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A Sad Divide 13 December 2010

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.

I’ll start right out by saying that I’m not going to name names or link to blogs or anything like that, because I’m not pointing fingers here – this is more a general commentary on the state of things in the publishing world, as underlined by a few things I’ve read recently on various blogs and sources of publishing news.

What I want to know is, why are we fighting each other?

The whole publishing industry is in flux right now. No one knows how things are going to roll out down the road, though it’s pretty clear that publishers (and agents and editors and writers) who refuse to change with the times are going to get left behind. All of us are trying to feel our way forward in a maze of shifting technology and access points that connect the writer to the reader.

In a world where any self-styled “editor” with internet access can set up a “magazine” or a “publishing house” (and any self-styled “writer” with internet access can self-publish his or her books), we are right to be cautious and use common sense, but sadly I have noticed an us-against-them mentality that I don’t like to see. Naturally when a publishing house is caught in wrongdoing, it should be brought to light and the writing community needs to be warned, but too many agents and writers seem to take the attitude that publishers in general are evil and out to get the poor good-hearted writers who only want to make a living, while too many publishers seem to feel that writers in general are greedy and want to grasp all they can and leave the poor broke publishers struggling to make ends meet. It’s ridiculous – no one goes into publishing or writing to get rich, so we must be in the game for the love, right? And if it’s for the love, why hate half the players?

I’m not saying that anyone should literally do it only for the love, as in, for free; it stands to reason that writers want to be paid something, and that everyone who supports the writing field (agents, reviewers, editors, publishers, book designers, publicists, agents, printers, web monkeys, you name it…) would like to make the odd dollar too. It also stands to reason that readers would prefer to read for free or at least as cheaply as possible, but that’s a whole other story. I just don’t understand why any writer chooses to see all publishers as the bad guys, or anyone who works in publishing chooses to see all writers as the bad guys. I don’t doubt that there are bad guys on both sides, sometimes, but it doesn’t justify all the negative attitude I’ve been seeing, especially when single isolated incidents are translated into industry-wide generalizations, and assumptions are made and disseminated without fact-checking or personal experience.

Seriously, it would suck to be a small starting-out publisher who wakes up tomorrow to find that a rising-star author whom you’ve never even met has pinpointed your fledgling house as something so pathetic that one is better off self-publishing. It would suck to know that the “token advance” you scraped together to attract your first writer wasn’t seen as good enough, that the pricing and and royalty spreadsheet that you’d painstakingly worked out so you could be sure of breaking even was being mocked, and that your presumed lack of big-game experience made you unworthy of even taking a shot.

Seriously, it would suck to be a cutting-edge literary author whose bold choice to self-publish led only to a trainwreck . It would suck to have listened to internet advice about how books should be priced rather than paying attention to your own mathematics and common sense, leaving you literally losing money on every book sold, and to have believed that “real bookstores” don’t take print-on-demand books and so committed to a print run that produced boxes and boxes of books whose pages curled and whose cover colour wasn’t what you’d wanted.

Seriously, it would suck to be an old-school editor downsized from a big traditional publishing house in this economy, maybe without the technical skills to compete, maybe in an age group where employers start to look at you as a liability. Or a brand-new graduate with a Master’s degree in publishing, answering phones or slinging coffee because there are no (paid) job openings in your field.

Seriously. This game is hard enough for everyone. Let’s not hate, ‘kay?


1. Jordan - 13 December 2010

I don’t know. I think he has a point. I’m not sure it would have been a good idea for us to start a publishing house if we hadn’t had a way to promote our novels (the magazines), and a unique format (EDN).

Honestly, I think a publisher’s job is to add value to a book, and many of them just don’t do that at all, or only sell 20 or so copies, which any author could do themselves

Camille - 13 December 2010

Jordan, in general I agree with both you and the blogger/writer you’re (I think) referring to, though it would still hurt something awful to be that would-be publisher, and I wouldn’t like someone to do that to us (as could happen). I also think that not everyone has what it takes to make a success of self-publishing. It’s an excellent point to look at the numbers and consider self-publishing before you make a decision, just as it’s an excellent point to look carefully at any publishing house to be sure they are legitimate and can bring added value to your book. I’m just not sure that pointing fingers at a specific company or individual is helpful (unless they’ve actually done something shady).

Really, though, my only point is that the level of disdain and distrust seems to be growing between the different professionals in our industry (or maybe it’s always been there and I’m just less naive than I used to be). I’d like to see that turn around. I’d like to see more people in our field respect each other for what they’re trying to do, even if it’s out on a limb with a saw, because in the end we’re in a business of dreams and it all takes so much courage.

2. Jordan Lapp - 13 December 2010

the problem is that Swartwood’s right. Anyone can call themselves a publisher these days, and this publisher looks like they’re adding ZERO value. These people SHOULD be called out.

