Monday, January 18, 2010

Open Letter from a Writer to New Publishers

Posted by Richard White for Writer Beware

Dear New Publisher:

You may have noticed people discussing your company on various web sites. Normally, this would be a good thing, I mean, free publicity, right? But, when you go to these sites, they may be discussing your company in unflattering terms and asking all kinds of questions about your ability to get books into bookstores.

"But, wait. They can't say that about my baby."

Actually, yes they can. See, just as every writer does not "deserve" to be published, not every person who dreams of being a publisher deserves to hang out a shingle and call themselves such.

Publishing is a unique critter. Even so, one thing it has in common with other businesses is you need experience. Period. This cannot be overstated. If you have no experience in the industry (and being an unpublished or even a published author does not equate to publishing experience), what are you offering your authors?

Sorry, good intentions are not enough.

And if you've never worked in the industry, you don't know what you don't know.

Any publisher thinking about starting up must be able to answer the following questions:
  • What's your experience in publishing?
  • If you don’t have any experience, do you have partners who have publishing experience, people who can guide you over the shoals of a start-up publishing business?
  • Have you ever run a company before in any capacity?
  • What's your business plan?
  • Have you secured sufficient funding to get this business off the ground
  • Do you have realistic goals (starting small, focusing on your strengths, adding new lines only after you get established, not taking on too many authors)
  • What's your target market? Bookstores? E-books only?
  • What's your plan for getting books into bookstores?
  • Do you have your distributors lined up before you open up for submissions?
  • Do you know the difference between a distributor and a wholesaler?
  • Who're your editors?
  • How much experience do they have editing novels or non-fiction?
  • How many authors do you expect to publish a year?
  • Who's handling publicity for your company?
  • Have you established a realistic time line to release ARCs to readers/reviewers/etc. before the book is ready to sell?
  • What reviewers will you be sending preview copies of the book to?
  • Do you have a web site oriented to attracting readers and selling books and not just there to lure in new authors?
  • Who're your sales reps? How many do you have?
  • Do you intend to use your authors as an unpaid sales force?
  • Who're the artists you have lined up to do covers?
  • Are you paying advances?
  • How are royalties calculated? Cover price? Net?
  • Can people see a copy of the contract to compare it against other standard publishing contracts?
  • Is your contract author-friendly, or at least author-neutral?

If you’re not ready to answer these questions, not only are you going to lose a lot of money and time, but you're going to cost your authors a lot of money, time and possibly cost your authors their book. You’re also going to pop up on writing web sites, but it’ll be because people are trying to figure out who you are, why they should trust you with their work, and what you’re offering that they couldn’t do on their own.

New publishers should be ready to PROVE they're ready to go from the moment they make themselves available for any author to submit to them. They should be able to stand up to any scrutiny and have answers for questions that are going to be asked.

And I say these things not only as a member of Writer Beware, but simply as a writer. Writers want publishers to succeed. We don't want them to fail because it's not fun to watch something come crashing down around the creator's ears. It's also not fun to watch what happens to authors who, time and again, get caught in a start-up that wasn't really ready to take that first step and wind up losing their book in the carnage.

What we want is for all new publishers to be certain they're ready to go.

BUT, my primary concern is always for the authors. New publishers don't have the right to experiment with other author's books. I've seen too many new publishers crash and burn and authors lose their books because contracts couldn't or wouldn't be released before the company just disappeared.

None of these publishers set out to do this. But by reading the lists of failed publishers on the Absolute Write Bewares and Background Check forum, there is a unifying theme to them all. Inexperience. Sure, you could be THE one. Or, you could be one of the other 99 who disappear in less than a year.

So, yes, new publishers MUST earn our trust.

Do your homework. Be ready before you ever ask for the first book. Do not learn as you go.

Period.

24 comments:

Beth said...

The link gave me an error 404. Do you have another link for that info?

Koldo said...

You've got a point but once again, this industry is packed with intruders...

We all have the right to chose a career but, in addition, we all have the responsibility of finishing your chores first.

Kay Theodoratus said...

Thanks for the check list.

It's hard enough to learn how to write a publishable novel. I'd say the writing community needs all the effective, reliable, and money-making publishers it can get.

Lisa L. Spangenberg said...

I'd add that they need to have better than basic competence with English; lately I'm seeing people who really shouldn't be writing in public space positioning themselves as publishers able to evaluate the works of authors.

Richard White said...

Beth,

I just tried the link and got right in. But, if you're still having problems, it's http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=22. If you check the index (one of the stickied threads), all the gray links in the index are publishers/agents/etc. who're out of business since AW started tracking them.

Richard White said...

Kay,

Like I said, I don't want new publishers to fail. But, too often it feels like an Andy Hardy movie (I've got a barn, you've got a guitar, let's get the gang together and put on a show.)

M.R.J. Le Blanc said...

Abso-freakin-lutely! Writing isn't a hand-holding business, it's not about how nice the publisher is (a common defense arguement). It's how well they can do their job.

Being published badly is worse than being unpublished!

Bernita said...

If your post isn't already a sticky at Absolute Write, it should be.

Terena said...

this is fabulous. I am one of those publishers and I agree wholeheartedly. I have published two books, with a third on the way, and I know that I've reached my max on projects right now. That's why I'm on hiatus. It was a tough decision because I love working with authors, but I know that I am doing a great disservice to my authors if I just continue on hoping for the best. I can't even update my website in a timely manner right now. So I'm no longer accepting submissions and am focusing on the books I've published, ensuring their sales continue to climb. I signed a contract with these authors, and marketing is part of the deal.

