The Nameless Horror

Why I Hate Why Book Publishers Hate Authors

It seems so… unliterary. But publishing houses despise authors and are doing everything they can to make their lives miserable. Here’s why.

So begins Michael Levin in the HuffPo. Reading on, it seems what he meant was “how” rather than “why”; “why” they apparently despise us is never really touched on, unless it’s because publishers are fed up with whinging, self-obsessed authors failing to do what they’re supposed to.

I don’t want to point-by-point this piece, but it’s so very hard to tackle it any other way because so much of it is tripe.

Authors are admittedly a strange lot. There’s something antisocial about retreating from life for months or years at a time, to perform the solitary act of writing a book.

Not this sodding “tortured lone artist” horseshit again? No, you’re right, any time any of us decide to bang out a new book - sorry, I probably mean, ‘birth a story just fighting to get out’ - we all head off to the nearest monastery. Last time I finished one, I came home, bearded and gaunt, to find my wife had assumed I’d died and was remarried to a wet fish salesman from Plymouth. My children didn’t know me any more, and the culture shock induced by discovering that someone had made a third Transformers movie in my absence nearly killed me.

When we had our windows replaced last year, the fitter was here, on his own, for about six hours. Retreating into the solitary twilight of uPVC trim and crumbling old sash frames. Does no one think of his family, unable to reach him as he cuts and drills for hours at a time?

Honestly, what a load of balls. Yes, working from home does mean enforcing boundaries that don’t exist if you leave the house to do your job, but otherwise…

On top of that, authors are flaky. They promise to deliver a manuscript in April and it doesn’t come in until October. Or the following April. Or the April after that. This leaves publishers with several options, all of them bad: revise publishing schedules at the last minute; demand that authors turn in projects on time, regardless of quality; cancel books altogether; or sue the authors (as Penguin has begun to do) for undelivered or poor quality work.

Authors have a habit of ignoring contract terms? (For deadlines, quality and generally length are defined in the contracts you sign.) And this annoys the people paying them for their output? Well shit me.

While publishers might have a record for the occasional playing of fast and loose with a clause or two, firstly two wrongs don’t make a right, and secondly by and large the greater onus is usually on them to meet the terms in black and white. If - an unsubstantiated if - authors have been doing this so much, to an extent, in fact, that probably wouldn’t be accepted in any other line of work anywhere, is it really so unexpected that they’d be narked?

Authors are also prickly about their work. There are few jobs on the planet in which people are utterly free to ignore the guidance, or even mandates, from their bosses. Yet book authors are notoriously dismissive of their editors’ advice.

And that, as well.

The article then goes on to talk about the much-reduced means of the industry post-financial crash (though I’d argue that the post-Kindle, post-recession period has seen far greater changes), but rather than frame it as “here’s how publishers are hanging on by their fingernails, trying to survive - and keep their authors in business”, it’s “publishers hate authors”. Though they might with justification, because as the opening of the piece points out, authors are apparently all selfish, flighty dicks.

Now, while publishing’s business mechanisms - overblown advances, sale-or-return, etc. - and sluggish approach to change are both deserving to one extent or another of criticism, the fact that the people at the top of these companies work and have continued to work in such a ridiculously impractical industry would suggest that they hardly loathe the material they produce. At the front end, editors, in my experience, are uniformly massive fans.

It is entirely true that previous sales can kill your career as he suggests - I’ve said many times that one of the reasons for the name change when I switched to Headline was to hide sales data on my last few Penguin books (and if anyone should know how a publisher can royally cock-up an author’s career through no fault of their own, it’s me) from interested editors until they’d decided they liked what they were reading.

But then Levin goes totally batshit.

It’s completely unfair, but destroying the options of a writer actually has some benefits for publishers. Which leads me to think that maybe publishers are actually happy when authors fail.

As authors gains traction in the marketplace, their fees go up. They can charge a publisher more money for their next book. The problem is that there’s no guarantee that the next book will sell well enough to justify the higher advance the publisher had to pay the author. So if publishers can turn writing into a fungible commodity, they no longer have to worry about paying more, or potentially over-paying for a book.

If publishers can commoditize writing, they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable and unpredictable writers. They can lower their costs, they can guarantee that their schedules will be adhered to, and they can keep the trains running on time.

In other words:

Publishers would love it if their successful authors (the expensive ones, the ones who’ve sold well and gained market traction) failed, so they could be replaced by cheaper unknowns from the pool waiting to fill the gap. This is the perfect business model for survival. Because out-of-the-blue breakout hits from nowhere happen all the time and it’s not like best-selling authors are the only ones turning an actual, reliable profit for hard-up publishing companies.

Oh, wait.

Edit: Jason Pinter does a fine demolition job too on his blog here, including demolishing several factual assertions with the aid of numbers and information and other strange magics.