Category Archives: controversy

Why some authors hate publishers

A long-time client, who is very dear to our agency, pointed us in the direction of a piece by Michael Levin in the HuffPost that I’d missed when it ran last week.  Our client was distressed by Mr. Levin’s assertions about the nefarious tactics mustache twirling publishers use to victimize authors.  Understandably, since Mr. Levin writes with such passion and seeming authority, she was concerned that the picture he paints is an accurate depiction of the culture of book publishing as 2012 draws to a close and we count down to the  Mayan apocalypse (which, of course, if it comes to pass will make this discussion irrelevant).

After reading the piece Jane and I had basically the same reaction which boiled down to “Why do the people talking trash about our business always seem to be the ones who understand it the least or who have a bag full of sour grapes they’re carrying around with them?”  And, then I got all happy because I didn’t have to scrounge around looking for a blog topic this week.

We promised our client that we’d go through Mr. Levin’s arguments and respond to them from our point of view and this, more or less (with my usual digressions and irritating asides), is what I hope to do here.

Mr. Levin’s argument boils down to four salient points:  (1) Publishers hate authors even though authors and the work they produce are their lifeblood. (2) Publishers are reducing advances and royalties across the board with the added perk of also reducing marketing and promotion for their titles. (3) Publishers’ dependence on BookScan (the tracking system for sales) guarantees that unless an author has a boffo success, their career is over faster than you can say “reserve for returns.”  And (4) by lowering the quality of the product because they refuse to pay what good authors are worth, publishers are ensuring that the public stops buying books and turns to other sources (the Internet) for their information and entertainment kicks.

Alrighty, then!  This should be quick(ish).

(1)   Publishers are the partners and adversaries of agents.  We work with and against them for the good of our authors, who have our first allegiance.  That said, most publishers (and the term includes all the people who make books happen at a publishing house from the CEO to the intern who opens the mail) we deal with daily, sometimes hourly, are incredibly hard working, thoughtful, engaged, and compassionate.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, very few people go into our business to achieve their dreams of Trump-like wealth.  Salaries are low in publishing compared to those in other media, and the work is painstaking and, often thankless (Exhibit A: Mr. Levin).  Publishing types do their jobs—which entail long hours after they’ve left the office sitting with a manuscript that needs to be shaped on a granular level—because they LOVE books.  Period.  With all the challenges publishers are faced with in this increasingly digital world, the level of care they bring to the curating of great (and even not so great) books is impressive.

(2)  Not sure which publishers Mr. Levin is talking about but our agency has had its best year ever.  We’ve sold over 100 books this year and have been paid advances, ranging from five to seven figures, on every one of them.  Perhaps there are some tiny houses that are embracing the “no advance” model but we work with the Big Six as well as many, many smaller independent publishers and have not seen this no-advance/lower-royalty model Mr. Levin describes.

(3)  We depend on BookScan too when we are considering signing up an author.  It’s a tremendous tool that lets you know what you’re up against when trying to find a new home for a previously published author whose book didn’t do well.  Has BookScan ever been a deciding factor in not signing up a book?  Probably, but only if we were very much on the fence about it anyway.  I’d venture to say that this is the same process publishers go through because we’ve had numerous authors whose BookScan sales, how to put it delicately?, were in the toilet and we still sold their next book and the book after that.  Bottom line, if your next idea is great or your genius undeniable, or your platform has reached critical mass, BookScan will not destroy your career.

(4)  Really?  Take a look at the best books of the year lists that are cropping up all over the place right now and tell me if you think important, brilliant, exciting fiction and non-fiction isn’t being published any more.  And, given the fact that book sales have risen in the digital age, it seems that a new generation of readers is turning to…books…for their information and their entertainment kicks!

Seems to me that publishers don’t hate authors any more than authors hate publishers.  In this complicated new world we live in, we all (on both sides of the business) need to take responsibility for our own failures and flaws as well as advocate for our strengths and successes rather than succumbing to paranoid fantasies about how much “they” hate us.

Penguin sues authors

When I started working in publishing (roughly 100 years ago) the business was still one of “gentlemen’s agreements,” of editors coddling temperamental authors, and agents selling books based on a persuasive conversation rather than book proposals (look up Swifty Lazar, if you don’t believe me).  Too, it was always a tenet of agenting that despite the terms in a publishing agreement, there were ways around everything, from an onerous option clause to the repayment of an advance for a cancelled book.

This all worked, of course, because publishers have traditionally been unwilling to persecute their authors (very bad p.r.).  Given the conventional wisdom that authors are fragile, creative souls with no real grasp of practical details—like deadlines or basic accounting—even with cutthroat agents involved, the optics of going after someone publicly for non-delivery and non-payment did not work in a publisher’s favor.  So, often, authors got away with not repaying advances based on flimsy loopholes and how skilled their agents were at scaring or shaming the publisher.

