New publishing clashes with old

Janet Grant

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.

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56 Responses

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  1. I wrote in work for hire (everything from poster copy to books) for many years. The original terms of the contract remind me of those kind of agreements.

  2. Micky Wolf says:

    Wow, Janet, what an eye-opener this is. The author you represented must surely be grateful for your willingness and hard work in trying to achieve a fair and more equitable outcome.

    Maybe part of the ‘good fallout’ from all the changes in publishing in recent years is many of us–from any perspective in the process–have unintentionally been prodded to get it clear in our own minds and hearts as to why we do what we do.

    Appreciate your straight up sharing in this post. Thank you!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Micky, fortunately my client and I both held this contract with an open hand, willing to let it go if we couldn’t get agreement for major changes. So, while both the author and I are disappointed it didn’t work out, we suspect we would have had a pretty rocky ride through the entire relationship with the publisher.

  3. Janet, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see agents like you who are willing to work FOR THE AUTHORS instead of protecting other interests. I think, in time, traditional publishers might wake up to the loss of author rights…but not before they lose plenty of authors in the process. Indie authors retain so many rights, from audio to large percentages of e-book sales. It’s just reality, and I’m so glad you’re looking at this “brave new world” from an author-protective perspective.

  4. Janet, There was a time when authors fought for a contract with a traditional publisher, because that was the way to go. For most of us, it was the only option.
    In the new world of publishing, where traditional publishers are struggling to make money and authors have an alternative to the “take it or leave it” attitude they sometimes encounter, there’s an awakening among writers. I’m waiting for more signs of change as that awakening spreads throughout the publishing community to include publishers.

    I’m not saying all publishers are anti-author. Quite the contrary. They’d like to publish books that sell, which would be good for all concerned. I’m a fan of traditional publishing, but I hear more and more that publishers must be more flexible in their approach because self-publishing has come into its own.

    Bravo for saying what you did when the publisher cancelled that contract. I hope that whether your client ultimately signed with another publisher or chose the self-pub route, things worked out well in the end.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Richard, I agree with you that traditional publishers still offer some very nice benefits to working with them, but they need to up what they’re bringing to the game to retain authors.
      As far as my client’s now uncontracted project, we’re discussing the best way forward. Self-publishing is definitely an option on the table.

  5. I’m trying to think of anything I really miss about the old world of publishing, and I’m having a hard time.

    Nostalgia is a strong pull, and a curse on the present, because it isolates the parts of the past we’d like to live again, while ignoring the rest. When you compare the best parts of yesterday with the worst parts of today, it’s a recipe for dissatisfaction.

    As your post pointed out, Janet, the old ways had a paternalistic quality that few writers would appreciate today.

    Authors have more opportunity, readers have a larger selection, and publishers are working into a closer cooperation with both their clients and customers to form an integrated marketplace. Today IS better.

    My favorite reading genre is memoir, and I’m grateful that the change has taken place just in time for a number of excellent WW2 narratives to come out, either SP’d or from small houses. That generation is just about used up, and even though some of the works are awkward, they are vital voices preserved.

    (You have to know that the forward-looking comments above came from a guy who has the simplest cell phone possible, and who, on seeing his first ‘tablet’ – tried to peer under the edge of the screen to see where the ‘flipped’ pages were coming from. There is a certain Canadian writer who can attest to this.)

    • Raises hand…Umm, yeah…for a guy who can build airplanes, your occasional lapse into “you’re kidding, right? Right? Tell me, please that you can at least scan the stuff at the self check-out?” can be slightly good for comic fodder.
      BUT, if you can build an airplane, you could at least get that chicken recipe from Tony’s of Belen.

      *if anyone is in Belen, NM, go to Tony’s and order the chicken taco salad.

      • The first time I tried to use a self-check-out, yeah, I was looking for the price tags…and the keyboard on which to enter the prices.

        I’ve been called one of the finest minds of the sixteenth century.

        Haven’t been back to Tony’s, but when we do…we’ll beg.

      • You were looking for price tags and a keyboard? *Really* ?