Bummer for me. I hate marketing.

Again, great post.

Maggie Dana said...

I've been involved in this industry for 30 years. I'm a published author (Macmillan, Weekly Reader, and Scholastic); I'm also a book designer and typesetter, and I've lost count of the number of times people have told me to open my own publishing company.

"With your skills and contacts, you'd be a shoe-in," they all say.

NOT.

Publishing takes far more than the ability to write, design, and typeset a book. But, sadly, the term 'publishing' has devolved into shoving meaningless drivel onto the Web, printing books that have no business being printed, and crowing about it all on blogs and social media sites.

Publishing takes a depth of knowledge the average person doesn't understand, the way we don't understand molecular biology or nuclear physics. Leave experts to do what they do best; the rest of us would be best served learning our limitations.

JS said...

The thing is that the failed publisher may lose money, but the author who trusted their manuscript to the failed publisher may tie up that manuscript in publishing limbo for years.

Don't give people with no experience a chance with your manuscript---give your manuscript a chance to be published properly!

christine tripp said...

I haven't seen many "new publishers" other then the imprints started up by the larger houses for their various senior Editors to head.
Perhaps the writer is sending their open letter to "self published authors"? Those that, after puting their own books up on the web as POD, decide they should hang a shingle up and call themselves publishers.
You can see those all over the net. Easy to spot, as 3 of the 8 books these "publishers" offer are their own, the others are by new authors who "think" they are being published, though there is never an advance and usually few or no sales.

Leslie said...

Nothing more to add other than this is a wonderful post. Thanks!

Richard White said...

Christine,

Actually, over on the B&BC forum, we'll get 3-5 writers a month asking about new "publishers". Some are new vanity presses starting up, some are, as we call them, gormless publishers who really think they're helping new authors get discovered, many are new e-presses because they think anyone can start an e-press, etc.

There's a wide gamut of small/micro publishers out there. Some make it, most don't.

D. G. Hudson said...

Thanks, Richard, for an interesting post. The reason I follow Writer Beware, and some of the other sites is to ensure I'm aware of the pitfalls of not adequately researching publishers, editors or agents.

Everyone wants to be a success, but some don't mind achieving it by stepping on the backs of others to get there.

Deb said...

And there are, on occasion, new publishers who've paid their dues, done their homework, made out a viable business plan, procured capital, and go into acquisitions mode...

The issue is ferreting these golden few out from the rest of the dross. I got lucky and found one.

Richard White said...

Deb,

No question there. I love seeing new publishers take off. I'm following a couple at B&BC who're releasing their first books with widespread bookstore sales, solid authors to launch the line with so they can take on newer authors too, good publicity, great covers, etc.

It's a thing of beauty when it's done right.

Jane Smith said...

I'm with you all the way with this one, Richard.

Just yesterday I heard of a relatively new publisher, set up with the best of intentions a couple of years ago, which has gone into administration now.

A few weeks ago, when the writing was on the wall, the publisher contacted some of its authors to ask if they wanted their rights back. For a fee. They were told that if they refused the publisher would sell rights to their books on but they'd see no more royalties from the deal.

Dreadful stuff. (And yes, I have asked the writers involved to contact Writer Beware.)

christine tripp said...

They were told that if they refused the publisher would sell rights to their books on but they'd see no more royalties from the deal.

Jane, it sounds to me that if this publisher offered a contract that would allow them to do such a thing early on when they started up, then they did not really start the business with the best of intentions. I don't think a publisher can just "sell" all rights to another publisher, unless an author had signed them away to begin with.
I know of publishers gone bankrupt who's books (some of the titles anyway) were bought up by another, but the authors and illustrators still retained their right to royalties and continued to be paid by the new house.

Victoria Strauss said...

Jane, it sounds to me that if this publisher offered a contract that would allow them to do such a thing early on when they started up, then they did not really start the business with the best of intentions.

This is one reason to pay close attention to the Assignment clause in publishing contracts.

I really hope those writers do contact me. I would love to blog about this.

Jane Smith said...

Christine and Victoria: I don't think the contract allowed any such thing--the publisher just said that's the way it was going to happen. Thankfully, at least one of the authors got the Society of Authors involved and got some advice. Whether that had any impact on how things moved on, I'm not sure.

I'll ask the writers concerned to contact you, Victoria. I hope they'll do so this time. Fingers crossed.

Marian said...

Thank you so much for this post. It was a refreshing change from the idea that we should give new publishers the benefit of the doubt, or take it easy on them when they're uninformed because they still have good intentions.

At best, good intentions minus experience and ability will waste your time. At worst...

christine tripp said...

Jane, I hope the authors (and illustrators if this pub offered pic books) will do something about this. If a clause of all rights are not in their contracts, then this publisher can NOT sell their rights to their books. Asking for money to not commit a copyright infringement seems a double illegal act. A publisher willing to blackmail their authors never entered the business with any intention other then to get rich (ha!)
The authors need to get MAD, and perhaps a few threatening lawyers letters to this publisher wouldn't hurt.
Good luck to them, I know all too well about dealing with a bad publisher... sadly.

Jane Smith said...

Christine, I know, I know. It's been driving me mad too, trying to get them to do something rather than just let this drift into madness.

I've asked them to let Victoria to have all the details, but I don't think there's much more I can do to help them if they're not prepared to do anything about it themselves.