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The Big Boys’ Table

13 August 2018

From author Jenny Trout:

I’m talking to a male author at a signing event. He writes thrillers and horror and he’s standing in front of tall promotional banners bearing big-name praise for his books. He’s normal and personable and not braggy.

Which is what makes it worse when he says that his first contract resulted in a seven-figure advance.

He explains how much support he’s gotten from big names, the movie and television rights he’d sold. How none of his subsequent advances have been below six figures.

And how he’d gotten a lot of this attention because an indie book he’d published had reached sales figures that are fairly average to midlist indie romance authors.

“Anyone can do what I did,” he says of his marketing tactics at the beginning. He’s a nice guy and genuinely believes his good luck at stumbling upon a marketing tactic that worked is why he’s being handed big checks and bigger opportunities. He wants his fellow authors to succeed. He wants to pay it forward and help them the way he was helped. Because everyone has been so nice to him, so eager to see his star rise. He tells a story about one of the biggest names in the business flying him out to spend a weekend in his guest house and saying, “We’re going to get you a seat at the big boys’ table.”

It’s a story out of a writer’s wildest dreams.

It’s a story out of a male writer’s wildest dreams.

Those words, “the big boys’ table”, undoubtedly thrilled him in the retelling of the tale. Who doesn’t fantasize about having a rich, powerful person promise them that every dream they have is about to come true? But they didn’t have the same inspirational effect on me that he was probably going for. A moment before, I’d been listening to a fascinating story of an author who really, truly believes in himself and the power of our art.

A moment later, I was slapped with a reminder that these wild literary adventures aren’t for me or any other woman. Because there’s no seat for a female author at “the big boys’ table.”

. . . .

Does this mean his books aren’t good? No. I haven’t read them, but I plan to read his next release because it sounds incredible. Does it mean he hasn’t worked for the success he’s received? Not at all. He’s a hybrid author currently working on self-published releases alongside traditionally published ones, which is no easy feat. The problem isn’t this author or that he’s been offered a seat at the big boys’ table. The problem is that when another man is invited to that table, they forget why they’re there. They don’t notice the people who aren’t sitting with them.

And the men who’ve spent a lot of time at that table know this. They’ve carefully engineered the situation to be this way. And they’re going to tell you that it’s your fault that you’re not taken seriously. That if you wrote something more “literary”, if you used your initials or a male pen name, if you didn’t waste time on this or that publisher, there would be room for you. That it’s not them. It’s not the institution. It’s you.

How can we expect to be treated equitably in a business that openly sneers at its best-selling genre simply because of the people who write it and buy it? How can we believe publishers who insist that they’re giving everyone a fair shake while indulging in boys’ club terminology? Why are we told that men who’ve written fewer books and done half our sales have proven themselves and earned astronomical advances that our work pays to provide?

How stupid do you think we are?

As long as powerful people in traditional publishing describes success in such terms, there is no reason for the rest of us to court industry favor. The game is rigged, so there’s no reason to continue playing.

Link to the rest at Trout Nation

Here’s a link to Jenny Trout’s books where she writes as Jenny Trout and where she writes as Abigail Barnette. If you like what an author has written, you may wish to check out the author’s books.

Big Publishing, Self-Publishing

36 Comments to “The Big Boys’ Table”

  1. Big boys table?
    I’d have to think long and hard. Everything has a price and I’m not a joiner, anyway. So far I’ve had two chances at “exclusive societies” and I declined both. Maybe I missed out on something, maybe not, but that’s just not me.

    Groucho comes to mind:

    https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/04/18/groucho-resigns/

    “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

    • “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

      I don’t want to join anything that requires me to go to meetings and talk to people.

  2. There are plenty of men who don’t get to that table either. Blame the ones that are there, not the ones who aren’t. As for me, I eschew the table for my own little corner of bookdome. If you crave accolades and the celebration of your peers, you’re in for a long wait for a train that’s never going to come.

    Focus on what you have, and what you can do. Not what other people tell you, you can’t do.

    • This. Well said.

      I’ll also add this – For anyone up that high in publishing, the air is rare. There are very few writers who make it to the “big boys’ table ” or the “big girls’ table,” period. You’re only a victim if you allow yourself to become one. Using your sex as an excuse for victimhood is lazy, and frankly, it’s insulting to the rest of us “internal plumbing” folks who somehow manage to get by without throwing out the gender card whenever we feel insecure.

