We Also Don’t Walk Dogs

In traditional publishing there are things writers don’t control. In this case, this is not a complaint, so much, as “My fans should be aware I can’t do anything about this, and it’s no use at all to complain to me.” Yes, I’ve had complaints about all the things below. Now, if you’re a writer and contemplating publication you should also be aware that if you go traditional you are giving up these choices when it comes to marketing/packaging/distributing your books. Yes, you might be able to negotiate a say over some of these, particularly if you go with a small or medium publisher (those tend to be more accommodating, anyway) but for the large guys, foggedaboutit.

I’ve done this sort of post before, and talk about it at cons (except this post might be a wee bit more frank, since I’ve decided my trad publishing ventures will be limited in future) but yesterday a post by Sharon Lee, in the Baen Bar reminded me I need to repeat it periodically. For most people it’s so nonsensical that writers don’t control these, that they keep “re-setting” that knowledge.

So, from the top. Things traditionally published writers don’t control:

1- The cover.
You might get something called “cover consultation” which means you can give them ideas, and tell them if the cover they want to saddle you with stinks on ice. However, consultation is NOT control. You might wonder why in heavens name there’s a zombie with an udder fetish on the cover of your urban fantasy, but you can’t stop it being there.

2- Author bio/picture
The Author doesn’t even decide if there will be one there. And if the writer does, he or she can’t pick the picture. Yes, I do know in the one picture I have out in the back of a book I look like a right twit. In defense of my publisher, it was the best of several hundred. I do NOT photograph well. As for the bio – most of the time I get to write it. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the publisher is crunched and goes with an out-of-date bio. Sometimes they carefully excise all references to other names/genres/publishers. It’s their cover and it helps if you think of it that way. For more up to date and accurate info on me, try my website at http://sarahahoyt.com (Though not too accurate, as it seriously needs to be redone and I’m trying to find time. It’s unlikely to happen till after November, when the traveling stops.)

3- Copy editing
Okay, so I’m responsible for some typos. I’m sure of it because well… guys, just read my blog and be aware that I do proofread these posts. The mind that can’t keep letters straight has been through learning seven languages, which means the rules for doubling letters or not are a big scramble. This same mind, btw, tends to dictate too fast for the poor, stupid fingers, which means that they will completely forget half a sentence in their rush to catch up. Entering changes, once I’ve identified the need to, gets even more fun, as I’ve been known to erase the wrong word or type the new word somewhere completely different (sometimes both.) And I’m registered as a frequent offender in the Society Against Comma Abuse. However, with all that – my books do get copyedited when they come out through traditional publishers (or small ones. And in the future, when I bring them out myself, too.) Quality of copyediting seems to be going down across the board and recently a publisher took umbrage at an intimation that it shouldn’t JUST publish the manuscript as it came in. Yes, it was one of the big five. No, I don’t like it. but ultimately how well copy-edited it is is not in my hands, and they don’t pay me enough for me to hire a copyeditor on my own. (Though my assistant does go over the manuscripts most of the time just so I have a second pair of eyes on it.)

3a) sending me typos is totally useless if the book is already out in mass market paperback. Mass market paperback is usually the LAST stage. There is nothing I can do at that point. Yes, there is an off-hand chance an omnibus and/or second edition will come out, but unless you hear it announced, assume it’s not. So, sending me typos is sort of like teaching the pig to sing. Won’t do anything but annoy the pig. It also might make me hyper conscious about typos and slow down the writing. Which I assume would be a no-no for most of my fans.

4- Title
Please, please, please don’t ask me why I decided to change the style of a title mid-series. It’s not mine to do. Yeah, I can suggest it, but usually something of that magnitude comes from above. In the case of the musketeers changing book four to A Death In Gascony from The Musketeer’s Inheritance got me more angry letters than I care to mention – and it had been done against my will. I think it also helped tank the series (there were other issues.) So… Death of A Musketeer is now out with Naked Reader Press (http://nakedreader.com/storefront/index.php?route=product/product&keyword=Death+of+a+musketeer&category_id=0&product_id=61 — apologies, but for some reason WP is not letting me embed links unless I manually code the html which I dont’ have time for.) When I resolve a wee little dispute with Prime Crime over the next four titles (as in, they’re out of contract, ACCORDING TO THE CONTRACT but I might need to use a cast iron skillet to get the publisher to admit it.) they’ll all come out with Naked Reader Press. Because they’ll be extensively edited (long story, but I was having health issues that affected my concentration) and because they’re mine, dang it, I’ll change the titles back in line, so the order will be Death Of A Musketeer, The Musketeer’s Seamstress, The Musketeer’s Apprentice, The Musketeer’s Inheritance, The Musketeer’s Servant and (upcoming), The Musketeer’s Confessor, and The Musketeer’s Folly.

