Your Publisher Is Not Your Friend

(Your publisher is not your enemy, either. You're an investment.)

In the bookish corners of social media, everybody’s been talking about this Medium post by Heather Demetrios, a novelist who got some huge advances for her earliest books, which performed below expectations, as a result of which her advances have been getting smaller and smaller, with a distinct undercurrent of “Why didn’t anybody tell me this could happen?”

Actually, I lie: It’s not an undercurrent at all. It’s right out there, for everyone to see, from the second sentence onward, frequently in bold type.

Here’s the thing that leapt out at me as I read this essay: Despite two separate six-figure book deals, Demetrios writes, she “somehow missed several critical aspects of the business,” adding: “That was on me, to some extent.”

No, I would counter, that’s entirely on you.

Some context: Years before I became an acquisitions editor, I was a freelance writer who met a book editor, found out we both loved 1970s films, and turned that shared interest into a book proposal, which led to a modest but respectable contract offer, which I then used to convince an agent to represent me, and paid attention to what she told me ought to change in the contract. And, too, I was covering the publishing industry as a (full-time freelance) day job, so in that sense I was paying more-than-typical attention to things, but we weren’t exactly dealing in state secrets here.

So, by the time I became an acquisitions editor, and was sending out our boilerplate contracts to authors (through their literary agents), I happened to know there were clauses in those contracts that I would never accept if they were handed to me, and that a good agent, mindful of her author’s career, would reject as well.

Now, would I say that to an agent? Not if I had wanted to keep my job. As much as an editor might sympathize with an author, and want your authors to succeed, your ultimate role in the book deal is to represent the publishing house’s interests, to keep the house from throwing away too much money on failed projects.

Notice I said too much money. Because it’s one of the not-so-secret secrets of the industry that book publishers throw money away on books all the time. Not deliberately, of course; it’s just that no matter how great someone’s “intuition” or “sense of the market” might be, it’s largely a gamble—and, from the house’s perspective, especially at the Big 5/New York level, they “overpay” for many, if not most, of their acquisitions, the main question being whether they overpaid by a little or by a lot.

Notice, too, that I said failed projects, and not “bad books.” Because, except in very rare cases that usually involve celebrities from non-literary fields, nobody in publishing wants to gamble on a bad book. Before offering an author an advance, editors have to make intense calculations as to how well they believe a book can sell, and how much it will cost to produce a book that sold that many copies. The size of the advance gets factored into that analysis; how much can the house give up and still turn a profit if the book meets that benchmark?

(Naturally, though, if you do the math and determine you can afford to offer an author, oh, let’s say $40,000, you would probably start somewhere down around $25,000 and hope the price doesn’t spiral too highly, so the house can come out even further ahead. And that’s just for one-on-one negotiations. Don’t even get me started on what happens during an auction.)

To put it simply: Publishing houses do not exist to make authors money… save to the extent that, in doing so, they make money for themselves as well.

If you’re familiar with the investment world, think about a book publisher as a venture capital firm. An author comes to them with what is essentially a business plan: This is a thing that people will pay money to own and to experience, and I’m the person who can make it good enough for that to happen. If the publisher agrees, it will commit material resources to the production and distribution of that thing (the book!), in exchange for a substantial cut of the revenue.

When the investment pays off, everybody’s happy. When there’s some success, but not quite enough to earn the investor dividends, sometimes the relationship between the entrepreneur and the investor (the author and the publisher) is strong enough that the investor’s willing to see if the entrepreneur’s next idea will click with the market—but they might understandably be cautious about how much money they’ll sink into that next project.

And sometimes, when a project flops, for whatever reason, the investor’s just never gonna go back to that particular well again. In a worst-case scenario, it might be because the author and the publisher wound up at each other’s throats, but it’s far more likely that the publisher just gets skittish—and, if we’re being fully honest, manages to convince itself that the problem was with the book, rather than its “sense of the market” or the way it handled the good thing it had. In any event, the investor just can’t work up the nerve to keep funneling money to that entrepreneur, leaving the entrepreneur to find someone else willing to take a chance.

(Mind you, every other potential publisher has access to the same broad sales figures that caused that first publisher to get cold feet, and that’s a whole other road we could go down but we’re not going to today.)

So, as an author, if you’re facing the happy prospect of publication, you need to know that the publishing house is not eager to work with you out of pure artistic spirit. I don’t just mean you need to grasp that intellectually; I mean you need to know, deep down in your gut, that the publishing house sees in you an opportunity to make money, and that as much as the people working there might in an ideal situation like you personally and hope for your success, at the end of the day your usefulness to them depends on your ability to reward their investment, and that your relationship very likely has an end date on it, even if neither one of you knows when that might be.

If you want to prolong that relationship, you need to apply yourself to the following question: “What can I do to make my investors money?” And as much as you would like the answer to be “keep writing books for them,” your publisher generally isn’t going to see it that way unless the existing books are already making money.

So what’s the answer, then? It pretty much boils down to marketing, and I’ve talked about some aspects of that in the past, such as the false idol of social media platforms, and will continue to land upon it as the newsletter progresses. The essence of the message is this: You chose to become a writer because you had something you wanted to share with the world. You worked on your craft to improve your ability to share your story (or message, or vision), but that ability isn’t limited to your craft. What can you do to make as much of your life as possible, not just your writing practice, a vehicle for your story?

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