Thursday, April 23, 2009

Authors and Persecution

Authors don't have it easy. I'll just put that right out there. Anyone who has been in a position to read query letters can quickly ascertain that there are crazy authors, there are some who are demanding, inconsiderate, and self-righteous. But many who make it through to having a book published get screwed by the system.

Literary agent Janet Reid posted a reference to a lawsuit that was written about here (second story after Tracy Ullman - but it's not a good link - I had problems, so my apologies), in which authors Sue Callaway and Shelly Branch, both professional, qualified, established writers, are suing Penguin's Gotham Books. It seems they wrote a book called What Would Jackie Do about getting through life by being more like Jackie O. They feel the publisher then dropped them, not notifying them of the fact that their publicist left the company (not unusual - sorry!) and failing to tell them that their book tour was canceled. They claim that Gotham Publisher William Shinker “expressed his irritation with plaintiffs through the use of expletive-laced speech" - again, not unusual in publishing. But not right, either. Gotham went on to publish Pamela Keogh's book, What Would Audrey Do, which was branded as the next in a series started by the Jackie book (the covers styled identically). Callaway and Branch did not know they were launching a series with their book.

Reid is amused by the story, noting "I've got to get that 'no expletives' clause in my next contracts. Oh wait. The PUBLISHING contract only; if it's in the author/agency contract, I'm ....ahem...fucked." Well put! But I do wonder if the authors are in fact right in their lawsuit. From this very short summary of the case, I would guess that 1) the authors are difficult for a publisher to work with, whether due to their own disagreements or strong opinions, both of which may be justified but can also lead to frustration on the part of the publisher and, yes, cursing; 2) the publisher is annoyed that the authors wouldn't just shut up and go away so the company could make plans to make money of these branded products. It seems to me that when you publish with a big corporate publisher - which is not always a bad thing - you have to realize how far away you are from the room in which many decisions are made. It's a sacrifice one makes. I can only hope the author gets a few shillings out of it to make the frustration of not having calls returned, not seeing one's book in a bookstore (or seeing it in bargain bins, as these authors claim), and not getting much publicity a little easier to swallow.

But how much do authors really make? We hear advance figures thrown around, but author Lynn Viehl did something incredibly useful on a blog: she posted her royalty statement, with contextualizing info, for her book Twilight Fall. (Thanks to Moonrat for link!) Viehl offers a useful perspective into the mysterious world of the NY Times bestseller list. She explains how she did not buy anyone off, buy copious copies of her book at specific bookstores, or even really do a number of appearances to generate the market that landed her at #19 on the list. What did it then? The readers she had built up with 5 other books in the Darkyn (romance) series (and maybe the new interest in vampires from Twilight helped).

But then she lays out exactly where the money went:
My advance for Twilight Fall was $50,000.00, a third of which I did not get paid until the book physically hit the shelf — this is now a common practice by publishers, to withhold a portion of the advance until date of publication. Of that $50K, my agent received $7,500.00 as her 15% (which she earns, believe me) the goverment received roughly $15,000.00, and $1594.27 went to cover my expenses (office supplies, blog giveaways, shipping, promotion, etc.) After expenses and everyone else was paid, I netted about $26K of my $50K advance for this book, which is believe it or not very good — most authors are lucky if they can make 10% profit on any book. This should also shut up everyone who says all bestselling authors make millions — most of us don’t.

(It's worth glancing at the statement itself, just to see how confusing they are. When I worked as an assistant to a literary agent, one of my jobs was to pour over royalty statements from various publishing houses and check them for accuracy - a painful, painful exercise. Each publisher had a different and more confusing format from the last. But it was a fascinating way in to a different side of publishing, since financing in book publishing is so... how shall we say... whack. Out of whack. Screwed up. Etc.)

Here we see, once again, that even strong advances get whittled down between the announcement on Publishers Lunch and the author's bank account. Now the trick is to find a way to better support authors as we move into niche audiences using e-formats (as Richard Nash described - I discussed here). If we couldn't do it with the blockbuster model, we may have to start from scratch.

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