A few weeks ago, at our weekly professional writers lunch, a writer mentioned a private listserve he’s on with other writers, all of whom are traditionally published. According to him, that list has been discussing an abusive editor, one who is tearing apart her bestsellers, making them revise their books repeatedly while telling them that they don’t know how to write.
I have been an editor off and on for a long time (with a healthy hiatus in the middle of my editing career), and I’ll be honest. As an editor and someone who has owned two publishing companies (and advised others), I usually shrug off comments like that from writers.
Some writers are such sensitive souls that telling them to change a comma results in three weeks of hysteria.
However, I knew the editor in question, and she went after me viciously in October of 2011. So viciously, in fact, that I immediately attempted to terminate my contract with the publishing company.
Let me tell you what happened, then let me tell you what I did, and then I will expand this essay into something everyone can use.
October of 2011 was a bad time for me. Our friend Bill Trojan had died, leaving us his massive and messy estate. My husband, who is my rock and my support and my everything (seriously), was working his way toward a stroke trying to deal with that estate.
My own health was declining for reasons we wouldn’t understand for another eighteen months. I had had to cancel most public appearances, including one that month.
Publishing in the United States was changing quickly, and it often felt like the ground was shifting under our feet. We had cash flow issues because of the estate (see the link above) and because we had started three new businesses before Bill died. My stress was off the charts.
I still managed, somehow, to write a novel that I was quite pleased with. For once, I managed to hit every note I had promised in the proposal that sold the novel. The novel was risky for its genre, but the editor had approved the proposal and all was fine—I thought.
Then on the afternoon of October 18, 2011, the editor called me from a conference I had had to cancel out of due to my health and the estate issues. I thought she was going to update me on a book the company had just published—sales figures or something—or maybe convey something about the conference.
Instead, she wanted to talk about the book I had turned in. She didn’t ask how I was (and remember, she knew that I couldn’t attend for health and personal reasons) or anything. Instead she lit into me and my work as if I were a beginning writer.
She told me that I couldn’t write very well. She told me I knew nothing about the genre I’d been publishing in for fifteen years. She told me that I might think I was a good writer, but I wasn’t, and I needed to shape up.
I was stunned as this torrent of abuse continued. It went on for fifteen minutes before I could get a word in edgewise. I should have hung up; I was too sick and emotionally exhausted to think of that option until after the call ended.
However, I had done what I always did with a business phone call. As the phone rang and the number appeared on the screen, I grabbed a yellow legal pad and pen and took notes. Even as she attacked me personally, I continued to take notes.
It’s a great habit, because it enabled me to go back and see that she had done similar things less blatantly in previous calls.
Midway through this last conversation, she said two things that truly caught my attention. The first was that she claimed that the genre I was writing in had a specific structure—this must happen on page 75, that must happen on page 125, this other thing must happen on page 150.
The entire genre isn’t that way. I know that as a long-time reader and writer in that genre. In that genre, as in many others, there subgenres that have that specific structure—and I refuse to write those books. I would never have signed on to do such a thing.
Then she told me that I did not follow my proposal. And unlike 75% of my traditionally published books, this time I had. So I knew she hadn’t read either the proposal or the book. I point-blank asked her, and she admitted that she hadn’t read either. She said that was what assistants were for.
That was when I hung up.
After crying for a while—no one can take that kind of personal attack without an emotional reaction—I drafted a letter to the publisher of the company. I cited everything the editor said in this and previous conversations, said I had concurrent notes so I wasn’t trusting a faulty memory, and then demanded to be released from my current contract.
Because I’ve been in publishing a long time, I did not do this angrily or stupidly. I told the publisher of this company that I would repay my advance and, on the book that was currently in production (not the one I had just turned in), I would repay all expenses the company had incurred to date.
Realize, I had just committed Dean and I to tens, if not a hundred, thousand dollars of expenses at that moment. We were in crisis ourselves, having financial issues because of the estate (long story, see the link above), and we were taking a huge gamble.
I say we, because of course, I had spoken to Dean before committing to this. I knew we could figure out how to make the financial side work–with a payment schedule, if need be. It was worthwhile to me to get out of the contract and leave this company immediately. Dean (fortunately) agreed.
