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Publishers Versus Authors?

Why Book Publishers Hate Authors by Michael Levin

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

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.

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 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.   When I was writing novels for Simon & Schuster back in the late 1980s, my editor, Bob Asahina, used to tell me, “You’re the only writer who ever lets me do my job.”

Also, annoyingly, writers expect to be paid.   Maybe not much, but something.   The Authors Guild produced a survey in the 1970s indicating that writers earned only slightly more, on an hourly basis, than did the fry cooks at McDonald’s.   Publishers were still responsible for paying advances to authors, hoping that the authors would turn in a publishable manuscript – which doesn’t happen all of the time.

So it’s understandable that publishers might feel churlish and uncharitable toward authors, on whom their entire publishing model depends.   But since the 2008 economic meltdown hit Publishers’ Row, the enmity has turned into outright warfare.

The three R’s of the publishing industry, the strategy for survival, quickly became, “Reduce royalties and returns.”   Returns are books that come back unsold from bookstores.   Printing fewer copies typically ensures fewer returns.   Reducing advances and royalties – money publishers pay writers – was the other main cost that publishers sought to slash.

And slash they did.   More and more publishers moved to a minimal or even zero advance business model.   They said to authors, “We’ll give you more of a back-end on the book, and we’ll promote the heck out of your book.   We’ll be partners.”   Some partners.   Zero advance combined with zero marketing to produce…  that’s right.   Zero sales.

And then who caught the blame for the book’s failure?   Not the publisher.   The author.

Today, any time an agent or acquisitions editor considers a manuscript or book proposal from an author, the first place they go is BookScan.com to get sales figures.   These numbers used to be proprietary to the house that had published the book; now they’re out in the open for all to see.   And if an author’s sales numbers are poor, no one thinks to blame the house for failing to market the book.   The author’s career is essentially over.   One and done.   Next contestant, please.

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

As authors gain 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 commodotize writing, they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable, and unpredictable writers.   They can lower the costs, they can guarantee that their schedules will be adhered to, and they can keep the trains running on time.   The problem is that they destroy the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book.   As the quality of books diminishes, book buyers are less likely to turn to books the next time they need to get information about a given topic.   They’ll go to Wikipedia, they’ll do a Google search, they’ll phone a friend.   But they won’t buy another book.

Publishers have begun to hate authors.   But seeking to squeeze out the individuality and admittedly the eccentricity of authors is just one more reason why book publishing as we know it is going over the cliff.

Book publishing process chart

New York Times best selling author and Shark Tank survivor Michael Levin runs www.BusinessGhost.com, and is a nationally acknowledged thought leader on the future of book publishing.

This opinion piece reflects the views of its author.   It does not represent the opinions or views of Joseph’s Reviews, and is presented in the spirit of fostering public discussion on key, important issues.

For more on this topic see the article, “Ten Ways to Save the Publishing Industry,” by Colin Robinson:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/12/ten-ways-to-save-publishing-industry

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The Grand Illusion

I very much love reading fiction, but there’s just one thing that bothers me when I do.   My mind starts spinning around fictional scenes and I begin wondering how much of what I see is not fictional but true; that is, based on actual events in the author’s life?   So, dear Reader, I think I may have developed a solution to this question of real versus fake via the development of a new ratings system.

Publishers, effective immediately, each novel is to carry a cover sticker that states, “This book is based __% on actual events.”   Yes, every fiction book is to carry an informational sticker that gives the prospective reader a number that represents the average amount of content derived from true happenings.   Or should it be the median?

The beginning of each chapter must also contain a similar statement, “Chapter 4 is based 62% on actual events in the author’s life.”   In addition, at the rear of the novel, a summary must detail which ” fictional” scenes were based on which real events in the life of the writer – let’s call her Suzie Smith.   As an example, “When the protagonist Liz Bordon crashes her Mini Cooper into the Goodwill drop-off box on her way home from a college party in 2011, this scene was based on the time that Ms. Smith crashed her Toyota Tercel into a U.S. postal service box on her way home from a fraternity-sorority mixer in Berkeley in 1987.”   See, in this way, we will be able to determine exactly how original and creative each author is, and we’ll also see how often they’re just writing down things that happened to them decades earlier.

This relates to the matter of why most successful novelists are past their twenties and early thirties…  Because one needs to live at least 35 or so years before one has enough big and interesting experiences in life to turn them into alleged fictional events.   If you think about this, it’s totally logical.   How would one be expected to make up things about situations one knows nothing about?   It would be like asking a middle school drop-out to write about life in graduate school at Harvard.   You’re not very likely to get a novel out of that.   But ask a Yale graduate school drop-out to write about graduate school life at Harvard and you might well have something.   (Note: A new federal law prohibits individuals from making up scenes about life at a rival’s campus.   If you went to Stanford, you cannot legally write fiction about being a Cal student.   Writers, this is a matter to talk to your legal counsel about.   Better safe than sorry.)

This is not something that I’ve studied scientifically, but my guess is that the range of fictional content in a novel is likely to be in the range of no more than 20 to 35 percent.   If this is true, then there’s bound to be a demand for additional consumer protection.   Federal regulations will surely come into play requiring a minimum of 51 percent fictional content in order for a story to be classified as fiction.   Anything less, and the book must be labeled as a pseudo-fictional work (Caution: This book is substantively based on things that happened in the writer’s life when he/she wore a younger person’s clothes.   You’re not getting much fiction for your money if you buy this one.)

See how helpful this will be?   And, yes, I can see what it’s going to mean in the long run…  Many of today’s novelists will be converted into new-born memoir writers, telling us about their past lives without covering them in the guise of fictional events.   The truth shall set them free!

If you think I have some good ideas here, then write your congressperson or U.S. senator today and urge them to adopt these essential reader protections.   Or better yet join my public interest group, the Association to Properly Brand So-Called Fictional Works.   Once my crusade has proven to be successful, I may write a novel about it.   Oh, make that a memoir.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured: The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister which was not based on actual events (read the synopsis and you’ll understand why).   BTW, this is not intended to be a serious essay – it’s a joke, folks.  Thank you.

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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