commit promises to paper. Even when they do commit and such promises are broken, it's very difficult to get them to (1) admit the transgression, and/or (2) make amends, especially if the author isn't a hot commodity. And agents are sometimes loath to go to the mat because they don't want to jeopardize their relationship with the publisher.

Anonymous said...

Geez. What an eye-opener.

What exactly DOES go into a contract these days? It seems as though authors and agents need to demand more out of their contracts, or this kind of stuff will keep happening.

Kudos to Max for giving us this forum.

Anonymous said...

No one at HarperCollins paid any attention to the contract until it came time to pay royalties. Most of what I expected based on the contract never materialized, and I recieved much more than I hoped with endpapers, cover approval, etc. It was all down to my relationship with the editor. (who inherited the book, by the way)

It's so true, thinking like a business person won't usually get you very far dealing with people in the book business. Maybe authors have higher expectations of what it means to think like a business person.

Ultimately, I totally agree with the calculus here -- everything happens as a result of your constant button-pushing, lever-pulling, question-asking, and repeating all of the above. The only part I found impossible was reaching out to stores through the sales force. That just wasn't happening.

Great survey results, keep them coming!

Anonymous said...

Yes, the sales forces—who are these important people and where to do they live? My first book, which I wrote with the founder of Dunkin’ Donuts, was originally titled, IT’S WORTH THE TRIP. The publisher wasn’t convinced this was the best title and suggested TIME TO MAKE THE DONUTS. When he presented this change to the sales force, the sales people heartily agreed—overwhelmingly so. In fact, (according to my publisher) the sales folks believed they would sell twice as many copies with the new title. So, no regrets here, we changed the title. But I still never grasped who these sales people were, though, clearly, they were and are important to our books.

Recently I came across the backstory of debut novelist, Philip Beard, whose novel, DEAR ZOE, was on its way to POD land. He had amassed a collection of 27 rejections from NY publishers. In an act of serendipity or synergy or G-d, Beard’s friend, a Pittsburgh bookstore owner, suggested Beard give the manuscript to a Penguin sales rep he knew. The book had already been rejected by most of the Penguin Imprints but the sales rep fell in love with Beard’s manuscript and passed it on to the president of Viking. DEAR ZOE, which came out with Viking in April, is a Booksense and Boarders “Original Voices” pick. Now that’s amazing.

So who are these sales people? How do they go about their jobs? Do they live on the road? Do they check into their offices once a month? I’d like to send these people a thank you note when my time comes around again and I’d really like to understand how they fit into the publishing dream.

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating thread. I can think of so many novelists I know or have heard of who have dealt with what Richard and Keith have had to face.

On the other hand, they're in the game.

Staying in the game is about writing the novels, stepping up to the plate, and taking your swings, knowing that it's tough to get on the team, and it's tough to stay there.

Many writers would love to trade places with them, despite the very real disappointments and cold water of publishing.

To me, it's always about just getting back to writing the book. Writing fiction saves me everytime, and I have to believe that the publishers I work with are working toward the same goal as I am: to attract readers to the book, to increase the visibility of my novels in bookstores, and to make sure the novel is exactly where it needs to be before it's released into the wild.

Every industry has a game to it -- if you're lucky enough to stay in that game, and do what you love to do, I think there's an obligation to face the reality of it and just do what you know is the right thing -- and best thing -- to do:

Write the fiction, build relationships in the publishing company based on realistic expectations, get to know the people who sell your books, and know that some things are beyond the control of those who have promised it (this happens in every industry from time to time).

Not much balm for Richard or Keith, I know, but they're lucky, though they don't realize it: it's the novel, the novel, the novel.

The business is its own ballpark; the writing of the novel is ours.

TLG said...

lol cuz, y'know, I haven't had my daily dose of soul-crushing reality.

But agreed--how painful. I really don't have the spine for this industry.

Anonymous said...

It's so true, thinking like a business person won't usually get you very far dealing with people in the book business. Maybe authors have higher expectations of what it means to think like a business person.

--that's what amazes me about this business. You'd think they have some common sense, but sometimes it seems it is run by gamblers. Or amateurs.

TLG said...

Naw, that's something I've seen in the so-called real world. Bad management techniques abound. They cut corners here and there, or are crappy to people as a general policy for immediate gains, and don't see the long term effects of these "band-aid" decisions that they're making. There's a book title for ya... "Why Crappy Managers Suck." he. he.

Anonymous said...

A few comments above asked about contracts. My experience (from my own 2 books, and from talking with many others) is that publishers in general are loathe to put much of anything into writing. You may get assurances of various plans, but those assurances are verbal (and, to be fair, again in my experience, always prefaced with a "no promises" caveat).

Especially in the midlist where most of us live, a publisher may not have a full plan until mere months before release. Blurbs gathered, reactions to galleys from booksellers, what else is going on in the marketplace, and (like with Richard) what else is going on internally -- these things can change everything, for the positive or the negative. A publisher who has not signed any promises into contract is able to sway with the breeze much more, and most contracts are designed that way. You've got to be very rare bird to stipulate things in your contract. And even then they may not honor promises.

I've had large positives (great editor, great publicist, etc.) and a few negatives under this system, but in the end it doesn't much matter: the system is what it is, the publishers hold the cards, and the key is to know how the machine operates and do everything in your (author, agent) power to facilitate a happy ride on the machine. In the end, though, you should know that a publishing house moves under a wind that often seems very different than the author's reality. Knowing that is half the battle.

Anonymous said...

so do I need a J.D. and an MBA now just to get published and not get screwed?

A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."