Proper publishers don’t need propaganda - by Roz Morris

I just had this email exchange: 'Hi Roz, I'm reviewing for the New York Journal so get your publicist or publisher to send me your books. We don't take self-published.'
Let's pause for some naughty words. 
Frustrating though this is, cherished policies are not updated easily. But the age of enlightenment is being held back by bare-faced misrepresentation from traditional publishing. I've seen two examples in the publishing press in the past month - and it’s time to call them out. 

Misrepresentation #1
The first was a post on the blog of top UK literaryagent Andrew Lownie, where editors list what they're looking for.  Every one of them says they want new work that twists a genre, unique concepts and voices, unforgettable books that defy expectations and break the mould.
Read this and you'd think all the exciting authors get the recognition they deserve. That those who don't are not special enough.
What’s really happening, as I’m sure you’re sick of hearing, is that significant numbers of authors get told: ‘Your novels are excellent, your talent is in no doubt and you tell thoroughly original stories. I've no idea who would publish them.'
Times change. Once, editors were allowed to be more daring. Now they only want 10% daring. The proof? Look along the shelves in your local bookstore. Look at the books making headlines.
The literary establishment - reviewers, journals and awards organisers - is supposed to find the most notable writing, but publishers are turning those books away.
Meanwhile they claim, with a politician’s bushy-tailed gush, they are not. And that’s unacceptable.

Misrepresentation #2
The second whopper was this: a session at the recent Digital Book World Conference called The Evolving Author-Publisher Relationship: How Publishers are Powering—and Empowering—Authors Today (mentioned in Porter Anderson's excellent column Ether For Authors). 
I hope no one paid very much for this session because it must have been over in a nanosecond. In a few very lucky cases publishers are empowering authors (here's an example, for fairness). But the experiences of my author friends who are working with publishers - particularly on ebook editions - paint a rather unempowering picture.  
First is their handling of territories. Territories are important with physical books. But the e can go everywhere. However, UK authors are finding that publishers are declining to market books outside these isles and won’t even discuss terms for doing this - because they haven't done it in the past.
This stay-at-home attitude especially becomes nonsense when they are relying on those authors to build platforms for marketing. 
Where are those platforms? The world wide web. E for everywhere. So an author builds a fanbase who won't see the book supported anywhere.
And royalties. Need I mention royalties? No, because AgentOrange has nailed it on the FutureBook blog - hat tip to Mr Anderson for the alert. Authors I know have gone to big houses with ebook partnership deals - providing a fully formatted book in exchange for marketing heft. The contracts offered seem to treat the author as a bound serf, tugging the forelock, with mean royalties and non-compete clauses.    
By now, Pinocchio’s nose would make a fine alpine horn.  
Publishers can also empower with their wide understanding of all the devices in this baffling e-world. An author friend was dealing with the digital head of a prominent publisher who couldn't understand why a Kindle book wouldn’t be on sale in the ibookstore. Keep taking the tablets, guys.
Look back at that session title: 'Publishers empowering authors today’. I imagine a question from the floor: 'Mr Speaker, which is the device with a K in the name?' 
Perhaps it was a long symposium after all.

So what?
Yeah, it’s a conspiracy. So what? We can just get on with producing good work. But outside of publishing, it's hard to make anyone understand why an author would go it alone - or even turn down a deal. 
It's another reason that the wider literary community regard indies as an untouchable caste. They think a publishing offer is the best thing possible for an author's career, livelihood and body of work, when quite often, publishers are parasites.
The UK press this week carried the story of teenager Beth Reeks, who was spotted by Random House after millions downloaded her serialised novel on Wattpad. With that coverage, she didn’t need a publisher. She could have self-published and been set up for life. What value is Random House offering and what royalty are they paying? If it’s the usual 25% that’s criminal.
What can we do to change minds? Perhaps we need to be more like musicians, and let the book world understand what it's like to be an author today, and what battles writers are really fighting.

Thanks for the pie pics DanTaylor psd    Simon Doggett and bigdrumthump for the drum pic.
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. She blogs at Nail Your Novel  and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @dirtywhitecandy, for more normal chit-chat try her on @ByRozMorris. Her books are Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available in print and on Kindle  She also has a novel, My Memories of a Future Life available on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters right here.


Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks for saying it so clearly Roz. it needs shouting from the housetops. I particularly liked the bit where they said they wanted books that 'twist genre', but everyone I know has had a book turned down recently for not being completely 'in genre'. Porkies! Though that's an insult to nice little pigs. Publishing is in a big mess.
Well said! I couldn't agree more. I'm one of those writers who has been told more often than I care to remember how much an editor/agent loved a book, but sorry, they couldn't possibly sell it. I have manuscripts my agent wouldn't even read, because 'nobody wants historical fiction/midlist fiction/Scottish fiction.' We have to come clean, tell it like it is. I think sometimes we find ourselves in two minds about this. Should we just concentrate on the work? Or should we make it clear exactly what has happened to us? I did a talk to a group of readers late last year - a gathering of book groups. And I gave them a sad, funny, potted history of what had happened to me. It went down a storm. It made me think that so long as we get the tone right, we should be making it clear exactly how we have been treated.
Bill Kirton said…
Right on target, Roz. Nothing to add.
Anonymous said…
Yes, you often get the feeling that they want something edgy but still clinging firmly to the old way. Even the stuff they call experimental is nothing in comparison to the indie stuff I've read on blogs. This post makes me sad. There's still a lot of legitimacy handed out by being published traditionally. Say if you want to teach, give workshops etc, you most likely need to be 'recognised'. It's all relative and messes with my head.
Dan Holloway said…
Roz, I'm trying SO hard to be good with my eating :)

I think what's really interesting is that you talk about Andrew Lownie's blog, and I think when it comes to agents you're right. What *is* happening though is that new, small presses *are* taking on some fabulous new writers doing startlingly original things - Bluemoose, Melville House, Dedalus and others (the most fabulous, original book I've come across in 2012 was Frank Hinton's Action, Figure published by Tiny Hardcore Press). The thing is whilst these presses are putting out wonderful books and even getting them before major literary judges, the sales are small enough that it's just not worth agents' while taking the authors on.

What we really really need as we keep making your point (which is an essential one) is to keep overgrounding the genuinely startlingly original work we come across because that's what will ultimately make our point most powerfully of all. This is a major issue I have with many self-publishing review sites - yes, they do a great job for genre fans, but too often they have a "literary fiction" section that points out works that are very similar to what the mainstream is doing, full of exquisite prose and some original ideas, beautifully edited, flowingly written and something no one would complain about their listing. We want to make the case that self-publishing is the place for those genuinely at the cutting edge - at the moment the self-publishing-centred media is often as much to blame as the mainstream media for putting across the message that isn't the case. We, as much as they, need to be seeking out the obscure and the breathtaking and then shouting it from the hilltops, yet so many of us are also authors concerned to show that we take ourselves seriously as writers by making nice, safe choices for books to recommend that are beautifully written, well-edited, professionally produced so that our standing amongst the cognoscenti is safe, that we rarely stick our own necks out for the tatty, unread pieces of mindbending brilliance that are out there.
Jessica Bell said…
Roz, I've been thinking about this very topic a lot lately. The self-publishing stigma has GOT TO LIFT. Because I'm beginning to think there is no better way to publish, lately. I'm losing faith, big time, in traditional houses.
Lydia Bennet said…
Great post Roz. Someone I know self-published a book, worked tirelessly 'hand selling' it (paperback but same point applies). after he'd sold a lot, a publisher kindly took it on. Their guy made some very snide remarks at the launch, making it clear what they think of selfpub. The author was thrilled! Carried on flogging himself to death all over the uk. Suddenly struck me, hang on, now he's getting what, 10%? 25%? while before, he got the lot once he'd paid for the printing. Anyway despite his respectable sales they refused to publish his next, and he's gone back to self-pub. Re E-pub specifically, I feel some publishers madly overprice kindle versions, some well-known authors have kindle novels at ten squid, which just can't be justified by cost etc. Is that a way of fighting, while appearing to go along with, the ebook?
Anonymous said…
You nailed it, Roz. A writer in my local writing group has been chasing the traditional publishing route. Two small press titles, now going for one of the big houses for his third book. I listen to some of his stories and some of the hoops he's jumping through and I wonder why. And then he turns around and snarks about indies (allowing as how two of us who went the indie route aren't "like most of them") and doesn't seem to see the disconnect. It's that literary fic mindset that's so anti-indie and so frustrating, whether it's from publishers or from other writers.
Debbie Bennett said…
So TRUE. I was getting exactly those rejections "we love it, but we can't sell it". Whereas what they really mean is "we're not 150% sure we can make enough of money out of you to take a chance and we know people would far rather read X's latest autobiography". And the sad thing is I still want to be on the shelf in Waterstones ...
Agent Sitwell said…
It amazes me that, by and large, publishers are continuing to act with the magisterial disdain for authors that they got away with before the days of indie publishing.