5- Byline
This means the author’s name on the story cover. What it boils down to, is right now I’ve used/am about to use four names (not counting a house name): Sarah A Hoyt, Sarah D’Almeida, Elise Hyatt and Sarah Marques. Of those, I’ve chosen to use Sarah Marques. I have intentionally chosen that as opposed to my real name because the novels (coming out of Prime Books sometime next year) are so STARTLINGLY different from my normal novels (how startlingly? Vampires. Historical. Sex and sexual tension. WEIRD sex and sexual tension) I’d prefer not to give my readers heart attacks. Also the main characters are the musketeers, but the musketeers themselves are not like my mystery characters (unless you strain them through hell first) and D’Almeida is associated enough with my main name (should be. It’s my maiden name) that it helps to have some distancing.

But all the other pen names were imposed by my editor. I don’t know how much of it was imposed by the publisher. She thought because the previous series had crashed, I should change my name, so the bookstores would stock me. Does that help? Not markedly. Nine years ago Jim Baen told me the bookstores (not being stupid) went off the copyright page. And yet I had to fight them over wanting to change my name for No Will But His. The one that upset me most was when they told me the name for the Daring Finds Mysteries had to be “white bread” because, you know, Sarah Hoyt is wild and exotic. And it couldn’t be Sarah. Hence Elise Hyatt, which is the name most people don’t associate with me. OTOH she has her own fandom and she’ll be bringing out an exciting (TM) series of Orphan Kitten Mysteries via Naked Reader Press. Watch this space for an announcement.

6- Distribution
Do I need to tell you I don’t control that? You’d not think so, and yet I get emails saying “Why are none of your books available in my local bookstore/in all of my county?” The temptation to write back “Because I hate to be read and make money” is enormous, but someone would believe me.

Distribution is a cluster– that is, is a complex mechanism, and about to become more so, now that Borders died. If you think of it as a Darwinian competition between bookstores and publishers, it might make some sense. The publishers’ goal is to put as many of your books on the shelves as possible. (Well, in theory. For some of them one wonders, at times.) The stores’ goal is to stock only books that will sell. Now, remember, children, regardless of what you think of the evolution of life, there is no intelligent design in publishing. There isn’t even inate wisdom of markets. Because of the war, both sides of the equation adopt measures that make absolutely no sense. Unless you’re them.

For instance, the name change gets countered by looking at the copyright page. But this assumes that authors are the ones responsible for the tanking of the book, which is built into the computer-numbers game that Borders initiated (for which they had their reward.) It also assumes that writers never change writing style and/or field and write the same book over and over. Never mind. Then there’s the fact that bookstores culled books every six months, so publishers started getting books published every three months, because it would then show as “more books on shelf” and have a chance of having the whole series up at once (unlikely, but publishers dream too.) So bookstores started culling books faster, which means you now have like four weeks on the shelf to sell your books – if you come out with no publicity and have two books per store, your chances of selling are about the same as of winning the lottery. The latest twist seems to be a refusal to special order the book, even if you pay for it in advance. How this gives them a leg up on Amazon is beyond me. No, seriously.

The inate wisdom of the markets is manifesting itself in the fact that the system – having become nearly non-functional – is now being replaced wholesale with Amazon/ebooks/indies.

Meanwhile, it’s not my fault where my books are stocked, where they aren’t, and whatever else publishing houses/bookstores do to each other in their games.

7 – Scheduling
This might or might not be the author’s fault. I’ve been known – oh, so rarely – to be late delivering. But I readily admit to THAT. If you are waiting for Noah’s Boy, third of the shifter series, I will be delivering it soon. It’s been delayed due to other more pressing projects. One advantage of my going mostly indie is that the publishers I still work for will get more regular deliveries. OTOH I delivered the third of the Daring Finds Mysteries in February and it’s not even scheduled yet. AND they took a year to buy the third after the second came out, and I had other things to do, so I didn’t write it on spec. This delay is not my fault. But it is why Elise Hyatt is about to start an indie series. (mwah ah ah ah ah)

8- DRM and ebook pricing.
I don’t like DRM. This is well known, right? I will not sign on with a small publisher that uses it. OTOH I have ZERO control over it when I sign with big publishers.