  3. I wonder if she’s talking about J.D. Barker.

    By coincidence, I was listening to Mark Dawson’s interview with him (SPF-130), and he seems to fit the profile: hybrid author, first book (self-pubbed) got decent sales and second book got a seven-figure advance, writes thrillers and horror (including a prequel to “Dracula,” endorsed by the Stoker family).

    And he collaborated on a book with James Patterson.

    Now, if so, here’s what she might have left out.

    J.D. Barker has spent the last 20 years in the New York book industry as a book doctor. This means he has worked with a lot of people, and he’s a known quantity to them. (For example, in his first self-pubbed novel, he has a store called ‘Needful Things.’ He wondered if Stephen King would object. So he emailed him, supplied by a friend who knew King.)

    Is it surprising that he can network his way to a deal? That he can market his first novel because he knows how books are supposed to be marketed?

    • If this is the case, how dare you, sir? Bringing logic to an emotional victimhood fight. Why, you man, you. The audacity…

    • writes thrillers and horror (including a prequel to “Dracula,” endorsed by the Stoker family).

      I have never heard of Barker, but that part alone sounds cool! With a marketing hook like that it’s not shocking he could sell a boatload of books. And I would guess he has the skill to back it up. Given what you say of him, in Trout’s place I would have taken notes just on the marketing tips alone.

    • Heard the same podcast and thought the same as you, Bill.

      I was given pretty much the same promises once upon a time (minus the un-PC language – everyone I ever met at trad publishing was female) … fast-forward a decade and my broken bleeding body was rolled out of a van to die on the Highway of Hurt … and now I’m an indie. Although I prefer the term: Writing Ronin.

      Rather suspect this experience is a little more common.

  4. It is a really sucky fact of human existence that anything considered a women’s area is seen as of less value than anything associated with men. I think that in order to correct this, we’d have to have some pretty universal changes in how we as a society raise our boys (and in how we raise our girls to see themselves and how they should expect boys to behave). Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I don’t see the necessary changes ever happening on a wide enough scale to enact the kind of shift that would eliminate this “female < male" value system.

    Fortunately, we live in a time when authors don't have to have a seat at the big boys'/girls'/kids' table in order to have success. As she points out, lots of female authors not invited to the table are making lots of money, selling lots of books, and getting lots of readers. Personally, that's my goal. I don't even want a seat at the big table.

    • As Bill above points out, if it’s someone that has been playing in the trad-pub game circles for 20+ years before getting his feet wet and looking like it was ‘wow! first book seven figures!’. Heck I got into Dell in ’96 not because of my skill set (it helped that they needed it), but because one of my neighbors worked for them.

      To her and all those that worry about which way the plumbing goes or the shade of skin I have just one word of advise.

      Stop worrying about how they got there and think on how ‘you’ are going to get wherever you’re aiming for. Who you know opens doors, but that won’t be enough if you can’t deliver what they want – and the only way to prove it is to deliver. And I’ll give this warning – the hobnobbing doesn’t work if they aren’t already impressed with you. For a writer that means keep writing. It may take you twenty years (I’m on year three or thirteen depending on how you count those things) instant hits/fame are very rare (like that guy left on Mars.)

  5. I guess I don’t understand, because my response to ‘we don’t want your kind around here’ is ‘great, because I wouldn’t want to hang out with you’ not ‘it’s not fair.’ Life’s full of ‘it’s not fair.’ And while it’s our job to try to minimize injustices, there’s no perfect kingdom on this earth, and part of contentment is making your peace with that.

    I know it’s a thing now to diss on Ayn Rand, but it’s hard to go wrong with her quote: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” And, I’ll note, that’s from a female immigrant who did pretty well for herself.

    • That is a great quote.

    • That is precisely my take on Indie Pub: the only person with the power to tell you “no” is yourself.

      Which is what makes “exclusive” clubs/societies/etc “special”: the power of NO.

      I prefer the power of “Let’s see what happens.”

      Do your best, see where it takes you; learn and improve.
      You are what you achieve, not who you hang with.

