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Things authors dislike about publishers

Publishers do not understand how hard writing is

Authors often complain that publishers have no idea how difficult it is to write a book. They don’t know how long it takes, how lonely is the process, how much – once it is over – you worry about ever being able to do it again.

Authors can’t tell publishers just how much they want to be published; the extent to which rushed decisions made in meetings affect their aspirations and lives; how spur-of-the-moment phone calls, when they sound keen one minute and full of doubt the next, can play with authors’ hopes and desires. Contact with publishers is exhausting: you can swing from optimism to pessimism, and all before 11.00 in the morning.

All this uncertainty is further complicated by the fact that publishers frequently seem to have their own writing ambitions. Authors worry that this may impede their judgement of other people’s writing talent: because they are so often thinking ‘that’s not the way I’d write it’, their instincts get in the way of spotting stories that other people want to read.

Publishers are not effective communicators

To be frank, many publishers are not good at communicating with authors (or even each other). Ring a branch of your building society, and via the ‘security questions’ that follow, the call-handler ensures that it is you calling; he or she then has access to a screen of information about you, giving all the details of your previous relationship (you can tell because they try to read it before talking to you – ‘can you just bear with me for a minute’). More information will be added during each conversation, and it will all be available to the next person who takes a call from you.

Publishers don’t work like this. Information that you send to your editorial contact will not necessarily be passed on to the sales department, who could benefit from it too. The information stream is poor the other way: lots of things that the author might
like to know – how many books are being printed; where and when; how they are selling? – are simply not communicated. Some speculate that authors are kept in ignorance in order to prevent them from interfering in future/trying to negotiate a better deal.

Over the whole area of marketing, which might seem an obvious area of overlap between publishers and authors, some houses give the distinct impression that they would rather authors did not get involved, and left everything to them. Whilst they have the history, and no doubt a range of set procedures, leaving it all to them is a big risk to take.

‘I do think (and you can quote me on this) that it’s remarkable how much authors can achieve, sometimes by working with their publisher, but sometimes just by doing it anyway. A publisher’s knowledge about what normally works can blind them to what might work, and the author’s naïveté and “ignorance” can actually be a boon, because we sometimes come up with off-the-wall ideas which can work. Of course, we have to make sure that what we do doesn’t interfere with what the publisher is doing – but some publishers fear that too much. I think the ideal situation is when the author and the publisher recognise each other’s values and strengths.’
Nicola Morgan, children’s author

Publishers keep changing jobs

During the lifetime of a book, authors will find themselves dealing with many different people. Of course the different functions require different people, but within each role, changes of personnel seem to be very frequent. There are notable exceptions (the first edition of this book appeared five years ago and I’m delighted to say that the same team are in place this time around), but publishers tend to job-hop a lot. This can be a devastating experience for a writer: just as you find someone who really likes your work, they move on and the next incumbent is not so keen, leaving you feeling orphaned.

Publishing is not well organised

To authors, publishing often seems like a randomly operated business: working low margins; launching too many new titles; making gimmicky and speculative approaches to markets rather than planning sustained campaigns – publishing can look gloriously amateur. In their defence, it’s very hard to predict the reading taste of the public, and the most unlikely titles become best-sellers. And because the products have low prices (around £7.99 for a paperback novel, £14.99 for a hardback), and sell in relatively low numbers, marketing budgets tend to be low too – hence the pursuit of free publicity through the media.

Publishing has never paid well, and has traditionally attracted lots of well-brought-up young ladies who were thus respectably occupied until marriage. Whilst this is no longer universally true – and there have been a number of initiatives aimed at widening entry – the workforce remains predominantly white, middle-class and well spoken. This can lead to real confusion – authors who feel that they are being encouraged are in fact being given a polite brush-off.

Authors also complain that publishers do not understand the wider markets to which their limited life experience does not expose them. But publishers have full-time jobs, and authors who work from home have more opportunity to experience and explore daily life in all sorts of different ways. One could conclude that it is up to them to educate publishers about markets that would respond well to their writing, rather than berating them for not knowing about them already.

Publishers have big egos

Things not to say to a publisher

  • I’ve always wanted to write a book.
  • Even if I don’t get published I’ll still carry on writing.
  • I’ve tried everyone else.
  • Such and such a firm said there was no room on their list just now, so I hope it might suit you …
  • I invite you to peruse* the chapters I enclose.
  • I sued my last publisher/was involved in a lawsuit.

If you find this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

The Publishing Process

Working with your publisher

Things publishers dislike about authors