Publishers Hate Authors? Really?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Without a doubt, the silliest publishing-related article I read this week was this one: “Why Book Publishers Hate Authors” by Michael Levin. (Although this one, which argues that e-reading isn’t really reading, runs a close second.)

Levin’s article is exactly what its title suggests: a screed on how, no matter how things might seem to the hopeful author or the uninformed observer, publishers just really despise authors. I mean, REALLY despise them. Why? Well, according to Levin, authors are flaky. They’re anti-social. They miss deadlines. They ignore their editors’ advice. On top of that–gasp–they expect to be paid! Some of them expect to be paid a lot! And publishers HATE that!

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.

This deadly conflict is “destroying the options of a writer,” as well as “the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book.” Publishers are striving, by various nefarious (and undisclosed by Levin) means, to “commoditize writing” in order to “keep the trains running on time” (i.e., protect their profit margins). It’s all a diabolical plot–“maybe,” muses Levin, “publishers are actually happy when authors fail”–and just one more reason why “book publishing as we know it is going over the cliff.”

Gosh! Maybe the US Justice Department should get involved!

Some of what Levin says is true. Returns are a problem, and publishers have curbed print runs to address this (though print run deflation long pre-dates the 2008 economic meltdown, which Levin blames for much of the publisher evil he describes). Bloated advances–while the exception–are a problem. And if you’re an author with lackluster sales, BookScan numbers are indeed something you drag around with you like Marley’s chains, and can affect your ability to sell subsequent books. Writing under a new name may fool readers and booksellers–but publishers always know who you are.

But does all of this (and don’t forget that famous author flakiness) really turn publishers into haters? Does it really drive them to wage covert warfare on the content suppliers that keep them in business? Does it–as Levin explicitly claims–actually benefit publishers to destroy writers’ options and careers? Levin’s case might be more compelling if he supported it with real evidence or reasoned argument. But he doesn’t. Instead, all he offers is a tautology. Authors are flaky and bad things are happening in publishing. Publishers must hate authors. How do we know? Because authors are flaky and bad things are happening in publishing.

Levin makes some other dubious assertions. Publishers are not, as he claims, moving en masse to “a minimal or even zero advance business model.” Publishers don’t do “zero marketing”–what, does Levin think they want to lose money? How does this fit with his claim that they’re doing all this anti-author stuff in order to protect their profit margins?

Levin also says that publishers are striving to “turn writing into a fungible commodity…[so] they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable and unpredictable writers.” He neglects, however, to provide any examples of how this is occurring or what form it’s taking (not surprising, for such a vague and sweeping claim). And then he invokes this doomsday scenario:

The problem is that [publishers] 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.

Yes, it’s the “death of books” meme. (There ought to be some kind of corollary to Godwin’s Law for bringing this up in a discussion of publishing.) At which point you just have to shake your head. Plus, Levin appears here to be talking about nonfiction–since readers don’t generally turn to fiction to “get information about a given topic.” Is he really extrapolating from an opinion about nonfiction to all books everywhere?

Look, the book business is tough. There’s an inherently adversarial aspect to the author-publisher relationship, often expressed in contract negotiations. Authors frequently find themselves at the bottom of the food chain, and must struggle to survive and to thrive. Good books fall through the cracks; things go wrong and writers get screwed (we’ve all heard the horror stories). Not only that–we’re in the midst of cataclysmic change.

But publishers don’t “hate” authors, and they’re not engaging in any shadowy conspiracies to destroy their careers or their creativity. It’s absurd to suggest otherwise–not only because it makes no logical or economic sense, but because companies don’t have emotions. People have emotions. And if you’ve ever worked with people in the book business, you’ll know how many of them truly love books and writing–and writers, flaky though they be.

But if publishers don’t hate authors, authors sure do hate publishers. Whether from angry rejected writers who want to blame anyone but themselves, or self-publishing evangelists eager to dance on traditional publishing’s grave, the chorus of publisher-hating is getting louder every day. That’s the real message of Levin’s bitter screed (though I’m sure he didn’t intend it that way). Sadly, it will fall on receptive ears.

7 Responses

  1. Morgan Alreth

    I self publish my little stories on Smashwords and Amazon, such as they are, so I am ill equipped to offer an opinion about how the fiction end of the publishing business treats authors. But I was a technical/non-fiction writer for well over twenty years before wading into fiction, and to me Levin’s article sounds like petulant whining.

    During my career, I never saw a time when deadlines were not critically important. There’s a reason they are called “dead”lines. If someone signs a contract to deliver a product by a certain date, then fails to deliver that product, the other party to the contract has a justifiable right to bitch about it. At minimum.

    Non-fiction is different than fiction writing. When I’m trying to put together a fiction story, sometimes I just stall out for a while. But there is never any excuse for stopping when you are dealing with non-fiction. If you are writing about existing facts, it means that oyu are either descibing something or expressing an opinion about something. Or both. In either case, it’s not the kind fo thinking that requires a person to go off on some mountaintop and meditate.

    Speaking of which, nobody said a writer has to be a hermit either. What color is the sky in this guy’s world?

    And advances? Say what? What are these “advances” you speak of?

  2. --E

    Well, I hate some of the authors I’ve had to work with, but then I’ve also hated some of the editors or sales people I’ve worked with over the years. (I’m in Production, currently head of Editing, Design, and Production at an academic press.)

    What I don’t hate is authors as a class. I love authors who turn in manuscripts that are reasonably clean; authors who can make their deadlines or at least warn you if they’re going to blow one; authors who view the publisher’s staff as professionals who are trying to make the book as great as possible.

    (Authors who send food-treats at Christmas are extra loveable.)

    At my end, the quality of the writing or the story or the subject is irrelevant (except insofar as it might direct us to choose one freelance copyeditor over another). My department’s job is to take whatever we are given and make it the very best it can be. We start out with our enthusiasm on “high” by default. Every book is a new challenge, a new subject, a new design, a new opportunity to stretch skills.

    The only thing that can kill that enthusiasm is the author being an entitled jerk and not respecting that everyone is working their tails off for him or her.