Traditional Publishing Stupidity

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Two traditional publishing news stories caught my eye, primarily because I blog about contracts all the time, trying to convince writers to stay away from traditional publishing contracts for their books—or at least to negotiate the hell out of those contracts.

. . . .

The first story to catch my eye was about Ronan Farrow, who rose to fame through his nonfiction about Harvey Weinstein. All of this was at the beginning of the #MeToo Movement, which still continues. The book Farrow wrote, Catch and Kill, was one of the fall’s big books. It’s also a hell of a read.

It was published by Little, Brown, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, which did all the right things to promote the book. Hachette set up the proper media coverage, got Farrow on many talk shows, sent him on the right kind of book tour, and started the buzz early. Farrow’s editors and his media team Got It. They took the moment, and used it, in a way traditional publishers almost never do.

This week, Farrow announced he was leaving Hachette because he couldn’t work with them in good conscience given a book they planned to publish in April.  An imprint of Hachette, Grand Central, acquired a book by Farrow’s father, Woody Allen, titled Apropos of Nothing. Farrow’s sister, Dylan, has credibly accused Allen of sexually molesting her when she was a child, and Farrow has backed her up. He even documented the allegations in Catch and Kill, a book that was heavily vetted by lawyers.

Allen’s book was not vetted. And it had been rejected by a number of other publishers because, in most of the entertainment world, Allen is considered as toxic as Weinstein. So when Farrow found out through media reports that Hachette was going to publish Allen’s book, Farrow tried to convince them not to.

Of course, that didn’t work. As the U.S. CEO of Hachette, Michael Pietsch, told the BBC, Hachette does “not allow anyone’s publishing programme to interfere with anyone else’s.”

In other words, Hachette, like the other Big 5 publishers, did not sign a non-compete clause demanded of the publisher by authors. If one author’s book competes with another, so what? Hachette can publish both of them. But in most cases, the author must sign a non-compete clause that states that the author can’t publish a book with another company that will compete with their own book from Hachette.

Patently unfair, and something I’ve urged writers to fight against for years.

Put it this way: If one of Hachette’s authors writes a bestselling thriller featuring augmented cats, and augmented cats become a trend, then the author can’t take another augmented cat book to a different publisher even if Hachette passed on the book, provided the author signed a standard non-compete.

However, Hachette could publish two dozen augmented cat books by different authors, even though those books would compete with and possibly hurt the sales of the book by the original author.

Farrow had no leg to stand on to get Hachette to reject Allen’s book. And in publishing terms, by the time Farrow discovered the betrayal, it was much too late. Hachette was a little over a month out from publishing the book. That means Hachette invested money in Allen’s book, in a promotion campaign, in copy editing, design, and printing costs. If the book’s run was a standard run for a minor bestseller, Hachette had invested about half a million dollars in that title by the time Farrow found out about it.

No company would pull the plug on a book that late in the game because one of its authors complained.

Unless the author had standing, a sterling reputation, and 968,000 followers on Twitter.

Farrow’s comments reverberated through the industry and made headlines worldwide. On Thursday, employees of Hachette staged a walkout, protesting the publication of Allen’s book. They hadn’t known about it either (many of these imprints don’t talk to each other about purchases).

The news story wasn’t going to go away. It was large and it would get larger by the time the book dropped on April 7. In fact, when the book dropped, the protests and Farrow’s opposition would have been all that the media would talked about. Hachette Book Group’s reputation would have continued to take a hit. So, the question the bean counters had to answer was…was that hit worth the half million that the company had already spent on Woody Allen’s memoir, or would Hachette lose twice that amount (or more) in bad publicity?

The answer came swiftly. On Friday, Hachette canceled Allen’s book. Not because of contract terms, not because Farrow had any right to ask the company to live up to some mythical co-equal non-compete clause, but because publicity forced the company to pay attention to their own idiocy.

The Farrow story shows traditional publishing at its most hypocritical. Pietsch’s comment about not allowing one author’s publishing program to interfere with another’s is patently untrue. And his comments later, that Hachette “protects” their authors, is also false.

This entire event shows the kind of cold calculation that the people at the top of big publishers make about publishing. They demand that authors sign contracts that will actively harm the authors’ careers while refusing to sign the same kind of agreement themselves.