Consider that publishing is a joint venture agreement. As the author, you are the early risk-taker and you may have invested a year or more in a manuscript. On top of that, you are increasingly expected to do most of the platform-building and publicity. The publisher has costs too, of course, but in any normal JV there would be a discussion of relative risk and the share of back end would be worked out accordingly - not the take it or leave it arrangements that have been in use since Currer Bell found a publisher.

Now, in the old days authors had no inkling of publishers' costs and no alternative to a negotiated agreement. Indie publishing changed that. Yet we see the same opaque contracts, with terms like "marketing plan at the publisher's discretion" or "if in the opinion of the publisher" signalling a feudal attitude to the serfs who actually write the books.

Deep down, it seems, publishers can't shake the feeling that they are doing authors a favour. Maybe that was true ten years ago, but now it's time to get some transparency in the business. said…
Reading through all the Andrew Lownie Editors 'what am I looking for' entries one wishes that their implicit porkies were garnished with 'what the marketing men in my company are looking for' to represent the matter honestly. I have had three publishers telling me their 'marketing department' did not share their literary enthusiasm!
The stigma of self publishing is somehow not retrospective... Virginia Woolf does not get clobbered, so what it seems is that only overwhelming success acts as a bleach to the ordure of SP!
I cannot help wondering whether it will require the demise of all bookshops to level the playing field? I was offered a publishing deal (no name here- but well respected in certain quarters) which required me to contribute £2700 towards publication costs, sign over copyright including ebook ( which they made clear they would not exercise...but I couldn't either) and ww rights! Not exactly a vote of confidence in the book and no incentive whatever to market what has already been paid in my book simply vanity far worse than the author who goes it alone.

I just think posts like this and the more the better will ultimately corrode the complacency.
Susan Price said…
Absolutely superb post, Roz! I was cheering you on. I'm supposed to be working, but I'm going to take some time out to try and spread this around.
Linda Acaster said…
Great post, Roz. I Tweeted it and left - to find that I'd received an email from Amazon's KDP customer services, and had to come back to add my two penn'th.

Yesterday I re-uploaded my novel 'Torc of Moonlight' with an updated blurb, cover & excerpt from the sequel in the back. No problems.

However, because I'd bought the earlier version Amazon's automated shop-front wouldn't let me buy & download the new version, so last night I emailed KDP customer services asking if there was a way round this. Their answer came back this morning. Of course there is - they'll add a copy for download *by hand* *if that was okay with me*. That email just now was notification that it was ready, and I've just downloaded it.

Let me state that again: I re-uploaded the new file, cover and blurb yesterday *afternoon*, came across a personal buying glitch, had an exchange of emails and am now reading my novel on Kindle - all in less than 24 hours, and over a weekend.

I've had my work published through "mainstream" publishers, and had an agent, and there is no way on this planet I could ever have hoped for such service and consideration. THIS is why epublishers are taking business, and it is why there would have to be an awful lot of noughts attached to any mainstream publisher's enticement to sign a contract.

