Why Everyone in Publishing–Authors, Agents, Publishers–Feels Disenfranchised
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
The other day I was talking with an editor about digital rights the publisher wanted back even though those rights had reverted to my client. I was surprised to hear her say: “We have ended up promoting authors’ books that are published by other publishers when we offered titles for free. That offer cost us, but other publishers benefited.”
I found myself thinking: “Welcome to the new world of publishing. Why are you surprised by that?” Neat lines of loyalty to publishers have melted away. But even so, doesn’t it benefit each publisher if all of an author’s titles sell well? When the water rises, it raises the entire boat. Yet the editor clearly thought of her publishing house as being in competition with other publishers, and she couldn’t imagine why she should help another publisher. That’s kind of an old-fashioned thought. While publishers might end up competing for a certain title or author, generally publishers are in competition with self-publishing, not each other. Which leads me to my next point of surprise in that conversation.
The editor went on to say that she found it disturbing that I had pointed out to her that my client could make more money by self-publishing her digital titles rather than returning them to the publisher, who intended to use those titles to promote my client’s other titles. In other words, those digital rights were useful to the publisher to make money off of other titles. But I have to weigh how much money my client could lose by reassigning those digital rights to the publisher. Why should the publisher be offended? It’s my job to think about all the angles of such a decision.
That exchange with the editor was one of several instances I’ve experienced that demonstrates publishers, agents, and authors all feel disenfranchised. The publishers feel wronged and wonder what happened to loyalty. The authors wonder what happened to publishers who worked hard and over the long-term to build careers. And agents wonder what happened to a world in which their major job was to place clients’ work with publishing houses.
That’s my point: Everyone feels disenfranchised and disrespected. Feelings run strong and deep on every side. Publishers feel as if their backs are to the wall, and that authors aren’t as supportive as they should be because, after all, publishers do much to make authors successful. Authors feel that publishers are kicking writers to the curb if their books don’t sell quickly. Agents feel as though they spend most of their time not selling new projects but protecting authors’ backlist rights.
Most of us want our old job descriptions back. We understood how to operate in that world. This new-fangled wide world of opportunities is far more complex and ever-shifting. And we think the “other guys” don’t get what this new world order looks like from our POV. We’re probably right.
How are we to maintain our publishing relationships during a time that feels as if we’re in a dryer being tumbled around? It’s hard to get a “fix” on each other when the situation looks one way one minute, and then the dryer tosses us so that circumstances look just the opposite a minute later.
Take, for example authors. Are published authors more valuable to the industry than ever? Yes and no. It depends on where the dryer throws that author in a given minute. Of course authors are the creators of what publishing sells. So writing is integral to what we all do. Content is king. With no writers, we have nothing.
On the other hand, except for regular-selling authors with momentum building, authors can be replaced. And crowds of new writers are working hard to do just that. So, really, how valuable is an author?
Are publishers necessary? Yes and no. Publishers have the best track record of all the entities available of delivering content to readers. But self-publishing is an option that sometimes makes more sense for a writer.
What about agents? From the blogs I read, writers seem to think that agents have developed furrowed brows because they aren’t making as much money. After all, the size of advances is down and it’s harder than ever to make a sale. On the other hand, agents who are guiding careers rather than concentrating on making the next sale are doing fine financially because they’ve adapted to the latest dryer tumble. I’m spending vast amounts of time reconfiguring my clients’ backlist. A world of opportunities exist for backlist, as never before. And there’s plenty of money to be made in doing so. Plus traditional publishing is still functioning just fine; so current projects are being sold. And when publishers are excited about projects, they’re paying to get them. Nowadays our job is to find the right venue for our clients’ creative work, wherever that might be.
Here are some important points for us to remember as the dryer turns:
Talk to each other. We can’t envision what the latest changes mean to everyone else unless we give each party the chance to articulate the affect. And we need to listen.
As we listen, we’ll all hear, behind the words, a sense of being disenfranchised. Let’s remember that and act toward each other like we remember it.
Be civil with each other. If ever there were a time we needed civility, this is it, when the comfortable walls of our publishing world have crumbled, and we’re all wondering how we fit into this strange new terrain.
So I repeat, above all, let’s be civil.