In my letter to the publisher, I cited my credentials, my publishing history, and my business and financial history, so he knew who he was dealing with.
He knew this was not a bluff.
I also told him that his editor was not doing her job. She was having subordinates do much of the work for her, if not all of her work for her.
I sent the letter as an email and as a certified letter, then sat back to see what would happen next.
What happened was a prolonged negotiation with the vice president of the company, a much higher ranked person than the publisher I had initially addressed. I still had several books under contract, one in production, plus the one I had turned in, and three more to write. I was going to cancel the contracts on all of these and repay the advances.
He reminded me how expensive it was.
I told him that I would not work with a company that approved proposals and then turned down a book that followed the proposal to the letter. I also told him that I had been misled about the company’s focus. I had not realized that it expected me to follow rules of a subgenre I would never ever write in. I usually avoided companies and book lines that required such things, because that’s not how I write.
He assured me the company did not expect that. We went back and forth for some time, and came to an understanding. I would switch editors for the book in production and the book I had just turned in. I would have no contact with the first editor.
If I was still dissatisfied, we would part company before I started writing the next novel I had to finish for them.
The new editor was just fine. A gem, in fact.
The other editor—well, as you can tell from the beginning of this piece—she’s still with the company. She was demoted, and taken off the publicity circuit she had been on. She was no longer allowed to work through her assistants, but had to do the work herself.
As someone who has owned a business and who has dealt with writers for a long, long time, I understand why she wasn’t fired. Writers are socially inept creatures, and sometimes react weirdly to things. Dean and I have kicked several writers out of our workshops, mostly for behavioral issues (although at least two were kicked down the road for breaking the law while attending the workshop—and I don’t mean workshop law. I mean state and federal law).
In the absence of other complaints, I, as an employer, would not have fired this woman. I would have monitored her to see if she had done it again.
Which brings me back to that professional writers’ lunch a few weeks ago. I asked the writer who is on this listserve what the writers who were being abused by this woman had done.
He said they hadn’t done anything. They were signing up for more books and taking the nastiness—the you-can’t-write, you-are-worthless comments—and sucking it all up, trying to continue forward. And unsurprisingly, several were having trouble finishing novels.
I had to clarify: You mean no one has asked for a different editor? No one has withdrawn her book? No one has left the company?
He said that a few left when their contracts were up, but no, most of them just continued.
And that, my friends, is why this editor is still employed. I may not be the only one she’s hurt, but I am one of the few (if not the only one) who refused to be treated like this in a place of business.
If this were the case of a single editor, I wouldn’t write this blog. Here are a handful of examples that I’m personally familiar with:
•The acquiring editor for Writer A moved to another company. The new editor loathed the book she inherited. Instead of passing the book to another editor, she demanded rewrites—ten of them over three years. That ended when this new editor moved to another company, and yet another new editor came on board. The latest editor noted that Writer A had missed her deadline not only for the first book, but for the other three contracted (ignoring all the revisions the writer had done), canceled the contract and demanded the company be repaid in full.
•The company that Writer B, a #1 New York Times bestseller and a beloved name in the genre, had worked with for twenty years got bought out by another company, and in the mess that followed, Writer B got assigned a new editor. The new editor loathed the genre and thought Writer B was a has-been (even though her sales said otherwise). The new editor was unbelievably rude to Writer B. Writer B was reassigned to new editors twice. Each editor was in her twenties and fresh out of college. Neither of them treated Writer B with respect. Writer B finally decided to retire from writing, having enough money in the bank to live out her days without financial worry.
•Writer C, a brand-new writer, sold a trilogy for a mid-six figure advance. The vice president who bought the book assigned an editor to the project who was notorious for not working hard. That editor did not acknowledge receipt of Book One for a year, and finally handed out revisions after much pressure from Writer C’s powerful agent. Book One came out with a terrible cover, tiny print, and no promotion. The editor still hadn’t read Book Two or Book Three, even though they were on his desk. Finally, Powerful Agent demanded action. The vice president, citing the poor sales of Book One, canceled the contract and demanded repayment of the rest of the advance.