But, times have gotten tough in recent years.  Margins are tighter as a result of the e-book revolution and the Justice Department has decided to stick its nose into publishing practices that many argue it has no knowledge of or understanding about.  So, it’s not entirely surprising that Penguin has taken the rather shocking step of suing a number of high profile writers for non-payment.

On the one hand…well, yes.  If you sign a contract that specifies that you need to repay an advance under certain conditions and those conditions come to pass, any legitimate business would go after you to recoup their money.

On the other hand, this makes me sad, because it feels like yet another of publishing’s intangibles has been sacrificed to the bottom line.   To me it seems that this takes us many more steps away from the days when publishers went out of their way, financially and otherwise, to enable an author—even the most wayward of them (see The Lost Generation)—to thrive creatively and produce the kinds of literature we’re still reading today.  Did they lose some money? Sure, but I’m pretty certain Scribner (and Random House and S&S, etc.) is still collecting on its investment.

What do you all think of this action by Penguin?

 

 

4

It’s all over now, Baby Blue

Oh, Jonah…

I’m sure most of you saw the news yesterday that somewhat-discredited writer Jonah Lehrer is now fully discredited, having resigned from The New Yorker after admitting he fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes for his book Imagine and then lied about it. It’s a shame, because, while I haven’t read Imagine, I’ve been impressed by his writing on-line—he’s clearly a smart guy. But while I was willing to let it slide earlier when it seemed like he was self-plagiarizing due to feeling overwhelmed/over-committed, it’s a lot harder when he’s putting words in Bob Dylan’s mouth.

Anyway, I bring all this up just as a simple plea: if you’re writing nonfiction, don’t make stuff up!

I know, it seems self-evident, but there’s a long history of smart writers plagiarizing or fabricating material for a variety of reasons. And while publishers can protect themselves to an extent with the warranty clauses in their contracts, which place the burden of truth squarely on the author, as an agent all we really have is the author’s word. Yet if a problem arises, we certainly catch our share of the blame (witness the silence of Lehrer’s agent on this).

So, for my sake and yours, please don’t pull a Jonah—otherwise, to quote (accurately, I hope) the man in question, “a hard rain’s a-gonna fall…”

eBook Piracy

In a digital publishing world, how do we deal with piracy? Authors and readers alike have strong opinions about piracy, DRM (a special kind of coding that is added to some eBooks so you can’t do things like copy and paste or print out an entire eBook), and how to stop eBooks from being stolen. And some have more creative solutions than others. The Guardian recently shared this piece about author Terry Goodkind and his own special brand of revenge. After finding a pirated copy of his self-published title THE FIRST CONFESSOR: THE LEGEND OF MAGDA available online, Terry took to his Facebook to out his pirate to fans and publicly shame him for stealing the eBook (including posting a photo of the alleged pirate).

And it worked.

The pirate removed all of his links to Goodkind’s book and Goodkind considers this a victory.

The question is: should we be castigating people who make pirated eBooks available? Or, as Paul Coelho believes, does piracy stir readers’ interest and sales? Goodkind believes it removes any incentive to legitimately purchase an author’s work. What do you think? Should authors put a lot of effort into combating piracy?

15

Big Brother is Watching You (Read)!

A really interesting article came out in the Wall Street Journal about eBooks and how readers read, giving a realistic peek into what readers want. The article talks about how retailers can now use eBook readers to mine data about how readers interact with their books—how long they read for, when they put a book down or what they read next. This kind of data opens up a whole new world to eBook retailers and publishers—data that was previous unavailable.

 Knowing when readers lose interest in a text or how many pages they are likely to read before walking away will help authors and publishers create eBooks that keep readers hooked and hopefully coming back for more. It could also be the first step in creating a truly interactive eBook, where readers get to leave feedback and interact (via the eBook) with authors and publishers.

 However, this new data also raises questions about privacy—reading, which was once a completely individual and solitary act, is now being shared and studied by big name companies and publishers. Devices such as the Kindle or Nook can now record exactly what it is you do while using your device. This information is then sent to eBook retailers for analysis. It’s not quite spying, but it is like having someone looking over your shoulder and taking notes about your reading habits.

 What do you think? Does it worry you that companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are now analyzing every word you read? Or does the lack of privacy get outweighed by the benefits that this data can provide? Do you think this kind of data will help publishers give readers a better experience?

10

Content pressure

A friend of mine alerted me to this story about Jonah Lehrer’s self-plagiarism (which turned into a story of him plagiarizing others) and it made me sad.  This kind of thing keeps coming up (whether it’s plagiarizing or making things up, a la Frey and Mortenson) and it’s disappointing, sure, but it’s also puzzling.

Rather than opting for knee-jerk demonizing, I find myself wondering if it’s possible that these talented people are just cracking under the pressure to produce content at a speed that is unsustainable in order to catch the miniscule attention span of readers used to having 17 websites open at once and getting their information in McNugget bites.   Or, as in the case of those who “embellish,” if it’s the trying to make their stories bigger, shinier, funnier, more tragic, more more in order to grab your and my interest.

