Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Publishers Are Not the Enemy

Then again, they’re not your friend, either.

Last week, Bookshelves of Doom alerted me to the fact that Simon & Schuster is discontinuing Richard Yancey’s Monstrumologist series, the news of which you might be expected to react with “Who? What?”

My background. Until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of Richard Yancey. I was looking for some good YA horror because I’m trying to add a certain level of creepy to Manuscript #2 and I wanted to see how others had done it. Gretchen over at Librarified sent me a list of possible titles (thanks!), Yancey’s was the novel I chose. I wasn’t blown away the way that many fans are (my review here), but it’s a good read and it’s very well told. It’s critically regarded. Here is Yancey’s tweet.

To which I ask, who the fuck cares about merit? Okay, you might. I do. Rick Yancey apparently does. Award committees do. Let me rephrase. Who cares what we think?

Publishers aren’t the gatekeepers for quality, and agents aren’t either. Publishers are in the business of selling books, whether those are paper or downloadable bits of electrons. Agents get paid commissions for selling titles to publishers. Their love might be in quality, but their interest is in sales.

I think I’ve seen a movie or eight that has that tension at its core, usually phrased as ART versus COMMERCE.

Jeff Sharlet, a writer I met at the Blue Mountain Center in 2008, is trying to start a #buyindie hashtag for Twitter. Do we want to support independent (i.e. local) booksellers? In principle, yes, but after an exchange regarding un-agented authors love of e-publishing and distribution systems like Amazon’s, he agreed that many indie bookstores are more conservative in their approach to sales than some chains. What a good indie bookstore has to offer is a personal touch – a first hand knowledge of the good, the bad, and the ugly in a particular section of the store. Like sci fi with good attention to alien culture? Let me show you the CJ Cherryh books we’ve got. U.S. politics from someone who’s not a pundit or an ideologue from one of the two predominant camps? Yes, we carry Mr. Sharlet’s books.

Publishers? Publishers don’t care how you sell books. They just want you to sell’em and send’em their cut.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish that S&S were still going to be carrying Yancey’s novels, but they’ve got a bottom line to consider in an industry that’s really quaking right now (remember all that hoopla that Napster put the music biz through in the 90s? Yeah, publishing is finally catching up. Curse the intertubz!). Plus which, bottom lines these days (and for decades?) don’t seem to be about not losing money. The way I hear financial news reported, it sounds to me that if a company isn’t making more of a profit than it did last year, it’s considered to be operating at a loss. In other words, your goalposts are constantly moving away from you and you must grow infinitely every year. The more the better.

I’m no math wiz, but that just sounds stupid.

I’m also not saying that I’m definitely self-publishing my manuscripts. We all make business decisions. Yancey entered into a contract with S&S. They cancelled the contract. That sucks and I think YA lit will be poorer off without more of Yancey’s words in them. At the same time, it’s a deal either of them could have walked away from.

Writers, apparently, are like actors. Everyone thinks they can be one. There are a lot more of us (writers) than there are of them (publishers). Is it any wonder they scorn the beggars at the gates? ‘Cause that’s how I feel we come across.

I hope Yancey keeps writing. I hope he keeps making money from the Monstrumologist and that he pays off his mortgage with it. I don’t wish S&S ill, but their behavior sure shines a bright light on the cattle that they must imagine authors to be. It’s not that you’re not making us money. You’re just not making us enough money.

It’s nice to know how one is regarded. You know. In the grand scheme of things.

Thanks, “Friend.”


2 responses

  1. Mia Gallagher

    great post, Kurt. There is a big ongoing debate around self-publishing & i think it gets mired in issues of sef-worth (ie writers’ self-worth) as opposed to business/commercial issues. See JK Rowlings’ move being heralded as a triumph for e/self-publishing when really it’s a clever business decision as she gets more control & ownership of her market, having already set herself up as a brand via traditional publishing routes.

    August 15, 2011 at 11:16 am

    • David Gaughran (one of your fellow citizens) likes to point out that the self-pubbing phenoms that have returned to the “traditional” pub fold (Amanda Hocking, JA Konrath, and he adds a bit in for JKR) have done so when the power relationships were at least equalized. Unlike the rest of us, they’re not approaching the gates, caps in hand. When Rowling first sold Harry Potter, people weren’t even talking about digital rights – the result of which is Pottermore, and all of those publishers knocking at her door, hoping for a piece of the pie. More power to’em (the writers, that is).

      August 15, 2011 at 11:21 am

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