Traditional publishers and why they make me mad

Last night, I gave a presentation at the monthly Publish! Blue Mountains meeting at the Clarendon Guesthouse, Katoomba.

I was invited to speak about epublishing, to share my thoughts and experiences, and so I took to the stage armed with my demonstration tools: an 800gm paperback book, a 150gm Kindle, a 450gm NOOK Color, and a modestly evangelical attitude toward this brand new age. I was joined by a colleague-in-arms, the down-to-earth and honest, soon-to-be-epublished J-L Heylen, who followed me with a compelling discourse on why epublishing was her route of choice, not her default ‘I can’t get a publishing deal’ fallback decision.

J-L Heylen in her steampunk Sunday best

I should have had an inkling of what to expect. After all, I’d devoured Catherine Ryan Howard’s article on low ebook pricing and knew that not only ‘traditional publishers’ but ‘traditional authors’ (i.e. those who have been published ‘traditionally’, as in print, through a publishing house), are edgy about epublishing. And I can understand why – major change is always disturbing – so it surprised me to see a traditional publisher and a traditionally published author in the audience last night, when it had been marketed as an evening about epublishing.

But after all the shouting (well, not really shouting, in the end we all pretty much behaved ourselves, but you could certainly feel the temperatures rise), I drove home thinking, ‘Damn them! Traditional publishers have no right to get angry about epublishing!’ And do you know why? Because it’s not like they couldn’t see it coming. It’s not like they wouldn’t have seen it in other industries over the last 60 years. But rather than deal with it, the great majority just stuck their heads in the sand and hoped it would go away. And now that ignoring it will no longer work, instead of embracing it and making it their new direction, they’re still trying to make it fit their outdated business models. The publisher last night talked about giving 25% royalties to their authors on sale of their ebooks. Wow – 25%?! Must sign me up with that publisher – NOT!

I mean, seriously – what’s one of the first things any business coach worth their salt will tell you? Innovate or die. Today’s traditional publishers are clinging to the past and, as a result, are rapidly dying.

We saw it in Hollywood in the 1950s – the studio system broke down as the stars began to realise that they were the asset, notthe studio, and began to insist on doing things on their own terms … and now the studios no longer control the actors.

Then, we saw it in the music industry – over more than three decades, starting with the release of the cassette recorder in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Not long after that, the introduction of the CD drove many vinyl record pressing plants out of business, then Apple introduced iTunes in January 2001 … and now the record companies no longer control the musicians.

So I have little sympathy for the traditional publishers who have anger towards epublishing. They can see only too clearly – now that they’ve lifted their heads from the sand – that they will no longer be able to play God, no longer be able to send 999 reject letters for every one that says, ‘Yes, we deign to pick YOU!’ They are faced with people who will now epublish rather than paper their walls with rejection slips … and now the traditional publishers no longer control the writers.

And that seemed to be one of the things that steamed out of the underlying frustration of the traditional publisher in the room last night – her lack of control over what was happening around her.

Yes, traditional publishers offer a level of support to writers that they often don’t bother seeking themselves when self publishing – but only to those writers lucky enough to get a contract! The publisher of the traditionally published writer in the room last night refused to publish his book unless he made certain changes to it, as suggested to him by their editor. After three months of resisting, he decided to do it their way, and as a result, his book was a success, and he went on to win a $15,000 literature prize. I lowered myself to snidely congratulate him on getting a publishing deal, because truly very few are so lucky. JK Rowling was knocked back a dozen times before Bloomsbury took on Harry Potter – which just goes to show that, like the record company that knocked back the Beatles – it’s all just a guess. No-one reallyknows who’s going to be the next big thing.

So why shouldn’t Joe Public have a go themselves, via epublishing? There are plenty of freelance editors, cover designers, ebook formatters around just waiting to help him get it out there.

And whether he takes their advice or not, the book could be brilliant or it could be crap. And if it’s crap, it won’t sell, right? And if it is crap, and it does sell … well, who decides what’s crap anyway? Oh, sorry, that’s right – traditional publishers do!
Opinionated blogging. It’s at the top of the page.

Despite my adoration for the eword, I still believe in print books. I just believe that no book should be printed until it proves itself worthy of a dead tree and all the fossil fuels required to ship it around.
Boring disclaimer bit:
I have generalised (a bit) here, based on last night’s experience, attendances at annual Institute of Editors Conferences in 2009 and 2011, a seminar by the APA in August 2010, and a fair bit of blog reading that I’ve been doing lately. While I admit that not all traditional publishers have had their heads in the sand,  the Australian publishing industry as a whole has been really, really slow to embrace epublishing, to the detriment of our writers and readers.