As undeserved as this might be (grin) I don’t have the name/sales/pull of say, Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. You need that kind of pull to make publishers take that nonsense out of the contract. Until then, you endure. Ditto for prices. Yeah, most ebook pricing is ridiculous and as a reader I’m 100% behind you. But it’s not my decision and not my fault. Yeah, I can go indie, and I suspect I’ll be doing so more and more. But babies need college fees and periodically the cars need fixing. I still need to earn a living, until indie earnings come on line. I’m sorry if you’re inconvenienced. I sympathize with you at heart. But there’s nothing I can do.

(IF I can’t get them to let me have the rights back to the musketeer mysteries, rights that are clearly mine as per contract, without invoking a lawyer, what makes you think I can make them dance to my tune in their pet delusions like DRM and ebook pricing?)

I’m sure there are other things that are not my fault. (I did not steal the cookies; I did not kick – well, trip over, but he thinks I kicked him – the cat; and I did not say a swear word in front of the kids – or maybe I did, but it wasn’t my fault, and besides the word was in Portuguese. Also, the sun was in my eyes. Besides, I was never there and I was led astray by evil companions.) But I think this pretty much covers the essentials that a writer loses control of when traditionally publishing (caveat scriptor) and what readers shouldn’t blame writers for (we’re all packages of frustration, fear and confusion right now, so try not to push us towards heart attacks and premature death. Our other fans will thank you.)

23 thoughts on “We Also Don’t Walk Dogs

  1. I didn’t respond in the Bar thread, because by the time I got around to reading it, it was about 100 messages long, and well into the nasty side of an internet flame war, and nothing good can come of entering it at that point. I honestly don’t get why people stress over DRM in books these days – it’s about as effective as the ‘do not remove this under penalty of law’ tags you see on furniture, and about as hard to remove. Now if publishers decide to up the ante by making something actually hard to remove, well, then they’ll just lose my business.

    But my question is, as a reader, what can I do that actually has a chance? An example – last week Niven/Barnes came out with a new book in the Dream Park series, which I remember enjoying years ago. A review I read mentioned it was the fourth book in the series. I only remembered two others, so I looked it up, and sure enough, one came out when I was a broke freshman in college over 20 years ago, that I missed at the time and never read.

    There is actually an ebook available on the kindle. However, it’s $9.99. For a decades old book that very likely earned out its advance years ago. If that book’s $4.99, it’s on my kindle today, along with the other (at last count) 293 books in my e-backlog. At $10? Nope. And because I know there’s a book in the series I haven’t read, I probably won’t buy the new one either. It’s not like I’m struggling to find reasonably priced books to read right now.

    So how do we get this message to publishers other than via just not buying them? I think publishers are incapable of distinguishing between “This didn’t sell because we suck at pricing” versus “this didn’t sell, the author needs to be replaced”/

    1. Skip,
      You’re absolutely right and the answer is ALWAYS “the author needs to be replaced” because that’s the pain free decision and screwed if I know. I know I’m buying a lot less from traditional publishers because of irrational pricing. Is this a decision re: who I work for? Sure. But sometimes you take what you can. Fortunately the alternatives are becoming more attractive.

    2. The “Do not remove under penalty of law” tags are only for the seller. As the pillow, mattress, blankets owner, you are free to do whatever you want with the tags.

      1. Um. I think most adults know this, no matter what jokes we make about it? My favorite label, btw, was on a spool of yarn. “Material from unknown origin.” we called it “the alien thread” for YEARS.

  2. Oh, my! Reminds me of a late night session amongst mystery writers, where one newly-pubbed author was actually in tears (yes, well, I do believe that some medicinal alcohol may have been consumed over the course of the evening). Seems she’d made the main characters car something of a secondary character — nothing like *speaking*, but more in terms of object of affection, that sort of thing — so it’s make, model and color were interwoven throughout. She got advanced cover art, and, you guessed it, wrong make, wrong model, wrong color (and, if I recall correctly, something about being a convertible). She called the publisher. Who informed her that cover art was *expensive* — so she should change the book. And she did! Hence, the tears.

    I think personally it’s a very good idea to drag publishing, kicking and screaming, out of the 18th Century. Oh, sure, they’ve progressed from quills and sand to typewriters and now electronic typesetting — but those haven’t changed the *mindset*. The mindset is still back there in the time of square rigged schooners and each book being hand-bound at the bindery, one copy at a time.

    1. The cover art convertible reminds me of David Drake’s story about Northworld. The cover to that book had a tank rather prominently displayed, which was a bit of a problem since Northworld as handed in to the publisher did not have any tanks in it (it wasn’t after all a Hammer’s Slammers book so why should it). But Dave very kindly wrote in a scene with a tank at the beginning to sort of gloss over that little oops before the book was actually printed.

      In ragrds to ebook pricing – if you do a google search for “harper collins clueless morons” you’ll find two rants on that subject from me from a few years back. Astoundingly, despite the kindle etc. etc. the are STILL accurate as far as I can tell.

  3. I agree with Skip. I’ve been reading some sample chapters of books that are 6-12 years old, but the publishers ( *cough* Multnomah *cough*) want $11.99 for the Kindle version. This is a book that was only published in paperback at the time — granted it was those largish soft-cover books, but at the most it went for $9.99, and probably $7.99, in Sam’s Club. So I wish there was a way to get this message across to some publishers setting the e-book prices. I think that type of greed will only drive readers to look for pirate copies. In my case, it makes me hit the used paperback stores, and I know that’s not fair to the author.

    1. Sandra,
      I buy those in used paperback, too. Yeah, it sucks for the author, but I’m NOT made of money.

      The reason publishers aren’t going to listen is that their CURRENT bright idea on how to bring readers back to the eighteenth century (Thank you Lin!) is that if they make ebooks expensive, we’ll buy hardcovers instead. Because… the Kool-Aid man is red? (My oldest son’s favorite saying) — and about that much sense. Then, because they’re large and lumbering dinosaurs and it takes forever for a message to make it from the brain at the base of the tail to the walnut in the skull, they will also price that way books not available in printed form. “Because our other books are also…” If it makes you feel better, for a lot of these old books they don’t send us statements, and the author might not know the ebook is out. You want to make the writer happy? Do what I used to do when I was so broke, I could only afford used books. If I read two books by an author, I mailed the author a dollar. “Care of” old publisher will get forwarded and while the author might be bemused, the sincerest compliment is cash in hand. If you include a post it saying “I love your books. Thanks.” the author will love you forever.

      1. I salve my conscience about used books the same way with used cars. One of the “selling points” of a _new_ car is “resale value.” People are more likely to buy a car if the expected resale value is high–if they’re able to recoup part of their costs when they’re done with the car. While I’ve never consciously thought “when I get tired of this book I can sell it and get some of the money back” (sell books? What?) Okay, seriously, I have been known to sell my books on the used book market from time to time (usually when, for whatever reason, I’ve ended up with several copies of the same book, or when I was on the Nebula novel jury and I got so many books I was not interested in and was never going to read. But then, what I did with the money was . . . buy more books, so authors did benefit. 😉

  4. “If you think of it as a Darwinian competition between bookstores and publishers, it might make some sense.”

    Competition? Rather, oligarchic collusion, with bookstores treating publishers, rather than book buyers, as their real customers.

  5. Clap. Clap. Clap.

    FYI, I used up two ISBNs this morning for the first two books in the Copyright Wars series (non-fiction). Amazon makes it really easy to publish.

    Kobo on the other hand seems to want to chase writers away. I’m checking out the other sites now, and I’ll be writing about my experiences with them later.

    Wayne

  6. Years ago, a lady author told me about one of her books going into bookstores, and because of some wrinkle, having less time, and therefore having three weeks in the store.

    I was not impressed with the bookstore’s wisdom, and more than a bit horrified by such waste.

    So when you tell me of culling, I’m not too shocked. But you got a vocal ‘wha?’ out of me when you talked about bookstores not special ordering anymore.

    There’s dumb, and then there’s just plain stupid.

  7. “The latest twist seems to be a refusal to special order the book, even if you pay for it in advance. How this gives them a leg up on Amazon is beyond me. No, seriously.”

