Discussions with Kensington Publishing head Steven Zacharius lay bare the wide gulf between publishing execs and writers
January 21, 2014 | 1:24 pm
An interesting thing happened a few days ago. An author posted the details of her publishing contract, including exactly how much (or more aptly, I gather, how little) she was making from her traditionally-published book. She was forced to take it down for “contract disclosure reasons” shortly afterward, and it had already expired from Google’s cache by the time I went looking for it, so I don’t know the specifics.
When Passive Guy at The Passive Voice linked said article, the discussion became the most active he’d ever seen on his blog—298 comments at this point, and probably more by the time you read this. Part of this is probably because Steven Zacharius, CEO of Kensington Books, started commenting and engaging with authors in the discussion. (He had previously written a column on Huffington Post about “the myth and the reality” of self-publishing advising writers not to quit their day job yet; self-publishing writer Laura Kaye responded and a link in the comments led him to Passive Voice.) And from the way the discussion went, as well as the one on Kaye’s blog, it’s pretty clear that traditional publishing house execs and house-published/self-publishing authors have some way to go yet before they see eye to eye—if indeed they ever will.
Along the way there were comments such as this one from “Pam”:
As a self-published author who has sold well over 150,000 books in the last two years, I quit querying publishers. The contract terms are all in the publishing houses’ favor, often extremely detrimental to the author, and there is no longer any advantage to selling to a publishing house. Good editors are now freelancing and available to anyone can afford to pay one. Better proofreaders can be found than those employed by the Big 6, and definitely better cover artists. Formatting for both e-book and print has been simplified to the point that I can do it myself–without all the formatting errors I see in Big 6 books.
My first–and last–experience in selling my book to a publisher was such a bad experience that it would take a 7 figure advance to make me consider doing it again. A lot of very talented authors feel the same way. Go back to the days when authors were valued, and maybe you’d see profits go back up.
There was a good deal of back and forth between Zacharius and self-published authors, many of whom seemed to feel Zacharius was missing the point (as in the case where someone mentioned a list of the top 100 Kindle-published books and he responded citing USA Today’s top 100 books list). Some of them weren’t always the most polite, and Zacharius said at least once he was leaving the discussion (but he continued responding).
Then there was this series of posts, that started with six-figure self-publishing author Debra Holland noting that authors who have both traditionally published and self-published frequently discover the sales of their self-published books outstrip their traditionally-published ones, which is not how it’s “supposed” to go. She also points out that publishing executives are often far-enough removed from their authors that they might not know exactly how discontent those authors are:
I’m not attacking Kensington when I say that in the last year or so, I’ve heard/read so much negative feedback from your authors, that I now advise newbie authors NOT to sign with Kensington. That wasn’t always the case. Nor is it the case with traditional publishing across the board–although I always advise authors to first educate themselves about traditional and self-publishing and make an informed (and intuitively right) decision for themselves.
Zacharius replied, insisting that Kensington always shares royalty figures with its authors, and blaming sales discrepancies on self-published books that could be lower-priced because they didn’t have the publishers’ overhead:
I don’t know where you’ve read that some authors are unhappy with Kensington. I would venture a guess that they are probably authors where we have terminated contracts at the end because the books didn’t perform.
In subsequent posts, Holland noted the authors she’d heard from were ones who were still under contract, Zacharius said he would ask his editors about that at the next meeting, and Marc Cabot chimed in that the editors and the authors would both have reasons for not wanting to say anything publicly:
The authors who are unhappy with you have a huge incentive not to tell you unless and until they get so unhappy that they jump ship. If they have several books with tight reversion clauses with you, they have an even bigger incentive to grin and bear it whilst looking for an escape hatch. While I urge you to take Debra’s advice, you are going to have to work for it, and casually asking, “Hey, everything okay?” at the company picnic is not going to give you reliable information.
Nadia Lee suggested doing an anonymous survey to gauge author satisfaction, and Zacharius said that was an excellent idea and he would suggest it, so I have to give him credit for trying to improve.
But the real standout in the thread came from a Kensington author who replied anonymously out of concern that she (or he) might face retaliation. She claimed to represent the same story as “at least 10 other” Kensington authors, and complained that Kensington was months overdue in reverting her books, that renowned editor John Scognamiglio did not in fact actually offer any editing advice on her books beyond one-to-five-word replies, and that the books’ covers “were made from $10 pieces of stock art. The covers did not match the genre of the books.” (Passive Guy pulled this comment out into a new blog post, which started its own lengthy comment thread.)
Zacharius replied, saying he would look into the issues, and requesting the author email him directly to inquire about the reversions. He also called the criticism of Scognamiglio “uncalled for” given that there were “dozens and dozens of authors who will tell you how amazing he is to work with.” (Which I would note is great for those “dozens and dozens of authors” who received attention from him but apparently the anonymous one and her ten friends aren’t among them.)
On the other thread that post started, another moderately unhappy Kensington author, Anthea Lawson/Sharp, chimed in with her story. It wasn’t as negative as the anonymous one, but she still had her bones to pick:
It was a surprise to find out that the “nurturing” promised by the publishing company was NOT, in fact, for all their authors. Just the ones who had “good numbers.” Basically, the Debut program was a way to test the waters with a small commitment, and pick only those few authors who hit certain target numbers. Nothing personal. Purely business. I was not one of those authors, despite the fact that orders increased for my second book and my print run went UP (thanks in part to an actual historical-looking cover). My career was moving in the right direction, but not fast enough. At the time I was disappointed and bewildered, especially because I’d *bought* the line that the publishing house was truly behind the careers of all their authors.
She also reported not getting much editing feedback to speak of on her work either. So far, Zacharius hasn’t responded to that one.
The affair continued with Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler engaging Zacharius via their blog, spawning both some back and forth with Zacharius there and another discussion on The Passive Voice. (Juli mentioned that one earlier today.) And most recently, author Delila Marvelle posted her own open letter to Zacharius (be prepared to use Readability, Evernote Clearly, Instapaper, or some other reformatter if you go there due to the egregious white-on-black style of her blog), again linked from PV.
There are lots of great and insightful comments all over all of these discussions, perhaps too many to read. But I think Kathlena Contreras hit the nail on the head in a comment to the PV post when she said:
Okay, here’s the thing. Every single word I write is “on spec,” to borrow a contracting term. Every word. No matter how many hours, days and weeks I spend writing, there is no guarantee that anyone will ever buy my work, paying for my hundreds of man hours, much less whatever I spend on covers and so forth. I am taking 100% of the risk that I will ever see a dime of payback for my efforts.
Publishers, on the other hand, see manuscripts as fruit from a miraculous vine that never ceases producing. They go to the vine and select the most beautiful and succulent fruit, spend hours and money preparing it, then serve it for consumption. (Thanks to Kris Rusch for the metaphor of stories as produce.)
Does the publisher take risk? Yes. Does the publisher take as much risk as the writer? I don’t know. But if those hours and investments were added up, I suspect not, especially if you include all those manuscripts written that are never accepted by a publisher.
This contrast of writer’s vs. publisher’s views of the writer’s work is why publishers such as Steve Z. simply can’t understand what writers are saying and why they’re so angry with publishers. Until they do understand how much writers actually bring to the table and how much risk the writer is actually bearing, the defection to SP will continue.
It’s really been interesting these last couple of days to see the differences between the points of view of self-publishing and trad-publishing writers and a trad-publishing CEO laid bare like this. I get the feeling that neither side will necessarily ever understand the other (or be willing to believe the other could ever understand them)—the places they’re coming from are just too different.
For example, in his original Huffington Post blog, Zacharius had this to say:
In a perfect world (okay, in my perfect world) there would be a separate section on Amazon or B&N.com for self-published e-books, maybe even separate websites. I truly believe that it would help the reader distinguish the books as well. Readers don’t purchase books based on who the publisher is and don’t necessarily care. As a result, they might not even know if they’re buying a book that was professionally edited versus one that was self-published. Publishers are devaluing their own content as well by even adding to the confusion. All publishers will discount the first title in a series, and these get mixed in with the other less expensive books and just add to the clutter.
Leaving aside that a lot of self-publishers actually do pay for professional editing (and some trad-gone-indie writers actually report receiving more editing input now (found via PV) than they ever did from their traditional houses), it’s curious that he thinks consumers don’t currently have any way to tell whether the book they might buy is great or terrible ahead of time. Apart from the covers (which, as some of the previous author complaints have noted, are not necessarily guaranteed to be good even from a traditional publisher), Amazon offers reviews from satisfied or dissatisfied customers, and lets the customer read the first chapter or so of the book. If the writing quality is terrible, that will probably present itself in the sample.
Will I reject a book just because it’s self-published, or buy one just because it’s trad-published? Or for that matter, will I buy a book just because it’s self-published, or reject one just because it’s trad-published? No. I will look at the book’s cover, reviews, read the sample text, check Goodreads or google reviews of the book elsewhere, then make my decision. I’d be surprised if many people didn’t do at least some research before they spend their hard-earned money, on anything. (And if I should find I did buy a lousy e-book from Amazon, I have seven days to ask Amazon for a refund.)
But then, underestimating or discounting the reader seems to be something traditional publishing execs do all the time. Just look at John Sargent’s original tone-deaf statement on the agency pricing lawsuit, and his co-opting of the Tor.com blog to do it. Perhaps they should pay better attention to their ultimate customers—who are not, in fact, the distributors or even the bookstores. One thing you can say for self-publishing writers, they certainly understand who is buying their books. That may be why they’re making up 25% of Amazon’s e-book market at this point.