Thursday, October 30, 2008

More on Bad Companies

Follow-up question to previous post:

Along the same lines of the question you answered in today's post, what's the best way to unearth information about any given publisher's history with regard to their treatment of authors, how faithfully they honor contracts, how spotty their promotional record is, etc.? I can certainly look them up and ask around, but I suspect many authors are afraid to speak up when they feel mistreated, out of fear that their name will be mud in the larger industry. Are there resources, online or otherwise, that you can suggest? :)

Most major companies - certainly all of the big 5 and most of the larger independents - will be serious about honoring contracts, protecting their/your copyright, and sending you reminders that you've earned no royalties this term with a balance sheet to prove it. They don't want the lawyer hassle of an author suing them any more than the author wants the hassle of hiring a lawyer. The contract is a legally binding document, so they have to obey it. How precisely they stick to every last detail (delivery dates, etc) can vary in the smaller companies, not necessarily because they're unscrupulous but because they're small and know you'll understand and you probably will (I'm talking about companies with three people on the payroll).

There are two things I left out of the above paragraph in answer to your question: promotion and editing.
(1) Editing. What's generally stipulated in the contract is that you and the publishing company both agree on the final text of the book, the one that goes to press. Failure to do - i.e. a major disagreement - usually means a breaking of the contract. This is very rare and mostly for books that might cause the publishing company to be sued, like books on scandals and celebrities. However, to GET to that final project requires editing, and how much the company is going to take the time to do is really up to them, and you're left finish the odds-and-ends. While it's in their best interest to produce a finished work without a ton of typos, misspellings, and inconsistencies, it doesn't always happen. All houses have a final round of editing that's done strictly to get rid of typos and grammatical errors, not address plot problems and factual errors. Those have to be done earlier, and how much is done by you and how much done by your editor depends on how dedicated the editor and/or their assistant is to the book. If you write a book on kingship in the Post-Classic Mayan Period, your editor might not be as much of an expert on kingship in the Post-Classic Mayan Period as you are and if you got some dates wrong, they're probably going to stay wrong.

Funny story: So there was a joke I made in my first book that had the word "Jew" in it. It wasn't an anti-Semitic joke at all, but my editor insisted that I pull it and since no harm was really done to the manuscript if I did, I decided to not argue the point and I rewrote the two lines required to remove it. You have to pick your battles with your editor. For some reason, because she's either disorganized or just a human being, she never implemented the changes into whatever master file she had open in front of her that day, and the joke made it into the published book.

(2) Promotion - This will vary hugely from house to house and book to book. Obviously, you go with one of the major houses, your book will be able to be promoted in ways smaller publishers can only dream of. On the other hand, the major house might not do much promotion, especially for a new author without too much commercial promise. You can easily fall between the cracks at the promotion department of a major house and get next to nothing done on your behalf, or you could go with an independent press that really, really wants to do more promotion but doesn't have the resources to do it. A lot of it's luck. Be very, very nice to your publicist from day 1. Trust me, this will pay off.

To finally answer your question, while you're always safer at a major house, terrible things can still happen to you at any house if someone important in the company doesn't care about your book. As to what companies you can rely on, there's not really a guide, especially with so many imprints and so many editors always moving around. This is the job of an agent - to know where to submit and, if you get multiple offers, where to accept. My boss recently advised her client to take a lower offer (not significantly lower) on the advance of a book because she felt strongly that the editor at the lower offer's house cared about the book more and the book would be treated better and look better on their list. The agent's responsibility is to know what editors are looking for what and when - that's part of where they earn their 15%. They earn 15% on royalties, too, so they want the book to succeed, and if they think it will succeed wildly at a smaller house, they'll advise you to take it there.

There's not really a website that tracks any of this. With all the movement constantly going on in the publishing industry, it would be difficult to have one even if everyone gave it a concentrated effort, and nobody's giving it a concentrated effort. But for plain ol' bad business practices, there's always Preditors and Editors.


Cathy in AK said...

The part about your boss suggesting the author take the lower advance with the more caring house really brings home the message of why agents are so dang important. Most writers would be thinking, "Take the big bucks up front!"

While this is a money-oreiented business, it's also about loving the story and doing right by it and the author.

Anonymous said...

This post actually makes publishing sound like a much more polite and even keeled industry than I've been led to believe.

Of course in my business, half the job is trying to get your clients to pay you.

Anonymous said...

thanks for all this info.

one Q: who are the big 5?