I’ve noticed a very disturbing trend of late. At first, I thought it was me. I usually do. But I heard a very disturbing story from a fellow write and friend of mine recently. It’s a story that mirrors my own experiences in many ways. Basically, the experience goes like this:
Mr. Publisher ABC contacts author Mr. Joe Blow. Mr. Blow is either a midlist author with a strong but limited audience or a small press author who has managed to break out and make a good name for himself. Whichever he is, Mr. Blow is fairly popular—maybe not J.K. Rowling popular, but able to hold his own in the publishing arena. He regularly sells books, novellas and short stories in the small and mid-size presses. Readers actually buy his books, read them, and recommend them to other readers. He sells out his print runs. He’s at that point in his career where it looks like he’ll be able to kick the hated day job one day soon.
So, anyway, Mr. Publisher ABC contacts Mr. Blow about commissioning him for a book. Mr. Publisher and Mr. Blow discuss some details, and Mr. Blow comes away with the notion that Mr. Publisher is quite keen on publishing something of his, even though he didn’t offer Mr. Blow a formal contract. It was more of a “handshake agreement” like in the old, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century way of publishing, but that’s okay, because Mr. Blow trusts Mr. Publisher. They might even be friends or internet mates.
So Mr. Blow writes a book. It’s possibly not a book Mr. Blow would have written at this point in his career, but he pushes himself to get the work done and to make certain it conforms to Mr. Publisher’s needs. He works hard, sacrificing a lot of personal time to finish as quickly as possible. After all, we don’t want to make Mr. Publisher wait too long. He might get nervous, or change his mind, or god knows what else might happen.
Mr. Blow polishes the finished product. Maybe he lets his beta readers look it over. His beta readers approve of the manuscript. They think it’s a good book. Mr. Blow, feeling confident and happy with his achievement does something, special (but not too expensive—Mr. Blow and his family live on a tight budget), with his family. He takes them out for a day trip, for instance. He muses about the ways of the world and what more he can give his family than this. The following day, Mr. Blow submits the polished commissioned book to Mr. Publisher.
Mr. Publisher take a couple weeks to look it over.
Mr. Blow sweats a lot and starts doubting himself. Is he really a good author? Is the book junk? Maybe his beta readers were just being kind?
One morning, before Mr. Blow rides off to his day job, he gets an email from Mr. Publisher. Mr. Publisher approves of the work. He likes the book, a lot. He says, “We’re accepting this. I love it. Let me get the paperwork together and I’ll get back to you.”
Mr. Blow is elated. He goes to work, singing like Julie Andrews at the top of an alpine mountain. It feels so good to write his first commissioned novel and actually sell it! He goes out to celebrate with his family again. He contacts fellow authors and reviewers he knows and begs them to look at the advance review copy when it’s ready. He’ll even take care of those matters himself so Mr. Publisher can concentrate on more important tasks, like preparing the book for print and distribution. He is SO itching to post about his great news on his personal blog, but Mr. Blow knows the best course of action is to wait for the contract first. He’s a professional, after all.
So Mr. Blow waits. And waits.
A month goes by. Then two.
Mr. Blow begins to get a feeling scraping at the back of his skull that something’s gone wrong. He doesn’t think it’s the mail service. Mr. Publisher would have contacted him by now. He frantically visits Mr. Publisher’s website, but Mr. Publisher is his usual congenial self, the website looks good, and there’s no obvious signs of trouble. He composes and then archives several emails to Mr. Publisher. He doesn’t want to be a pest, after all.
Three months in, Mr. Blow breaks down and writes what he feels is a very courteous letter to Mr. Publisher about his fears that he might have missed the contract, or maybe Mr. Publisher doesn’t have the right mailing information. He secretly wonders if he’s still on the roster.
Mr. Publisher responds within a day saying he’s talking to the brass, working things out, and Mr. Blow is to hang in there. He’ll be in touch.
Mr. Blow goes back to his job of writing books. He tries not to think about the mysterious delay. He tries to stay focused and happy on the almost-sale, but the enthusiasm is officially gone, and the excitement is starting to wear off. He’s been thinking less and less about Mr. Publisher and his company.
Another month passes and Mr. Blow decides to contact Mr. Publisher, just to touch base. Again Mr. Publisher responds within the day. There’s some mysterious issue—someone is seriously ill, or the company is rethinking its strategy. Mr. Publisher makes other excuses. But Mr. Blow, who is a man of the world, knows the truth when he sees it. He knows that Mr. Publisher has blown him off. He knows that Mr. Publisher is secretly scrabbling to find a decent, civilized way of getting rid of him and his project.
A project first accepted and THEN rejected. Months of useless waiting. The stress of questioning our own abilities as wordsmiths. The forced smiles we have to wear, and the falsely optimistic emails we have to write. The disappointment that we have to see in the faces of our families, our parents, and our children when they learn that “this one too was rejected, it just took a little longer.”
You wonder why we authors have lost faith in you, Mr. Publisher. You wonder why we are doing this thing with Kindle and Nook. You wonder why we’re bitter and suspicious of your motives, and just so damned fucking tired of all your useless bullshit, your lies, your total lack of empathy as a human being or knowledge of publishing as a businessperson. You wonder why we authors band together, why we publish our work without you, denying YOU the money WE are making. And make no mistake, the money we are making is substantial. We have our audience. We know how to write and sell. We’re doing damned good, and it’s all because of YOU, because of your lack of interest or confidence in us.
But now you’re not in the equation anymore.
You’re a dinosaur. You’re extinct. You’re a skeleton in a museum.
You wonder how the industry has gotten this way and why you’re losing your company, your condos, your trips to the islands. You wonder why we’re evolving past you, why we don’t need you anymore.
Mr. Publisher, just look in the mirror sometime.
K. H. Koehler
Author of various successful series that YOU don’t publish