End of my rant. I shall go read my novel.
Bob said…
Frankly I've stopped blogging about all this. Said it all years ago. When someone at DBW said the hot term was "hybrid" author, I had to put a link to a June 2011 blog where I used the term. A year ago DBW and traditional publishing was a year behind. This year they both were 18 months behind.
Well said, Roz! Publishing is not in the moribund state it's in because Amazon are such meanies. They're there because people within the publishing corporations, people who have nothing to do with books and as far as I can tell, no interest in reading, have been making a lot of stupid decisions (such as the one you mention re territory) for years and years. I've felt for a long time that the humongous corporations mostly want publishing houses for tax write-offs. You mention the 25% royalty Beth Reeks probably will be asked to accept even though she's built her own reputation. 25% is only for the e-books. Print books earn back at a much lower rate, usually 8-10% and possibly 15% after a specific number of copies have been sold. It is a stacked deck indeed, and even successful writers that we all hear about usually have a very limited time in the sun, even though their work has not deteriorated.
Hello, communicative people! Thanks for your overwhelming support here.

Kathleen - love your remark that everyone has had a book turned down for being too unusual. Thank heavens we now have the chance to go directly to readers.

Catherine - I knew the 'rave rejection' would chime with you. And I agree we have to be careful not to seem like we're whining, but there are a lot of misapprehensions that we can tackle.

Bill - thanks!

Alison - legitimisation is a real problem. And we all need guidance to find what we'd like to read in the huge mass of books that are now available. This is why we need reviewers and the literary community to understand what the state of affairs really is.

Dan - sorry about the pork pies. I've given myself a hankering too. Thanks for taking this post and running with it on your blog - that was fast work! We definitely need to make readers - and the literary news world - aware that self-publishing is where the most interesting work is being done. That's surely what they're meant to be finding.

Jessica - hello! I agree - unless publishers can offer proper partnerships, and therefore add value, indie is the way to go.

Lydia - that's a tale to turn your blood cold. This condescending attitude is still rife and yet some poor authors feel they have to tolerate it. How dispiriting for that author to put up with such treatment - probably in the hope of building a long-term relationship - and then being ditched anyway. And you may well be right that publishers don't get ebook pricing - although most of them are revising their ideas about that now.

Hi Jennie! I'm sure you'll wipe the snark off their faces. (Er, I'm literary fic... and proudly indie....)

Hi Debbie - you were another author I had in mind when I wrote about rave rejections. BTW, you can be on a shelf in Waterstones. Register with Nielsen Bookscan - it's free. Price your book so you can afford to give a 60% discount. Then go butter up a Waterstones manager. :)

Agent Sitwell, good of you to drop by. And thank you for being so outspoken and honest - a credit to your profession. You've encapsulated here some fundamental problems - publishers seem to still behave as though they own the industry, whereas now the industry is more in the hands of the creatives. You're not a friend of Orange, are you?

Philippa - good to see you here! You're dead right - nobody implies that Virginia Woolf shouldn't have published herself. People who self-published and then made good are hailed as heroes, shining examples of self-belief. Your offer is shocking. No 'proper' publisher will ever ask you to contribute money - you probably know this, but it can't be said enough. Even the tiniest small presses, who will only offer a token advance of £25 or so, will not ask you to pay for anything. Shocking. I'm so glad you didn't take it.

Susan - thanks! I was salivating as I wrote it (with all those pies)

Linda - thanks! And what a contrast your experience with Amazon provides. When I decided to make a special anniversary edition of my novel, I made the cover in an hour and had a proof winging its way from CreateSpace. If I'd had that idea and had to persuade a traditional publisher, it would never have happened - and I'd have missed a fun way to celebrate my book's anniversary. Whenever I've had to contact KDP or CreateSpace they've been quick, courteous and effective.

Hi Bob! I remember blogging about 'hybrid' authors in March and April 2011 as well - I was conducting a long campaign to get people to understand why I might self-publish my novel. It seems funny in retrospect that I felt I had to do that. I love your remark about trad publishing getting further and further behind. They certainly are.

Elizabeth - good point about print royalties. They're even lower if you ghostwrite. And your final line is such an important point - these writers' work has not deteriorated. Definitely worth saying.
Chris Longmuir said…
Well said, Roz. I can't add anything to what's already been said but it's good to see you banging the drum.
Ho ho, nice reincorporation of the final pic, Chris. Thank you!
glitter noir said…
Razor-edged thinking and sizzling style. Were you listening to Rod Stewart when you wrote this, Roz? I'll be approaching you and those who have posted so passionately here when it's time to launch Project X. This is both a bloodcurdlng short novel about the changed publishing world--and a clarion call to action with a strategic plan for action I've spent ten years developing. Think James Michener, Stephen King and legendary publisher Michael Korda combined. Wait for Reb!
julia jones said…
Just got home and of course I think this is just the ticket - but are we all making sufficient use of our anthology to get the message across? Not because it's the greatest but it is collective -
@42gallery42 said…
Someone mentioned that the book publishing industry was similar to the music industry. Having worked the music industry I can tell you it’s an identical footprint. I was substituting the word ‘music’ every time I read ‘book'and couldn’t distinguish the two. In the music industry we’ve watched the big record/publishing companies either merge or die a slow death, but even the product of the merges seem to follow the same old greedy model, not to mention that they have NOT kept up technically. Twenty years or more and they’re still fighting downloads. Major musicians/bands have and are still leaving the majors in droves, adopting a more personalized and controlled system designed to their benefit. If they do hook up with another major player, they’re not dealing their publishing anymore. Publishing has become very near and dear and is rarely on the table anymore. Artists are making their own demands, striking their own deals and taking control of their own online sales and marketing. No more “in the opinion of” or “at the publisher’s discretion”. They’ve eliminated the middle man and substituted a good agent to find and deal the opportunities and a good publicist to make the noise. As limitless and fragmented as cyberspace is in its infinite constant, there are no unfair terms, boundaries or limitations - only opportunities. Make your deals with cybersponsors, pitch the top 100 most popular visited sites every few months, get reviews, visit book forums, create a fan forum, do podcasts, youtube, commercials, events, talk shows, signings anon anon. Thing is, you don’t have to be an established rock star or author to take advantage of todays tools. In the music industry this new approach , faster, more direct, more creative, more lucrative.

There’s a saying these days, “keep up or become a victim” and technically the most overwhelming aspect of all business these days is keeping up technically. Some of us must admit that we can not accomplish it all ourselves. We can oversee it but in most cases, artists/writers are not technical wizards or sales professionals. The myth is that the old school distributor/publisher looked after ALL of this for us. They did and that WAS the bottom line to their publishing agreements, hefty royalties and book prices. Most actually don’t do this anymore (but they still want those prices), many failing for the same reason the old music industry died - greed and technology. Future publishers will eventually march to the beat of the Artist and their content. And depending on what the Artist/Writer already has in place as attractive leverage should be negotiable to dealing with an online sales distributor. Think good agent and publicist, not old school publishing. I can hear the death rattle.
Susan Price said…
There is now a link to our Sparks Anthology circling in the widgets at the side of the blog, Julia. Catch it and click on it, to go straight to its Amazon page - and it will stay up permanently.
Stacy Green said…
I don't have much to add, but wanted to say thank you to Roz for telling it like it is. I can always count on her for great advice!
April Taylor said…
Oh, how this chimes. I've had an agent in Florida for two and a half years trying to 'sell' my crime fantasy set in an alternate Tudor history. Every editor quotes how 'wonderful' my writing is. None will take it. To show how pathetic their reasons are, I can quote one editor who told my agent to tell me that 'people called Kerr all have red hair and come from Scotland'. I kid you not!! I have self-pubbed and will continue to do so. If one of them goes viral, why should I share the dosh with a pubishing house that didn't have the bottle to take me on?
Dennis Hamley said…
Juat come home in time to read this marvellous post. Most eloquent expression yet of why we're all in this. I've only published old backlist books so far but I am writing, at last, new work. A mainstream publisher I actually like and admire - I've worked with him before, when we didn't quite understand how we were being ripped off - has expressed interest, but life is too short to undergo the old experience again and I'll do the book myself and feel fulfilled and delighted.

I've, amazingly, got two brand new small publishers FIGHTING over some little books I wrote for a mainstream and reasonably respected children's/educational publisher which has just gone belly-up. Not because the stories have any merit but because they're part of a well-selling school series. Both publishers offer squit-low royalties and no advances, but they can have the stories because they're brave new ventures, they're taking on an unforgiving world, they have to fight their corner - and of course they are in a niche market. I wish them well and want them both to succeed. This is what old-style publshing USED to be like and I hope they have recognition and success. So there is another side and it puts the scandal of corprate publishing a bit more in a bit of perspective - a dishonest charade.
@42gallery42 - well said! Some years ago when I was working as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow in a university with a big 'Creative Industries' department, I found myself helping a commercial music student with one of her essays and we often found ourselves discussing the state of our respective businesses. 'You writers HAVE to do what musicians are doing!' she remarked. It struck me at the time that she was right, that for too long we had cast ourselves as humble supplicants and things were going to have to change. But at the time, I couldn't see quite how it would work for a writer. Then POD and eBooks came along and everything changed.
Anonymous said…
The worst is with literary fiction, I've noticed. With genre books, at least you have an open minded readership. People who read commercial genre fiction tend to be open minded about indie publishing and are even quite excited to read new undiscovered authors.

On the other hand, people who read literary fiction tend to be followers. They need to have The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books or Bookslut or Salon or The Millions or Largehearted Boy or any number of "literary" blogs tell them what is the latest approved author that they should be reading. They tend to prefer paper books over digital/Kindle, so they are sort of out of the indie loop altogether. As a result, many fine indie books that are literary fiction are just languishing. Perhaps these authors need to keep writing and wait for the eventuality - maybe there will be more open minded readers of literary fiction who make the transition to Kindle. But it doesn't seem to have happened yet.
That's a good point. Readers of literary fiction so often like to be told how wonderful the king's new clothes are, when to many of us it's clear that he is naked. However - finding myself as a mid list writer, being told by editors that my work was much too literary to be 'really popular', but not nearly experimental enough (for which read obscure) to be 'really literary' -can't win! - I've discovered that quite a lot of readers seem to be happy to read just this kind of writing.
Reb - ho ho, no, I was listening to Survivor.

Julia - good point about the anthology. Real stories of why authors are self-publishing!

42gallery42 - thanks for your very good examples, easily a post in themselves. What can I add, except that those who wield the number 42 are truly in touch the the answer to life, the universe and everything?

Stacy - nice to see you here, thanks for commenting!

April - astonishing though your 'red hair' comment is, I can well believe it. And it just shows how little courage editors have nowadays in the publishing climate. They do not dare take a chance on challenging new work - even when it's passed the rigorous standards of an agent.

Dennis - good for you! And it's good to get examples of small presses who are managing to keep the flame. I worry, though, that it's very hard for them to do that, especially in economic terms. Small presses seem to operate mainly on love - rather like authors.

Catherine - some authors do indeed cast themselves as humble supplicants. Or they can't get over the feeling that self-publishing is cheating or wrong. This is a good reason to use the music industry as a model.
A friend of mine was at a party, chatting to an extremely famous author. You'd definitely have heard of him. They were talking about ebooks, and this author hadn't yet had any e-editions released, or talked to his publisher about them. It turned out he still had the rights. So my friend encouraged him to put them out himself, and get the higher royalty. Even if he paid for formatting, he'd be much better off. 'Oh no, that would be self-publishing,' he said. 'I'll talk to my publisher and they'll do it.' You'll only get 25% royalty if you do that, said my friend. But acting without a publisher was so unthinkable, even the financial arguments couldn't persuade him.

Anonymous - 'the worst is lit fic' - don't I know it. I feel like I'm pushing a demolition ball uphill with only my nose.

Jenny Alexander said…
Timely and true! My latest MS is 'too niche' for acquisitions meetings even though editors love it. The fact that it crosses boundaries and is totally original seems to mean it won't achieve 'volume sales' so I'm really grateful for this new way of nurturing our best work and bringing it to readers
Thanks, Jenny! I'm immensely grateful for self-publishing too. Very best of luck with yours
cheap jerseys said…
There is now a link to our spark "hover in the widget on the side of the blog, Julia. Grab it and click on it, go straight to the amazon page, it will remain permanent.
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But, if they receive a "politician’s bushy-tailed gush" they will print it in a heartbeat.

I received an email today from Kindle wanting me to print my books as paperback and they will give me author copies as cost. That is just so nice of them.

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