        Although, I should put a sock in it, you could probably explain the chemical compound of the plastic bags. And write it out in front of us.
        In Latin.

      • Allison Duke says:

        Wow, I suddenly have a desire to visit Belen. Haven’t felt that way in at least ten years. I grew up going to church there. Good memories. 🙂

        Traditional publishers, much like traditional churches, have had to deal with the unfortunate realization that things changed while they weren’t looking. Now it’s time to adjust, and perhaps even create some of the change they’d like to see. It can be a long, painful process. I am hopeful that the end result benefits everyone involved.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Allison, amen. I’m not sure this publisher learned much of anything through its brief brush with an agent–except to avoid agents.

    • Hey, me too. I work from home. Who needs a smart phone when a dumb one is sooooo much cheaper and I’ve got the internet on my computer!!!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, when I asked about anything readers felt nostalgic about in publishing, I was creating my own list of items I miss. Among others I would put: author’s job was just to write a fine manuscript, trying to market one’s book would be an affront to the publisher; the lively nature of bookstores and how effectively they sold books; editors having time to work hard with an author on making sure the manuscript was the very best it could be.

      • I do miss the role bookstores played, not only in the literary realm but in society as a whole. They were meeting places, and nothing has really replaced them. A few good independents are still out there – Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, Bookman’s in Tucson and Phoenix, and Haslam’s in St. Petersburg, FL. But so many have been lost.

        While the marketing responsibility is a pain – I think it’s something to be more appreciated than greeted with dismay.

        An author’s website and blog, for instance, gives readers and authors the chance to get to know one another, and sometimes develop real friendships. That wasn’t really possible in the old days; the only way you could reach an author was by writing to the publishing house in the hope that a letter might be forwarded.

        Certainly it has given rise to a ‘new breed’ of authors, who understand the need for engagement and approachability. The Salingers out there are probably going to get lost in the shuffle, though – and that is a pity.

        An interesting ‘early adapter’ to the change that was coming was Andrew Greeley. He began his ‘Mailbox Parish’ in the late 80s, with mailed newsletters. The technology wasn’t there for interaction, but it was a good attempt to reach readers with background and platform.

        Personally – the need to develop a platform has sharpened the focus of my writing. I’m trying to tell a cracking good story, and I’d like to extend hope and faith to people…and the latter has been honed by the need (and desire) to deliver a thrice-weekly message that’s consistent with the stories.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Andrew, as with most changes, there’s good and bad in publishing’s new direction. I think most of us mourn the joys of bookstores, even if our towns still have such an animal. In my town we have a Barnes and Noble and a multi-store independent; so we’re lucky.

      • Janet, I had the privilege of working at an indie bookstore (Yesterday’s Books in Modesto, CA) ten years ago. It was a joy to meet the reading needs of our community, and really get to know our regular customers. The time I spent there fostered my love of the written word. Thankfully, Yesterday’s Books is still going strong.

  6. Jill Kemerer says:

    I’m stunned! Thank you for sharing this. And thank you for fighting for your clients. I still hear the do-writers-need-agents debate. For any writer desiring a traditional publishing path, all I can say is, “Read this post!”

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks, Jill. It’s painful to think of all the effort I put into working on that contract for zero dollars for the author or for me…and no book. I knew how the negotiating was likely to end, but sometimes these scenarios have different conclusions. You don’t know until you try.

  7. Wow, Janet!

    It sounds like this publisher is way behind the rest of the publishing world. How have they managed to stay in business and succeed? Or are they succeeding?

    As Richard said, there’s definitely a different feel to the publishing world now than there was five years ago. To me, it’s hope. If editors pass because they’re being overly cautious (something you mentioned many posts ago), the writer still has options. And more and more people I know personally are saying those options turned out to be better for them than the once-longed-for publishing contract.

    • Janet Grant says:

      As I mentioned in my post, this is a niche publisher who doesn’t have to work with agents; most of the authors are nonwriters with a message that connects with the publisher’s readers. They do well at reaching their audience.
      But having to negotiate with an agent was…um, unsettling for this publishing team. Although I have to say the editor with whom I negotiated was gracious throughout, even in her email withdrawing the offer.

