Thoughts on an Open Letter and its Responses

November 23, 2011 Articles and OpinionsPublishing

A few days ago an open letter from a writer to their publisher set Twitter on fire. Author Sebastian Marshall wrote to Carolyn Reidy the CEO of Simon and Schuster, his publisher, about what he thought was wrong with publishing.

While I am not touching the actual argument between the author and their publisher, some of it highlights legitimate issues about the whole traditional publishing industry, or at least the mainstream big-business part of it.

Liar old and new covers:

Cover art? It is very rare for an author to get a say in their cover art. This is why we get issues of white-washing, like the furor over Liar or Magic Under Glass, both of whose authors were overriden until reader backlash caused a change of cover. In the Liar example, Justine Larbalestier, who is an established author, chronicles exactly how much say an author has, and it isn’t much. There are several examples of her prefered covers being dropped because “they wouldn’t sell”.

Another problem the letter mentions is “under-equipped” editors, but the truth may be closer to “extremely overworked”. I know several editors who have been laid off, and those who remain are simply expected to pick up the extra work so the release schedule doesn’t slip. Asking four or five people to do the work of eight to twelve will always result in a quality slip.

However, judging by a couple of ebooks recently released (e.g. the ebook version of Snuff), there is a sad lack of proof readers and copy checkers. Even in print books from large houses, I can now expect to find typos where a few years ago I would not. In my collection of vintage pulps and sci-fi, produced quickly and cheaply in the forties and fifties for a bulk market, such mistakes are very rare. Something has changed somewhere in the production process, and not for the better.

Conservative? Having seen the ebook contracts for some of my fellow writers and the way large publishing houses are handling them, I’d probably have to agree. There is a distinct view that it is about the book, sometimes for a very narrow definition of book, instead of the product. In the twentieth-first century the product is no longer one paperback book, it’s that one piece of writing, whether supplied in print, Kindle, Nook, webpage, video app, podcast etc. Focusing on one platform doesn’t work anymore, it is all about putting the content in front of the user and getting paid for providing it.

No good collaboration between departments? I’m not sure that’s a specific publishing problem or more of a big company problem. Once corporations get to a certain size, it is very easy to become insular as teams form their own sub cultures inside the organisation. A classic example from another industry and my own experience was having a celebration after an achievement. I took my team (including designers, testers, editors) to lunch after a few weeks of very hard work where we all pitched in, but I was told off by the department head afterwards. “I thought you’d take the other managers,” he said. “Your peers.”

For real irony, the reason I’d got the project in and the other managers hadn’t? Because I was prepared to walk up two floors and talk to the team working on it. This sort of divided “us and them” thinking can damage any company because the focus is placed on outdoing the internal competition, instead of the external one. In the worst cases it can lead to one team sabotaging another’s projects to the detriment of the company as a whole.

So what can publishers do about it? Understand that just like any business, they exist in a changing world and follow the same basic rules: Adapt or die (Ivey Business Journal).

Some days have passed since the publication of the letter, so you may wonder why I am writing about it now. With time for it to spread, the reaction from publishers has been predictable, but so has that from many authors. A sentiment I keep seeing is:

“Pay me £65K and I’ll do whatever they want!”

No. I can’t stress this enough. Absolutely not. No matter how much the amount is or how tempted you are, you read the contract, you get an agent and/or attorney and you review the terms. That 65K could cost you 15% for the lifetimes of your grandchildren, or ban you from writing anything else until the book series is complete.

Publishing is no different to any other business and, no matter how friendly or reputable the company, they will always be looking out for themselves first. Always read the fine print.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes about dealbreakers and the publishing industry here, in two posts that I believe should be required reading for any author starting out: Part 1 and Part 2.