So, to traditional publishers out there who have been releasing ebooks since at least 2009 (the year we at MoshPit Publishing released our first ebook), my apologies.

To the rest of you, get your act into gear!

7 Replies to “Traditional publishers and why they make me mad”

  1. Hi Jenny,
    As the ‘traditional’ author mentioned in your blog, I should clarify a few things. I was not a plant by the publisher present that night. She is not my publisher. I came along because I’m interested in publishing an e-book independently, as the manuscript I have would perhaps not ‘fit’ the traditional publishing mould.
    I agree with many of your assertions about the e-publishing method. It does remove the gatekeeper role of the book publisher and allows we authors an opportunity to publish and distribute what we want.
    My story regarding the wonderful editing and assistance I received from my publisher to enhance one of the my manuscripts holds true though. Without their assistance, I’m sure the book would not have won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award or been shortlisted for a number of other Awards, or, in fact, have garnered book deals from overseas publishers. Again I stress, I’m not ‘big-noting’ myself, but wishing to draw attention to the excellent work of my publishers and editors. And, yes, I could have hired an editor and a e-book publisher to work on the manuscript, but I would have had to pay for the privilege. A traditional publisher did all this work because they believed in my book. They took the risk, they paid me an advance, they sold the rights and they enhanced the manuscript. They should share in the accolades, if any, that are forthcoming.
    As authors, we all hate being rejected by publishers. But, perhaps those rejections are based on the manuscript not being up to standard? And, yes, we can cite JK Rowling as an example of an author who was rejected many times before one publisher accepted her. But doesn’t that prove the point that if the quality is there, in most cases, an author will be taken on by a publisher.
    I should also add that two of my traditional publishers have also released e-book versions of my novels. They offered 25% royalty because they had already paid me an advance and already released and marketed the paper-version of each novel. I did no work whatsoever to prepare the e-book. One other publisher of mine negotiated an advance from a USA publisher for the e-book rights to two of my novels. Yes, 25% isn’t great, and if it was solely for e-book publishing, I would not accept it. But, it’s part of a much wider package offered by traditional publishers.
    I’m not proposing authors should just sit meekly by their computer waiting for an acceptance email from a publisher. If you believe in your manuscript, then it’s up to you to decide how to publish it. E-publishing gives authors an opportunity to sidestep the endless rejection letters. That is a good thing for our self-esteem and hopefully for the reading public. But, it may also mean the reading public is overwhelmed by a lot of bad writing. Let the public decide, you say.
    But can I propose one final point. A doctor calls him/herself a doctor because of years of study and hard work and they have a certificate. A plumber has a licence. A teacher has a degree. We can trust in these professions (usually) because of the institutionalised learning involved. After twenty-one books, I feel proud to call myself an author. I have made a living as a writer for the past twenty-five years. My ‘certificate’ is the books I’ve had published by reputable publishers. I’m quick to welcome anyone who has a book published by a reputable publisher into the profession, confident that they have produced a work that will increase the store of knowledge in our society, even in a small way.
    However, if anyone can publish any writing and call themselves an author, perhaps in the long-term, the public will view the profession of ‘author’ as something very different. Yes, I know, let the public decide not the gatekeepers. But, faced with such an avalanche, might the public simply turn away? Or reduce their involvement in reading in preference for other pursuits.
    The death of the author may be more than just a post-modern fetish 🙂

  2. Steven, I find it interesting that my credentials have to be proven to your standards before I can put the term ‘author’ after my name. I could say I am Jenny-Lee Heylen, Bsc, GradDipSci (Exercise and Sport Science), and put my shingle up as a rehab therapist, and you apparently wouldn’t have any issue with that, despite the fact that I have never conducted a research experiment in my life or advised a broken-down runner on how to get back to full fitness. Apparently, the fact that I have a piece of paper that indicates I am qualified is what really matters. I think anyone who goes to see an exercise and Sports therapist would disagree with this assessment, and Goddess help them if they walk into my imaginary clinic rather than consulting someone who actually knows what they are doing. I have had a career in writing. I have had over 30 years experience in converting my thoughts to written words in order to communicate knowledge and ideas. Arrogant as it might sound, I know I am good at it. The ability to craft is what makes me an author, not a publishing contract. I love that you are a thinker and are prepared to have your say. I’d love to go road riding with you one day, but I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up. But frankly, I don’t need you to welcome me into the fold once I get a publishing deal. I’m already there, whether you welcome me or not.

    J-L Heylen, Audacious Author.