Contracts are supposed to be equitable agreements between two equal parties. Contracts are not that in traditional publishing, as I have written about many, many, many times.

So I had to stop here and actually gloat when a publisher finally suffered the fate that it has forced hundreds of its authors into—making a business decision that will cost it both in reputation and earnings because of a pre-existing agreement.

How many writers have been told to stand down from a contract they signed with a competing book publisher? How much money have writers lost because publishers want everything? The number is unknowable, bcause most authors don’t or can’t discuss their contract terms (yet another bad contract term authors sign).

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

21 thoughts on “Traditional Publishing Stupidity”

  1. I like this angle; it’s hilarious that Hachette is having done to them what they’ve done to writers.

    This part particularly caught my eye:

    Farrow’s sister, Dylan, has credibly accused Allen of sexually molesting her when she was a child, and Farrow has backed her up. He even documented the allegations in Catch and Kill, a book that was heavily vetted by lawyers.

    I haven’t read the book. The vetting part interests me, because I’m not on board with people losing their livelihood on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations. Any one can accuse any one of any thing, and we see these days how people are willing to make the vilest of false accusations to hurt their victims. I’d understand if a brother just prefers to believe his sister — he knows her, he knows her character, they have history — but other people need evidence.

    That Ronan Farrow subjected himself to legal scrutiny, and Woody Allen didn’t, tends to make Farrow more credible than Allen, on paper at least. I could see how the staff at Hachette might have considered this factor when they did their walkout. As opposed to just staging a two-minute hate against a trendy target. “I was hating Allen before it was cool.”

    I am curious what century Pietsch is living in, when it didn’t cross his mind that Farrow is high profile, and can make his displeasure known to nearly a million people all at once … and those people will pay attention to him. It’s not the same as publishing a crazy “letter to the editor,” where you can just assume only a few people in town will see it, and laugh. Where you think, “no one who matters” will care.

    I don’t think of the Twitterati as “people who matter” by default, but surely Pietsch noticed the sheer number of media people who seem to live on Twitter? Who could pick up the story and amplify it, since it hooks so neatly into the MeToo storyline? Slow news day, and Farrow’s tweets are an easy-write for an intern, at the very least.

    Pietsch, Piestch. Dude. Come now: it’s 2020, get with it, man.

    • Farrow’s followers aren’t just civilians on the street but also lots of media and news folk.
      He is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. When he whispers people pay attention.
      And he was screaming.

      Thing is, this should never have gotten as far as Farrow screaming. Or even calling Hachette.
      Woody Allen is so toxic Amazon not only cancelled a four movie deal once the whispers about him were vetted after #Metoo, in 2017, they fired the guy who signed the deal. Who had his own sexual harrassment issues.

      But that’s how the big 5 roll. They’ve gotten away with murder for so long they think they’re above the (antitrust) law, ethics, and mores.

      • Yes, the media friends angle is what I was going for, but was too sleep-fogged to get to. Point is, the Pulitzer-winning Farrow can rain fire down on Hachette in a way that Pietsch should have anticipated. I once had a teacher who was a retired homicide cop. He said the rule of media relations vs. cops is that you don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. How could Pietsch not realize we are so far beyond ink barrels? Farrow’s speed dial, address book, and friends list should have been a deterrent in and of itself, and coupled with his own high profile…? And his taking down Weinstein on the grounds of Weinstein resurrecting Allen’s career?

        Pietsch’s idiocy seems to be of the “leaving to spend more time with my family” variety. I would have been surprised it hasn’t happened already, but the Big 5 are indeed arrogant, after all.

        • Arrogant is putting it mildly.
          They still like to pretend they were were the good guys in the collusion case and doing the right thing to fight off eee-vile Amazon. They are guardians of culture and everything they do is good and proper. They know better than anybody and everybody must bow down before their majesty. They have their defenders, who never see nothing wrong in what they do. Stephen King among them; he tweeted his “concern” over this case of “censorship”.
          He is getting pushback.
          He is also getting pushback over claims COVID19 is much ado over very little.
          But then, he should be used to it by now.

          https://www.rt.com/usa/483110-king-coronavirus-white-male/

  2. As satisfying as it is to observe Hachette being “hoist on their own petard” – delicious as the schadenfreude is – this is a bad thing. Much as I like KKR, her own bias is showing; not only about the terrible contracts (which this will not affect in the slightest), but also the “believe all women” meme (which is ridiculous).

