Recently, one of my blog readers sent me the link to comments made by Hannah MacDonald, head of an English publishing house. She was encouraging her colleagues to be kinder to writers. One wouldn’t want to squelch a budding Emily Dickenson, Jane Austin, or J. K. Rowling. (Click) Rude rejection letters are luxuries publishers can’t afford because writers need to be nurtured. “Getting your book published is notoriously difficult.”
I’d be bowled over by this empathy, if I believed it were genuine. Instead, I suspect this publisher is sensing is a groundswell of change. Writers no longer need publishers any more than they need agents. Publishing a book isn’t difficult, particularly now that Amazon is a big player in the field. The challenge comes when the author tries to sell his or her book.
In the past, marketing was the publisher’s task. But no longer, unless you are a money-maker for a big publishing house. Authors who don’t make the highest tier are obliged to market for themselves, which raises the question. If a publisher does little more that print a book and list it in its distribution system, why keep this middleman? A few high paid professionals have figured out the answer and gone off on their own.
Small publishers do even less for the writer than the large ones, if that’s possible. Unfortunately, they can be just as snooty. Not only do they insist upon a masterpiece, but they expect the author to buy his or her books from them and unload the titles as best they can. Selling the book to the author is where small publishers make their money. Unfortunately, this arrangement leaves a writer to haunt bookstores, book conventions – which usually require a fee to participate — and book clubs, if he or she can get invited. They produce their own press releases, court the media and do any and all aspects of promotion. Eventually, a self-loathing takes hold, especially when people start crossing the street whenever they see a writer-friend approaching with an armload of books.
My question is who changed the rules? Who shifted the marketing burden to the writers? A publisher’s job in the past was to print and promote books for 50% of the sales. Having washed their hands of half their responsibility, the toughest half, why pay them? As I say, getting a book into print is easy. And frankly, MacDonald’s admonitions that publishers should be kind to authors is a little late and a dollar short. Like Marcel Proust, who self-published, authors are discovering they can sink or swim on their own without carrying a publisher on their backs.