Saturday, May 19, 2012

Publishing Portents

Everything changes and yet everything stays the same. Seems like an oxymoron. In publishing, that is exactly what it is -- an oxymoron. The more things change, the more publishers seek to maintain the status quo, scaring authors into believing there are nothing more than an unimportant cog in the vast machinery of publishing.

I began writing about the truth in publishing years ago -- 8 years ago -- when a writer I knew set down the path with a specific agent in mind. The writer was determined to have this one agent and approached the agent to take her on as a client. The agent refused; the  writer had no backlist and no publishing credits to speak of. It didn't matter that the writer had more than 10 years of experience writing articles and blogs and had co-written a book on writing; she didn't have enough experience -- or income -- to interest the agent, not even with a book that had series potential.

The writer went out and got a contract with a publisher through unusual channels and went back to the agent, newly signed contract in hand, and begged to be taken on as a client. The agent said yes and took her 15% off the top for doing nothing. The writer had done the hard work and, hat in hand, was shark bait.

I was outraged that the writer had so little faith in herself and couldn't see what was happening, but when the agent's contract, which the writer asked me to read, included an annual fee for the cost of doing business, I begged the writer to look for another agent or at least tell the agent to forget about the contract unless the annual fee was deleted. The writer signed anyway, consigning 15% of the hard earned royalties to agent for the life of the book, and the planned series. I wrote about it in 2004, but it was merely a portent of the coming storm. Other writers with a wider readership and more years in the publishing business began writing about what was going on behind the scenes.

Since the Dept of Justice case against 5 of the Big 6 publishers and Apple hit the news, Joe Konrath has written extensively about what is happening, and he continues to inform the reading and writing public exactly what it all means. It's all about who has the power.

Writers do not seem to understand that they have the power. Without the words, publishers have nothing to publish. Readers don't generate books. Publishers merely print what authors write and without the words, there is no business. As I explained to my writer friend 8 years ago, a conversation that ended our friendship, the writer has the power, not the agent. An agent might have great contacts, but those contacts exist because the agent is representing the writer. No writer, no words, no contract, and no money, despite the fact that agents are determined to bite the hand that feeds them.

Agents may believe that publishers feed them, but that's only because publishers take agents out to lavish lunches and dinners, give them booze, invite them to launch parties where the food and booze flow freely, and sign the check made possible by the author who put the words together so a book was possible. It's hard to see who is really paying the bills when the publisher's name is on the check, a check that wouldn't exist without the writer. It's called exploitation and agents and publishers have been exploiting writers since the first mass market book rolled off the Gutenburg presses.

When workers, in this case writers, are exploited, they form unions that bargain for the collective power of the workers (writers) and strike if necessary until terms are met and conditions changed. Writers have a union of sorts in the Authors Guild, but that union hasn't been doing much to help out the people (writers again) that make the Authors Guild possible. Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler hit it out to the cheap seats. Once again, people, even authors, forget who has the power.

That writer friend I mentioned told me that refusing to sign the agent's contract, annual fee and all, was not an option since the writer was a small fish in a very big ocean. I still believe that someone must take a stand and put a stop to the exploitation of writers. I would have refused to sign, but then I wouldn't have chosen that agent in the first place. The agent has done little for my writer friend's career except collect her 15% and she still charges for the cost of doing business, rather like the phone company or the utility company adding an annual fee for the paper clips, ink, paper, and postage necessary to send you a bill. Those charges, overnight mail fees included, should come out of the 15% the agent already gets. Thinking that only a Stephen King or J. K. Rowling could stand up to the agent and get the annual fee rescinded is wrong thinking. Every writer, every author who writes a book that is published is powerful enough to say NO very loudly and be heard -- and heeded.

There will be scabs who will work during a strike because they have no other choice, but Joe Blow who has never written a book before cannot replace a Barry Eisler or Ted Dekker, and that will become obvious when sales fail to make it possible for publishers to take agents out to lavish lunches where the martinis and whiskey flow so freely.

The signs are obvious. Pay attention. Writers have the power. They always did. It's time to use that power. We are authors, hear us roar.


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