Thursday, August 23, 2007

When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, Part One

I’m about to tell two stories that are, sadly, only too true. I tell them as a warning to all who think they really want to get into this crazy publishing business and as a reminder to those who are already here to always, always look a gift horse in the mouth—at least when the gift horse comes from a New York publishing house.

Our first story stars a writer we’ll call Annie. Annie is (or maybe we should say, was) an up and coming writer of historical romances. She’s a smart lady, having earned a PhD in an earlier incarnation, and she’s been at this writing business for enough years that she was starting to attract some serious attention. She wrote for a strong house with an enviable reputation for putting even mediocre romance writers on the Times. She hadn’t exactly “made it,” but things were definitely looking good. So what happened?

Well, an editor from a rival House That Shall Not Be Named heard Annie was up for contract and approached Annie’s agent with a wonderful offer. The HTSNBN would give Annie a three-book contract at twice the advance she was making from her previous house. Not only that, but they also promised the moon and the stars, in the form of co-op (if you don’t know, that’s the money publishers pay to get an author’s book displayed at the front of stores) and oodles of promotion. Flattered and flush with visions of her imminent success, Annie switched houses. So what happened?

The HTSNBN didn’t provide either the promotion or the co-op. Without these inducements, advance orders were thin. The print run for her first book with the HTSNBN was smaller than her print runs with her old publisher. There was no way this book was going to come even close to earning out its stellar advance. Frightened by the hemorrhaging red ink, the HTSNBN gave Annie’s second book an even smaller print run, and if the print run for her third book had been any smaller, it’d have been a negative number. At the end of her three-book contract, the HTSNBN dropped Annie. Annie now has no contract and “numbers” that are in the toilet. Through no fault of her own, her career is perilously close to being ruined.

Why did the HTSNBN do this to Annie? I don’t know. It’s just weird. After all, they approached her. They should have known that without the co-op and other promotional activities they’d promised, there was no way her books were going to earn out a high advance, yet somewhere along the line they made the decision to yank their support and simply throw her books out there to disappear into the ether.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, maybe she turned in books that weren’t as good as they expected.” But that isn’t it. The sad truth is that Annie’s story is unbelievably common. I’ve seen something similar happen to my sister (Penelope Williamson), to me, and to more writers than I could name. And it isn’t just the publishers you need to watch out for. You also need to be wary of bookstores. That’s right, bookstores.

But that's for Part Two…

8 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Depressing news. Although few jobs come with guarantees, it seems
that writing is more at the mercy of other people's bad decisions than most. And there is no fall back source, no government bailout to be had. The writer is on their own, in good times and in lean. But the worst feeling in the world is when you trust someone and they betray that trust, which is what happened to your friend.

Emily said...

If there are any writers of nonfiction reading this blog, let me point out that things aren't as crazy/unreliable with nonfiction.

That may be because in nonfiction, you get one contract per book, and there's no chance for publishers to waffle on the next book. Plus with nonfiction, you can control the publicity more through your own energy.

This may console those who write both fiction and nonfiction. I'm one of the 75% of Americans who've had just one novel published, and can't get a publisher to buy another one. (There are good companions in the One Novel Only Club: Margaret Mitchell, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee.)

In the meantime, though, I've published nine nonfiction books, and over 100 high-earning articles. So if you feel you can go either way, nonfiction may be for you.

It's definitely less crazy-making.

Emily Toth

Steve Malley said...

Thank you for that Cautionary Tale.

I can't wait for Part Two...

Lisa said...

This is one of many stories like this I've heard recently. I think it's important that people understand that this is not uncommon and I'm glad you're posting these.

Chap O'Keefe said...

The cliché is that this business is 2% inspiration, 49% perspiration (i.e. it's hard work) and 49% LUCK.

My latest book, Misfit Lil Fights Back, was published on July 31. By August 17 the print-run, short and calculated primarily to meet orders from libraries, had sold out completely. Look for this book at the publisher's website and you got a bald "NO SEARCH RESULTS", which seemed to imply it had never existed.

On August 15, it had been very favorably reviewed at the top-ranking Grumpy Old Bookman blogspot, alongside a review of a classic SF novel by the late Philip K. Dick.

My publisher says, "In one sense it is gratifying that the book has sold out so quickly but disappointing from another angle in that we cannot supply any orders at the moment."

He will look into ordering a reprint, but only if he gets a certain level of orders from trade customers, which seems unlikely with the title disappearing off the earth of his own website.

Publisher again: "Whilst announcing a title which is out of stock as temporarily unavailable on the website seems like a superficial answer to the problem our feeling is that it would cause more difficulties than it is worth and indeed our modus operandi is that
followed by other publishers."

In the publishing world, nothing fails like success.

Sphinx Ink said...

Fifteen years ago, in blissful ignorance I assumed that once a novelist's first book was published her/his career as a novelist was assured, and she/he need only keep turning in manuscripts thereafter. Stunning naivete!

I joined the local RWA chapter in 1993 and began meeting published authors. I quickly learned the publisher's bottom line drives reality. Kudos don't keep a business going unless they come with prize money. The financial honchos overrule the creative honchos. Even a brilliant writer can have a career fatally damaged by a few bits of ill luck and/or poor planning by the publisher.

cs harris said...

Good to hear your book was so well received, Chap, but how frustrating that the publisher didn't allow it to grow the way it obviously could have!

paul said...

Crushing news, but I'm unclear from your post as to how our victim in this story would have avoided harm by being generally wary. Where was the fatal mistake - in the contract, in the day-to-day interactions with the publisher? What would a "cunning plan" have been?