Writing on the Ether | JaneFriedman.com

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From March 22, 2012
Part of my series of columns on pub­lish­ing, Writ­ing on the Ether, appear­ing Thurs­days at the invi­ta­tion of Jane Fried­man at JaneFriedman.com


Climbing the walls

No, I’m not talking about the pot delivery that court records are reported to indicate was headed for St. Martin’s Press (SMP) from San Diego.

And what timing.

I was just saying, here at Karen Wrighting on the Ether, that if anybody deserves to engineer themselves a little break these days, it has to be publishers. And boom. Here came The Smoking Gun with Feds Intercept Pot Shipments To Publishing House.

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I’m glad for the chuckle because all the news here in the EtherDome isn’t so fun. This stuff could drive anybody to the shipping room to watch for incoming express packages.

In fact, it’s a sadly traditional rift, the gulf between authors and the publishers who depend on them for the raw material of their business. But as with so many things in the industry, the digital dawn seems to be aggravating this strange estrangement. Insiders are starting to call into healthy question the scorn with which too many in the publishing core see their indispensable writers.

Take Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown in London. You know Geller. I Etherize a tweet or two from him every week here. His is a nimble wit and he’s a one well-placed agent, look at his list. So Geller goes into the TheBookseller site’s blogs with what he calls An Agent’s Manifesto, capturing the appreciation of a lot of his industry associates.

Geller writes:

It feels like a perfect storm is brewing; publishers battening down the hatches, retailers at war with one another, e-tailers deactivating “buy” buttons as if it’s a game of Call of Duty. One person has been forgotten in this unholy maelstrom: the author. Remember, we don’t have a job without him or her. For those of us still working in the legacy business of publishing books, here’s a reminder of the primary mover in this chain.

  • Geller goes on to call out publishing houses for their disregard of authors’ intimate understanding of their own material and publishers’ dismissal of authors’ concerns about “cover, blurb, copy or format.”
  • He chides publishing-core people who claim they bear the industry’s risks: “Authors risk only their whole life, self-esteem and their babies.”
  • He argues that “authors who are valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like an adult” can be expected to perform as prized, long-term colleagues.

Geller talks of hearing that agents are marked women and men, likely to be “‘disintermediated’ out of the picture.” I worry, myself, that agents are being squeezed out onto the crumbling ledges of publishing with nobody to catch them but half-cocked clients flushed with DIY sass.

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So impressed with Geller’s piece is author Roz Morris that she has followed up with an article of her own, Why do authors get treated so badly? — and then another, related one, Stand up for good self-publishers, at the Authors Electric blog site. What’s more, Morris’ first piece has spawned yet another, London Crockett’s Don’t blame publishers: you’re a commodity, resonant with sadness: “It’s not a world I want, but it’s the world I — and you — live in.”

With Geller, Morris can claim an inside view, in which, she writes, “I’ve commissioned, copy edited, proofread, passed for press, trained people – and run editorial departments.” And she comes out in full agreement with Geller, writing:

It is common, behind the scenes, to hear editors talk about authors with undisguised loathing – not just individual ones who may be difficult, but all of them, authors as a breed. There is a culture that authors must not be listened to.

That culture, that tone of perceived disdain I’ve mentioned here before, that’s what’s at issue. And it must always be said, of course there are exceptions. These unpleasant relations aren’t the entire story. But they’re a big part of it, or Geller and Morris and others wouldn’t be tackling them.

Precious few publishers respond when these painful, ugly factors are discussed. I was so pleased to have a tweet of support from Peter Ginna’s Bloomsbury Press, in response to my tip of the hat to Geller at the DBW Expert Publishing Blogs, Authors Among Us: The Problem Writ Larger. That takes nerve. I applaud it.

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It also takes guts for many an author, Geller’s “primary mover in this chain,” to step forward and write something in a comment, perhaps risking the anger of unseen, unheard, apparently unmoved publishing executives.

I plan to revisit this issue and these articles on Saturday (March 24) at Writer Unboxed — and I hope you’ll join us there. For now, I want to leave the topic somewhere near your conscience, and briefly excerpt some of the many comments you can read at Morris’ and Geller’s posts.

I’m sure there are plenty of editors out there in the Big 6 who treat their authors well and probably don’t get the mentions they deserve…It can be just as fraught with small presses. I got offered a contract from a very respectable small press, but the clauses were so restrictive…I spent 20 years in the trenches of traditional publishing where I was treated as an easily replaceable part…This is what bullying is all about. Not all publishers are necessarily bullies, but the dynamics of the situation and the business mandate of maximizing profit make it almost inevitable that they fall into that role…A future that will belong to the smaller, more nimble publishers, while the big monolithic houses will start to break up…Virtually everything about the industry screams contempt for the actual writers: take the term “slush pile” for example…It breaks my heart that the author is considered a puppet within publishing…traditional publishers who treat their authors with contempt deserve to find themselves without quality writers…As a journalist for 23 years it’s been my experience that the worst writers make the most annoying and narcissistic clients. Maybe it’s NOT always the publishers—but the writers’ “fault”?…It’s a pity more publishers can’t see authors as partners in a venture – we’re doing the early-stage risk investment, they’re putting in cash as enablers…Most books are lucky to break even, and that gives publishers the confident belief that they are doing authors a favour by taking a chance on their book…I seem to have been banging on for years about the need for writers to treat themselves as professionals rather than humble supplicants. If we don’t, nobody else will. But it’s good to hear an agent saying the same thing. Good for him.

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Click to read this week’s full Writ­ing on the Ether col­umn at JaneFriedman.com.

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