We DO add value in terms of how we can market and promote the book, in addition to the new format and technology behind us… so it’s far from the same thing.

I do think you should have linked to Robert’s blog though, to at least allow him into the conversation.

robert - 13 December 2010

I’m here! And I’m not saying this because I like you both, but if you guys continued with your publishing company, I think it would work, because you both know what you’re doing. You’ve done the magazine for three years now — which would basically be the driving vehicle for the publishing company: readers come to the site to read free flash fiction, see a link to new book published by you guys, purchase that book … and so on and so forth.

Camille - 13 December 2010

Didn’t want to get into naming names, but glad you found your way here anyway, and thanks!

3. robert - 13 December 2010

I’m guessing that this post is, in part, a response to my most recent one. I’d debated on whether or not to actually mention the publisher by name but figured since all that information was already right out there for anyone to see, why not. I don’t want to make it seem like I was attacking them (which, I guess, I was), but basically they were just an example of many other publishers out there. And it’s not necessarily their fault, either; they no doubt see that Publisher A and Publisher B are doing the same thing, so they think that’s the standard and do the same. But for some reason that has BECOME the standard because nobody really questions the business model. Too many writers are overly excited at the prospect of publishing something of their own that oftentimes they jump right in with both feet and don’t think of the longterm. This specific publisher claims to make their books available in Barnes & Noble and Walmart, which is ridiculous — Walmart, from what I can tell, doesn’t stock let alone make such POD books available at the their online store, and B&N … well, maybe the books would be available online, but actually on the shelves of the store? I don’t expect everyone to become rich from ventures like this, but at least make it fair for all parties involved. A 8% royalty on the paperback is somewhat standard, but that’s when the writer is already being paid an actual advance. With no advance, I’d think it only fair to bump that 8% up. Again, just so it’s fair for both the publisher and the writer, if that makes sense.

Camille - 13 December 2010

Hi Robert,

It’s actually something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, prompted by assorted things, including an agent’s blog that I read, the status updates of assorted writer and publisher friends on Facebook, and other randomness of that sort — I really do see an overall line being drawn between writers and publishers, and I wish I didn’t. It’s true that reading your blog post last night kicked me from mentally gritching to actually blogging about my concern (and for what it’s worth, your blog hits interesting subjects regularly and has prompted me to blog myself a couple of times now, plus I really do think you’re a rising star going places and your voice has influence).

I’m not disagreeing with you or Jordan about the dubious value of some publishers; it’s precisely the writing world’s assumption that no-value no-clue publishers are the small-press standard that worries me.

The fairness thing does make sense, but I know a bit about the numbers for POD books: if a nice trade paperback of, say, 316 pages retails for $15.95 and costs $5.01 to produce, that looks pretty good until you apply the distributor discount of 55%, at which point the publisher gets $2.17 – if the 8% royalty is on net, the author gets 17 cents, but if the 8% royalty is on retail, the publisher would owe the author $1.28 and keep only 89 cents. Either way, it doesn’t leave much to cover art and design work, book set-up costs ($75 on that paperback we were talking about, plus $30 for a proof copy, plus the distributor’s catalog fee, billed separately) editing and proofreading work, even a token marketing budget, a few ARCs/review copies, website maintenance, etc. Without knowing whether the publisher in question is offering the royalty on retail or net, it’s hard for me to comment on the fairness of the arrangement, especially without knowing what a “token” advance might be (some people might call $200 or even $500 a token amount).

I do appreciate that some writers aren’t always wise in the pursuit of publication, and it’s fair enough to post a warning that not all publishers can deliver real value. I’d just like to see that balanced occasionally with a positive small-press story to remind people that there are good guys out there on both sides of the publisher’s desk.

Jordan - 13 December 2010

It’s just that small publishers that do nothing really ARE the norm…. unfortunately. Low barrier to entry and all that.

Camille - 13 December 2010

P.S. I just clicked through to your blog, Robert, and saw the extremely positive story that I’d been wishing for. You completely anticipated me on that one – what a star!

Anyone who reads this… please go read Robert Swartwood’s blog post here http://www.robertswartwood.com/uncategorized/52-stitches-memorial-fund/ and then go buy 52 Stitches here http://www.amazon.com/52-Stitches-Horror-Stories-2/dp/098202665X/

robert - 14 December 2010

Yeah, I’ll admit I don’t know much in regards to the cost of printing and distributing PODs. I’m a little more knowledgable in terms of e-books, and I find it interesting that this particular press has decided to wait 6 months until they release the e-book edition — which I guess they’re doing so they don’t miss out on any print sales, but at the same time they’re shooting themselves in the foot because those are 6 months wasted where they could be earning money (even more money) through e-book sales.

Thanks for the kind words, and yeah, the thing about Jamie and his family is sad; wish there was more that could be done for the children.

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