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 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 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.
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.