    Unless a planned book actually commits libel, even if it contains outright lies (I would note some recent and not so recent books by prominent politicians) – nobody else should be allowed to censor it. Especially the mob. The mob is fickle – their next target could very well be KKR or DWS, or both.

    • I don’t think Rusch is doing the “believe all women” meme, because BAW is about believing with no evidence. That’s the entire point, that an accuser shouldn’t have to prove her case, per the rules of justice where the accused is given due process. BAW deliberately stomps all over due process, in order to railroad disfavored targets.

      Rusch is citing that Ronan detailed evidence in the Dylan-Allen case, and that Ronan was vetted by a legal team. Now, it’s perfectly plausible that the legal case concerning Dylan Farrow was weak — the account by Moses Farrow strongly suggest this, along with other factors — but that’s light years away from BAW, where the very idea of providing evidence would be considered misogynistic.

      I’ve never in my life watched a Woody Allen movie. I’m with Ned Flanders on this: Allen’s personality is annoying. So, I’m an indifferent observer here. I observe that Moses Farrow and others built a plausible case that a jealous, spiteful Mia Farrow brainwashed Dylan into making the accusation, in order to punish Allen for his affair with Soon-Yi. More, this alleged brainwashing happened at an age when Dylan and Ronan were young enough for brainwashing to work. There’s also the factor that pedophiles don’t usually have the one victim, and no one else has ever accused Allen of pedophilia. Did Ronan ever address the problems Moses brought up with Dylan’s story? Or any of the other concerns? I don’t know. I doubt I’ll ever read this book. I don’t have to care.

      But — if I were doing business, and Woody Allen was involved, it would be my duty and responsibility to care about this accusation, and investigate it. I think it says something that Pietsch did not have a counterpoint ready to go when all of this hit the fan. No one in Hachette thought to have a PR campaign set up to address Dylan’s allegation. No one thought to have lawyers vet Allen’s book. No one thought to have statements ready to go from Moses, and Dylan’s ex-therapist, and the ex-nanny, or the results of the police investigations. It’s … almost as if Hachette didn’t think it mattered if Allen were innocent or not. That says something about their attitudes.

      If nothing else, Hachette should have at least stopped to think that normal people don’t celebrate pedophiles. And if normal people believe Allen is a pedophile, then Hachette has to address that belief. From this angle, you can’t say this is a typical cancel culture scalp hunting, because normal people would also walk off a job if they’re asked to glorify a person they sincerely believe is a child molester. Especially if they think they have evidence, especially if no one bothered to provide counter evidence to sow reasonable doubt.

      But if you’re worried about cancel culture scalp hunting, we’ve already seen it happen in more cut-and-dry instances with other publishers. However, in Allen’s case, to this very day people believe Soon-Yi was his stepdaughter, and that he’d raised her before having an affair with her. The reaction to him is congruent with this belief, before Dylan Farrow is even brought into it: normal people recoil. The selling point of #MeToo is that you can’t be a sex offender and enjoy a lofty social status. You will be held accountable for your sins instead.

      If the Allen-Hachette incident were a foreign word, it would be what’s called a false cognate: a word that looks like a word in another language, but in this case, means something else entirely. “Molest” as used in English vs. “molestar” (annoy) in Spanish.*** In this case, Woody Allen & Hachette appear to be an example of bog-standard cancel culture, but it can plausibly be argued that the demand to cancel his book was just a matter of standing up for decency. This angle hinges entirely on whether or not you believe the Hachette staff who walked out truly think Allen is a sex offender.

      ***This particular false cognate raised eyebrows in Spanish class, where in our textbook a boy gets snippy with his carpool buddy, saying the buddy is molesting him by chewing gum. All of our questions went away once we knew what the boy is simply saying his friend is irritating.

