Last week, Steve Hamilton utterly destroyed his career—or would have, if it were 2005. Steve, a New York Times bestseller and two-time Edgar winner, pulled his novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason, from St. Martins Press less than two months before the book’s release.
Steve didn’t just pull the book; he canceled the entire four-book contract. His agent repaid the monies that St Martins had already paid on that contract.
Why would a writer do such a thing? According to the articles I saw, Hamilton claims that the book, which had received excellent pre-publication reviews, was getting no support from the publisher.
To be clear, I should add two things here as a former St. Martins author that might color my perspective:
- Like Steve, I got excellent prepublication reviews before all of my Smokey Dalton books were published, as well as promises of huge promotions on those books. The promotion never happened; the books were dumped. St. Martins is the company that sent me on a book tour and refused to supply books. So…
- In all things here, my sympathies and my experience lead me to believe Steve. You might see me as biased. Go ahead. Because I am.
What St Martins promised on the back of the galleys sent to reviewers and places like Publishers Weekly was this:
A 75,000 copy first printing, and a lot of national marketing, including a national author tour and a national ad campaign for the book.
But not even Publishers Weekly, an industry trade journal, was buying that. In an article about Hamilton’s parting with St Martins, Rachel Deahl of PW wrote, “It is an open secret in the publishing industry that claims made on galleys and other material for the trade–about everything from first printings to marketing budgets and efforts–can be gross exaggerations.”
In that article, Steve says he’s canceled the contract because of a lack of publisher support. Since he’s been with St Martins for 17 years, he knows what he’s talking about.
. . . .
In the past eight years, I’ve canceled two book contracts because publishers didn’t fulfill their promises. I felt relief both times.
But I had options, even before the changes in publishing. Steve had options as well. It looks like his agent had talked with other publishers before pulling the book from St. Martins. After the book’s rights were freed up, over 10 publishers bid on the book.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (part of Penguin Group USA) won the bid for “substantially more than the near-seven figures Hamilton was to have received from St. Martin’s,” according to the AP report on the new sale.
The world has changed. Back in the day, no publisher would have bid on a book already in production, no matter what was going on. And no agent would have tried this, no matter how bad things got.
But Steve’s agent, Shane Salerno, is not a New York based agent. He’s an author himself, as well as a filmmaker, and screenwriter. He runs a company in Los Angeles called the Story Factory. He’s not playing by the old rules at all, which is good, because large corporate publishers aren’t either.
But let’s assume that Steve had done all of this without having other publishers in his back pocket. These days, he still had options. If no one had offered on the book, he could have published it himself.
If he handled it right, it would have sold better than it would have through St Martins, which has a lot of trouble selling most of its hardcovers to places other than libraries.
Books get canceled all the time. Often they get canceled because the writer fails to deliver. But sometimes there are other problems, as there were with me and my two publishers above. One of those publishers had assigned me the editor from hell. (Wait, that’s being unfair to editors from hell. She was and is a demon spawn, a hell native who makes hell hellish for anyone who is there. [yeah, you guessed it. I think she’s a terrible editor and an even worse person.]) I refused to work with her, and that ultimately led to the cancellation of the contract.
. . . .
In addition to the monies paid to Steve, St Martins had probably invested $100,000 in actual costs and overhead on the book, if not more.
Pulling the book two months before publication guarantees that St Martins lost money on the deal. Other publishers know that. In this instance, they didn’t care.
. . . .
[I]n the old days, the days before the indie publishing revolution, Steve Hamilton’s byline would have vanished.
Oh, he would have kept writing, and he probably would have had a frustrating few years. He might’ve tried to write under his own name, and except for the short fiction magazines, probably not sold anything. Then he would have moved to a pen name, and maybe used the cover of his agent to keep his real name out of the loop until the book was accepted (and maybe not even then).
That kind of secrecy revolving around a pen name happened all of time back then. I know of several writers whose real names are still hidden from their publishers because the writer did something to get blacklisted under that name.
. . . .
Force the publisher to keep promises? Force the publisher to honor a contract? Horrors! Better to get some naïve young writer to write books than an old pro who knows what he’s doing.
. . . .
Dean’s asked me more than once what it would take for me to sell another novel into traditional publishing. (I sell other projects to traditional publishers—nonfiction, editing, short stories.)
If the novel contracts change, maybe, I would sell a novel to traditional publishing again. If I’m offered 7-figures and the contract change, and…
Probably not even then. As Elizabeth Spann Craig says, I’ve done all of this myself with better financial results.
Plus, as she says, I like the control.
. . . .
Writers are the brand. We always have been. And because of that, traditional publishers are slowly beginning to realize that indie published writers are cutting into the bottom line.