All of these things did not happen to just one writer. They’ve happened to many writers that I know of. I can site at least four examples for point one, a dozen for point two, and three in the past eight years for point three.
This kind of unsupervised behavior on the part of editors and the sales force in traditional publishing, this lack of respect for the people who actually supply the company and make it money, is common in the publishing industry.
And it doesn’t have to happen at all.
Writers do not stand up for themselves because they do not know how.
They also don’t stand up for themselves because they’re afraid they will be blacklisted. Never mind that it’s illegal for one publishing company to tell another company to blacklist a supplier, writers get threatened with that all the time.
Some writers now go around this ill treatment by publishing themselves. That’s all well and good until these writers run into something bad in their new business, and they still haven’t learned how to stand up for themselves.
There’s a good way to stand up for yourself and a bad way to do it.
The bad way? If I had called the publishing company in tears and told them that the editor had hurt my feelings. She had, but that was beside the point.
I couldn’t trust this woman to handle my books with the respect they deserved. If she spoke to me that way, how would she speak to the sales force about my books? How would she talk to the cover artist and the promotions department?
You need to think about these things. Such behavior is not an isolated incident. It happens all the time in many different industries. In publishing, when someone in charge of your book does not respect you or the book, it shows in the book’s treatment. I fired an agent of mine shortly after she told me her bestselling client wrote smut. It wasn’t literature, it was crap, but it sold, she said. And then she laughed.
She said that to me, another client, about a client who earned millions for the agency. Imagine how she talked to the client’s editor. Imagine how she talked about me.
Respect matters, and writers should demand it.
How do you demand respect? I hate to say this, but you need to earn it. Not just with good writing, and not by being a good girl and sucking it up when someone speaks badly to you.
But by knowing your business inside out, backwards, and upside down. Only then will you understand what options are available to you.
If you negotiate and/or complain from a position of ignorance, you will be ignored.
For example, on a contract negotiation for a publishing business I owned, a writer hired an intellectual property attorney to vet the publishing house’s contract. That step was good. But the writer did not get the attorney to explain the clauses that the attorney objected to.
The attorney, doing his/her job properly, suggested changing most of the contract’s clauses to benefit the writer. Sometimes, what benefits one party in a contract harms the other party. That’s when negotiation begins.
Had the attorney handled the negotiation, all would have been fine, but the writer did the negotiation with a company employee (not me and not anyone else in legal or upper management). On most points, the writer got what he/she wanted.
On one point, however, the publishing company would not budge. Why? Because the language the attorney had given the writer did this: it changed the legal language of the contract to put all of the liability of publishing the writer’s work on the company. In other words, if this writer had plagiarized someone else, the only one who would pay for that plagiarism was my company.
I am convinced the writer had no idea what the writer was asking for, and unfortunately, the company employee (who did not have a law degree) did not explain the problem clearly. The writing was not purchased. It happens. The writer stood up for his/herself, but not in an effective way.
Similarly, had I gone to the publisher of the company I mentioned above and demanded to be released from the contract and demanded that I could keep the advance and demanded that they had to swallow the money they had already spent on a book they had already sent out as advance reading copies, then the reaction I would have had from that vice president would have been very different.
I knew I was putting the company in a difficult position. I was willing to take a financial stake in what was going on, if they would just release me from the contract. That was the opening salvo of the negotiation. We went back and forth for a long time before coming up with something we could both live with.
I greatly respect that vice president. He did a fantastic job and, unlike the editor, was very respectful of me.
That’s what it comes down to, in my opinion.
Writers rarely get the respect they deserve, particularly in traditional publishing. Writers should get respect as a co-business partner. Instead, they’re treated worse than the new hire fresh out of college.
I must say though, as someone who has been at every desk in publishing except that of agent, most writers do not demand respect.
They act like the writers on that listserve and take whatever comes at them. Most writers, in fact, don’t know enough business to know what their options are.
They also don’t know when they’ve run into a bad publishing situation and when they’ve run up against standard business practices.
Standard business practices in traditional publishing are very bizarre by the standards of other industries. Very few industries treat their suppliers with such regular and careless disrespect.
But there is a difference between casual disregard and true abuse, which was what happened to me with that particular editor.
