For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Writer-Publisher Relations
Why the Writer Is Last to Know, By MARTIN ARNOLD - July 25, 2002

It's an old worry of writers, frequently mentioned by many of them, that their publishers don't tell them everything there is to know about the publishing of their work. Are these authors simply paranoid, unhinged by the monastic nature of the creative process? And if they are, does that mean they are wrong?

Anyway, I shall lay out some authors' complaints and also some things that indeed publishers don't tell their writers. For obvious reasons, anonymity was the trade-off. Writers' complaints are innumerable, and not entirely unfounded, but start with the general principle, as one best-selling nonfiction author said, that "publishers try to keep writers out of the publishing process — they don't even want you to see covers — and they decide before the book is published whether it's going to be successful or not." That means not only how much money is going to be spent on advertising and promotion, but the number of first-print copies as well.

That writer had this experience: "I called my publisher with one book and told him it had made the best-seller list, and he said, `That can't be.' He hadn't printed nearly enough copies. He rushed out 10,000 more, but by then the moment was lost, and the book dropped off the list."

Another writer had this litany of distempers: "They don't tell you how much they are spending on promotion and advertising, don't tell you how many copies have been sold, although they send out so-called statements. They don't tell you that the editor who acquired the book, who believes in it, has one foot out the door and that your book is going to be handed off to an editor who doesn't care about it. They don't tell you that the public-relations person assigned to your book will be working with a celebrity author and will have no time for you." His face turned tomato red.

Along with keeping secret the plans and money for advertising, promotion (including author tours) and marketing, the here-today, gone-tomorrow editor is a major concern for authors. One novelist recently received a rejection from an editor who wished her well but said she was leaving her job and had not gotten around to reading her manuscript and was sorry.

There remains the vision of this editor's desk piled high with unread manuscripts because she knew she was soon skipping out of there, so why bother reading?

An even more extreme worry, although seldom a reality, is the disappearing publisher. "I wasn't told my publisher was on the verge of bankruptcy," one writer said. "It was a small house, which sometimes is an advantage because it focuses on your book. But neither the publisher nor my agent told me the important fact that it was going bankrupt, really going, going, going, like a snowball. It went, and my book became a souvenir."

Still, the biggest complaint is the secrecy surrounding a book's publishing budget. Publishers claim, as an article of faith, that advertisements don't sell books. Authors don't believe that. One said: "I believe that advertising helps sell anything. Books are products and the audience needs to be reminded that the book is out."

Writers are correct that publishers hide information, although publishers all say they are up front and try to tell writers and their agents everything. Except, perhaps, maybe, not quite everything. In fact, they treat budget discussions like folderol. One publisher, who is known for having excellent relations with his writers, said that his rule is "never give advertising budgets to agents or writers."

"People who do that should be shot," he said. "We are signing up books that will be written two or four years from now.

"In principle, we give them something like a menu of possibilities when it comes to marketing and promotion, never precise."

One editor put it this way: "You don't tell different writers different things." But, she went on, there are consistently secret genres. "You don't offer information like an advertising budget, or how much money per book will be spent on marketing and promotion," she said. "That's information given on a need-to-know basis, and the author is not one who needs to know." Nothing ambiguous about that. She added that she wanted "writers to be upbeat about what's being done for their book, and not worry about what's not being done."

Telling a writer bad news is a territory no publisher or editor wants to be ambushed in. "If a book is not selling early in the cycle, you don't tell them," one publisher said. "You try to flip them some good news. You look to tell them the rays of sunshine."

He added that if he tells writers where he is not putting money, like in advertising, he tells them where he is putting money, like, for instance, what is called "cooperative money." (Cooperative money is the euphemism for the cash publishers pay to have a book displayed up front in the bookstore.) That's generally how a book gets good placement — a cash payment — so of course a publisher likes to tell an author that the house has that much faith in the title.

One publisher said: "You've been working with an author for a long time, but the latest book is weak. You never tell him it's bad. He loves, loves, loves it, has been working on it since he was 12 years old."

"When they don't get on the `Today' show, you don't tell them it's because it was a bad book," the publisher said.

Another says that agents "know the game so well it would be hard to hide information even if you wanted to," and "you try to tell them everything but comparisons with what you're doing for other writers." This publisher prides himself on his openness, but adds that "we give writers a general idea of our promotion program for them, but don't put it in dollar figures."

Now there's a caveat to all this. The superstar mega-authors not only get more attention from the publishers, but part of their star treatment includes learning the precise advertising, promotion and marketing plans. And certainly the money spent.

Publishers sometimes want you to feel sorry for them. Writers may worry about writing and reviews and promoting their work.

How does that compare with the troubles of publishing a celebrity writer who expects to travel on her book tour first class with her hairdresser and her dog?