Bashing the publishing industry has become a pastime, it seems. I lurk on or receive copies of various listservs and newsgroups, and I'm often horrorstruck at the number of people who exert huge amounts of energy in dissing our business. The complaints seem to fall into several categories:
*We only want to publish books by people who are already established.
*We don't "support" the books we publish.
*We "drop" mid-list authors whose books don't sell.
*We put our money behind the "wrong" books.
I'm going to take each of these criticisms in order--and provide some info about the mystery publishing BUSINESS in the process. But before I do, please note the all-caps treatment of BUSINESS. Perhaps a lesson in capitalism is in order here. Businesses that make a profit stay in business; businesses that do not make a profit shut their doors. If you want publishers that stay around for a long time, you want them to make money. That means making enough not only to pay their editors and their costs, but also to have a little left over for the stockholders (or, in the case of smaller presses, their owners).
*WE ONLY WANT TO PUBLISH BOOKS BY AUTHORS WHO ARE ALREADY ESTABLISHED. That's not true. It's not what we WANT to do--it's what we are often FORCED to do to keep that pesky revenue stream coming in. What so many intelligent people stubbornly refuse to realize is that it's the revenue from writers like Mary Higgins Clark and Patricia Cornwell that give publishers the ability to take chances with unknown or up-and-coming writers. So please stop writing bitchy reviews on newsgroups and listservs about their books, implying not-so-subtly that you can do better. Without them, you wouldn't have a prayer of even having your manuscript considered.
Here's a hypothetical example that might give you a sense of the financial constraints that we editors face. Let's say you have a book that's going to sell for $10. Your distributor takes 55% of that, which leaves you with $4.50 revenue per book. Now let's say this mystery novel by a first-time writer sells 2,000 copies (a generous estimate, because most first novels sell 1,000 copies). That leaves you with revenue of $9,000. Deduct royalties, the cost of typesetting, the cost of printing/binding (let's say $2.00 per book), the cost of cover design, and the cost of sending out ARCs (advance readers' copies)...and how much do you have left? Not very much AT ALL. So tell me, please, how editors like me are supposed to have our salaries paid and put our kids through college? And what about the designers, production/traffic people, administrative staff, and other hard-working publishing types whose salaries are often lower than those of New York City waiters and bartenders?
So, please don't complain that we're looking for books that we can sell - or that people will buy. I'll talk in a later post about how subjective editors' tastes are, but please stop complaining about the books we sign. A lot of good books never make it to print--and if you go into any Barnes & Noble in America, you should be able to understand why. The competition is INTENSE, and most books barely cover their costs. It's a crap shoot. If you're going to be in this game, you need to understand that, and you must NEVER (I repeat, NEVER) think that you are going to replace your current salary with income from writing.
*"WE DON'T SUPPORT THE BOOKS WE PUBLISH." OK, think about this. I work for a small press right now, but at the larger houses, most of the senior staff is bonused on how well their books do. That means that we are motivated to support each and every title we publish. We don't sign and publish books unless we like them and want them to succeed.
A lot of writers think that "supporting" a book means spending money on advertising and "author tours." ADVERTISING DOES NOT WORK to break a new author, though it can be helpful in getting word out about a well-known writer's new book. In 99 out of 100 cases, the cost of advertising does not even cover the number of additional copies sold. And "author tours," while gratifying to the ego, are equally losing propositions. Have you checked out the price of airline tickets, hotel rooms, and ground transporation lately? Please tell me how I'm going to spend $10,000 on a three-city tour and recover my costs. To cover that $10,000, I need to sell 2,222 copies of a NEW book (not through eBay, not through Amazon marketplace, not through Booksfree.com)--and I can guarantee you that there's no way that is going to happen. So please stop bitching that I won't send you out on "tour" with your fountain pen to sign copies in specialty bookstores across America that might generate an audience of 25 people for you.
*"WE DROP MID-LIST AUTHORS WHOSE BOOKS DON'T SELL." Yes, we do. We're often sad to see friends and people we really like fall off our lists. But do YOU take in and support all your poor friends and relatives? We live in a society where decisions are made based on how successful you are. The sad fact is that most writers don't find a loyal, steady audience. You had your shot, which is more than millions of other aspiring novelists can say. Now please stop expecting us to support your avocation because YOU want to write for a living. These days, fiction writing should be considered a HOBBY that occasionally, once in a blue moon, brings in some revenue for you. And if we keep publishing your books, even though they never sell more than X copies, that means some other writer isn't getting his or her chance. And most editors have taken this job because we like finding new writers and giving them a chance. It's not fair for you to expect that once you've been published, your publisher will rush everything you write forever more into print.
* "WE PUT OUR MONEY BEHIND THE WRONG BOOKS." Please see above. The sad truth is that a book by Paris Hilton is going to sell approximately 10,000 times more than yours, because people know who she is, and they don't know you from a hole in the ground. This is no reflection on the work--it's a reflection on American society. But it's the truth, and denying it won't do us any good.
If you want the chance of making huge amounts of money through your artistic endeavors, you stand a better chance on American Idol.
Next time--more on the business, and the pastime of "publisher bashing."