Quite a few years ago I did a blog series about choosing a publisher, specifically an epublisher: what to look for, what to be wary of, that sort of thing. It’s a topic I’ve revisited now and again, though not recently (thanks to my long moratorium on discussing writing-related subjects).
But you know…I just, I’m tried of seeing something. I’ve been tired of seeing it for, oh, eight years or so now, and I grow more tired of seeing it every day, and it pisses me off, so I’m going to talk about it anyway, because there seems to be a new wave of it out there.
I am sick to fucking death of seeing bad publishers, or writers associated with them, justify their lousy treatment of writers and their unprofessionalism and their crappy business decisions and their lack of ability to perform a publisher’s number one job (which is to SELL BOOKS TO READERS) with the following phrase:
“We/they took a chance on you, so you should be grateful!”
You guys, publishers do not “take chances” on your work, at least, not in the way these people imply they do. Sure, every book is a chance they take. In the most basic sense I must concede that publishing is about taking chances, and your book could lose money.
But those publishers who stand to lose money? They’re buying the rights to publish your book because they’re pretty sure it will actually make them money*, and they’re basing that decision on quite a bit of experience and knowledge and work**. They’re buying your book because in their professional opinions it is well-written enough and interesting enough to appeal to a large audience of readers, and they want to sell it to those readers. It’s “taking a chance,” yes, but not in the sense these snippy little writer-nannies seem to mean it, whereby the author who’s getting fucked over is apparently supposed to spread wider and beg for more because hey, somebody agreed to publish their book! That means they have license to treat the author any way they want and make whatever shitty business decisions they want and the author should just shut the hell up, right?
(*They SHOULD be buying the rights because they think it will make them money, anyway; and **They SHOULD have quite a bit of experience and knowledge and work before they start acquiring books. More on that in a bit.)
The thing is, when you tell another writer that they should be grateful somebody took a chance on their book, you might as well scratch out “book” and insert “piece of shit.” Isn’t that what you’re really implying? That they should be glad somebody actually agreed to publish that crap they wrote? That it’s not really a good book or anything, so they’ve been done a huge favor and beggers can’t be choosers? That they don’t really deserve a decent, professional publisher, so they should be glad somebody agreed to “give them a chance?”
Quite frankly, if the book isn’t good enough, then doesn’t that almost by definition mean that a publisher who “takes a chance on it” isn’t a very good publisher? Because they’re publishing books that, well, aren’t good enough to be published? (It’s like a big “chicken or the egg” loop, isn’t it?) There’s no benefit to anyone in “taking a chance” in publishing a lousy book; it doesn’t benefit the writer, it doesn’t benefit the publisher, and it certainly doesn’t benefit the people the industry exists to serve: those people we call “readers,” who spend their hard-earned money on those books.
Either you think your publisher publishes good and worthy books (like yours, right?) and therefore should be providing the authors of those books with all of the benefits professional publishers provide, or you think your publisher tends to publish crappy books (except yours, I guess?) which deserve only the bare bones and everyone should just be glad they got a “chance.”
Except–and here’s the big thing–throwing a book out into the ether without promotion or decent cover art or good editing is NOT giving it a chance. It’s sort of stacking the deck against it, actually, and ensuring that most people either won’t have the “chance” to hear about it, won’t look beyond the cover, won’t look beyond the excerpt, or won’t find it to be of high enough quality to “take a chance” on other books from that publisher or by that author. Or, of course, they’ll see a review that mentions poor cover art and/or editing, and write both publisher and author off in their minds.
Being a writer means you make, and take, your OWN chances. You’re taking a chance every time you open a new Word doc and start writing. You’re taking a chance every time you submit. You’re the one who controls the quality of your book and what happens in it–don’t forget, editors are not supposed to change your book, just make suggestions. It’s your name on the cover, and what’s inside should be 100% yours. Publishers do not–should not–be the ones deigning to give your book a “chance,” the way you may agree to a date with that guy who doesn’t really appeal but seems nice enough, or the way you might give someone who’s been rude and nasty to you one more chance to make it up to you, or whatever other serious power imbalances and ambivalence are inherently implied in the phrase “give it a chance.” A publisher shouldn’t be publishing your book reluctantly. They should be snatching it up. A publisher who buys your book is not–should not be–doing you a fucking favor.
You know what you owe the people who publish your book? You owe them the text of that book, turned in on time, edited on time. That’s it. That is ALL.
