For the past seven months I’ve been watching a publisher implode in a most grand scale. Unlike the huge spectacles Vegas puts on when they implode a dead casino, this implosion is deathly quiet, something I’m sure the publisher appreciates as he continues to claw his way through the mounting disaster of his own making.
Over the past couple years, I read all the articles that christened them The Next Big Thing. Wow, they all cooed. Gee, they all marveled. This publisher is soooo amazing! But I was skeptical. After all, where did they come from? Who were they?
As the proverbial Cinderella story, they had it all; the little spuds from nowhere established great distribution and great reviews. Authors and agents queried them in droves. Books flew off the warehouse shelves into the genre buyers’ hands. It was every publisher’s dream – Instant Success. The fabo Goliath beats David at their own game! Yay! Power to the little spuds! But I was skeptical.
I never bought into the hype because if I know anything, it’s that there is no Instant Success. Oh sure, a book might hit the big time and put a publisher on the map. But they gotta stay there, and that takes smarts and experience – something this publisher lacks. A publisher cannot fake any part of their existence or raison d’être because there are too many checks and balances in place that make exposure not a matter of “if,” but “when.”
The reasons for their impending demise are many, but I think it comes down to arrogance, having an agenda, and abject inexperience. I can’t think of a deadlier combination for a publisher. Money alone does not guarantee success. We have to always keep our ears open, our opinions flexible to change, and be willing to learn. Doesn’t matter how long we’re in business, we never stop learning.
Why should I care about this publisher? I don’t. Not one whit. They splashed money around like the beagle does after one too many beers and didn’t bother learning how the industry works. They acted as if their money and splashy countenance would counter the boogeyman. Well, the boogeyman is very much alive in this business and is always ready to pounce, and if this publisher’s walls are made of cardboard, then let them fall flat on their face, right?
Problem is, my heart is with the authors and, as one who always yammers on about the pitfalls to avoid, I’m trying to define the red flags of this particular beast so authors can, in a literary sense, recognize margarine from butter. This publisher was Country Crock all the way, but their packaging said God’s Finest Butter; it was pristine and perfect. They gave the appearance of doing everything right, so how would anyone know different?
Here’s what I know:
- Looky at me! I don’t know of any new publishers with zero publishing experience who made a giant splash when they first opened their doors. People just don’t climb out from under a rock and spend their way into the hearts of the industry without having some warts on their feet. Advice: be wary. Looks can be deceiving.
- Confidence is very good for business. However, arrogance is like fingernails on a chalkboard. I’ve had the good fortune of being mentored by some top people in the business, and not one of them is arrogant. I have learned that people use arrogance to mask their inferiority complex. People with issues make lousy publishers. Advice: Avoid arrogant people because they are achingly difficult to work with. They will always be right, and you will always be wrong.
- Agendas are bad. If a publisher has ulterior motives, they’re going to be unearthed at some point, and it’s going to get very ugly very fast. I’ve seen a few publishers whose expanding lineup was nothing more than a false front, designed to conceal the fact that they wanted to publish and promote their own books. As a result, the authors’ promotional efforts became less and less important to the publisher as they spent more time and money on their own projects. Advice: If a publisher is also a writer – which many of us are – check to see how much time they are spending on their own promotion compared to their authors. If they are less and less available to their authors, yet they are all over the place, this could smack of an ulterior motive to the reasons for their company.
- Abusive publishers have something to hide. Whether it’s fear or frustration, publishers can’t take it out on their authors. If sales are tanking, the publisher must assume responsibility. If they suffered massive returns, they have only themselves to blame for overselling the books. They cannot send threatening emails out to their authors and browbeat them into engaging in useless self-promotion that has zero hope of selling a single title. It is not the author’s job to save the publisher’s ass. Advice: news like this will come out eventually, so keep your ears close to the ground. Talk to the publisher’s authors. If they’re unhappy, they’ll be pretty forthcoming about it. If you hear the same story over and over again, you can pretty much take it to the bank and cash the check.
- Publishers do not piss off agents. Ever. The converse is equally true. This is the most gossipy industry because it’s small, and news travels fast. Publishers who anger agents are just begging for a quick bullet to the brain, and any publisher with a firing synapse knows this. It’s true that problems sometimes arise, but there is always an equitable, satisfactory solution. You never, ever risk soiling the relationship – especially if that agent is well-known. Advice: find out what agents say about a publisher. This is your best ally. If agents don’t like them, there is always a solid reason.
Since this publisher was so glamorous on the outside, I feel inadequate suggesting that an author’s best defense is to give all new publishers at least a year just to make sure those warts don’t exist. After all, flash and zing are attractive features, and I know of many authors and agents who got caught up very early in this nightmare.
There are few words to express the sorrow I feel over the authors who are involved with this house of cards. My biggest hope is that the publisher implodes quickly to avoid taking any more authors down with them. I have no confidence they will suddenly see the error of their ways. That ship has long since sailed.
Advice: It’s a tough world, my dear authors. Be careful, and ask tons of questions. Network. Get to know people in the industry so you can ask their opinion. It doesn’t matter how great a company may look on the outside – and I mean stellar, hoo-ha, off-the-charts, gonzanga amazing – it’s the inside that will reveal whether a company has the stuffing to survive.
Be suspicious of dichotomies. An unknown, new publisher who spends money like water, yet has no previous ties to the industry or experience presents a pretty big bull’s eye on the industry dartboard. Lastly, don’t jump too quickly; you might land in a frying pan, and you’re the butter.