Dear Publisher, Dan’s bloody Valentine to an industry

This first appeared on my blog in January, but it is far more appropriate as a Valentine to the publishing industry:

Thank you for sending me your contract for consideration. I am sure you will appreciate that talented authors receive many unsolicited contracts. Nonetheless, I am aware that a publisher like yourself relies upon discovering new talent in order to keep its lists fresh and win new readers, so I hope that you will not be too disappointed that in this case I am declining your kind offer. I wish you all the best in seeking exciting new talent elsewhere.

I understand that it is frustrating to receive a form rejection from an author, without any elaboration on specific areas to work on in your contract. I hope that the following general points may help you in your future submissions.

1. An author relies for their living upon a day job. They write, edit, and network in the evenings, at weekends, and in lunch hours and teabreaks. A publisher’s advance, the largest incentive for an author to sign a contract, is not sufficient for them to give up their day job with any security.

2. Many talented, exciting authors write work that will not appeal to large readerships. Publishers need to sell large amounts of books. The result of this tension is that many of these authors will fail to recoup publishers’ outlay within their first two books, and it will not be viable for publishers to keep them on board.

3. Without a publisher, a writer is under no such pressure, and will not be junked if their initial books “fail”.

4. Should a writer achieve initial success wit ha publisher, they will be expected to produce similar works, and not explore or develop their talent.

5. Without a publisher there is no pressure to change for a writer the way they write in order to fit market needs.

6. Without a publisher there is the freedom to experiment, change genre at will, try, fail, try again, fail again, and devlop one’s talent, voice, and potential to the full.

7. With a publisher a writer must concede control over cover design, the way their work is presented to the world.

8. The long cycle of the publishing industry means that the time from pen to audience inevitably freezes some of the initial energy and excitement of the creative process, leading to a less real and invigorating feedback process between writer and audience, and a less meaningful feedback loop.

9. With a publisher, a new writer loses editorial control. Not just total control of final cut, but control of which editor to use in the first place. An editor must have two qualities – the ability to be utterly ruthless; and absolute sympathy with an author’s aims. An author needs to be free to select their own, trusted, editor.

10. Pricing – whilst unsigned, the author is free to set the price for all their books – and other merchandise. This includes setting the price at free should the author wish to do that with, for example, their ebooks. It also means the freedom to create and price specila and limited editions of their work.

In conclusion, I am afraid that an author must consider not just their short-term but their long-term future. And whilst I am sure that your kind offer, were I to accept it, would put me in a financially more advantageous position one year from now, and possibly three years from now, compared to that if I reject it; I am afraid that the models I have run show that in five, ten, and twenty years – that is, over the course of my career – there is no financial advantage, and in many models financial disadvantage, in my accepting.

I wish you every success in your future publishing career.

~ by yearzerowriters on February 14, 2010.

7 Responses to “Dear Publisher, Dan’s bloody Valentine to an industry”

  1. Outstanding!

  2. I love it. I’ve still got a smile on my face. I know it’s serious, but Dan, with all the rejection letters we get, it’s funny too. Well done.
    Anne LG

  3. Thank you – serious but with a humorous twist🙂
    Dan

  4. Dan –

    Playing Devils Advocate as usual, where I disagree:

    “1. An author relies for their living upon a day job. They write, edit, and network in the evenings, at weekends, and in lunch hours and teabreaks. A publisher’s advance, the largest incentive for an author to sign a contract, is not sufficient for them to give up their day job with any security.”
    – Is this an argument to say you don’t want an advance, or that the advances are not large enough? Some unpublished writers are unemployed, some are self-employed, some have part time jobs. ALL could benefit from payment for their work. I believe professional artists should get paid for their work. This is accepted in all other fields of the arts, and it seems a fundamental principle to me.

    “2. Many talented, exciting authors write work that will not appeal to large readerships. Publishers need to sell large amounts of books. The result of this tension is that many of these authors will fail to recoup publishers’ outlay within their first two books, and it will not be viable for publishers to keep them on board.”
    – A question to ask yourself – just how obscure are your books? We know you are not writing mainstream blockbusters, but nor is your writing particularly weird or inaccessible. The sort of authors you admire, the sort of literary novel you aspire to, sell in their thousands, not their hundreds. If (and these are big ‘ifs’) your novel is good enough and it is marketed well, shouldn’t it sell in the thousands too?

    “3. Without a publisher, a writer is under no such pressure, and will not be junked if their initial books “fail”.”
    – Well, if you don’t have a publisher, then you can’t be dropped by a publisher. It’s certainly very possible that an author’s subsequent work may not live up to the publisher’s expectations, so it seems paramount those expectations are in line with the author’s. But of course publishers can make mistakes. Or be idiot bastards.

    “4. Should a writer achieve initial success with a publisher, they will be expected to produce similar works, and not explore or develop their talent.”
    – Really? Within the world of literary novels, have you got any evidence of this? What is more apparent to me are successful debut literary novelists finding it hard to follow up their first book with something equally strong.

    “5. Without a publisher there is no pressure to change for a writer the way they write in order to fit market needs.”
    – Let’s take it for granted we are not talking about mass-market publishing anyway but literary fiction. As with points 2), 3) & 4), I see this as an argument for try to find a good publisher, not one who has no understanding of what you are doing. Those who buy literary novels, almost by definition, don’t expect the same formulaic book every time from the author. If you replace the term ‘market’ with that of ‘readers’, their may be an argument for saying no, you don’t want to alienate your readers. They may well have ‘needs’ you want to recognise, if not pander to.

