Big-Time Authors Aren't Happy Either

So here’s the situation.

Since the beginning of time, or at least since the invention of the written word, or at least since the invention of the Guttenberg Printing Press, the big boys in New York have flexed their muscles and controlled the publishing industry.

Agents had a hand in it.

Agents wanted to be power brokers.

Agents went out and found the next great book, although too many deals for mediocre books purported to be great books have too often been made and consummated in the middle of New York cocktail parties.

Authors today bang their heads against the door trying to wake up agents.

Agents today bang their heads against the door trying to wake up publishing houses.

A Publisher bangs his head against an accountant’s door, trying to figure out how to keep from losing money when his company produces three hundred titles a year, and he knows all but seven will be losers.

The trouble is, he doesn’t know which seven will be the winners.

Books stores are eight and nine months behind on paying their royalties to publishers, which means publishers are ten to twelve months behind paying royalties to authors.

Those actually responsible for creating the product, for stringing together eighty to a hundred thousand well-chosen words into a tightly drawn novel, are left out in the cold, scrambling for crumbs and not really for sure when the next crumbs will be scattered their way.

Even in today’s chaotic and digital world, when its all said and done, every author, down deep within his or her psyche and ego, would like to be working with a well-known agent who has sold a book to a well-known publisher, who has placed that book in well-known chain of bookstores.

That’s the dream.

Well, maybe it’s time that we looked on the other side of the fence.

As a whole, the big time authors with big-time agents and big-time publishers aren’t happy either.

A major survey of 323 authors, all of whom have been published by the big boys for years, has discovered serious levels of dissatisfaction with traditional publishers. The survey was conducted by The Writers’ Workshop, an editorial consultancy, with assistance from the Society of Authors, the Crime Writers Association, and the Romantic Novelists Association.

He is what they discovered.

  • One-third of the authors said they were not consulted about marketing plans.
  • Almost forty percent of the authors asked, “What marketing plans?”
  • Almost half of the authors said their publishers had never asked for their feedback on a project.
  • About two-thirds of the authors said they would prefer to leave their old publisher and move to a new one, although new ones don’t want them and the old publishers may be cutting them loose.

Harry Bingham, head of the The Writers’ Workshop, said, “These results don’t surprise me, but they are sad. Authors want to love their publishers, but there are key respects in which publishers are making that hard. Authors are underwhelmed by marketing that is too often ineffective. And standards of communication are miserable right across the industry. The problem with marketing is perhaps that publishers have not yet successfully migrated their marketing efforts to an increasingly digital world.”

Authors did like the way their books were proofread and edited.

And, for the most part, they liked their cover designs.

But where’s the money?

The days of the big contracts have faded with the last sunset. As a rule, authors had seldom received advances in excess of five thousand dollars.

And here is the kicker.

This is what all independent authors should remember.

The authors in the survey had agents and major publishing houses. But almost seventy-five percent of them reported that they are considering cutting out their publisher altogether in favor of ePublishing.

You want to go into the big time publishing world where they are.

And they want to come into the independent publishing world where you are.

The gap that used to be so wide becomes narrower every day.

Be careful what you wish for.

You may not be happy if you get it.


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  • David L Atkinson

    Readers rule ok!

  • Caleb Pirtle

    David: Readers do indeed. Keep writing great work, and sooner or later the readers will find you.

  • Interesting aspect of the world of book-making. Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, guys.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Gay: It’s a bumpy ride and nobody knows where the road is headed, but one thing’s for certain. Authors are now driving. They may not get very far, but they have control of the wheel.

  • We have been afflicted with that old Chinese curse: We ARE living in interesting times.

  • Christina Carson

    Thanks for the facts, Caleb. It is so easy for the human mind to fabricate. Give us one or two whiz kids, lottery winners or overnight hits and we weave a tale that that’s how it works. For the majority, we do as we’ve always done – work our way there.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Christina: Nobody has the answer, which is why everyone is looking. The big boys have pulled in their wings, and only a few big name authors are flying anymore.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Jack: We are living in interesting times, and, if we don’t like them, it’s up to us to change them. Nobody’s gonna do it for us.

