Publish or Die! - Katherine Roberts

I came across this book in my local charity shop last week, with a title I could not resist - Publish or Die. The bargain price of 20p is well within my current book-buying budget, so I picked it up, took it home and read it over second breakfast.

It turned out to be a teen title written by Alan Durant and published on Scholastic's Point Crime list in the 1990's, a few years before my first book was published. Scholastic did several of these lists as I remember... Point Horror, Point Fantasy, etc... bringing together well-respected YA authors to create what seems to have been a successful publisher-led brand.

Publish or Die is set in the offices of a small publishing house, where the heroine Calico has just started as an editorial assistant - for which read coffee-maker, slush pile reader, photocopier of manuscripts, and general gofer. Still starry-eyed with her love of books, she walks straight into a cut-throat office dispute between two of the senior editors, who disagree about the sort of books they should be publishing. She is rather disenchanted after seeing one of her author heroes in the flesh, and the first unsolicited manuscript that arrives on her desk comes with a threatening letter from a mysterious author called "Nemesis" instructing Calico's boss - one of the warring editors - to publish the enclosed ms, or die. With nothing better to do, Calico begins reading it.

The manuscript turns out to be the story of an author who was promised a lucrative publishing deal that the publisher apparently reneged upon (legally enough, because no formal contract had been signed). The disgruntled author embarks on a trail of revenge, sending the publisher letter bombs, sabotaging their freight lift, and setting fire to the books in their basement... fictional events that are uncannily mirrored by real-life events in Calico's place of work.

How real this book might be from a publisher's point of view I'm not sure, but it certainly seems believable enough from my experience of being an author published in the late 1990's... i.e. in the days of the slush pile, before email submissions, when editors still had the final say in who or what got published and everything went back and forth by snail-mail - or, in some cases, dinosaur-mail. In particular, this conversation from Publish or Die between two of the junior editors after the fire burns all their newly-published books will probably strike a chord with many in the business:

"All those books, all those words," she said sombrely.
"There's plenty more where they came from," Dan remarked drily. "There's too many novels in the world, anyway."

So true - and that was in the 1990's. Nielsen's statistics show that the total number of titles published in the UK in 1998 (when Publish or Die came out) was just over 100,000. By 2015, this had grown to almost 1.5 million - and that's only counting books with ISBNs. Kindle books published using amazon's ASINs are not registered anywhere except at amazon. None of my own indie-published ebooks would show up on Nielsen's stats, and I suspect many other authors working today with similar small-scale indie projects must also be operating under the traditional radar.

After hearing some of the horror stories my author friends and colleagues have told me over the years, I'm surprised authors don't feel tempted to use Nemesis tactics more often. Fortunately, most authors also have the gift of empathy, and are level-headed enough to remain businesslike in their dealings with publishers - or at least to leave it to their agent to send the Nemesis-style letters on their behalf. After the initial disappointment/screaming fit/throwing the manuscript into the bin and vowing never to write another word as long as we live, we begin to see the publisher's view and realize it is not the editors' fault, the new assistant's fault, or even the accountancy department's fault, but merely a case of over-supply coupled with the wrong book by the wrong author at the wrong time.

To quote Dan from the Publish or Die:
"There are plenty more where they came from."

Meaning, of course, that the over-suppliers (the authors) are not needed enough by the business as a whole to merit treating us any better as individuals. If ALL authors went on strike, including the JK Rowlings and Stephen Kings of this world who make their publishers and everyone else in the business decent profits, maybe things would be different... but how likely is that? One thing I learned early on in my career is that there is no such thing as "standard terms" when it comes to a publishing contract. And even if all the authors in the entire world went on strike today, and no new authors started writing books to fill the hungry gap, what about those 1.5 million-plus books published last year? Nobody's read all of them yet, surely? Or the million or so titles published the year before that? Provided the author did not revert rights, those older books are fair game for a bit of repackaging and promotion to keep their publishers afloat until at least some of those disgruntled authors come to their senses - just one or two of the bigger sellers, maybe? The rest could crawl off into their hovels to moan at one another and never write another word, and the world would hardly notice they'd given up writing. (Or would it? The subject for another blog post, I suspect!)

Another interesting thing about my throwback title, besides sparking off this post about the way publishing has changed during even my few short years in the business, is the long list of respected authors who were writing for Point Crime and Point Horror in the 1990s, none of whom appear to have gone on strike or given up writing:

Celia Rees - author of Witch Child.
Graham Masterton - now a master of adult horror.
David Belbin - we've brushed shoulders in science fiction magazines.
Philip Gross - poet and children's author.
Dennis Hamley - currently blogging with us here at Authors Electric!
Anne Cassidy - author of Looking for JJ who, together with colleagues Malcolm Rose and Peter Beere, set up the Scattered Authors' Society that has now grown to over 200 members.
Jean Ure - we shared an agent in the brilliant Maggie Noach.
And if you look at the Point Fantasy list, you'll find more names you might recognize there, such as Authors Electric's Susan Price - Carnegie Medal winning author of The Sterkarm Handshake.
Sorry if I missed anyone... out of interest, did anybody else here write for the Point list?

