New publishing clashes with old
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
I wanted to entitle this blog “New Era Meets Dinosaur,” but I went a slightly different route. Still, that’s how this past week felt to me. While the Internet’s activity board lit up in response to literary agent Donald Maass’s unfortunate comment about “freight class” self-publishing and Hugh Howey’s maligned math on Amazon ebook sales, I was staring at a dinosaur–an old-school publisher.
When I say “old-school publisher,” I’m not referring to just a traditional publisher; I’m talking about a publisher who apparently isn’t used to working with agents. I hadn’t sold a project to this publisher for decades, but one of my clients had created a proposal for a book that seemed a perfect fit for this niche publishing house.
As I anticipated, the publisher offered my client a contract. But the agreement reflected an old-school mentality toward authors. In essence, the publisher wanted to retain complete control over every aspect of publishing with no guaranteed input from the author. For example, the publisher could hire a writer to make the manuscript into whatever the publisher chose, and the author would foot the bill for that writer–all without the author having any say in whether a writer should be hired; who that writer would be; or how the manuscript would be changed. The publisher also proposed a two-book option at the same terms as the current contract; the ability to put in the book an ad for any product the publisher chose without the author’s input; an out-of-print clause that guaranteed the book would never go out of print, etc.
I rolled up my proverbial sleeves and went to work on making the contract a document that reflected a process an author could live with. After several negotiating rounds with the editor, she and I had arrived at agreement. I was pleasantly surprised because I had doubted at the outset that any publisher would agree to such radical changes to–in essence–its way of relating to authors.
Then the dinosaur (probably the executive team) woke up and realized this wasn’t a contract it wanted to honor. The publisher withdrew the offer.
When I asked why this decision had been made, I was told that my client probably should self-publish because she was unrealistic in what the role of an author was, that she didn’t trust the publisher so how could the relationship ever work?
What a perspective! As I was negotiating the contract, the editor would explain that certain egregious clauses existed to protect the publisher from “worst case scenarios.” Yet, when I added or changed elements of the contract to protect my client from worst case decisions on the publisher’s part, the publisher declared my client a perfect self-publishing candidate. (My client, by the way, has been publishing for decades and has had a strong and happy relationship with the publisher of most of her books for ten years.)
My response to the announcement about the offer being withdrawn was long and detailed. But I concluded with, “Trust is not a one-way street, with the author being the only party who needs to trust; and worst-case scenarios happen to authors as well as publishers. But if you can’t trust my client because I’ve asked for a more equitable relationship, then it’s good to have that relationship end now. It clearly wasn’t going to work.”
And I walked away from the stale air surrounding this old-school publisher into the invigorating air of an era in which publisher-author relationships are akin to sumo wrestlers circling the mat to decide how to make the next move.
Regardless of whether you aspire to find a traditional publisher or if you self-pub, what do you like best about the changes that have taken place in publishing in the last five years?
What are you nostalgic for in the bygone publishing era?
A reminder of how far authors have come. Click to tweet.
Authors: You’ve come a long way, baby. Click to tweet.