Our Changing World: Whom Are Publishers Cutting?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.

As the publishing industry experiences a sea change brought on by the Internet, e-readers, and the fluctuating economy,  I’ve observed that one segment of authors is especially feeling the affects of these changes.

Oh, sure, all categories of authors–those who consistently have significant sales; those who are mid-list; those who are newbies–have seen a dip in income and in sales figures. But in this risk-averse environment, publishers still are eager to sign up and to keep publishing the authors who are pretty much guaranteed to write books that will have strong performances.

Who can blame the publishers? They’re working hard to right their tipped sailboats, which were blown over by the recession. Why take a chance when you’re off-balance? Or when it’s hard to see what future winds will blow in your direction?

But publishers understand that producing books is a business of chance. If they don’t invest in the future, they’re nowhere. So debut authors still can create a buzz in a publishing house. It’s like discovering you’re pregnant (and you want to be). Who knows what wonderful things await this baby? The sky’s the limit!

Unfortunately, that leaves the mid-list author to take the majority of the hit when publishers downsize their publishing lists. That means authors who have been writing for 5, 10, even 15 years and have honed their craft and built a bit of a following, are considered the biggest risk of all. Why?

Because their low sales figures are trailing behind them like toilet paper stuck to their shoe soles. Sales reps know that, when they present these authors’ new projects, book buyers will say, “I’ve never sold more than a couple of copies for that author; so, with my limited shelf space, I’m going to pass.”

That’s a tough reality to know how to respond to.

So what’s a mid-list author to do?

  • Talk to your agent. Brainstorm ideas with your agent about how to keep the wind in your career’s sails. And tell your agent how much money you need to make each year to keep writing. A few weeks ago I had this discussion with one of my clients, whom we’ll call Bob. Then I picked up the phone and called an editor at Bob’s publishing house. I explained that Bob might have to quit writing to make more money to support his family. The editor, who had been considering asking if Bob would co-author a project with a new writer who had a built-in audience, immediately presented the co-authoring idea to everyone involved. Within weeks, I had a new contract and an infusion of cash for Bob. Now, I hasten to add, no agent can pull that rabbit out of the hat on a regular basis. We don’t do magic. But if you just sit and stew, you certainly can’t resolve your concerns. Talk to your agent!
  • Be open to writing work-for-hire. Yup, I know you didn’t sign up for that. I know you love writing whatever your creative muse bids you to. Why not think of work-for-hire as if it were a day job? When you started to write, if your family was dependent on your income, you had no choice but to take a day job and spend your early-morning, late-night, holiday , and vacation hours writing. Sometimes those projects are connected to a person or organization that has the ability to sell large quantities of books. If your name is attached to several successful ventures, you’re more likely to look like a winner worth backing to both publishers and to book buyers.
  • Meet your deadlines. Publishers are using missed deadline as a contractually-acceptable reason to end a publishing relationship. Don’t play with fire! If you have a contract, do everything within your power, to fulfill the obligations you’ve agreed to.
  • Think about a name change. I’ve never gone this route with a client, but with publishing as fickle as it presently is, I’m considering it.  If you’re a strong writer, but your numbers are lackluster, changing your byline gives you the new start you might be needing.
  • Use your imagination to connect with readers and to keep your sales trajectory going up. Publishers look for upward movement; they don’t need to see sales figures increase by tens of thousands in one, grand leap.

I “get” why publishers are reluctant to continue relationships with stalled mid-list authors. I really do. But I also feel sad for the industry as a whole that many fine, deeply-invested writers are having to make difficult decisions about their careers. I would hope that more publishers would step forward and do something significant to help like the publisher who instituted a plan to keep Bob writing. After all, it isn’t just Bob who has invested years in his writing; so has his publisher.

What are your thoughts about the fluctuations publishing is experiencing? What are you or your friends doing to keep your writing financially viable?

11 Responses

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  1. Wendy says:

    I honestly would have guessed debut authors would be on the list to chop first. Though this post encourages me, I feel empathy for the mid-list author who has poured into the craft.

    Excellent tips in this post.
    ~ Wendy

  2. Lucy says:

    Janet, thank you for this week of instructive posts. Your editorial experience adds so much interesting information. 🙂

  3. I can only imagine how this all affects agents too.

    I have 2 questions from the post:
    1. Work for hire… how does that come about?
    2. Name change… how does that work? Do you start a new FB page and of you go? It sounds fascinating.


  4. janetgrant says:

    I’m glad you’re encouraged, Wendy.
    Lucy, I appreciate the thanks; I’m happy the posts were helpful.
    Bill, work-for-hire generally comes from your agent, although your publisher might wrangle up some work for you as well. How do you do change your writing identity? In concert with your publisher or agent, you start to create a presence for the newly-named you. It’s a process and kind of convoluted. Hmmm, maybe there’s a blog post or two in that…

  5. patriciazell says:

    Thanks, Janet, for the information you have shared this week–your insight has helped me. After reading today’s post, I’m thankful that God opened the door to a teaching job for me and that money is not an issue with my writing. And, you’ve given me a little hope that I might be a debut author some day soon.

  6. Jill Kemerer says:

    Thank you! I feel like I just sat in on a private editorial meeting. I had no idea mid-list authors were at such risk. Even though I’m looking forward to someday being a debut author, I’ll tuck this info away.

    I especially love the idea of writing under another name if publishers decide to cut. I’m assuming you would write under a different pen name, with a seperate website, FB, Twitter, and the whole shebang. Great idea!

  7. Janet, this post really covers this subject well. I’ve seen author friends chopped, as you said, and also switch to other areas or find any place to fit. As a writer wanting to publish, I guess you have to be prepared to jump through whatever genre/subject hoop that comes along to keep viable.

    What I’m wondering is how do wannabe debut authors find their place? They can’t read the trends because trends pass before they can write a new manuscript, but what if their manuscripts, well written stories, languish on their computers? (I’m thinking of one author in particular, not me. :))

    Anyway, I haven’t commented this week, but I’ve been reading this with interest. Such a good series. Thanks!

  8. I was suprised and glad to read that debut authors aren’t the first to take the cut. It gives me hope to know my goal of becoming a published author isn’t unattainable. Janet, do you see any trends or marketing pushes that an author can help do to break out of the mid-list spot? Thinking ahead here. Smile.

  9. Thank you, Janet, for your very helpful posts with updates on trends you’ve seen in publishing and their implications. I’m thankful that I stopped by this week. The discussions were so informative, too. As an unpublished novelist, I still hope that ultimately I’ll receive a publishing contract. Hope is such an energizer.

  10. Erika Marks says:

    Hi Janet, I very much appreciate this information. As a soon to be debuting author, your thoughts are ones that have been resonating strongly with me lately, along with all the discussions I’ve been reading of building a web “presence” long before one’s novel is even released. As many authors have written, signing the contract is only the beginning of the story if one hopes to be a career novelist.

    On the flip/bright side, it can be viewed as exciting to think that in today’s market, authors have an opportunity and a green light (usually, I’m assuming) to build their own marketing presence. The challenge for most of us, of course, lies in how to do it effectively and economically.

    Thank you again for these discussions. It is because of helpful blogs such as yours that so many of us who hope to be published now know going in of the expectations that come along with publication. I remember when I first began submitting years ago, that sort of invaluable information was scarce, to say the least…


  11. Karen Porter says:

    Wonderful post, Janet. Good tips and information.

    It’s so easy to get discouraged. Solid information helps.