So…how does a writer stand up for herself?
1. She knows her business. I say this damn near once a month. Understand copyright law. It’s the foundation for your writing business. Buy the Copyright Handbook. Study it. Learn it. Make understanding all the nuances of copyright and trademark law one of your hobbies. Trust me, this is a lifelong process, since the law is constantly changing.
2. Understand contracts. Learn what you need to have in them to make them palatable for you. If you don’t understand a contract, then ask someone. If you think you understand a contract, make sure a trusted second reader with a legal eye looks at it. If you are in any kind of doubt, hire an intellectual property attorney and make him explain the contract to you clause by clause, implication by implication. Ask for the best case scenario if you sign that contract and, more importantly, the worst case.
3. Have an escape clause. Most contracts I signed in traditional publishing back in the pre-ebook days had an end date and/or a way to determine when that contract ended. This is changing in the modern publishing world—and that change does not benefit writers. Make sure anything you sign has a way out.
4. Make sure your publishing partner meets the terms of the contract. Most traditional publishers do not follow the terms of their own contracts. The royalty statements and payments often arrive months after the contractually mandated due date. In the old days, when those payments came through agents, it was impossible to know what was late and what was mismanagement on the agent’s part. Now, it’s pretty easy to figure out.
I’ve threatened dozens of times to cancel a publishing contract for late payment. I did it back in the old days so that I could get paid. Now I wish I had canceled some of those contracts, particularly with a company that refuses to revert the rights on one of my novels.
5. Be willing to walk away from a bad deal. Most writers think that because they have an offer, they have to take it. No, no, no, and no. That’s just the beginning. The contract needs to be signed by both parties before the deal is final.
6. Be willing to walk away at any point. Sometimes a relationship that seemed good turns bad. That’s why contracts should have termination clauses. Even if there isn’t one or a clear one, you can probably get out of the contract in one way or another.
7. When all else fails, negotiate a new deal for your release. Existing contracts can be amended and terminated, as long as both parties can come to an agreement.
8. STAND UP FOR YOURSELF. Seriously, people. Writers put up with things in their writing contracts and their writing business that they would never put up with in real life.
My philosophy has always been that the people around me treat me with respect. Yes, we can have heated arguments. Hell, we can even call each other names as long as we both know that underneath it all, we respect each other’s work and each other’s abilities.
I know that some people believe people who swear or use bad language are disrespectful. The most clean-spoken folks I know have been the most dirty business partners. They say one thing (very nicely) and then do another.
Look at the actions.
If the publisher promises but doesn’t deliver, why stay in business with that company?
Let’s look at the three examples above:
•In the rewriting instances (Writer A), at some point, the writers should have asked for a different editor. In their contracts, the writers should have had a maximum number of revisions specified, and if the book still wasn’t to the publishing house’s taste, then the writer and publisher could have parted ways without anyone repaying anything. Contract canceled.
•In the case of massive disrespect (Writer B), those writers should have gone up the food chain in the publishing house. In all of those cases, those writers were bringing millions of dollars to the company per year. You don’t think some vice president would notice that and solve the problem, like the vice president had done with me? Of course.
•In the case of Writer C (new writer), the writers should have asked for a new editor. If one wasn’t assigned, then again up the food chain the writer should have gone.
And note in all of these cases, I did not say that the writer should have the agent do it. Too many agents see themselves as partners with the publishers, not the writers, so the agents won’t do these things (even if they say they will).
I actually had one (so-called reputable) agent part ways with me because the publisher refused to negotiate a contract, so I didn’t take the deal. I wasn’t going to accept those terms. The agent told me I should, then when I didn’t, said that I would ruin his reputation. Um, no. It was my career and in theory, he worked for me.
That theory doesn’t work so much any more.
So rather than push someone else forward to defend you, do it yourself. First of all, you’ll feel better. Secondly, you’ll know it got done.
Look, folks. Your writing career is a career. And just as in your everyday life, if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will either.
Since this is a long post, I’ll be brief here.
I fund this blog through donations. If you learned something or gained something from today’s post—or from the overall weekly posts in general—please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: Stand Up For Yourself” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch