The Destructive Power of Publishing - Kathleen Jones

In the past few months I've had some distressing emails from friends - successful writer friends published by big publishing houses here and abroad.  One of them was a Whitbread award-winner with his first novel and the others have also won awards, as well as being very commercial - one has regularly had books serialised by the Reader's Digest. But two in particular have really made me aware of the cruel and destructive power of the contemporary publishing industry, which cares more for its shareholders than the creative egos of the authors it depends on for its income.

Recently two friends have told me stories which are very similar. Both are distressed, depressed and have had their lives, their confidence - and their writing careers - damaged by the very people supposed to nurture and support them.  It's difficult not to come to the conclusion that the supposedly 'traditional' model of the publishing industry has begun to cannibalise itself.

One symptom of this is a recent post on the blog Random Jottings about the historical fiction author Cynthia Harrod Eagles - always chronically under publicised.  Recently the publishers have suggested that she should bring her very successful Morland Dynasty series to an end because it is no longer making quite so much money (but still selling and still in print).  This produced an outcry from her readers, but was apparently very wounding for the author. The publishers could have promoted her books (they're as commercial as Philippa Gregory)  in order to make themselves more profit, but they preferred to wield the axe instead. Why? Something is going on in publishing that is very damaging to authors.

One of my friends - with whom I shared an agent for a couple of years - had a couple of successful novels published both here and in America.  They are upmarket literary fiction - think Marika Cobbold, and Maggie O'Farrell - but they're also potentially very commercial.  She's recently had another baby and has taken a while to finish her third novel, which is a big, glorious account of twenty first century society - a complex Russian style novel with four main characters and narrative threads woven together.  Her agent (my ex for good reasons) initially praised the book, then began to make discouraging noises and asked her to rewrite whole sections of it, deleting characters and changing the plot.  But the book was complete just as it was. To delete characters and plot-lines would have turned the book into something it was never intended to be.  It could never be a commercial pot-boiler romantic saga - there's a lot of stark realism and some challenging situations.  To turn the book into what the agent wanted it to be would have maimed it fatally, even if the re-write had been possible.

It's a situation that Costa award-winning Indie author Avril Joy addresses in her new book 'From Writing With Love'.  "It’s not difficult to find yourself losing your way and writing something that’s not true to who you are.  I’ve done it.  I’ve written more sex into a book to please an agent.  I’ve written crime fiction, invented a serial killer, ditched one book and moved onto the next, and more . . . Being new to writing I was vulnerable to such persuasions (which I have no doubt at all were made from a genuine desire to help me get a book deal). I wouldn’t do it like that a second time round because in the end if you’re not writing from your own truth the writing is not truly yours."

My friend wanted to believe her agent was right and could be relied on - we trust our agents to give us the right career advice, so she believed that the fault was with her and that her book was no good, although her gut feeling was telling her the opposite.  It came as a shock to realise that what the agent was really doing was advising her that she could only write for the market - the books she wanted to write, however great a work of art they might be, were just not going to be bought by a publisher. I read the novel to give an objective second opinion. It's a wonderful story, wonderfully written.  It deserves to be sold and sold and sold.  But her first two novels hadn't sold enough - there was some half-hearted muttering about re-launching her under another name.  My friend has lost confidence in her agent, the publishing industry and in herself as a writer, losing sleep and feeling depressed.

The cartoon says it all - but it's no joke for writers
Last week I got another email from someone else whose publishing career I've always envied.  Her latest novel, which her agent had raved about had - after an agonising wait -  just been rejected by her publisher with a brief curt note.  Other publishers weren't even interested.  She too was devastated and desperate, feeling that her writing life was at an end.  Her painful account of how she'd been treated made me very, very angry.

Both of them wrote to me asking for advice and there was only one piece of advice I could give - do what the rest of us have done and publish the b***** books yourself.  If publishers have lost the plot to the extent that they can't recognise a good book when they see one, then we have to take things into our own hands.  What bothers me most is that there are still a lot of writers out there who trust the traditional publishing system absolutely and are having their confidence and even their mental health affected by their treatment in the system.  Publishers want the new, the fluffy, the edgy, the quirky, the absolutely marketable, headline in the Mail on Sunday, one hundred percent guaranteed money-spinner. What they do not want is the quietly crafted good read that thousands of their readers enjoy - the mid-list that earned its keep but not the managing director's Bentley. Publishers have share-holders who need to be kept happy in this 'difficult economic climate'. They are no longer there to nurture talent and hold the hands of frail artistic geniuses. And agents are there to feed the hungry maw of the publishing machine with fodder, because they too have mortgages and cars and foreign holidays to pay for.

E-publishing is only one of several options . . .

It has never been easier to publish your own book - self-publishing is as old as the book trade itself. S** snobbery!  If a book's worth sweating over for years of your life, it's worth publishing - get out there and do it!! It takes a couple of weeks to turn a clean Word document into a published paperback and E-book courtesy of the Demon Amazon.  Go on -  I dare you .... press the button . . .

Kathleen Jones' books have been published by Virago, Penguin, Time Warner, Constable and Random House. She also publishes independently.  

Her novel The Sun's Companion is now available in both paperback and E-editions, with 5 star reviews.

Kathleen's acclaimed new biography of the Faber poet Norman Nicholson - The Whispering Poet, is also available on Kindle and in paperback.

Find Kathleen's regular blog 'A Writer's Life' at


Brilliant, brilliant post, Kathleen.
Any business can be degraded (and destroyed from within) by throwing attention to Quality aside, and chasing short-term, unsustainable Profit instead (and never mind the long-term consequences).
We've seen the same kind of thinking affect quality of work and life in other areas - environment, banking, politics, economies...television, film...

Maybe it's a straight case of the Artist versus the Machine.

Always, may the Artist win.
Dennis Hamley said…
That's terrific, Kathleen. I too have, in a small way, experienced the commercial publisher's curt brush-off, in my case exhibiting itself through silence. If I hadn't started indie publishing I would have been in a deep depression by now.I'd lost interest in the projects I was in the middle of because they would, I thought , never come to pass and so weren't worth continuing with. But all that's changing and I'm at last really getting on with new stuff rather than just tarting up old.
Dennis Hamley said…
And when the publishing industry is no longer commercially viable, they must reflect that they only have themselves to blame.
Kathleen Jones said…
Thank you John and Dennis - I agree very strongly with both of you. The fact that the publishing industry has turned its back on so many of us is very significant and will rebound on it eventually. John, they are indeed, eating themselves from the inside out.
An excellent post, Kathleen. When I look back on my own experiences in publishing it is usually with a deep sense of frustration that the self publishing options were not there - the familiar feeling of wishing you had known back then what you know all too well now! I parted company with my last agent some time ago and one thing I've noticed, even when working with a small traditional-ish publisher is the blessed relief of NOT having to go through a third party! I think the way forward for most of us is either wholly and independently self publishing or a mixture of both depending on the project. The small to medium sized publishers seem able to live with that quite happily and to welcome collaboration, but the big companies just don't seem to get it.
Bill Kirton said…
Great points, powerfully made, Kathleen. Thank God the shackles have been loosened - no, discarded. I remember well when the agent's/publisher's first question about one's previously published books changed from 'Were they any good?' to 'Did they sell?'
Kathleen Jones said…
Yes, Catherine - like you I'm very glad to have a foot in both camps, but to be free to have control.
You make a good point Bill about the questions publishers were asking - suddenly they were looking up sales figures on the computer and pulling faces. Once 2000 sales in hardback for a literary biography would have made them smile - suddenly it was a no-no!
Nick Green said…
Wonderful post, Kathleen. It says a lot when winners of major literary prizes are treated that way.

The publishing industry often acts like a rabbit in headlights. It senses itself on the precipice, with no room to manoeuvre, and becomes incapable of taking what it perceives to be 'risks'. Unfortunately, it doesn't understand that the biggest risk of all, in this game, is to take no risks - because the world of fiction is fundamentally about finding the new, the exciting, the never-before-seen. Following 'market trends' means an inevitable slow slide into dullness, and loss of sales.

So, like the rabbit in the headlights, their panicky self-preservation response - don't move! - is actually not a very good idea at all.

Sandra Horn said…
A great post, Kathleen! I've been there...and still don't know what goes on in the minds of some so-called editors. They're always chasing the next bit of glittery fluff and fail to learn from experience.
June Finnigan said…
I took the self-published route so that I could be in control, like thousands of others. I have met a lot of agents and publishers who I would not trust an inch. Currently, of course, they are all living in fear and many are going out of business, this has made many aggressive and unable to think straight! I say, Power to the writers!
Chris Longmuir said…
Brilliant post, Kathleen. It hit a few chords, and as a winner of a major literary prize I expected more,but received a lot of what you described. I'm now extremely happy doing it my own way, and loving the independence.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes a sad tale, so many talented writers dropped - those now sneering at self-pub may be forced to rethink if they too are suddenly dumped. this has been increasing at an accelerated rate but even a good while back, Barbara Pym was ditched by her publishers for not being trendy enough, and only saved from the wilderness by two (high status/high visibility) fans - the quality of her books and the love her fans had for her didn't matter a bit to them.
Mari Biella said…
Excellent post, Kathleen. So sad to hear of authors being treated so badly, and by the very people whose job it is to support them – and it’s such a relief to know that self-publishing is now a viable option for those authors!
Kathleen Jones said…
I'm glad so many of you agree with me about the state of things at the moment, but it's also worrying that so many of us have had similar experiences. In the end though, that's the publishing industry's loss - we're fantastic!!!!
Debbie Bennett said…
I never even got a foot in the door. Had agent who couldn't sell it - though at least she didn't want a rewrite to fit the market niche!

We are indeed fantastic! And the readers are starting to agree with us.
Susan Price said…
Fifteen comments - and with the exception of June Finnigan (sorry, June, no offence intended) - I've read books by every one of them, and, as an avid reader with wide tastes, can vouch for every single one being a very good read indeed. Yet all have been pushed into self-publishing by the attitudes Kathleen describes. It's very sad.
Helen Hollick said…
What is the saying? 'Been there, done that, read the book....'
I too was dropped by my UK mainstream publisher and was sold down the river by my (ex)agent. I trusted her, I thought she was looking out for me - and looking after me. Was I wrong!
I spent two weeks sobbing because my world had collapsed then picked myself up and went Indie.
I made huge errors at first - and realised the company I had gone to was run by a guy who can only be described as a crook, however, I learnt a lot very quickly: how to do it, how not to do it.
I am now with a superb self-funding assisted company (SilverWood Books ltd) who produce quality, professional books. I love being in control of my novels, and I feel secure knowing my choices are MY choices (yes, even the occasional wrong ones!) The ONLY drawback to being Indie is not having the clout of a big company behind you for marketing or getting your books into stores.... but then my traditional mainstream publisher didn't do that for me either, which is why my books did not sell and why I was dropped. I am still mainstream in the US with some of my books - and I made the best seller list there. All I want now is to do well with my Indie pirate-based Sea Witch Voyages - which my ex-agent rubbished but seem to be very much liked by my growing crew of enthusiastic readers. Best thing I ever did was to go Indie!
Enid Richemont said…
I was first published by Walker Books in the early Nineties, and totally nurtured by them for over a decade. They were wonderful, and I thought of them - especially my two editors, Wendy Boase and Anne Carter - as extended family.

The first major blow came in 2001 - the year in which Simon & Schuster published my Young Adult novel, FOR MARITSA WITH LOVE. S&S launched a major publicity campaign (glittery launch, the lot!) and sent me off to the Northern Children's Book Festival to do readings, talks, etc. I wanted to publicise, at the same time, one of my younger books with Walker, but I was suddenly told it was out of print. MARITSA went o/p within the year.

Since then, it's been downhill all the way. All the books I did with Walker went out of print, so my beloved David began re-issuing them as ebooks. As I don't have David any more, doing this has not been easy - in fact, for me, impossible, so I'm looking for outside help.

Recently, I went into picture books, and had two enthusiastically accepted by a publisher in Suffolk. The first was launched in our local Children's Bookshop last October,and seems to be doing well. The second, with a completed illustrated edition and due to come out this March, has had its publication delayed because certain 'buyers' turned it down. It now has to be shown at the major book fairs before it can go ahead. I had dedicated it to David, sweating for days over a single line dedication (David died suddenly in March last year).

I'm tired.
Kathleen Jones said…
It's wonderful to hear such encouraging stories from authors beating the system. Yes, indie publishing is hard, particularly the publicity bit, but in the end it's empowering and very satisfying. Enid - all the best with your new picture books. And Helen with the Sea Witch books - I empathised totally with the 'sobbing for two weeks' quote. Been there, done that! Sue and Debbie - yes, we are beginning to win the battle over 'hearts and minds'! I feel like wearing some kind of badge (you know the tacky things!) that says 'Proud to be Indie'.
Orla said…
Many many thanks. I loved your article. My own book is "difficult to market" and has been rejected by many publishers for several years. I self published. It sells. it has great reviews.
John Logan convinced me it was a good idea. Up until I met him I sat on the fence about the whole thing. I saw the way he liked to take care of himself and his own business.
So that's a massive shout out of THANKS to John - and to you Kathleen
Bob said…
I spent 20 years in traditional publishing with 42 books, hit all the bestseller lists and left it behind in 2010. I formed Cool Gus and haven't looked back.

The only person I have to please is the reader.

These authors should at least be happy there are other options now that didn't exist several years ago.
glitter noir said…
A wonderful and necessary post. Thank you. It'll never be fun to look back on one's early glory days, before the pubbing world's bottom fell out. But time and perspective--and EbookLandia--all help to soothe old wounds. The pain was unimaginable in the early 90's, before the illness had been diagnosed: after struggling for decades to get into print, then publishing well-reviewed novels--to find ourselves suddenly Ronins--with no contracts, no interested publishers...and agents scrambling for reasons to drop us. We could only assume that there was something Wrong us...that we couldn't write work that would sell. I still hope to launch a small nonfiction novel next year: Monster Time--in which agents will shoulder their share of the blame. Meantime, thanks again for this!
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks Orla, Bob and Reb - what stories we all have to tell! Look forward to 'Monster Time' Reb....
A.C. Flory said…
As someone who has always been an Indie [for all of 12 months], this post quieted the last, lingering niggles I had about going straight to self-publishing.

If anyone would like to explore some excellent tutorials on the mechanical side of self-publishing, I highly recommend Indies Unlimited.

Indies Unlimited is a community of writers and readers, sharing information for everyone's benefit. And that includes warnings about the latest scams.

Sadly the internet is now awash with unscrupulous companies working very hard to separate new Indie authors from their money. All that glitters..etc.

Becoming an Indie is no guarantee of success, far from it. Nonetheless, there is an amazing sense of empowerment that comes from knowing you don't have to compromise your writing.

Good luck.
Richard Herley said…
To any authors still wondering whether to go independent: have a look at this blog post by Marko Kloos.
Kriley said…
Excellent post. It's articles like these that convinced me to not even try the traditional route and go strait to self publishing last year.
Kathleen Jones said…
A.C. Flory, Richard and Kevin - thanks for your comments and your positive feedback on 'going Indie'. What I most like about it is the generosity of other self-pub authors, sharing information and giving support. I will look at the sites you mentioned and pass on the links.
Linda Gillard said…
Wonderful post, Kathleen and I've shared it on my FB page.

As many of you know, I was an award-winning, modestly-selling mid-lister when I was dropped by my publisher - I suspect mainly because I refused to tailor my book as Avril Joy did. I knew I would regret it if I did, so I chose to withdraw the ms. and return my advance.

I went indie in 2011 and I haven't regretted my decision for one single moment, not even when I've been falling down with tiredness, doing everything myself in the run-up to the launch of the latest ebook. At no point have I thought, "Gosh, I wish I had a publisher to share the burden". On the contrary, when I got to the stage of wondering why I'd ever thought writing the damn book was a good idea, I consoled myself that at least I didn't have to contend with an awful cover, or a publicity campaign that never materialised, or the pressure of knowing I have 3 months in which to succeed, after which my book would be deemed a dud.

Amazon approached me last year and asked to read my work-in-progress. I was pretty certain I wanted to remain indie, but I'll admit I was curious to know how much money they might put on the table, how much creative freedom they would let me have. But in fact they passed. You'll love the reason they gave. My novel CAULDSTANE didn't fit into any clear genre.

Now where have I heard that before?...

Kathleen Jones said…
Oh Linda! They must all be beating themselves with bamboo at what they've passed up - and if they're not, they should be. If anything illustrates the senselessness of consumer-capitalist culture at the moment it's what's happening in publishing. You abandon Quality and Variety at your peril.

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