    “6. Without a publisher there is the freedom to experiment, change genre at will, try, fail, try again, fail again, and develop one’s talent, voice, and potential to the full.”
    – Yes, this is true. Without a publisher you have the freedom to fail as many times as you want. But to develop your talent I think you need to get your books out there and get them read.

    “7. With a publisher a writer must concede control over cover design, the way their work is presented to the world.”
    – Yes, this is probably true (does it apply to all publishing houses? I don’t know). But as I say in point 10 below, self-publishing has its own compromises too. Unless you are not lucky enough to have an experienced professional designer to work for you, you book is unlikely to look that good.

    “8.The long cycle of the publishing industry means that the time from pen to audience inevitably freezes some of the initial energy and excitement of the creative process, leading to a less real and invigorating feedback process between writer and audience, and a less meaningful feedback loop.”
    – This is true. However, this assumes without a publisher you are getting an audience. If you are marketing and selling your book yourself, it might take years to get a readership.

    “9. With a publisher, a new writer loses editorial control. Not just total control of final cut, but control of which editor to use in the first place. An editor must have two qualities – the ability to be utterly ruthless; and absolute sympathy with an author’s aims. An author needs to be free to select their own, trusted, editor.”
    – The in-house editor is a dying beast – many publishers no longer have them. A sympathetic editor is a wonderful thing to have, but I don’t necessarily agree that finding one is easier without a publisher. I’ve yet to come across any writing (including my own) on writers’ websites that couldn’t have been improved by judicious editing.

    “10. Pricing – whilst unsigned, the author is free to set the price for all their books – and other merchandise. This includes setting the price at free should the author wish to do that with, for example, their ebooks. It also means the freedom to create and price special and limited editions of their work.”
    If you self-publish hard copy books yourself, yes, you can price them how you wish. But if you are using a POD agency like Lulu and you don’t want to make a loss on each one, you are going to find your books priced at the high end of bookshop prices. Unless you are subsidising the print costs you are also likely to be restricted in format size and choice of materials (you’re going to end up 6 x 9 with a glossy cover whether you want it or not). Collectives of writers could become their own publishers and form a company that could deal directly with a company like Lightning Source, rather than going via Lulu, and strike some good deals…

    MY CONCLUSION
    For me, all these arguments lead not to the conclusion that we don’t need publishers but that we DO need small, sympathetic, flexible dynamic publishers. And maybe the ones we really want don’t exist yet.

    Lulu publish 1000 new titles. EVERY DAY. It is getting increasingly harder for self-published books to get noticed and local bookshops are soon going to be overwhelmed with self-published authors begging for space and attention. There is also a danger, as with all web-based communities, that you think you are addressing the world when it really it is a very small community of like minded people. In our case, other writers. We need to break out into the world beyond that.

    We have to face the fact that the market for novels is ludicrously over subscribed. There are just too many great novels out there already written we will never have time to read, as well as the perfectly decent novels we are all writing now. That’s a fact of life, and it was our choice to dive into the fray. Just to get noticed, let alone read, was never going to be easy.

    My book is not a mainstream blockbuster, but, at the same time, it is not particularly obscure. I know by reactions to it that it appeals to a specific by relatively broad audience and, IF it is good enough (and it may well be not), the potential readership should be in the 10’s of thousands, not the hundreds. But to do that, people need to know it exists. It needs to be reviewed in the national press, it needs to be on the tables in bookstores looking like the sort of book that my potential readers would buy. It needs to be promoted. And I can’t do all that myself.

    Roland

  5. Wow, that’s certainly food for thought,as ever. A huge amount can be summed up as you surmise – not a rally against publishers for the sake of it, but simply a regret that we don’t have the kind of publisher I’d like to see – which isn’t to say I think we should or could see that kind – for many reasons, including basic economics.

    Specifically
    1. I don’t think I’m complaining about anything – simply stating the way things stand, and the fact that an advance isn’t – in the long term – an incentive. For me long vs short term is the key to how we see ourselves as writers. There are lots of short-term benefits to having a publisher, but many vanish in the long term. Obviously some of us (quite possibly, I will admit, including me) simply can’t afford to turn down a short term gain for the sake of the long term. But we need to be aware of the long-term picture – and the fact that an advance will never be enough for someone to give up their job may well be a factor.

    Many people self-publish with a view to getting a publisher. For me, if anything it would be the other way round – I may have to accept a deal if one came along in order to keep afloat financially – but it would be a snatch and grab, with a view to getting out and self-publishing. That’s one of the things I like about the To Hell With Firts Novels model – it’s a one book deal that gives new literary fictioneers exposure and then lets them go their own way, inflated readership in hand.

  6. Part of my concern is that people don’t underestimate just how HARD it is to get a self-published literary novel noticed (I think it a little different for niche non-fiction and certain types of specialist genre novel) unless you are already famous or are a genius at self-promotion.

    I am still a little baffled by your antipathy towards publishers in the ‘long-term’…

  7. Yes, I agree – people DO underestimate it – that’s one of the reasons I run my “hold a self-publisher to account” column, to give people some kind of insight into the reality to act as a balance in case I come across as evangelising. For me it’s not a bout publicising a novel, though, it’s about abody of work and growing your readers with that body of work, novel by novel.

    It’s not so much antipathy as realism – for literary novelists, instant results are expected. Too many writers can’t deliver that, through no fault of their own,and I don’t think that leaves them in a good place – I’ve spoken about what I’d like to see sevberal times – an unconditional several year tenure that continues regardless of the initial success of the books – more than lip service, in other words, to the idea that a publisher is investinmg in an author not a book. But I’m eyes wide open that just isn’t viable for publishers.
    Dan

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