What’s the Problem?
Part of the problem is the fact that it is so damn hard to get published.
“I felt a groveling attitude not only toward my first publisher, but
toward my first agent, a woman who sold every one of my novels, but who
nevertheless told me at every turn that I was lucky to be published at
all, let alone to have an agent,” said Ada L., the author of six
It took years of prodding from Ada’s writer friends before Ada found
the courage to ditch her agent and find a new one. Why? She was afraid
to call her original agent because the agent couldn’t have a
conversation with Ada without getting in that “luck factor” phrase at
Is it any wonder that writers’ primary attitude is one of gratitude
when our agents, editors, and countless other writers who are desperate
to be published all keep telling us how lucky we are? Even seemingly
positive news reemphasizes the luck factor. When Oprah picked a book
for her book club, other writers talked about how lucky that newly
anoint-ed author had been to be plucked from obscurity. When Today and Good Morning America
choose a book for their book clubs, every publicist and editor—and
again, every writer—talks about the luck of the chosen one. After all,
with more than 130,000 books published every year, you have to be more
than a damn good writer to be anointed by reviews. You have to be
Ada L. suggested to me that writers don’t always feel empowered because
they aren’t really in on the process. “We don’t negotiate, we don’t
know which editor is looking for which product. We’re removed.” For
some reason these are the rules and protocols writers have always
Here’s a thought: We’re the writers, aren’t we? Let’s rewrite the rules!
“I was told I would never get a review in a major newspaper and not to
even try,” Jane T., a midlist author, said. “I tried anyway, contacting
the paper myself, and when I got the review—a rave—guess what I was
told by my publicist? I was lucky. ‘And please don’t do it again’ because I was making the publicist’s job harder.”
ICM literary agent Lisa Bankoff points out that there is also a fear
factor exacerbating the problem. She reports having phone conversations
with dissatisfied authors who complain about unresponsive publicists,
ill-conceived book jackets, or a lack of advertising. “Often, they’re
absolutely right to feel that the publisher could be doing a better job
of it, paying closer attention, offering more meaningful consultation.
That said, I’ve had many of those same phone conversations end with the
client begging me not to repeat any of it to the editor. God forbid,
the squeaky wheel might get replaced instead of oiled.”
That fear is part of why we crawl away, convincing ourselves we should
be grateful instead of acting on our anger. If we get anything—one ad
in a major newspaper, a four-city tour, three weeks of decent co-op
placement in the chains—we consider ourselves blessed. We’ve heard of
too many cases where books—sometimes despite a big advance—are dropped
or just die from a publisher’s lack of interest.
So, like neglected children, we’re thankful for every small favor.
In Their Defense
John Glusman, editor in chief of Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, sympathizes with authors and blames a marketplace
that is more competitive than ever. “As a result of consolidation in
the industry, there is less of an emphasis on quality and more
attention paid to the bottom line. That makes the stakes higher and
puts more expectation on certain books to perform,” Glusman says.
Publishers aren’t out to destroy writers, but publishing a successful
book is very much a guessing game. Agents don’t mean not to return our
calls, they are just overworked. And publicists aren’t the devil’s
spawn who think we are lunatics. They are for the most part
overburdened with too many books to push each month. At the same time,
the amount of review space in magazines and newspapers has been cut by
25 to 50 percent in the last two years. There isn’t time to do a good
PR job on every book, which is why writers should learn to do some of
their own, or save some of their advance to hire an outside PR firm.
Glusman reminds authors that sometimes decisions seem personal when
they aren’t. There are actual problems in publishing today. “There is
less and less media attention for books, and everyone is becoming
anxious. The shelf life and book review space and the attention span of
the general public are shorter. And the relatively long time it takes
to produce a book makes it even more difficult.”
Author Elizabeth Benedict (Almost, Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
says that while your book is the center of your world, to an editor
it’s one of two dozen books she’s working on that season, and she knows
that not all of those books are going to be smashing successes.
“I imagine that editors keep some distance between themselves and
writers so that if a book doesn’t take off, the editor can retreat a
bit more gracefully, instead of having an author who feels as though
the moon has been promised but not delivered. Maybe this feels to some
authors as though the publisher wants them to feel ‘grateful’ instead
of involved,” she says.
