Got a Complaint About Publishing?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Over the years I’ve heard people complain about publishing, comparing it to other industries and saying, “In no other business…” followed by whatever their grievance is. Usually the statement is untrue because other businesses have the same pitfalls publishing does. In most cases the criticism comes from not understanding how publishing works, or even how other businesses work.

Let’s take a look at a few of the complaints I hear:

“In no other business does it take so long to get a response — if you get a response at all.”

In any business situation in which there are far more applicants for a position than can ever be hired, it may take a long time to get a response, and some applicants will get no response whatsoever. Have you ever applied for a position, in which the company has advertised they’ll hire one person, and they’ve received 400 applications? I know for a fact that not every applicant gets a response, not even a “Thanks but no thanks.”

This is the situation when you send a query. You’re applying for the job of “published author.” Nobody owes you anything. Not a job, not a response. You put it out there and hope for the best, just like any job applicant. So in this way, publishing is like other businesses.

I’m well aware that a writer isn’t applying to be an agent’s employee. But you are applying for the job of published author and the agent is screening applicants for that position. In any business that involves screening a large number of people for a limited number of slots, responses are varied, may take awhile, or may not come at all. (If you are an actor and have ever auditioned for a show, you’re familiar with this scenario. You only get a “call back” if they’re interested in you.)

“In no other business does one have to wait so long to get paid.”

Let’s say you are an artist, you paint a picture, and hang it in a gallery. It may or may not sell. You’ve already done the work, but you may get paid in a week, or a month, or six months, a year, or never. That’s the way it is when you work on spec. You’re doing the work, you’re well aware that you may never get paid for it, and if you do, it may be a long time in the future. There are other industries that work the same way. What about a builder who puts up homes or offices before they’re sold?

If you don’t like the way it takes awhile to get paid in publishing (and I don’t love it either, believe me), it may help to realize that the publisher also has to wait a long time to get paid. Like any company that develops and manufactures a product, the publisher puts out thousands of dollars ahead of time to produce the product and distribute it. And not only do they have to wait to get paid by the retailers, in some cases they might not get paid at all. If the bookstore returns your books unsold, the publisher doesn’t get any money — but you’ve already received your advance.

“In no other business do things move so slowly.”

Not true at all. It takes a very long time to develop a product, perfect it, publicize and promote it, and bring it to market. That’s the process when you’re bringing a book to a publisher. In any industry where new products are constantly being developed, there is a significant passage of time between the conception of the product (or the contracting with the inventor) and its eventual appearance in the marketplace.

In the film or television industries, it’s not uncommon for a movie or TV show to be “in development” for years before finally either being made or scrapped.

There are few industries that introduce such a large number of entirely new products every year. Each one of these products requires a significant investment of time, money and expertise to prepare it for the marketplace. How many companies bring literally hundreds of new products to market each year? Not many — but that’s what publishers do.

What are some things that frustrate you about publishing? Does it help to try and see it from the publisher’s perspective and understand there’s a reason for it?


Image copyright: tomwang / 123RF Stock Photo

22 Responses

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  1. Like mentioned in comments on yesterday’s post, coming to the Books and Such blog is like waking up to Christmas every morning…but this time I was up late and saw this package placed under the tree. And it is definitely an interesting one! Rachelle, I sure like the way you explained about the complaints and gave comparisons as part of the answers. It gives greater clarity to getting agented and published. It will be interesting to see what everyone else comments when they gather here at the tree and find this gift.

    Curious. Does anyone carol anymore?

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    I used to find it frustrating that a fiction author was expected to have a well-developed platform with a few thousand followers before an agent or publisher would give the author’s work serious consideration.
    *Now that I know the author is the principle marketer for her or his work, the requirement makes sense. But making sense doesn’t mean that it doesn’t appear to be an impossible task when you can’t see what you have to offer to draw that kind of following until AFTER your book is published, not BEFORE.

  3. Publishers exist to serve readers, not writers. I like your comparison with a job application, Rachelle. In a former life, I screened responses to my organization’s want-ads in the Chicago Tribune. I sorted them into piles I labeled Probably, Possibly and You Gotta Be Kidding Me. Out of hundreds of responses, I’d glean a half-dozen Probablies, who actually got a response.
    **Dear Lord, I selfishly ask that my proposal finds its way to a Probably or Possibly pile–please don’t let me languish in the “Gotta Be Kidding Me” stack. Amen.

  4. Rachelle, this is such a great analysis. As always, I appreciate your depth of insight and tempered candor.
    When I moved from full-time ministry to what is now a career in software development and IT, in order to bust into that world, I interviewed with the same company seven times for six different openings. It is no different with publishing. I’ll keep knocking on that door, responding to the “Who is it?” and eventually, someone will open it and say, “Come in and have tea with me.”
    As to the frustration question you asked? Platform. It is like a cuss word to me. Frustrating, and even offensive in some ways, but nonetheless required. I get it. I just don’t like it. But reality is what it is, and if I want to get my work published, I’m required to generate enough of a following to make XX amount of sales somewhat likely so that the published work will earn out.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      I agree that building the right kind of platform looks intimidating, Damon, and what looks like a “good” platform might be for reasons unrelated to your books that won’t produce sales. I wonder how an agent would evaluate having >1000 visitors a month to an author’s website if only 5% or fewer might be interested in her/his books. I’m pretty sure the person who searched on “the naked slaves of Rome” and found the PG-rated article on the social and legal aspects of slavery in the early Roman Empire did not click on one of the cover images for my Christian historical fiction in the sidebar and buy one at Amazon.
      *How would an agent judge the potential of a platform built on visits based on searching for an information source rather than people following you as a person?

