Writing Excuses 16.02: Publishers Are Not Your Friends
Key Points: Publishers, the companies, are not your friends, even if editors and individuals may be your friends. The businesses have different incentives, which may not match your incentives as an author. Example: the corporation will try to take worldwide rights in all languages, but they probably won’t exploit them well. Another example, when you want to change series or genres, the corporation wants to keep you in that well-worn slot, but you may want to change. Also, be aware that your agent and you may have different incentives. Remember, you are the person who cares about your career, so take care of it. Your relationship with the publisher and the agent is a business relationship.
[Season 16, Episode 2]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Publishers Are Not Your Friends.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And I’m Brandon.
[Dan] We are back for another episode of Brandon’s intensive course on career planning and kind of the inside of publishing. This time we want to talk about publishers. Now, Brandon, you named this episode Publishers Are Not Your Friends.
[Dan] That’s not what I want to hear.
[Brandon] Well, yeah. It’s not what I wanted to hear, either. Actually, I got told this by my agent early in my career. Working on, I think, my first contract. I’m like, “But, no. I want to have a really good relationship with my publisher.” The thing is, when I say publishers in this, I’m not usually meaning the individual, the publisher, I am meaning the company, the publisher. My editor is, indeed, my friend. Right? Indeed, many people at the publisher are my friends. But the corporation that is publishing you, traditionally published, is not your friend. This can be expanded to, unfortunately, Amazon is not your friend. Indeed, to an extent, your agent is an individual might be your friend, but your agency might not always be your friend. What do I mean by this? I mean that everyone is, when you’re looking at yourselves as businesspeople, everyone has different incentives working on books. Your incentives as an author do not always align with your publisher or your agent. Almost always, it’s going to align with your agent’s incentives. But there are a lot of times where the publisher’s incentives and yours are very different. I’ve got a bunch of examples of this. We’ll go through them. But the idea is that I want you to start thinking about this. Because the publisher as a corporation will pretend to be your friend. Indeed, you will have good relationships hopefully with the people at the corporation. But they will make the corporate decisions rather than the friend decisions when money is on the line.
[Howard] Several years ago, my friend, Dave Brady, wrote a piece on loyalty to a corporation and the madness that it is. I want to read a little bit of this text from my friend Dave because it’s so amazing. “A corporation is not a living creature. It has no soul, it has no heart, it has no feelings. It can neither experience towards you nor enjoy from you even the concept of loyalty. It’s a legal fiction and it exists for one purpose, to make profit. If you assist in this goal, your ongoing association with the organization is facilitated. If you distract from it, will be cut. Family is where they have to take you in, no matter what you’ve done. A corporation is the exact opposite of that.”
[Brandon] Exactly. Again, none of us want to hear this. I didn’t want to hear this. In fact, it took me years to understand what my agent was saying. I’m hoping that with some of my examples here, you will be able to understand. Like, let me talk about one of them that happened in my career. So, when you sell the rights to your book to a publisher, there are lots of different rights that you can sell. You can sell… What is normally sold to a US publisher is US or North American English rights. They will want to take worldwide rights in all languages. They will not be able to exploit those very well. But they’ll want to take them. Well, why do they want them? Well, think about it this way. If they take all of those rights from you, and they make an extra $2000, then, they have come out ahead in that contract. Those rights are only worth maybe $2000 to them. To you, those rights may be worth $50,000. The corporation is not going to look and say, “Wow. If we let him have these, it’s $50,000 to him. If we keep them, is $2000 to us and $2000 to him.” They’re not going to think that way. They’re going to think, “$2000 of profit is $2000 of profit. We should not let go of these.” But to you, those mean a ton. How did this work in my career? Tor fought to try to get world English rights out of me. They let go of all the other English rights… Or all the other language rights very easily, but they wanted to sell my books to their imprint in the UK, which was going to give them a couple thousand dollars for them. My world English rights, which is usually considered the UK, Ireland, Australia, and other places they export, like India. That was worth, when we finally sold it, somewhere around $50,000 on that same book. Tor would have been perfectly happy taking that $2000 and never launching me in these other countries. And really kind of ruining my career worldwide. They would have done that in a heartbeat. We took it to a publisher in the area who had unaligned incentive with me, that wanted to sell me really big in these countries. Tor would not have lost any sleep or even shed a tear if they had made an extra couple thousand dollars off of me by ruining my career worldwide.
