Sunday, April 1, 2012

Publishing and Bad Publishing Are Not the Same Thing: A Publisher's Response to "An Agent's Manifesto"

The London agent Jonny Geller stirred up a lot of discussion, and a flurry of Twittering, by posting "An Agent's Manifesto" a week or so ago. Jonny contended that in the "maelstrom" of the current book business, authors are being forgotten, taken for granted by booksellers and, in particular, by publishers. The original post seems now to be behind a paywall but it's extensively quoted here and here. He writes:
The author is not an object which a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication. If they have a problem with the cover, blurb, copy or format, then something isn’t right….Remember, we don’t have a job without [the author]. For those of us still working in the legacy business of publishing books, here’s a reminder of the primary mover in this chain.
A great many people retweeted his column or commented on it using words like "fantastic." And his dim view of publishers was echoed elsewhere. At her blog, the novelist and ghostwriter Roz Morris had even more negative opinions of my colleagues:
It is common, behind the scenes, to hear editors talk about authors with undisguised loathing – not just individual ones who may be difficult, but all of them, authors as a breed. There is a culture that authors must not be listened to.
I have to say that I don't buy these generalizations about our business.

I have worked at publishers large and small--two Big Six houses, a literary indie, a university press, and currently a house I'd describe as mid-size. Never, ever, at any of them, have I heard authors discussed with "loathing." At all of them it was fully understood by editors, marketers, and management that the author is, in Jonny's words, "the primary mover" in the publishing firmament. The whole enterprise would not exist without authors. To put it another way, as one of my colleagues says, "the author is our customer." I simply don't know anyone in publishing who thinks of an author as "an object we have to step over to achieve a successful publication."

At Bloomsbury, we regard the author as a key partner in marketing the book, because as Jonny correctly observes, "the author is the expert" on the subject, setting, and likely readership of her book. We want to tap into that expertise, and use the author to help mobilize the networks of readers who are going to respond to what she's doing.

I have made clear elsewhere on this blog that I'm fully aware publishers often fail authors (and themselves for that matter)--for all sorts of reasons. One is simply the tendency of any complex organization to screw up from time to time. Another is that most publishers are under-resourced. Trade publishing is a chancy and low-margin business, and there's rarely enough money and man-hours to lavish on each title--on any title--as much as it deserves. In the hustle to get things done, there can be a temptation to take shortcuts--and one of the most ill-advised shortcuts is to discount the author's input about jacket design, flap copy, or marketing ideas when they are at odds with the publisher's. This does sometimes happen, and sometimes with the arrogant justification that "we're the professionals." I have no hesitation in saying this is simply bad publishing, and any author who experiences such treatment is right to resent his publisher for it. But in my experience it's relatively rare.  It may be more common at the biggest houses, where the sheer volume of titles can, at its worst, lead toward a book-as-widget mentality. Throughout our industry, however, dedicated people are expending sweat, toil, and sometimes tears to meet authors' expectations.

By way of example, in the past week, I've been working with our creative director to find a jacket for a fall title, where in attempting to satisfy the author, we have gone through not less than a dozen different designs. I have exchanged numerous emails with another author, trying to choose a title and subtitle from among 5 or 6 possibilities--this after his original choice had been embraced by our marketing team but he had second thoughts. And I spent an hour on the phone with a third author, negotiating the precise wording of the captions in his photo section. This is not because I'm a unique paragon of editorial virtute; all around me, and not just at Bloomsbury, my colleagues are toiling away with their authors in similar ways. Down the hall from me, a publicist was booking and rebooking flights for an author's book tour in response to her changing schedule. And out in the Northwest a sales rep was arranging a dinner for a debut novelist to meet with booksellers for the region. None of these authors, by the way, are bestselling VIP types, although we hope they eventually will be.

I submit that these authors are, as Jonny urges, being "valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like adults." Furthermore, I can think of no other major creative industry where a single artist has so much control over his or her content and how it gets presented to the public. The author has absolute final say over the text of the book (contrast this with Hollywood, where a director may not even have final-cut approval, or journalism, where a writer's copy may be heavily rewritten at the editing desk); and--the above-noted Bad Publishing exceptions aside--typically has consultation even on covers and catalogue writeups. 

Editors, especially, value authors because they are our closest partners in the process. The relationship can be intimate, and like any close relationship it can be fraught. Authors do things that make editors grind their teeth from time to time, just as spouses do to one another. And publishing people do, it's true, vent about authors now and then, just as authors vent about publishers. That doesn't mean there's a lack of respect on either side. 

Several of the commenters on Jonny Geller's and Roz Morris's posts cite "horror stories" they have heard about author mistreatment. I note that most of these horror stories are secondhand. In saying such stories are unfortunate and rare, I'm not saying none of them are true. By the same token, I think most agents do a good job for their clients, even if one of Roz Morris's commenters wrote "I still want to punch something when I think how my agent mistreated me." In any case, I was pleased to see that several authors also posted comments about how happy they were with the care and attention they received from their publishers. It's human nature that "horror stories" circulate more widely than "satisfaction stories."

I have no quarrel with Jonny Geller’s manifesto. Authors will always be at the core of whatever publishers do, and it is worthwhile to remind us of that. But to the charge of disrespecting authors, on behalf of all the publishers I know, I plead not guilty.