One way to combat this feeling as an author is to have realistic
expectations. Simon Lipskar, a literary agent with Writers House
Literary Agency, suggests that when a publisher has paid less than a
$25,000 advance to an author for a first novel, it’s foolish, no matter
how great one’s fantasies, to hope that the publisher will print 50,000
copies in hardcover, run an expensive (and often pointless) ad
campaign, send the author on an expensive (and often pointless) author
tour, and so on. “It’s the author’s part of the bargain as a
professional to know that, in most cases, these things will simply not
happen. Asking for them, begging for them, demanding them: This is part
of what leads publishers to react with an attitude that implies that
the author should shut up and take what’s being given.”
If an author can instead balance expectations against the realities of
what the publisher will or won’t do for his book, then the cycle that
leads to feelings of resentment and frustration can be put off from the
Lipskar is not suggesting that authors should simply stand back and let
publishers do what they’re going to do. Rather, he says, one has to be
realistic about what the publisher is going to bring to the table and
then say to oneself, “Okay, so what am I going to do to sell copies of
this book?” Authors who are less frustrated with the process and their
publishers are usually of two camps, the best-sellers and those who get
beyond this us-versus-them mentality.
This latter group of authors—who do take control—realize that a book is not
dead after three months as publishing wisdom dictates, and they get
creative. The authors who do not rely on luck tend to have more
positive publishing experiences and feel less angry at the outcome.
What to Do?
Ultimately, we all have to realize this basic
truth: If writers don’t write, publishers have nothing to publish. And
if they don’t publish they don’t have a business, and we don’t have a
They can’t do it without us and we can’t do it without them.
“Without the fruits of your labor, none of us would have jobs,” says
ICM’s Bankoff. “I’d have no deals to commission, editors would have
time to do nothing but refine their own prose, and the legion of
promotion, marketing, publicity, and sales people would be forced to
invest their energies in other pursuits.” The editor and the agent,
Bankoff says, are on a shared quest, and it’s one only the writer can
satisfy. And yet all too often what should be a partnership is just not
treated as such.
It begins with the very way that authors communicate (or rather don’t
communicate) with their publishers: An author deals with an agent who
deals with an editor. The editor in turn deals with the rest of the
house, and then reports back to either the agent (if it’s business) or
to the author (if it’s editorial).
The channels are not very clear.
FSG’s Glusman suggests that the author rely on her agent to make this
process go more smoothly. “It’s a big universe, with a lot of different
players in it,” he says. “The process itself is fairly simple, but
there is a lot of competition, and every author feels it. An author’s
agent should be his or her champion, run interference, and get involved
when there are issues.”
Amy Bloom (Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites With Attitude,
Random House, 2002) suggests we not be fooled by the nice stuff that
precedes signing a contract and that we should proceed through the
publishing process with the right attitude. “One can be appreciative
without being subservient. Objectively this is a business, and
publishers are not our parents or our friends. We sell them our goods,
and they pay for them. We all need to concentrate on doing business in
a positive and supportive way. In a way that does not cause pain.”
Whomever you talk to—authors, publishers, or agents—everyone agrees: It
all goes back to the agent. You must have an agent whom you trust.
Being Grateful is a Two-Way Street
If all the parties
involved can have respect for one another’s roles, then the idea of
being grateful doesn’t seem as onerous or troublesome.
In an ideal world, editors and publishers would be genuinely grateful
to be publishing and authors would be genuinely grateful to be
published by the people and companies who publish them and agents would
be genuinely grateful to be working on behalf of the talented authors
In fact, many people are. Lipskar, for one, says he is. “Yes,
relationships sometimes get strained, and I certainly know high-handed
editors, agents, and authors who all think they’re bigger than the
process. And authors should absolutely be leery of agents and editors
who from the outset treat them with disdain. But ‘being grateful’ can
be a positive way of approaching a process that is often fraught with
tension, as opposed to a sign of codependency and weakness.”
I am the author of more than 150 articles on the
publishing industry, but I have never written an article for which so
few authors and publishing professionals were willing to speak for the
record. More than 50 agents, editors, and authors I contacted refused.
We are in the business of communicating, and so this silence is
alarming. The widespread hesitancy to speak about these issues is
almost as significant as the issues themselves.
“I don’t think I have any right to complain about the things that are
wrong—and there is a lot wrong— because I’ve been so lucky with how my
career has gone,” says one best-selling writer whose name every reader
and every bookseller knows. “I’d be afraid to jinx it.”
Not enough said, but as clear a communication as I’ve ever read.
M.J. Rose (www.mjrose.com ) is lucky to have a wonderful agent
and has no complaints at all about her marvelous editor. Her newest
novel is Sheet Music (Ballantine, May 2003).