  8. Thank you, Janet, for sticking up for all of us!!!

  9. Go Janet!!

    Well done! It’s nice to know we writers have big guns backing us up!

    Aside from the obvious, OBVIOUS reference to Battlestar Galactica, the marriage of Helo and Boomer, and the birth of their Cylon/human hybrid baby (Am I the ONLY one who gets this reference?) whole idea of being a hybrid is kind of cool.

    I love my hist/rom era, but I’d also love, at some point, to write rom/coms or a contemp or two. >Someday<

    The new, and ever changing, publishing environment gives writers the chance to venture out and take chances beyond what was acceptable 5 years ago.

    I have several friends who've self pubbed, and I know the amount of work they've put it to have their books as sleek and tight as possible. And I've read them, and they are definitely as good, if not better, than some traditional books I've read.

    There's still a bit of umm, not too totally awesome quite yet books in the epub world. I've read a few. Cough.

  10. My foremost thought when reading this post is…I’m so glad I have an amazing agent who will fight for me! If anything, this type of situation (as well as many, many others) solidifies the need for an agent in an ever-changing publishing environment.

    • Janet Grant says:

      There’s nothing like having someone take the burden off your shoulders and carry it for you, is there?
      I experienced that sensation this weekend when an expert in another area said to me, “Let me handle that.” Ah, yes, please do.

  11. And this is a perfect example of why we need literary agents.

    The first time I sold something to a magazine (a children’s poem), I was less than happy with their all-or-nothing attitude toward the contract. When I questioned something in it, the initial response was a snooty “this is how we ALWAYS do it” with a subtle “how dare you question us?” I left the phone conversation in tears, certain I’d killed my writing career. I was shocked when I received a letter from them a few weeks later with a revised contract. And that was all over a silly little poem.

    I’m thankful I have an agent to handle those conversations now. Way fewer tears. At least on my part!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Agents hear not only, “This is how we always do it,” but also, “No other agent has ever questioned that clause.” Agents should probably put together a list of the common responses we hear to changes we propose.

  12. Sylvia says:

    Does this company really hire someone to do rewrites on its author’s work? Isn’t the author voice lost that way?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Sylvia, this publisher works mostly with pastors, experts in an area, etc. I don’t think the authors have had a chance to develop a voice. They just want a published book. Such authors are a good match for the publisher.

      • Sylvia says:

        Oh, that makes sense. It’s kind of like a book that’s written by a celebrity and someone else. The celebrity gave that person the material and the other person actually did the writing. Thank you for clearing that up.

  13. Michelle LIm says:

    Thanks for sharing this story, Janet! It is a great reminder of how important an agent is for an author.

    As for things I miss about the past, I would probably say the marketing piece as well. Although I enjoy getting to know my audience and I love blogging, it is time consuming to do it well.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Michelle, I remember reading a comment from an editor in the 1950s who said, “Authors should be heard and not seen.” She meant that we want to read authors’ books; we don’t want to actually know the author. Times have so changed! Now fans crave–and expect–“personal” connections with writers.

  14. Janet, this is a great article but it leaves me wondering about something. I have an agent who got my first book all the way to the Contract Committee at a large publisher, but then they passed b/c my sales projections were too low. So I self-published and did really, really well. As I finish up my sequel and debate which path to take, I would like to keep my agent involved if I self-pub again. But I don’t know what to ask of him or should ask of him. Any suggestions?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Heather, you should ask yourself what your agent can contribute to your self-publishing experience. You still could use some long-term career planning; your agent might have some insights into what’s working in terms of pricing; maybe he has a suggestion for a cover designer. I don’t know enough about your situation to suggest specifics for you, but most agents are helping their clients self-pub, and agents are generally keeping up with what’s happening in the self-pub world as well as seeing what’s working for traditional publishers with digital books.

  15. Brandi says:

    I really like reading stories about agents taking a stand for their authors. Thank you Janet for this great story.

