Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Shhh! Don't talk about that!

Sandra Parshall

The publicity, complete with dollar figures, that greets deals by Big Name Writers might make you think publishing is a business where money is openly discussed. Not so. The book business is so secretive that many authors with major publishers have no idea how their advances and income compare to those of others with the same imprint.

Below the stratosphere inhabited by such luminaries as Grisham, Patterson, and Cornwell, ordinary writers dwell in a far different world where mum’s the word. Publishers don’t want their writers comparing notes about money. Experienced authors warn newcomers that they must never reveal details of their contracts and incomes. Or their print runs, for that matter. The reasoning is that this could cause jealousy and complaints. Writers who feel slighted might start demanding more of everything, and that would annoy publishers, something none of us wants to do. It’s best to treat such professional information as a taboo topic.

Writers comply because we tend to be insecure by nature, many of us have struggled for years to break into print, and midlist writers (and lower) are valued so little that they never feel safe. I know a lot of writers who are so afraid of inadvertently offending their editors that they wouldn’t dream of picking up the phone and calling them for any reason. (She doesn’t like being called. I might interrupt something important! And we’ve heard dark tales of writers having their contracts dropped because they phoned their editors too often.) I also know people who are afraid to call their agents. They’ll send polite e-mails and wait days or weeks for a reply rather than risk being branded a pest for telephoning even once.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that most writers accept without question the injunction against sharing professional information, especially about money, with other authors. You’d think the internet would have changed all that, but no. We seem as alone and puzzled as we ever were, afraid to ask questions, not knowing who to trust. So it’s a revelation – a shock – when any published writer offers reliable facts and figures that can help others decide which path to pursue.

Marie Harte wrote on her blog about her unrealistic expectations and the published writer who took pity on her and set her straight. Harte was planning to quit her day job, start writing romance novels, and quickly work her way onto the bestseller lists alongside Nora Roberts. She adjusted her expectations after a helpful author told her she might make $2,000 to $5,000 per book, and the money would come in over several years, not instantly. Now Harte is heavily into e-publishing, produces seven to 10 new ebooks a year, makes a satisfactory but less than extravagant living, and doesn’t mind being candid about money. See her recent informative post on the subject.

J.A. Konrath has always been outspoken about most aspects of publishing, and now that he’s moving into e-publishing in a big way, he’s talking with his customary openness about the kind of money he has already made and expects to make by going digital with his thrillers. Almost anything Konrath says is bound to generate controversy – that’s what happens when you make a little noise on the internet and you’re not afraid to share your opinions – and plenty of people are scoffing at his claims. I hope he’s right, though. I hope he has great success in e-publishing and continues to share the details with the world.

E-publishing is challenging a lot of ingrained practices in traditional publishing and making us rethink what it means to be a "published" writer. Is it possible that e-publishing will also shake up the culture of secrecy that keeps so many of us ignorant about the very profession we pursue? Is this a good development or a bad one for authors? What do you think?

(Writer graphic (c) Martin Green/


Julia Buckley said...

This is very interesting, Sandra. I'm sure we're all watching the trends carefully. But you are so right: what is wrong with our industry that we are terrified of the very people who are paid to help us?

Melissa Emerald said...

When I landed my job as a newspaper reporter, I was thrilled! I'd been a stay-at-home mom for 13 years and had no clue what the market paid. I just knew it wasn't much. And then I learned there were news assistants at the paper getting paid more than me! Reality slapped me in the face with that one.

I'm not sure how I feel about e-publishing. If everyone and their brother starts doing it, how will it be any different from self-publishing? I know. Not all self-published books are horrible--or so I'm told. I've tried to read at least five and couldn't get through a single one.

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, many writers struggle so long to get published that they feel like beggars at the door: Please, please let me in! You don't have to feed me! You don't have to promise me anything! Just let me in, please, please! Since the majority of writers never achieve the stature that would give them real clout, they might never get over the feeling that they're darned lucky just to get through the door and don't want to risk losing what little they have. Everything in traditional publishing is weighted in the publisher's favor.

That's why many writers find e-publishing enticing: it gives them more control. As Melissa says, some e-books may be awful, but there are some reputable, dependable e-publishers out there producing professional work that has been edited and properly prepared for publication. I'm just a spectator at this point, but I find all the latest developments exciting to watch.

Sheila Lowe said...

Two possible reasons for remaining silent, at least for authors published by big houses, may be first, (as you've said) we are so grateful to be published by XYZ Publishing Co. that we're afraid to rock the boat and been seen as a complainer, and second, that our advances are so small that we're embarrassed for anyone else to know in case theirs is bigger.

Ann Littlewood said...

All manner of employers want salaries and wages kept secret, so publishers are no different. Yes, it causes them a lot of trouble to have that information out there, for reasons others have mentioned. It also gives the employee--or author--leverage as well. I say openness is to our advantage in negotiating with publishers. It should also thin the herd of wanna-be competitors once they realize what the returns are on their labor. Only the committed (committable?) are likely to stick to it!

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm not saying people should feel they have to share information they don't want to share. It's an individual choice. But as Ann says, openness is to the writer's advantage -- and clear, reliable information is helpful to anyone who's trying to break into the business. It's amazing how many people think ALL writers earn huge amounts of money!

Here's something I truly don't understand at all. Every year Publishers Weekly does a long report on the top-selling books of the previous year -- books that sold between 100,000 copies and a million or more. And there are always several books at the very top for which the publishers refuse to publicly release sales figures. They tell PW in confidence, so the magazine will place the books in the right spots on the list, but for some reason they won't tell the world how many copies were sold. If a book sells half a million copies, why would any publisher want to keep that a secret?

Diane said...

As a reader, I think it should be the publishers and agents who take a back seat. If it weren't for the writers, there would be NO publishers and agents.

With the internet becoming more than just an email/news tool, the publishers and agents should be on their knees hoping their writers don't take their business elsewhere. The readers will be out there regardless!