  3. Dear Jenny-Lee,
    I’m not qualified to judge who I’d go to re: specialist Sports Scientist, but yes, I’d probably choose someone who had piece of paper, and letters after their name (call me old-fashioned).
    The fact that you have thirty years experience in writing is certainly apparent by the cogency of your argument. I don’t wish to set myself up as the arbiter of who calls themselves ‘author’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘steampunk’ (love the clothes, by the way). My point was simply that when the ease of producing an e-book becomes no more difficult than uploading a picture onto Facebook, then the term ‘author’ becomes greatly diminished. Who cares, you ask. Let the public decide. And that will inevitably be the outcome.
    But, I will be saddened by the demise of the respect that is currently afforded to an author. I have devoted much of my working life to writing books and getting children and teenagers to enjoy literature.
    Gee, I’m starting to sound like a hoary old codger aren’t I? Good luck with your e-book. I hope it sells millions.
    In my previous post I omitted to say that I very much enjoyed both yours and Jenny’s presentations. I’m sorry I’ll miss the next one – I’ll be in Canberra talking to a few hundred children about poetry!
    all the best

  4. As a slightly obsessive reader with family around the edges of the whole publication process, I find these discussions interesting.

    I follow an artist in the US who now also does books, and she wrote an interesting article on her perspective on publishing. It’s more around self vs. “trad” publishing, but the discussion around e-book models fits:

    And as I love her, all her posts on publishing are here:

    My main comment/complain/concern about self-publishing is that many, MANY people who have a good story to tell often can’t write it very well. I’ve read a few free e-books out there – there’s an author with the same name as my father – and the quality of the writing ranges from “brilliant” to “cringingly appalling”. 50 Shades of Grey notwithstanding (appalling AND “trad” published. *shudder*. Someone shoot the editor), publishing houses offer – nay, DEMAND – services that self-published authors may not often realise they need. Editors, for eg. Proofreaders (dear god people, you NEED proofreaders). Someone who knows the difference between the three “their”s and two “your”s; who knows when to use a comma and when a semi-colon; when to let a sentence ramble and when to make it stop. Who can pick up something you said on page 1 that you flatly contradict in the conclusion, thereby rendering the whole story obsolete.

    And many self-publishers just don’t know this. So they write, and publish, unreadable rubbish in which gleams the germ of a brilliant idea, if only someone else could help them scrape away the wrongness surrounding it.

    As a reader, that’s MY beef with self-publishing. I hate reading bad writing and one or two bad experiences will put me off an entire publishing house, author, publishing method, or even genre entirely.

    Note: J-L, I’ll buy your book unread and put it on my Kindle iPad app without hesitation, because I know you. But is word-of-social-media a solid enough business model yet to replace the budgets and contacts of a publishing house?

    1. Infoaddict, in answer to your last question, I think it is. I write in a specific genre, that I know well and am part of a subculture for. Of course, I haven’t tested it yet, so I may well be wrong, but I think social media and online advertising (free or paid) is the ONLY way to reach my social ghettos.

      As I think I have said in other forums, self-publishing should not be a substitute for quality, and I think, in time, this trend will equalise and things (who knows what sort of things yet, that’s the joy) will come into play to moderate or help people choose quality from dross. I know there are witers out there who will put their stuff up becasue they can, even though they can’t write to save themselves. Personally, I would be too embarrased to dare put anything up that hadn’t been read and critiqued by others, and thoroughly professionally proofread. The self-publishers I’ve read seem to share this philosophy. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

      Bride of the City was released today by MoshPit Publishing, so I hope you enjoy reading it. Let me know if you find any examples of the wrong ‘your’ or ‘there’. Cheers, J-L

  5. Hi there folks

    I’ve been trying to work out where to come back in on this discussion, as there are so many points being made that I’d love to address but the comment box has a character limit which I keep exceeding … So, I think the ONE BIG ISSUE that traditional publishers and traditionally published authors are overlooking is this:

    Not everyone can get a publishing deal.

    In fact, no matter how well they write, whatever they’ve got to say, more people get rejected than get published by traditional publishers.

    Traditional publishers are businesses. If they don’t publish books which make a profit, they’re out of business. I get that. Makes sense – I’m a business owner, too, y’know.

    So why shouldn’t someone who has something to say which could add to the world’s collective knowledge be given the tools to say it anyway?

    I agree with you all that there’s some real crap out there in cyberspace disguised as ebooks, but there are also some real gems. You just need to know where to look.

    The thing is, individuals now have the ability to hire the talent they need and/or want to help them develop their books. And if they clearly need it but don’t hire it, well, then they won’t have much chance of succeeding.

    The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter what you write. If you want people to read you, then you need to afford your potential audience the respect of a good story, well-written and decently packaged, whether it’s on paper or screen. How much outside help you require is up to you.

    But if you believe you have the goods, and you can’t get a traditional publishing deal, what are you supposed to do? Die unpublished?

    What a sad story THAT would be to write …

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