Now, in the standard nature of the professional author-publisher relationship, it also behooves you to do things like not scream and yell at editors, and not turn to the internet to scream about your publisher because you found out X got a higher advance, and generally not make yourself horrendously unpleasant to work with. It behooves you to work with your editor, whose sole interest is and should be making your book the best it can possibly be. It may also behoove you–it’s not a requirement, usually, but it’s often nice–to do things like have a website or make appearances or do guest blogs or interviews or whatever at the publisher’s request, in order to help make you and your book more visible in hopes of selling more copies.
Nowhere on that list, or on any of the similar things I left off the list because of length considerations, are things like, “It’s necessary to let your editor call you an idiot and imply that you’re lucky she agreed to take on that piece of shit you think is a book,” or “You can’t forget to let various publishing staffers call you names,” or “You must sit quietly while a pack of illiterates overshare about their ladyparts in emails to you,” or “It’s important to remember that paying you is something we do out of the kindness of our hearts,” or “Never think you deserve things like distribution or for our website to work properly or for us not to behave like twats online.” Nowhere on that list are things like “Of course, by submitting your work you agree that only entitled jerks expect to be able to negotiate contracts,” or “If you think you have a right to an opinion about your work, you’re dead wrong,” or really any variation of “Be grateful we published your talentless ass, loser.”
Here’s the thing. As I said, yeah, it’s sort of true that any publisher who offers you a contract is “taking a chance,” on you. But the thing to remember is that A) You are also taking a chance, on them, and believe me, there are plenty of stories out there–a really sadly large number of stories–of authors for whom that chance didn’t work out; and B) Everything is a “chance,” if you want to look at it that way.
For example. Are you married? If you are, that means your spouse “took a chance” on you. Does that mean, in turn, that you are required to allow him/her to be abusive? That you get no say in the finances, or where you live, or how you spend your evenings? Does that mean every argument is your fault, or that s/he is entitled to cheat on you and you should shut up, sit down, and be grateful? (Yeah, I know that last one with the cheating is stretching the analogy a little. Tough.)
It doesn’t. Because the “chance” isn’t all on one side in your marriage, and it isn’t all on one side with your publisher. If your spouse tells you it is, s/he is abusive and you need to get the fuck out. Same with your publisher.
You were offered a contract–you should have been offered a contract–because your publisher thinks your work is good enough to sell. Your publisher thinks that not only will the publisher make money, but you will, too. That’s how partnership works, see, and really, to a large extent publishing is a partnership.
All that editing and cover design and stuff that amateurish publishers keep insisting they provided free of charge so you should be grateful? Yeah. Books get cover art because cover art attracts readers: you know, paying customers. Books gets editing because publishers who want repeat business don’t expect to get it by selling a substandard product–at least, publishers with half a damn brain don’t.
Another example: Say you walk into a restaurant, and the food is bad. Next time you’re considering where to eat, is that place going to be at the top of your list? Unless you’re a culinary masochist, I’m guessing no. Personally, I go to look at the websites of new publishers and look at the excerpts, and if I see more than one full of grammar/spelling/punctuation errors or clunky writing? Not only do I not buy those books, I don’t look at the others, and I write that publisher off in my head. Sure, I might check again one day, but the odds are against it. I’m sorry for the good writers (and, sadly, good writers sign with bad publishers every day, and I in no way mean to imply anything different) who are caught up with that substandard house, but my time is limited and there are too many good books out there for me to spend hours hunting through published slush piles to try to find the one or two good books in there. I’m sorry about that; sorry for the writers watching their good books sink in a heap of not-so-good ones, and sorry for me because I miss out on a story I might have loved.
I’m digressing. My point is: Quit telling writers they should be grateful that publishers “took a chance” on them and provided them–however expertly or ineptly–with the things that are the fucking job of a goddamn publisher, like editing and cover art, and provided it in the way that a publisher is supposed to, which is without charge. Oh, good, they’ve done the bare-bones minimum, so writers are supposed to be tearfully grateful for the crumbs from their table. Whoopee.
You guys, let me be blunt. You are better than that. You deserve more than that. You deserve a publisher who will provide you with the things a publisher is supposed to provide, professionally executed, and in a professional fashion. You do not need to be “grateful” that someone published you; a real, professional house is just as grateful that they are getting the opportunity to work with you. An editor doesn’t wake up one morning, grab any old manuscript from the slush pile, and decide to send a contract because, gee, they just feel like giving somebody a chance that morning (at least, a good editor doesn’t). You didn’t win some sort of lottery. You worked hard and made your book the best it can possibly be, and if a publisher contracts that book it should be because they think they can make money on it and want to work with you, not because they’re granting favors and your name was in the hat.
I repeat: They are not doing you a favor.
And if they say they are or imply they are…they’re wrong, and you deserve better.
I may discuss this more tomorrow.