[Dan] Let me give an alternative perspective on this. Because, first of all, that’s absolutely true. I make a vast majority of my money outside of the US. So I am all aboard for international rights. On the other hand, some of my early deals with HarperCollins, they wanted to maintain international rights and we didn’t let them. We kept them because I wanted to be able to sell to Germany and South America, which are my big markets. The result is that me as a person, my contract to them was actually worth less, because I was only making them money through one channel, instead of through multiple channels. We were able to work around that, and Partials was still a very big success. But it’s definitely something to think about. I had to find other ways to make myself more valuable to the publisher.
[Brandon] Yeah. Part of this equation for us, and this goes back to last week, learning your business, was understanding that Tor had a poor business in the UK, and indeed, would not have been able to do for me, in the UK and world English markets, as well as going to a local publisher. It was worth such a small amount of money to them that we didn’t think it would really add anything. But it is a consideration. There are times when you want to give up some or all of these rights for one reason or another.
[Mary Robinette] Just to add on to that. The… When I had the Glamorous History series, Tor also held the English language rights. They never sold the rights to Of Noble Family in the UK, which is book 5. There’s a reason, in the UK, you can only get books one through four, book five wasn’t sold. That is the one that took the longest to earn out. Because we only had one stream for that, which was the US.
[Dan] Yeah. Now, I want to pause here for our book of the week, which is actually a little bit about my story with HarperCollins. On my second series with them, the Mirador series, which is my cyberpunk YA, that series didn’t fit well with them. In hindsight, it was not a good fit. My age… My publisher, my editor, I should say, my editor loved it. He was 100% behind the book. But, as Brandon was saying earlier, the publisher at large was not. We kind of had to convince them to take a risk on it. What that meant is that they didn’t really understand the book, they didn’t really understand how to sell it. So the series, every book in that series sold worse than the last one. By the time we got to the third book, they essentially just opened their window and threw a bunch of copies out and hoped people caught them. It got zero marketing, zero publishing. That one is called Active Memory. It’s the best book in the trilogy, and I would love for you to all go read it. Because it’s great. Even though the publisher did not know what to do with it, and therefore didn’t support it.
[Brandon] Yeah. I mean, another place that this happens is when you are trying to change up your career. Starting a new series. Starting a new genre. Another thought experiment you can have, and of course, this… There are lots of different things that play into each of my examples here that could change around the numbers for you. But let’s imagine that you are pretty good at writing fantasy novels. You make, say, $50,000 at fantasy with each of your new fantasy novels. But you, as a writer…
[Mary Robinette] I would love to imagine that.
[Brandon] But you as a writer love the idea of writing different thing, because your artistic pursuits take you different directions. Indeed, let’s say you could write science fiction books, and they make $40,000. Which to you is a good trade-off, because it lets you do something else. It lets you avoid burnout. It lets you just explore new areas and potentially get new fans and things like this. Publisher’s not going to want you to do that. They would rather have you not be writing that $40,000 book, in fact, they would rather you just not release it. Because they would rather slot into that slot a science fiction writer earns 50,000 a year, rather than have you do $50,000 with a fantasy and the other side… And then your science fiction next year do $40,000. They would just rather have two $50,000 books and have you not publish a book that year. Now that obviously is a very different alignment in interests. I’ve known lots of writers who are like, “You know, I want to try a fantasy now.” Publishers are like, “Oh, that’s a bad idea. It’s a bad idea for this reason and this reason and this reason. You shouldn’t do this.” Well, a big part of this is that, but even if they were making the same money, it is very… Much easier for a publisher to brand an author as “This is our fantasy person.” The marketing people want to know this is our person who writes this style of book. They want to be able to have the sales force go into the bookstores and say, “You buy this sort of book from this author.” That’s just way easier for them, and it’s actually way… They have strong incentives to have that kind of list. They don’t want to have this person who does all these eclectic things that they have to explain to people. Where that may be where you want to take your career.
[Howard] I wanted to point out that in this situation, in this circumstance, it’s really difficult for the individual author to wrap their head around the full list of things that the publisher is looking at when they’re making those kinds of decisions. But the agent you may have partnered with may have a really good grasp of that. This is one of those cases where having a friend was also a business, who is an agent, can really help you deal with the publisher. Because you can talk to your agent and you can say, “Look. I want to write science fiction. That’s what’s going to keep me happy. What do you and I need to do, writer and agent, what do you and I need to do in order to find a way to make money with publishers for that?” The discussion after that point is going to take all kinds of shapes depending on you’re publishing with.
[Mary Robinette] To that point, harkening back to the first thing in this, when we were talking about thinking of yourself as a business as well, be careful about branding yourself by whatever it is that the publisher initially slots you into. So, I was initially slotted into historical fantasy. Right now, I am writing science fiction, historical science fiction. But whatever. But the point is, I am doing much better… My sales numbers are much, much better with the science fiction. If I had branded myself solely as a historical fantasy author, if I had done that with my twitter handle, my website name, and all of those things, that would have locked me into something that did not represent everything that I could do. George RR Martin, his first books were about vampires on steamships. Like, you don’t want to lock yourself into whatever that first book is, because something else may happen. The publisher, if they are paying attention to your numbers, which is what happened… The reason we moved over to Science Fiction was because they noticed… With me, they noticed that I kept winning awards with science fiction short stories. I was not winning awards with fantasy short stories. So, they’re like, “Why don’t you try a science fiction novel?”
[Brandon] It is much easier, and we’ll have a whole episode on branding later on, but it is much easier for the publisher to brand you as a series. This is really common in YA. They lips us it’s easier for their sales force to sell a series than an author. It’s easier for the publisher to be like, “We have this series.” You want to brand your name. They’re going to want to brand the series. This is just very… Historically, what I’ve seen in almost every instance. The other thing I want to mention before we leave, even though I know were running a little low on time, is, there are a couple of places where you and your agent will have different incentives. Not nearly as many, but I do want to bring them up. It’s happened in two cases, most often I’ve seen in the industry. One is that, particularly early in your career, a small amount of money to you might be life changing. Right? You may be able to pay your rent with an extra $500 from your book getting sold into a foreign market that does not pay a whole lot of money. Your agent will make 75 bucks off of that $500 sale. Their incentive, if you look at an hour to earnings ratio for them, it might take them three or four hours of work to get that sale to happen in that small country. They may look at it and be like, “This just isn’t worth the money. I’m not going to spend the time there.” Where that $500 coming to you could mean the difference between making rent and being able to be full-time and not. So you need to be in charge of your career and saying to the agent, “I really want you to go and spend this time.” They… A good agent will recognize that selling you worldwide is going to help build the brand of the author in ways that are beyond that extra 500 bucks. But I’ve known a lot of agents who just don’t do the extra work to sell those small markets.
[Howard] I was almost published by Steve Jackson games. The publisher is not your friend. Steve Jackson is my friend. The original contract that came out, I looked at it and realized if you’re planning on selling a couple of thousand books and paying me 5%, I will run out of money before these hit print. Steve came to me, my friend Steve, not the publishing company friend, my friend Steve said, “The only way for you to eat is for you to self publish.” Then he put me in touch with his spouse Monica who walked me through building self-publishing. Monica has since passed away and I love her and can point at that friend is one of a handful of people… A handful of people who made my career possible. But that handful of people does not include a company. It was somebody who was acting against the interests of their company in order to help me. I was very fortunate.
[Brandon] Yeah. Kind of pulling us to a close here. We’ll talk about this later. But we’ll keep coming back to this concept. Just get it in your head. You are the person who needs to care about your career the most. You are the person who needs to watch out for yourself and make sure you’re not being taken advantage of. You can’t expect an agent and a publisher to do this for you. Maybe at times they will. Maybe at times they’ll help you out. But at the end of the day, you have to understand, you have business relationships with people in addition or alongside your friendships.
[Dan] Awesome. Now we do have one closing bit of homework, which is also from Brandon.
[Brandon] Yes. So, one thing that was related to this is that Dan and I when we were breaking in, one of the things we found very useful to do, and I’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but I want to give you the homework for it. Which is, make a little black book, so to speak, of publishers. This is write down all the publishers in traditional publishing who are releasing new books by new authors consistently into the bookstores where you shop and you can find them there. Write those names down, write those publisher names down, and start watching for the books that they release and the editors who work there. So that you start having a grasp on the industry and who are the players that are in the industry. Read all of the acknowledgments pages for those books. Find the names of the agents. Start actually treating yourself like a businessperson who is looking how to network and how to understand your business.
[Dan] Fantastic. So. Thank you for listening to Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.