In the greatly lamented and only partially mythic ‘Golden Era’ of publishing printing books was a gentlemen’s game. The publishing houses were primarily large and privately owned by individual gentlemen rather than omnivorous multi-national corporations. These companies were actually interested in books and belles lettres. They read things submitted by writers as well as by agents and when they found a writer they liked, they worked to build his career, finding them editors who understood their voice, dealing with bookstores for good placement and arranging publicity. They took care of all the mechanical necessities and even sometimes – if they really liked the writer’s work – gave him a second chance if the current release didn’t reach their projected sales. Paying an advance was standard practice. In those warmly-thought-of days, a writer’s job was writing.
Fast forward to today. Ah, how the business has changed. There are still a lot of different publishing line names on the spines of books, but most are controlled by the Big Five publishing houses, which just a short time ago was the Big Six. During the corporate feeding frenzy of the 80s nearly all the mid-sized independent publishing houses were absorbed – willingly or not – into the current monolithic, corporation-controlled houses, most of which go about selling books with the same techniques and artistic sensitivity as they use to sell widgets or shoes or hand tools.
It is difficult if not impossible to approach any of the large paper publishing houses without an agent. As they are now the ‘first readers’ and arguably the arbiters for what will be seen, too many agents have begun to regard themselves as the center of the industry… and placing their bottom line over the needs of the writer, the publisher and the reading public. In a devil’s bargain with agents, publishers have been making their contracts more and more friendly to their own bottom line and to further this end making them less and less comprehensible. The writer, without whom there would not be an industry at all, always seems to come at the bottom of the pile.
There are small and electronic publishers who do read unsolicited/unagented manuscripts, but in an alarming twist many of them are refusing even to look at a manuscript unless it is formatted to their own exacting specifications. Presumably this is so if they do contract the book, they can put it straight into production without having to bother with any typesetters or formatters. Since when did formatting become a writer’s responsibility? And most especially as a prerequisite for submission?
Also many publishing companies ask in their submission requirements “What platform do you have for publicity? What kind of a marketing plan do you intend to implement?” Apparently it’s not enough for the writer to have written the book, and formatted it, now they are expected to handle nearly all the publicity for it. This is a plan that benefits only the publisher, who does not have to spend money for publicity. Let the writer do it!
The logic for this is particularly flawed; not only does publicity take precious time that should be spent in writing the next book, but as most writers are not publicists, it also forces the writer to re-invent the wheel. How much more logical it would be for publishers – who take the lion’s share of the money anyway – to have a well-oiled publicity machine with contacts made and slots ready and waiting instead of having each writer individually either contact every outlet or pay big bucks for a publicist of their own.
There is a truism in publishing that ‘money flows to the author’ but in this current world it is becoming commonplace for an author to pay to have his manuscript edited before submission, where it will then be re-edited by the publishing house (or not!) upon acceptance. I must admit this leaves me speechless. Do writers think that sending in a pre-edited manuscript guarantees acceptance? Or are they such bad writers that they know without a pre-submission professional edit they would have no chance at all? Neither prospect is particularly alluring.
And all these responsibilities and all these expenses paid by the writer come at a time where advances are shrinking or are non-existent.
Some houses ask for a writer’s standardized input on the cover artwork, and with that it ends there for most. No matter if the cover is ugly, inaccurate or stupid, it stays that way because the marketing department says so. This, however, is a fading practice, especially with good small and electronic publishers.
To make things even worse, after the book is sold and the writer has waited out whatever time the publisher decrees proper, he receives a royalty statement of books sold. Most are near indecipherable, and short of an audit (for which the writer pays, of course) the writer must trust the publisher that the figures shown are accurate. May I amend that? If the writer is lucky he receives a royalty statement; there are several publishers who have to be badgered and kept after (which again steals away time which should be spent writing) to send a statement, a process which is not guaranteed to have any success.
Kind of makes one wonder why anyone would ever want to be part of a profession that depends on one kind of skilled artist to exist at all but treats those artists so badly. Of course, no one house does all of these things, but so many do enough of them that it does give one pause.
I would sincerely like to hear a publishing house representative give a cogent and logical explanation of why the writer, who creates the product and without whom there would be no publishing industry, is treated like a red-haired stepchild and always comes at the end of the line. And the money trail.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that publishing houses – especially the Big Five – profess amazement that so many writers are now beginning to self publish. If writers had received the kind of treatment – and the share of royalties – that they deserve, I wonder if self-publishing would ever have taken off.