    I wonder if this might be the result of some idiots trying to use CC disputing to resurrect an old vanity press scam by special ordering the book they wrote and then refusing to pay in order to get in on shelves.

    OTOH my local book store in it’s previous guise (new name but same idiots) earned the near boycott I’ve been giving it for the last 3 or 4 years.

  8. Howdy,

    You write:

    >8- DRM and ebook pricing.
    > I don’t like DRM. This is well known, right? I will not sign on with a small
    > publisher that uses it. OTOH I have ZERO control over it when I sign with
    > big publishers.

    It is probably quite well known among your regulars. I arrived here via Chuq von Rospach’s referral link, and would not have known your opinion had you not mentioned it explicitly. Wise to do so – you seem to understand that any given post might be the first one a reader sees.

    Perhaps more importantly, the community here also seems fairly friendly. One author I am thinking of has a community that has been reading his online editorials for much of a decade. There is real contempt among his regulars for anyone without that pedigree. I suspect the author is not that happy about the rising hostility, because the new people being hissed at are likely also readers, and if they are ill treated by other readers, they may cease to be.

    Having just read the plethora of “Lee and Miller wish Baen readers would stop annoying writers” posts over at Baen’s Bar, I think I see why letters go to the author, not the publisher. From the reader’s perspective, the only name on the front cover is that of the author. Authors are well aware of what they do not control, but many readers have no idea – when I worked in a book store, people were surprised that the author only got a buck-ish from a purchase; I did not find out that authors do not get consulted on cover art until a book signing years later.

    Scott

    (PS. I did pick up Darkship Thieves in my last Baen order, but have not gotten to it yet. Soon.)

    1. Scott,

      This is why I put up this post. Sharon says she puts up these posts regularly and it hit me “Oh. I can’t say things just once.” So you’re giving me credit where no credit is due.

      As for the community being friendly — we hiss and catcall, but half the time we do it to ourselves, and if you don’t take offense and start hitting (it’s happened) people will like you. So, pull up a rock. How do you take your virtual port? If you’re in the southwest, I’d bet it would be good chilled right about now. (My dad will drink it chilled and with ice. Purists would crucify him.)

      1. Well thanks!

        My port is best served near the beach. I have not made it there for some weeks, and I really should before the summer is out.

        As far as Sharon originating the idea, it is just as valuable. I bet there are some who had never even thought of where cover art came from, or just how gnarly contracts can be.

        Scott

  9. Like Skip I came in on the tail end of the discussions on the Bar so didn’t get involved there. But I agree with you and Messrs Lee and Miller about not abusing authors for things that are out of their hands.

    Another issue that has come to the fore for me as a result of ebooks, because I live outside the US, is geographic restrictions on sales. It is really frustrating and annoying to be told that by the publisher or ebookseller that ” this title is not available for customers in the UK” There are ways round that, but it is not straightforward and I suspect only dedicated bookaholics like me will take the trouble. Most readers will be deterred and the author will lose a sale.

    I wonder how far authors are aware that by only selling the US digital rights to their book they are effectively prohibiting their readers outside the US from buying it. Is that also something that authors have no control over, or is it something they could influence or ask their agent to change?

    Amazon UK now has a button on book pages to “Click to tell the Publisher you’d like a Kindle edition of this book” even where there is a Kindle edition available in the US on Amazon.com. (For an example, look up your Magical British Empire books on Amazon .co.uk. ) I doubt that authors/agents/publishers will take much notice of emails from individual readers, but hopefully Amazon might have enough clout to get the industry to move to dealing in world wide digital rights and get rid of these stupid restrictions on ebooks.

    Melvyn in Darlington UK

    1. Hi Melvyn,
      I’d argue that authors don’t have the option to reserve their erights at all, and certainly not the option to sell only North American rights. Publishers take everything. Usually they take world rights and then don’t bother to exercise them, beyond the usual attempt at making foreign (print) sales. Also, they don’t want to ‘pollute the waters’ of possible foreign sales by releasing digital versions outside of North America. Dumb? Yes. Crazy-making for authors? Totally. But it’s another thing that authors don’t have control over. No publisher would let an author withold e-rights (except John Locke, but that’s a whole nother story). So either you don’t sell traditionally, or you take the deal.

  10. “We Also Don’t Walk Dogs”

    Of course not! After all, by your own admission, you are herding cats. 😉

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