  16. Thanks for sharing this, Janet! As some others have noted, I’m sure this author was grateful to have an agent who really wanted the best for her. Great example of how good agents benefit authors.

  17. Carole Brown says:

    Bravo, Janet, I love your spunk and the way you stood up for your client, looking after his/her best interests. What do I miss: when writers could mostly work on their manuscripts w/out worrying about so much marketing.

    Thanks for sharing this informative post!

  18. Christine Dorman says:

    One more BRAVO! Thank you, for your integrity and for standing up for your client–all, as you said, for no pay. Many blessings. 🙂

  19. Janet, what I see as a problem with traditional publishing (which as an unpublished author who has finaled in the ACFW First Impressions and Genesis contest–meaning I have done a lot of hard work learning how to write), is two-fold. The fear of taking on new authors and the long process of finding an editor/publishing house/book contract/and finally of getting the book published. Indie and self-pub begin to look very good when you’ve spent years and lots of money (conferences are expensive) working to find acceptance. In today’s world, that type of waiting begins to be more and more unrealistic.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Linda, the long road to finding a publisher and then the additionally long road through the production process can seem agonizingly extensive. Some writers believe the rewards at the end of that journey are worthwhile; others don’t. The nice thing about the state of publishing is that those who don’t want to walk the road don’t have to. It’s nice that options are available to writers today. While there’s nothing like being part of a team at a publisher’s that wants you to succeed, it’s also pretty great to know you can DIY and skip the extensive trip. Of course pluses and minuses exist with either choice. This might be a good time to think about Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. Ah, the great, what-might-have-been question.

  20. K.R. Conway says:

    This is a great post and exactly what I feared if I didn’t self-pub – the loss of control over the story, the characters, and the feel of the novel. I’ve been a journalist for years – paid to write as they want me too, which is fine. But UNDERTOW was something purely from my imagination and I knew where I was going with it. I wanted control over the cover, the format, the marketing – the whole thing. I realized that I would have to give some of that up with a publishing house and I feared it would kill the story. While it would still be nice to get a lump sum for the book (or series) a small voice in the back of my head fears what would happen if I did. It climbs up the Amazon bestseller list all the time and gets shelf space at the local Barnes and Noble, which can’t keep it in stock. I must be doing something right, but it is exhausting . . . Awesome, Awesome insights! Thanks for the post!

    • Janet Grant says:

      K.R., traditional publishing will always involve giving up some control. The publisher I was dealing with was out of control, in my opinion. It sounds as if you made the right decision to self-publish and maintain complete control. And that you did many things right to achieve success. Thanks for telling us it’s been exhausting. That’s a significant part of the picture and not to be ignored. If only writers had a magic wand to produce books and find readers…I know, we don’t live in Disney World.

  21. Wow! Amazing story. Thanks for sharing it, Janet. As others have said, this is why a literary agent is so important.

    I think what I appreciate most now about these changes is the increasing amount of transparency that easier access to information brings.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, while a lot of information is available today that we couldn’t access yesterday, Amazon still operates out of a black hole. Obviously they highly value their secrecy, which is why authors like Hugh Howey try to figure out how to work Amazon’s system but has little data to go on.

  22. Janet,

    It’s so refreshing to know there are agents out there who really care about an author’s rights. Thanks for that!

  23. Ekta Garg says:

    I really do think some positive things have come from self or indie publishing. Many talented writers now have the opportunity to share their stories with readers, and with the traditional publishing model many of these well-deserving authors wouldn’t have had that chance. But I also agree with the many people who say that indie publishing has opened Pandora’s box — everyone who has ever heard the sentence, “Hey, you should write a book about that” does. The market has become even tougher as a result. Who can wade through the thousands of mediocre books published every day to find that gem?

    Recently I read an article that proposed that eventually indie publishing and traditional publishing would form a hybrid publishing model of sorts. I’ve watched the indie publishing industry for a few years now (including the recent trend to refer to it as “indie” publishing versus “self” publishing,) and I’m curious to see whether the hybrid model will ever come to fruition or whether the future holds something else.