  • Very interesting, Caleb. The other man’s grass is as green as ever. The main thing I learn from your blog is that even though digital has provided access to publishing for many people, the game is the same. If you want to sell books, you have to work hard at it and keep trying. Even then there is no guarantee of success.

  • Kathy Lynn Hall

    Oh, this is so good to hear – not for the poor traditional authors, because after all, we are family – even if we Indies are the poor step-relationships. But I have been asked by family members what I would do if I got offered a contract by a big publisher and I’ve answered that I was pretty certain I wouldn’t take it – unless they met a number of conditions, which I was sure they would not do.

    It’s so good to hear that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side. Thanks, Caleb!

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Stephen: There are no easy streets or quick fixes. Ditches are dug by men and shovels. We writers have the shovels. The rest is up to us.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Kathy Lynn. I feel that a writer who signs a contract with a big publisher– who won’t market, who doesn’t have big advances – is just crawling into chains and asking for the lock. My heart would like to. My head knows it would be a mistake.

  • Newbury

    Brilliant and compelling analysis! If we had no writers, maybe USA would move up from its current 11th place among the happy countries of the world…

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Don: The problem is we have fine writers looking for an audience and great readers looking for a good book – and there aren’t any ways for them to cross paths.

  • Maud_StJames

    Unfortunately. writing/publishing is not a meritocracy. To use an antiquated and probably non-PC term, Chinese fire drill would be more like it. I find it amazing that the system has held together as long as it has. Whatever happens, one thing of which we can be sure is that the writers, the ones whose work creates the industry, will always be the least compensated and the least respected. Yes, I know that some make fortunes in traditional publishing and some make fortunes self-publishing, but they are the exceptions rather than the rules. Most writers will always have to accept crumbs. One reason is that there are so darn many of them. Another is that, on the whole, the reading public is so dismissive of quality, instead pursuing the bubble of what they are told is popular. I’m a reader, not a writer – Thank God! There’s enough frustration in my life as is – but just seeing how much of what is ‘popular’ is pure dreck is incredibly depressing.

    • Christina Carson

      Amen to that Maud. I could weep with frustration when I see a world of readers looking for something to read to numb their minds and jolt them emotionally like caffeine or uppers rather than fill them with ideas that awe from a caliber of fine writing that gives pause. As a small entrepreneur all my life, I succeeded because I offered something few had to offer. That was my business plan. But now I try to succeed in an arena where product swamps demand, an as yet no sorting process has arisen to separate the product into any kind of arrangement. Somehow I will succeed,for it you are a writer there is no other attitude to hold, but at the moment the how is still more poser than plan.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Maud: I fear you are right. Writers, as a whole, will always be the least compensated. But we have a burning desire to tell a story and hope that someone wants to hear it. We all have undying faith that we can sell enough books to go on. Thank God for readers like yourself who know that a good story is and therefore what a good book is. As long as there is one of you in the world, I will keep writing.

  • Makes me feel happy I’m with a smaller publisher. They do consult me on covers (the latest one is based v closely on my own brief), have a great digital strategy and my book’s out in audio already – and of course the paperback is in bookstores across the US and Europe. Plus I get a reasonable advance, as good as many a midlister in these hard times. Best of both worlds, really, unless you’re desperate for total creative control (and all the hard work that goes with that).

    It’s not give-up-the-day-job money, but these days that’s about as rare as winning the lottery.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Anne: Congratulations. The big boys in New York are sitting around and wondering what has happened. Only the smaller publishers have the old-time, old-fashioned energy and drive to make books work. They don’t make instant best sellers. But they sell books.

  • This is a fantastic article and completely dovetails with predictions I made about the state of publishing late last year in a blog called, “It’s the End of Publishing As we Know it, and We Feel fine…”

    Where can I read the entire survey?

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Omar: I would love to publish your blog on “The End of Publishing as We Know It” if you can email it to me at Here a link to the press release about the survey.

  • I’m not too suprised at all, which is one of the reasons why I went the indie route, and loving it. It will be interesting to see if there will be a mass exodus of traditionally published authors to the “dark side” of indie publishing.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    James: The dark side is growing larger every day. Welcome aboard.

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