    • Exactly. My first career was as a pilot. Heavily male career, especially in the “blue collar” end, especially working with and around ag pilots (why? Upper body strength. Most ag planes didn’t [and still might not] have boosted controls and pulling Gs as well as handling a heavy aircraft requires a goodly amount of upper body power. Most women just aren’t strong enough.) Didn’t bother me, I didn’t worry about making it to the big boys’ or girls’ table. I just worked, earned hours, gained in experience, and moved up the ladder.

      Now I write indie. What gate keeper?

  6. Ordering_a_flameproof_suit_today

    “…There’s just me, a female writer, sitting at a book signing and dreaming of burning a cheerful watering hole full of jovial male writers to the ground.”

    Wait, I thought it was the agents, editors, and publishers that decide what books get printed, not the writers. Silly Me.

    But I guess a good mass-murder always improves books sales. A marketing tip I’d rather not try, thanks.

  7. I always enjoyed the kids table. The food was better, the company was better.

    I feel sorry for whoever the guy is, because now he has to keep up with the “big boys”*. He will need the money, because success at that level requires that he spend money as fast as he gets it. He has an agent who is probably not passing on all monies. He has a publisher who will drop him fast if he is no longer performing at best seller level. If any of his stuff is made into films, and they don’t make big bucks, Hollywood will drop him fast as well.

    He will probably end his days as “book doctor to the stars” when everything goes south.

    * I refer you to the first TV episode of Castle as example.

    • “I always enjoyed the kids table. The food was better, the company was better.”

      And we can cut up instead of pretending to be something/someone we’re not.

      And ice cream! 😉

  8. Does anyone else get the idea that if the author in the story was female, she might have been told “We’re going to get you a seat at the big girls’ table.” under the exact same circumstances.

    This seems like an awful lot of angst to hang on an expression someone used while they were talking to a male, when they might have just as easily used a different word if they had happened to be talking to a female.

    My impression is that several very lucrative genres are pretty much dominated by women, in terms of percentage of writers and purchasing editors. I don’t lose any sleep over it because I don’t presume bias nor sexism from people without seeing them actually be biased against someone. Readers tend to not care what sex an author is (many barely care what an author’s name is when picking up a new book), so only an idiot of a purchasing editor would care.

    • Since the author was relating what someone else had told him, and he’s a male, it’s also possible he simply misquoted the person because, as far as it concerned him as a male, he specifically is a ‘big boy’ now. Maybe the person said “big kids'” and he didn’t think enough of the word to remember it correctly but rather related the meaning as it concerned him. Maybe, maybe not, but we can’t really be sure, and I don’t think the OP can either.

      On the one hand, you can tell a lot about the underlying assumptions and thought processes a person has by the small differences in choosing this word over that. On the other hand, it is possible to examine too closely a word that could have been chosen for something as simple as “I was talking to a man, so I said ‘boy’.”

      Maybe this is why I’ve always hated the practice of literary criticism, at least to the level that results in essays. You can examine people’s words to a certain extent and maybe come to some correct conclusions, but eventually your analysis will say more about you than it will about whoever you’re critiquing.

  9. Geez, jealous much? Are you really giving him a hard time for repeating something said about him? And for leveraging contacts he’s spent a lifetime accumulating in an incredibly difficult business? That’s called networking, and if you’re not doing it, good luck to you. Anyone who has heard this guy speak knows he’s busted his ass for the success he’s found. He spends a lot of his time speaking at conferences, colleges, and writing groups trying to help others get ahead in this business. I saw him at ThrillerFest, and not only did he provide far more information than anyone else there, after the panel he must have given out fifty business cards and offered to help everyone in any way he could. I took him up on it, and he actually rewrote my query letter for me. Authors need to help each other, like he does, not bash. If your career isn’t where you want it to be, searching for fault in others isn’t going to get it there.

    • Uh, most folks here are commenting on the author of the article, not the subject of the article.

      His achievement or how he got there isn’t relevant to the comments about *focusing* a career solely on the need for acclaim or to join a particular insiders’ circle. That does not usually yield satisfactory outcomes.

      Most folks ’round here write because they feel the need to write and express ideas. Not to feel validated by the establishment. “Do your best and see what happens.”

