By Deborah Emin, Publisher, Sullivan Street Press
Recently I gave a reading from my novels in the Scags Series where the audience was mostly other writers. In my bio I always mention that I am a publisher looking to change the publishing paradigm. The MC’s response on this particular February afternoon to this idea was, “Good luck,” which brought laughter from the crowd.
Most writers today, other than the successful self-published ones, have very little understanding of how the publishing business works. Some sniff openly at the thought of having to learn about business practices even while hoping this business will provide a decent paycheck. Other than the evanescence of some fame, there aren’t many other good reasons in this culture to become a writer other than in hopes of it being your main source of income. It is so time consuming and requires such sacrifice that if you weren’t looking to be fully remunerated, I think we should discuss your mental health.
Having established in this quirky way that writers should be paid for their work, how is it that publishers allow most writers they work with not to know even the most basic elements of this business?
When I exchanged a couple of Twitter comments recently with Porter Anderson of The Bookseller’s Futurebook about the website he had recommended that show cases the work of an agency purporting to help writers understand the business of publishing, I was both eager to see if this agent had nailed the concepts for writers and hoping that what she had to say about business practices would be worth sharing with my writers.
As she rightly said in her blog:
“I’m constantly amazed at how rarely writers demonstrate business acumen when it comes to their own publishing career—something that would never fly in their day jobs or in other parts of their lives. Ultimately, an author who is smart, educated, and business-oriented will have a more successful career.”
Instead of schooling the writers in what they need to know, however, the agent offered a list of traits that she felt she possessed to make up for what the writers lacked:
- command authority naturally
- are good negotiators and unafraid to walk away from a deal if necessary to protect the author
- are assertive (not to be confused with aggressive)
- are comfortable with conflict and don’t avoid it (as in they don’t acquiesce to the publisher so as to not “rock the boat”)
- advocate on behalf of the author (not to be confused with persuading the author to accept whatever the publisher wants simply to avoid conflict)
- are highly organized
- are skilled, financially stable entrepreneurs if they run their own agencies
- know how to be team players
- are good communicators, both with you and with the in-house publishing team
In addition, they might also be the author’s cheerleader!
In my opinion, this is what any agent spends her day doing but this doesn’t convey to an author what is needed to have that necessary business acumen if she wants a successful career as a writer.
There is no mention of having a basic knowledge of how books are chosen by a publishing company, how books are transformed from manuscripts to bound books and e-books, how marketing campaigns are determined and how publishers make use of the channels of distribution for each title. Obviously this is a cursory overview of the business. Yet I wonder how many authors know any elements of this process or how willing this agent would be to share that information with the authors she represents.
As publishing professionals, we should want writers to understand each stage of the process. For most of us, we have no time to teach business fundamentals. However, it would not be fair to just diagnose this problem without offering a possible remedy. Here is mine.
We have hundreds of MFA programs in this country as well as a growing number of publishing certificate programs. If we could encourage the MFA programs and the publishing certificate programs to combine some of their courses so writers would be better informed at the start of what a publisher actually does and also for those studying the business of publishing with insight into how writers think, we would be instilling at the start of their careers, writers and publishers who see the world from both sides of the table.
I feel some hackles rising as I propose this. I know, having a stable of writers who will do as the master says is much easier to manage than a stable of writers who are informed of what makes for successful publishing. Who wants to contend with a group of writers better informed than the ones we deal with now? Let’s not be too hasty, though, and consider what the good news could be if there were writers bringing to the discussion of the fate of their books ideas that we have not considered yet because these new writers have a different vantage point from ours. And that is the change in the paradigm that I would greatly appreciate.
Deborah Emin is the publisher at http://sullivanstpress.com and the author of the Scags Series. The third volume, Scags at 30, is due out this year.