Is any of this excusable?  Are we collectively putting too much pressure on our writers and thinkers and pushing them over the edge into the ethical abyss?  What do you all think?

 

 

0

Revolution

It’s hard to think about anything else today besides the noise and excitement going on nine stories below. If you’re not in NY (particularly Union Square) or another major city today, Occupy Wall Street is having its May Day protest. Without delving into the politics of all that, let’s talk books.

Books have historically been vehicles for major revolutions, just think about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Common Sense, and The Communist Manifesto.

So, what do you think the “Bibles” of OWS should be? What books have served to inspire you to make a drastic change?

10

The Pulitzer, or lack thereof

There has been so much chatter the last couple of days about the Pulitzer judges not awarding a fiction (or editorial writing ) prize for the first time since 1977 that I thought it was worth a mention on our blog.

Whether you loved the nominated books or hated them, or never even heard of them, the reality is that historically the prize does help sales. In a market that’s changing so rapidly and with the shrinking number of retailers, most of us feel like we want every boost we can get for our books. A Pulitzer Prize certainly offers that.

Ann Patchett (one of my favorites, as you might know) sums it up beautifully in her New York Times op-ed piece. As she suggests, the Pulitzer is the literary version of the Oscar, and to not have a prize this year when we’re all craving good news is definitely disappointing. It is sad to think, as Patchett points out, that David Foster Wallace will not have another chance to win. So, we’ll sigh and move on.

What do you all think of this? Do you care about the Pulitzer for fiction or that one wasn’t awarded this year? Is it something that makes you go out and buy a book (I’ll admit I did buy Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad last year after it won the prize)? Curious minds want to know.

Necessary losses

Most of us who work in publishing are passionate about books.  Duh.

We are also passionate about the written word in its myriad forms and about the primacy of the creative process.  Even when working with prima donna “authors,” celebrities who are barely literate, and writers of all stripes whose work should probably be hurled across the room in homage to the great Dorothy Parker, many of us are easily star struck.  All it takes is a brilliant turn of phrase, a well crafted, ambitious novel, a surprising and daring narrative gambit and we’re in love.

But, most of us in the business know with utter certainty that there are books that should be shelved, put in a drawer, sent through the shredder or, in the case of the truly great writers, consigned to footnotes in fawning biographies.  In this era of e-books and the voracious need for content, whatever its worth, it’s hard to defend the position that some books just should not be published.  And yet, some books should not be published.

Reading this short piece in the HuffPost about “lost” early efforts by renowned authors, later found and brought out under the guise of offering additional glimpses into those authors’ psyches, reinforces my opinion that not everything deserves to be in print.  My contention that someone should have told Shakespeare to put aside Titus Andronicus and turn his talents to somewhat less bloody family dramas has gotten me in trouble in literature classes as well as cocktail parties but really, would that have been such a loss?

I think all of us need to recognize, especially now when it’s so easy to self-publish, when something is not ready for public consumption and be able to move on to the next project with an eye to applying the lessons learned and producing something stronger, better…publishable.  What do you think?  As writers, can you make the call on your own work?  Can you make the call on other peoples’?  Should everything be published, the good, the bad, and the badly written?

 

3

An agent’s responsibility

When I was first contemplating making the switch from editing to agenting, one of my concerns was the morality of the profession. Now, I’d worked with agents for years, and not once did I ever encounter the classic agent stereotype—you know, the fast-talking, cigar-chomping, ready-to-sell-his-mother-down-the-river-for-a-quick-buck shyster. And indeed, I’ve found that, at least here at DGLM, we make it a point of conducting our business as honestly and responsibly as possible.

Still, it’s with a bit of unease that I want to talk about yesterday’s kerfuffle over Dara Lynn-Reiss and her book deal for her Vogue article. If you haven’t read it, it’s basically about how she shamed her 7-year-old daughter into losing weight. As a parent, I found it to be a terrible story, and one that I frankly don’t want to read more about in book form. But as an agent I did find myself wondering about the sale, and whether I would have taken this project on myself.

Certainly, the article is controversial, and controversy sells. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that—when I help a writer put together a proposal, say, for a narrative or a memoir, a key question is what “newsworthy” content (i.e. controversy) might be included. Moreover, if an agent’s primary role is to sell books, how much do I have to like or approve of the material?

But ultimately, I’d like to think I’d pass for the reason Mary Elizabeth Williams lays out so convincingly in Salonit’s just a depressing way to sell books. It’s cynical and potentially exploitative—and even if it isn’t, I just don’t see how I would be proud of myself for repping this book. I’d like to think Lynn-Reiss’s agent had a different take on the material, and he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. But if his calculations lined up with Williams’ reading of the sale—well, color me depressed…

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this—both on Lynn-Reiss’ situation and where an agent should draw the line on what material to rep.