    • Thanks for this info on the author, Eva. I had no idea who it was. It’s lazy and dysfunctional, it really is, that Trout focuses much more on a single phrase than on the many positive actions he has taken to help other authors. I was not much inclined to be sympathetic to Trout’s complaint in the first place, but it really burns that so much relevant information about who he is and how he acts is left out in favor of generalizing based on one linguistic event.

  10. Part of me wants to tell her to “Pull up her Big Girl Panties” and write her way to that table, and damn those who try and stop her.

    Then again, I’m wondering how many male Romance writers using pseudonyms are waiting for their invites to the “Big Girls Table” as well….

  11. I suspect the use of an expression has been misinterpreted and then blown out of all proportion. The expression is a very condescending one. The author saying it believes that he is one of the elite, and that the author he is saying it to has the potential to join that elite, an endeavour in which he offers his assistance. It appears to me that elitism, not gender, is the essence of the statement. Would it be any better if the phrase Big Girl’s Table was used? I don’t think so.

    And, as Felix pointed out above in relation to Indie publishing, “….. the only person with the power to tell you “no” is yourself”.

  12. I have a comment about this, and I’m not even going to read the OP after skimming that summary. I don’t know what problem others have with this, but man, I’d be pissed to have someone tell me they were going to get me a seat at the big boy’s table — or the big girl’s table.

    Who do they think they are? This is the attitude that has resulted in writers being treated like children who are too stupid (and/or naive) to do anything on their own so they might as well give the *vast* majority of their earnings to other people, because… they’ll hold our hands while we cross the street… or something.

    Publishing is full of entitled jerks who think they’re actually *earning* their living — the same living they’re *stealing* from so many good writers with unconscionable contracts and shitty royalty rates.

    • Myself, I don’t want to be at the “big boys (or girls) table.”

      Where I want to be is at the “grown-ups” table. Where I am unlikely to find many of those in trad-pub circles.

      (Afterthought: When I was growing up, the “big kids” table was for the teenagers. The behavior of the typical teenager fits so well with trad-pub people and those who complain about not being in their cliques.)

  13. Ive a different take having been at the big boy’s table [what an insulting phrase, but I know at least two old timey writers of 7 figure advances who would use such.

    THere are a lot of daddy’s in the world, looking for sons to mentor. And it is true, there is great pleasure in helping others as it appears from Eve Martin’s comment about the fellow author she also met and saw him helping others very much. But there’s a diffrence between ‘no strings’ mentoring, which I think is the superior function, and infantilizing adults wanting them to stay tight as ‘my boy’ who “I help.”

    Sad to say, this ‘having a boy’ thing is common not only among monied ‘experiencd’ men, in my experience, but also old monied women as well. Why males chosen most often? Dont know.

    There are a lot of old mommies looking for sons to be ‘pretend husbands’ for they have no attentive humsband [the way Ayn Rand did with Nathaniel Brandon vastly younger than she, ending her “mentorship” by him publicly rejecting her in her shame and humiliation as she publicly ran after him begging and begging. Nope, he went.

    To be part of any clique with pater familias, appears often to have as its main point that the young be grateful to the old. IT appears not different than Freud and Jung, whom Freud introduced into the ‘inner circle,’ but Jung rejected Freud’s fatherness eventually and went off on his own, Freud never recovering from what he saw as betrayal

    Just my .02 but the whole thing gives me the creeps as the language veers often toward faithfulness, betrayal, gifting, ‘my boy’, etc, terms sometimes reminscent of lovers instead of only equals who respect each other.

    My experience of the ‘big boy’ table so called. It has enough strings to trip and trap a legion of ‘boys’ who are often grateful to fall into the arms of ‘daddy and daddy’s friends’ and yes, given ‘secrets’ and yes having doors opened for ‘the chosen one’…

    It’s one way to go. Esp if as many do, like cigars, cursing, ugly jokes about people who are not themselves, hard drinking and people who dont like or despise their own spouses.

    For most authors who are mothers and fathers and have a solid family life, this ‘low Hemmingwayesque’ lifestyle choice, is not tenable

    Which reminds me on a recent trip to Cuba, the cubanos say that Hemingway and his cronies drank them selves stupido and that H never ever helped writers in Cuba, which has a long beautiful tradition of poets and strong writers.

