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The Battered Author Syndrome – I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore

1 September 2011

Regular visitor and commenter Julia Rachel Barrett pointed out a lovely rant.

When novelist Sarah A. Hoyt is fed up, she doesn’t keep quiet. Passive Guy says yay.

The following is part of a classic rant that’s worth reading by any author who’s been mistreated by a publisher:

So, to begin with, let me tell you right now that the chances of a midlist author dictating terms to his/her publisher are about the same as those of a village working class woman finding a man who doesn’t beat her. She might get lucky. She MIGHT. But she can’t count on it. In fact, a village woman once told me “If you think you’ll find a man who doesn’t beat you–” (And let me say, yes I have.)

Heck, as some of you know I have a lot of friends who are bestsellers. The way the market is right now, the chance of a bestseller dictating terms to his publisher are close to nill as well – unless he’s one of those blockbuster bestsellers that defy all classification. In our field you can probably count those in the fingers of both hands and have some fingers left over. And unfortunately none of them are close enough friends for me to ask if they, too, are worried.

. . . .

First of all, it’s a buyer’s market. Since the mega mergers of the eighties, there are five overarching houses. There might be more imprints, but, at least when submitting through an agent, you can’t submit twice to the same house. (Well, at least not using any agent I’ve had.)

Second, for each slot available on the publishing schedule there are thousands upon thousands of submissions. Even assuming the vast majority of those are either horrible or “don’t fit” the publisher’s “needs” there have to be at least ten books that would fit the slot at any given time.

. . . .

You’re a brand new author, and they pick you out of slush. Oooh. Oooh. You’re in the money now, right?

Um… maybe. But first let’s talk about the important considerations: how powerful is your agent? How much does he/she believe in you? And do you know anyone in a publishing house? If all those are negative, you have one more chance at the big money – are you a “sexy package”? Part of this is literal. Are you cute and young? Can they count on displaying you and having people tumble over themselves? Part is metaphorical – do you have a hard luck story? Do you have something interesting about you? Do you perhaps have a well-followed blog? Or are you a politically correct refugee?

. . . .

Let’s suppose you’re either white-bread American and unconnected to the publishing industry in any way. (Or you’re not white American but are stupid or honorable enough not to let them make a big deal of your life or treat you as an oppressed minority.) Let’s also suppose you wasted your twenties trying to break in, and in your thirties you’re blousy, somewhat overweight, with two small children.

Ah, my dear, welcome to hell. Here’s your accordion.

Having looked at this, your editor “forecasts” your numbers. I have it on good authority this doesn’t involve the bones of sacrificed animals. What they do is go “White, American, unremarkable and not sexy.” And you get the standard beginner’s advance. It used to be the princely sum of five thousand dollars (what, you can’t live on that for a year? Foolish you. Appliance boxes are free, and there are some nice underpasses. You can write at the library.) It is now three thousand.

Now the book and its advance pass on to the marketing department. Who… barely glance at it. To get back the money they invested in you, they don’t really need to do anything. No, look, I know what you’ve heard. They say that printing the average book costs 100k or some fantastical sum. But that’s because they’re charging to every book the same percentage of editor/publicist/secretary/etc salaries. (Many books at this level, if bought on proposal, never get READ in full. Except presumably by the copyeditor. That’s how much time you take of those salaries.)

. . . .

Note that SO FAR the writer has had exactly zero choice. Oh, he can chose NOT to sell his book and remain obscure forever. Does how good his book is influence anything? Well… it could. Supposing that word of mouth got going among readers. Except that, for all but one of my publishers (yes, you know which one) until very recently, it was one print run, one time, it sells out and the book is no longer available in any format. Too bad so sad. One of my publishers until the last two books made it a point of taking the books out of print at the year mark or when the book started earning royalties.

This meant the chances of your being discovered in back inventory were… you’re right. Zero.

. . . .

And then… and then the fun starts. When the numbers are in, you’re told your numbers are only “midlist” and barely good enough (if you’re lucky) for them to buy the next one. And the next. They all get the exact same treatment. You might grow your fans, but it will be very slow. And even if you sign with a publisher who wishes they could do more for you, at that point the publisher is hamstrung by the numbers in the computer about your previous distribution.

You might (or might not) be asked to change your name again and again and again (one of my publishers has a fetish for this.)

And all along you’ll be told the fault for your lackluster sales is … yours. Yep. You wrote the book, and if it doesn’t sell, it’s ALWAYS your fault. No matter how demonstrably it ISN’T.

And under the old model, you swallowed and took it. You did what the village women did when I was a kid. You bandaged your worse wounds, and you made up stories. “I fell down the stairs.” “I bumped into bad sales figures in the night.” “I am so clumsy.” “It’s all my fault.” “They beat me because they love me.” And you crawled back. Because the alternative was unthinkable. The alternative was to never publish again.

. . . .

And if you complained – if you so much as opened your mouth and said something along the lines as perhaps the crash of the books wasn’t ENTIRELY your fault . . . you got told how grateful you should be to the house for continuing to publish your worthless self, how each of your no-good books cost them 100k to get to the printing stage, and how they only did it out of the goodness of their hearts. And you had to swallow it, no matter how nonsensical it was.

THIS model. THIS MODEL is what the bright eyed harbingers of the establishment, the blue eyed boys of privilege want me to get maudlin about. Both as a reader and as a writer, let me say RIGHT NOW that I’m not going to.

. . . .

Will I continue selling to big houses? Only if I like them. I write for a house I like, and there’s one other house I wouldn’t mind writing for.

As for the rest of them, they can go to hell. I’m going Indie.

Link to the rest at According to Hoyt

Big Publishing

11 Comments to “The Battered Author Syndrome – I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore”

  1. This is so, so awesome.

    (Um. The post. Not the abusive relationship part.)

    Good for her.

  2. Sarah’s awesome, isn’t she? 🙂

  3. Yeah, I’m a having a bit of a fangirl moment. Miiiight have bookmarked her.

  4. Yeah, Sarah’s the bomb. I love reading her rants.

  5. Aside from the fact that I like Sarah’s books anyway, I’d start buying her for this rant alone.

  6. Is she suggesting the non-whites have an easier time getting published? Um, yyyyyeah.

  7. Karl,
    In no way. I found out recently I’m considered Latina (don’t ask. It certainly is how I’m perceived.) What I am saying is that if you ARE what they perceive as “ethnic” and refuse to “use it” you get treated worse. Because you’re refusing to use your “interesting” bit. I.e. you’re only allowed to write one thing. It’s tons of fun, really. Here are the shoes. Walk a mile.

  8. Powerful Powerful words. I started seeing this same abusive relationship really come to the forefront about two years ago, and made up my mind to go indie. After reading this, I’m so glad I did.

  9. Fantastic, Bravo Sarah!

    All this passion (from PG’s site to others) really points to how much we love good stories and how frustrated we are at the industry.

    I’m all about the DiY and independent spirit–it works for other artisans and craftspeople (and musicians and filmmakers and videogame developers), why not for storytellers?

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