      • Carol, I believe it is a best-bet scenario. So we look at how many email addresses one has collected through blog/newsletter subscriptions, how many audience members when we speak, how many Facebook/Twitter/Instagram followers. Over whom do we “wield” some level of influence? From that we can run percentages and deduce book sale potential. There is the constant friction between my desire to see my work as a ministry, and the publisher’s need to see it as a business. Both are true, and it is the frustrated author who refuses to see and acknowledge that.

    • Damon, for what it may be worth, I use this acrostic:
      * Everyone’s got a heart-concern, and most of those are shared. When you can reach out to what touches them in the way they need to hear it (which may not jibe with our own view), your platform will start to build itself; a kind of literary von Neumann machine.
      * For me it’s caregiving, from a patient’s perspective; not what I wanted to be writing about, but needs must when the devil drives. Beyond that, I had to learn what people needed to hear; for instance, I’m the antithesis of the “Let’s cuddle on the couch and weep for the sheer anguish” kind of person. To me, that’s laughably weak. But most of my readers did not attend my school, and for them it’s a gateway to a kind of sacred place of togetherness and vulnerability, and I had to learn to respect that, and to honour it. And to write about it (through gritted teeth, yes).
      * Added to that I had to learn to go where it’s uncomfortable, to the dark parts of the dying journey. Again, it was what readers needed, and not about me (I mean, who the blazes wants to write about incontinence?).
      * it’s a decent platform for novels, I think; potential readers can gauge my perspective and my faith, and decide whether they’d like me as their guide in a fictional world.

      • The acrostic is interesting, Andrew, and helpful to a point. The key is the “what matters” portion of it, because we must then ask “Important to whom?” What is important to me may be irrelevant to you. But perhaps that’s where the von Neumann machine comes into play. What is important to me, and is subsequently reflected in my platform (Long-View Living in a Short-View World) attracts like-minded readers and thinkers.
        I promise, Andrew, to never cuddle on the couch with you, weeping for the sheer anguish. 😉

      • Damon, I suspect the acrostic would do better with ‘resonant’ in place of ‘relevant’. I was totally uninterested in fantasies like Lewis’ Narnia until I read his apologetics; his voice and heart resonated with mine, so I gave Narnia a chance, and got hooked.
        * You have a platform here, in this community; I hope I will not be presumptuous in trying to describe it, and why it works.
        1 – Your command of English is excellent; not too formal, yet not too familiar. You come across as an authority who is confident enough to be humble, and to ask questions.
        2 – Your faith is strongly evident but not overbearing; God animates your writing heart, but you don’t make a public display of it.
        3 – Your occasional stories about college ministry and IT work give enough background for us to want to know more about you; the way you parcel out the experiences are excellent ‘teasers’.
        4 – Not least, your thumbnail headshot makes you look like someone I’d enjoy meeting; there’s a roguish quality, that of a prate trying and failing to stay on his best behaviour.

      • Damon, I left one thing out of your Blog Community Platform – the kindness and grace you extend to others. I was going to add it in earlier but got too sick to even try, but rest assured that this quality makes you stand very, very tall.

      • Goodness, Andrew … I’m … well, I don’t know what I am. But you made my eyes tear up a bit. Thank you for sharing all of that!

  5. This is such a great perspective, Rachelle. it’s easy to be narrow-focused on what we want (publishing or otherwise) and find reasons to complain about it. But, when we look at life and our specific situation with a wider sense, we can see things more clearly with a big-picture perspective.
    *I don’t think there’s anything about publishing that frustrates me. It’s more that I need to do the work and pray through the process.
    *Your explanation is helpful for giving that wide-lens perspective.

  6. Frustrating stuff? Not for me. I’ve met wonderful people, have had great time, and the processes are simply ‘there’. Life’s in the doing, not the achieving.
    * The celebratory party’s nice, but once you’re returned the excess of alcohol to the free world via the usual Technicolour Yarn, you realize that the real fun’s to be had cleaning it up, on your knees with your mates, and being verbally filled in for the footprints you can’t remember leaving on the ceiling.

  7. As what has come to be known as a “hybrid” author, I have seen this problem from both sides. The acknowledgement? It comes from the readers, and until then an individual who indie-publishes has only the feedback he/she generates from first readers. The slow payment? There’s not even an advance for the indie author. Royalties are higher, obviously, but even there they are slower than we’d like. And I might as well affirm that the author is the primary source of publicity and marketing, whether alone or in partnership with one or more people from the publishing company. The truth of the matter is that writing requires a thick hide and a willingness to wait for a monetary return. Thanks, Rachelle, for putting this out there.

  8. That all makes sense to me. So much of business is the same.

  9. Joanne Reese says:

    Insightful post, Rachelle. I’ve found the pace of things in the publishing industry to be a perfect classroom for personal growth. The passage below illustrates where I desire to have my heart land on most days. God is sovereign and He should be our reason. We can trust that His timing is always best.

    *I wait [patiently] for the Lord, my soul [expectantly] waits, and in His word do I hope. – Psalm 130:5 (AMP)

  10. Beth Vogt says:

    Ever the voice of reason, Rachelle. Ever the voice of reason.
    Me? Frustrated? Not at all.

  11. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Thanks, Rachelle, for once again clarifying….I kind of want to connect it with your other post written not long ago about Persistence. We should not only understand how things work in the publishing industry, be persistent, but add patience to that too.
    I always wondered why I was led to a teaching career all those yrs. ago! 🙂

  12. Great perspective on common frustrations!

  13. Angie Arndt says:

    Oh yes, it helps. I learned that I’ve got so much to learn! Thanks, Rachelle!