    Again my .02: giving to other writers happens whether you get 1M advances or not. Has most often nothing to do with money or ‘big boy clubs’ but with character.

    Women not chosen by big boy clubs. Righto. Why? Most self-resepcting women with clear vision and stalwart hearts would not stand for the leering and vulgar remarks about women.

    Dorothy Parker was an exception, but then she was a drunk and poor depressive person who wanted desperately to be at the big boys table, but was seen /used for many reasons other than her writing.

    • Ugly jokes about people who aren’t themselves have lately found a way to get out resulting in poor outcomes. (James Gunn for one. A bundle of young MLB players.)

      One problem with mentoring in today’s publishing world is that a lot of the business-side information being passed down by insiders is wrong or dated or inapplicable to the Indie world. (Leonard Riggio has as much experience as anybody alive and we’ve all seen how useful it’s been in today’s market.)

      Decades of experience inside the Manhattan Mafia is no longer the asset it used to be. And even among Indies, how often have we seen in the last few years pieces explaining “the one true way to success” that turns out to be no longer viable? Especially with marketing, where many are still trapped in the 50’s Madison Avenue myth that the right marketing can sell even the dud-iests of duds. No longer true in the internet age of FTL word of mouth. (Unscreened bad movies get at most one screening for the unwary. By the second screening the word is out. Friday night at the latest.)

      Bad marketing might sink a good product but even brilliant marketing isn’t going to move bad product. These days you have to start with a good product aimed at its proper audience. Neither is easy.

      There are no magic bullets or insider secrets out there. Nobody’s advice should be taken as holy gospel.

      Listening and learning from others, yes, but adapt it to your situation and goals; just as no two books are the same, no two persons will experience the same outcome.
      It’s a fast moving business; last year’s brilliant move could be this year’s deathtrap.

      Caution is required: shortcuts can be deadly.

  14. “How can we expect to be treated equitably in a business that openly sneers at its best-selling genre simply because of the people who write it and buy it?”

    She writes a completely different type of book. There is no “big boys/girls table” for people who churn out “I married my billionaire boss” books. Sure there’s a market for them, but not to the tune of a six figure advance. Calling this sexist is a total failure of self-awareness.

    • Hallmark doesn’t pay licensing fees that big.
      But they do license a lot of those.
      There’s lots of ways to make the big bucks.

    • Sure, Romance is the best-selling genre, in absolute numbers. But on a per-capita basis? I doubt it.

  15. The phrase “big boy’s table” has been around for quite a while. I recall William H. Macy remarking on getting nominated for an Oscar for Fargo. He said that not winning didn’t matter because the nomination itself “got him a seat at the big boy’s table.”

    I would think a reasonable guess is that the male author was just using a common phrase that the language police hadn’t gotten around to stigmatizing and extinguishing yet. But Jenny Trout is on the job! He’ll think twice next time before he uses that phrase!

    This is very sad. This dilating on a word or phrase is a very poor substitute for actual analysis, including if you want to make a more just society. She is missing so much about how life and society work while relying on what is by now, very hackneyed tropes about no places for girls at the big boy’s table. What about the biggest place of all – held by one J. K. Rowling? There are lots of successful women authors these days. This is just pathetic.

  16. The game is rigged, so there’s no reason to continue playing.

    So, don’t. That’s why we have the Kindle Upload Button. Click it.

    • Certainly the game is rigged.
      Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.

      Lazarus Long

      (Come to think on it, wasn’t that ‘left on Mars’ guy just giving it away before friends convinced him to self publish? And then the the big boys begged him to come eat ate their table? I’d suggest the OP quit whining and get cracking … 😉 )

      • Sure. All the games are rigged. That’s part of the game. You win by rigging the game in your favor. Those who expect the rest of the players to give a hoot about them lose. A sure way to keep losing is to expect anyone to care how you think the game should be played.

        Look how independent authors rigged the game in their favor. Anyone remember the gnashing of teeth from the traditionals when independents refused to play by established rules? Failed to follow Guardian guidelines? Took the money and market share and laughed?

        And Amazon? They didn’t care if an independent had an agent. Didn’t care about color, ethnicity, or sex. Didn’t even ask.

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