In a way, I feel like an author caught in the middle: too young to belong to the hard-working Scholastic author group, yet too old for the YA writing courses/degrees that have proliferated in recent years. I did a BSc in maths instead... it's come in useful for checking my royalty statements.

It used to be that children's authors wrote a lot of books, did their apprenticeship on lists like Scholastic's Point list, and then if they were lucky wrote a book that caught the public's imagination. The business kept them in print long enough for this to happen. Then, for a few years, everyone was starry-eyed after Harry Potter's unexpected success and looking for the "next JK Rowling" - my first novel Song Quest (1999) benefited a bit from that, I think, with 100 hardback copies arranged around the foyer of Waterstones Piccadilly in London before its original publisher Element died a cruel receiver's death (i.e. no money left to pay their authors... just one of those horror stories I mention above!) Then, after a few years of that kind of headline had proved that nobody ever would be the next JK Rowling - no real surprise, since she'd already taken that spot - agents and publishers moved on to press-ready debut novels critiqued and written as part of a degree course, and published rather like lottery tickets... if they flop, then at least they have not spent costly years nurturing the author in the hope of persuading them to lay a golden egg. That kind of nurturing these days is left to agents and places like the Golden Egg Academy, where new authors can learn the business prior to publication.

So what's next? And where do experienced-but-not-yet-household-name authors fit into this unpredictable business, if at all, when publishers these days can seem so indifferent to their work?

The answer for me in recent years has been indie publishing - the DIY sort that means I do most of the work and keep most of the profits. It's long hours for little financial return so far, but it's satisfying to turn my creative energies into producing new work and making it available myself, rather than contemplating Nemesis-style tactics to get it published, and then possibly further Nemesis-letters a few years down the line to get the royalties into my bank account, or at least a statement telling me how many negative books I've sold that period.

I have found the learning curve in itself to be a creative process, and my reverted-rights backlist titles have so far earned me over £4,000 as ebooks published on amazon's KDP platform for Kindle and via Draft2Digital for the epub stores. These ebooks continue to bring in a small but steady number of dollars each month (not a terrible a way to be paid with the post-Brexit exchange rate, as it turns out), so I am slowly making these titles available as print-on-demand paperbacks for readers who prefer a physical book.

I have also this year published my first genuinely indie title Spell Spring, the long-awaited sequel to my second book Spellfall.

And with Christmas in mind, you can now get the matching paperback edition of Spellfall hot off the press, making the perfect pair for young teen readers who enjoy a bit of magic with their evil Spell Lords:

If you'd like to check out the Earthaven series before you buy, the Spellfall ebook is currently on Halloween promotion at only 99c/99p until October 31st (offer also available at Nook, Apple and Kobo - links above).

Find out more about Katherine Roberts and her books at


Wendy H. Jones said…
Interesting post. I loved this trot through the history of publishing. I'd never heard of point crime or point horror. All the best with the new book
Sandra Horn said…
Oh, yes Katherine! You are speaking to me and for me! Thank you for a timely post and good luck with the new venture!
janedwards said…
Oh yes!!!

(and add Stan Nichols to the Point authors still going strong :-) )
Jan Needle said…
Fascinating stuff. Thanks Katherine.
Dennis Hamley said…
Writing for Point Crime marked the happiest period of my writing life, when it seemed I could do no wrong for Scholastic! I wrote nine altogether - including the very last of the Point Crime series. Publish or Die was typical of the series. The majority were set in some sort of particular situation which worked by accepted rules such as a publishing office - something the writer knew something about. Six of mine, the Joslin de Lay Mysteries, were set in the 14th century- I wanted to write Cadfael lookalikes, but in which things actually happened. My first three were modern. Death Penalty was set in a professional football club, Deadly Music was set in a County Youth Orchestra on tour and Dead Ringer had a horse-racing background (s variant of Death, Dead or Die was a requirement for each title).I knew nothing about horse-racing but Julia Moffatt, the editor, for some odd reason thought I could be the teenage Dick Francis, so I bought 'the Race-Goers Encyclopedia' (or some such title) and boned up on it. I treasure a School Librarian review in which I was congratulated on my profound knowledge of the sport, a knowledge which has since completely disappeared. But the most important result of the Point Crime experience was to teach me how to work in a genre I had never dreamed of attempting. For that reason it was priceless.
Oh yes, of course, Stan Nicholls... there are probably many Point authors I missed, I only looked in the back on one title!

Dennis, I haven't read your horseracing title - must try to get hold of that one! I worked with racehorses for 10 years and have on occasions proposed a horse racing series to children's publishers, but somehow never found one interested enough to take it on... I think it is the problem of pony books being aimed at girls, whereas most jockeys are boys... though recently I heard a rumour Clare Balding was writing one, so maybe there is life in the idea after all.
Dennis Hamley said…
Kathleen, send me an address and I'll end you a copy of Dead Ringer

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