      • Amazon cut ties with Allen because they believed being associated with him and his baggage was bad business and would damage the brand. Straight business decision independent of whether he might be guilty or not.
        In that, it is no different than signing OJ Simpson.

        One key common sense rule in business is “Don’t embarras the boss.”
        Nobody at Hachette bothered to consider what the outside world thought of Allen or might think of the book and how that might impact sales. It was only *after* the walkout that the thought filtered through that sales of the book might not be enough to justify the flak.
        Only by then the damage to the brand was done.

        KKR might be enjoying the affair, given her general viewpoint, by which the big tradpubs are toxic themselves, but plenty of people are rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at execs that paid big books for a book that was never going to big the big seller they envisioned.

        They forgot (or never knew) that Q-rating is a function of familiarity and favorability both. People are familiar with his name but even before #Metoo, his reputation was dicey. The Buzz about him hasn’t been particularly flattering for decades; this is not a recent thing. There has long been a whiff of suspicious behavior about him, not unlike, say Michael Jackson. Jackson’s publicist team had a full-time job protecting his image. Allen’s doesn’t. Assuming he even has one.

        The corporate publishers are consistently risk adverse, crafting an environment where the bulk of the risk falls on authors and retailers, rather than them. Yet they consistently wade into catfight after catfight out of tone deafness. Individually, most are teapot tempests (Allen affair aside–this one has repercussions) but it all adds up as a steady ongoing decline of brand equity.

        They never saw this mess coming, ignored warnings when they were alerted, and doubled down by standing their ground…until the private mess went public. This should never have reached the point of an employee walkout and external pressure but their internal decision making was blinded by the quest for the “next blockbuster” until they realized the book wasn’t.

        Whatever you might think of KKR the title fits like Cinderella’s shoe.

    • “hoist on their own petard”

      Pet peeve. A petard was an early explosive device used to breach a castle door. They would sometimes explode prematurely, throwing the user into the air. You are hoist BY a petard, not ON a petard.

      • Since the phrase is an allusion to Shakespeare, they might as well quote him right and say ‘hoist WITH his own petard’.

  3. They demand that authors sign contracts that will actively harm the authors’ careers while refusing to sign the same kind of agreement themselves

    That’s what happens when supply far exceeds demand. There is nothing special about authors or books. Nobody other than the author gives a hoot about the author’s career.

    • Nobody but the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker gives a hoot about their careers, either. But they are not routinely subjected to such abusive terms of employment – and it is not because there is any shortage of applicants for their jobs. Why do you single out writers as deserving of abusive treatment?

      • Because Rusch was writing about writers and not butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, Cowboy Bob, or RinTinTin?

          • No. Doesn’t matter where buyers sit, and doesn’t matter if they compete with the pope. The supply of manuscripts offered to publishers far exceeds the publishers’ needs. Just like widgets. Writers aren’t special.

            • Most of those manuscripts are of no commercial value. Yet writers are singled out for especially bad and often illegal treatment.

              Why is this so hard for you to understand?

              • The success of so many KDP books shows that’s not the case.

                It’s easy to understand. Supply vs demand. The supply of commercially exploitable manuscripts far exceeds demand. Just like widgets.

        • But butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, Cowboy Bob, and RinTinTin are not routinely abused and defrauded by their principal clients, and you do not expect them to put up with such abuse. Yet you expect writers to put up with it. Why is that? Since when are writers lepers?

          • Those folks aren’t abused because they have market power. I expect treatment suppliers get from buyers to be a function of how much the buyers need vs how much the suppliers offer. Happens all the time. Writers aren’t special.

            This is easy. If writers want better terms from suppliers, just have 90% go do something else. Just like widget-makers.

            • Facile but irrelevant. 90% of the books submitted to publishers are strictly worthless. But even writers who bring in millions of dollars in revenue to their publishers – and such writers are mighty rare – are subjected to the same scams and abuses.

              It’s not that writers lack market power per se. It’s that big publishers function as a cartel and collude to enforce unconscionable terms. If you think the ebook price-fixing scandal was the only illegal collusion that the Big Five have been in on, you are remarkably naive.

              • It’s not that writers lack market power per se.

                Of course they do. If they had any power, they wouldn’t be complaining so much about how the other guy treats them. They would be abusing him.

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