Business Musings: What Traditional Publishing Says It Does Best

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Last week, Steve Hamilton utterly destroyed his career—or would have, if it were 2005. Steve, a New York Times bestseller and two-time Edgar winner, pulled his novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason, from St. Martins Press less than two months before the book’s release.

Steve didn’t just pull the book; he canceled the entire four-book contract. His agent repaid the monies that St Martins had already paid on that contract.

Why would a writer do such a thing? According to the articles I saw, Hamilton claims that the book, which had received excellent pre-publication reviews, was getting no support from the publisher.

To be clear, I should add two things here as a former St. Martins author that might color my perspective:

  1. Like Steve, I got excellent prepublication reviews before all of my Smokey Dalton books were published, as well as promises of huge promotions on those books. The promotion never happened; the books were dumped. St. Martins is the company that sent me on a book tour and refused to supply books. So…
  2. In all things here, my sympathies and my experience lead me to believe Steve. You might see me as biased. Go ahead. Because I am. 🙂

What St Martins promised on the back of the galleys sent to reviewers and places like Publishers Weekly was this:

A 75,000 copy first printing, and a lot of national marketing, including a national author tour and a national ad campaign for the book.

But not even Publishers Weekly, an industry trade journal, was buying that. In an article about Hamilton’s parting with St Martins, Rachel Deahl of PW wrote, “It is an open secret in the publishing industry that claims made on galleys and other material for the trade–about everything from first printings to marketing budgets and efforts–can be gross exaggerations.”

In that article, Steve says he’s canceled the contract because of a lack of publisher support. Since he’s been with St Martins for 17 years, he knows what he’s talking about. He probably saw The Second Life of Nick Mason as his breakout book, and when the reviews came in, confirming it, and St Martins dropped the ball on its promises, he decided he’d had enough.

I don’t blame him.

In the past eight years, I’ve canceled two book contracts because publishers didn’t fulfill their promises. I felt relief both times.

But I had options, even before the changes in publishing. Steve had options as well. It looks like his agent had talked with other publishers before pulling the book from St. Martins. After the book’s rights were freed up, over 10 publishers bid on the book.

G.P. Putnam’s Sons (part of Penguin Group USA) won the bid for “substantially more than the near-seven figures Hamilton was to have received from St. Martin’s,” according to the AP report on the new sale.

The world has changed. Back in the day, no publisher would have bid on a book already in production, no matter what was going on. And no agent would have tried this, no matter how bad things got.

But Steve’s agent, Shane Salerno, is not a New York based agent. He’s an author himself, as well as a filmmaker, and screenwriter. He runs a company in Los Angeles called the Story Factory. He’s not playing by the old rules at all, which is good, because large corporate publishers aren’t either.

But let’s assume that Steve had done all of this without having other publishers in his back pocket. These days, he still had options. If no one had offered on the book, he could have published it himself.

If he handled it right, it would have sold better than it would have through St Martins, which has a lot of trouble selling most of its hardcovers to places other than libraries.

Books get canceled all the time. Often they get canceled because the writer fails to deliver. But sometimes there are other problems, as there were with me and my two publishers above. One of those publishers had assigned me the editor from hell. (Wait, that’s being unfair to editors from hell. She was and is a demon spawn, a hell native who makes hell hellish for anyone who is there. [yeah, you guessed it. I think she’s a terrible editor and an even worse person.]) I refused to work with her, and that ultimately led to the cancellation of the contract.

In the case of the demon spawn, I had a book in production, and I offered to pay the costs of production. The company’s vice president and I negotiated a deal in which I moved to a new editor while the book worked its way into print, even though I knew that guaranteed the book would be published “dead” (meaning no promotion). By that point, I didn’t care; I had a brand new pen name on the book, and therefore had very little invested in the name.

But…back in 2007, I canceled a St. Martins contract for the very reason Steve did. My agent and I had the contract negotiated, and St Martins changed the terms. I wanted some promotion guarantees in writing, and even though they were promised to me, those guarantees weren’t in the final version of the contract.

I canceled it. My agent at the time—a New York agent at a very big firm— then decided I was unworthy of representation because I wouldn’t go with a deal even though the final contract did not reflect the negotiations. (I keep copies of emails and all work product associated with negotiations, including concurrent phone logs.) So I lost both contract and agent—and I was happy to have that happen, because this was for my Kris Nelscott pen name, which did have a lot of time and investment behind it.

I thought I would have to sit on Kris Nelscott and the Smokey Dalton series for about five years before I could sell another book under that name, and if the indie revolution hadn’t happened, I would have.

But the revolution changed everything, and now I control all the rights to Smokey. We have a movie under option, more books in the works, and some side character novels underway. Because I walked away from a very bad deal.

So why did I say that Steve killed his career—or would have if it were 2005?

Because he pulled the book two months before publication. At that point, the traditional publisher has made a full investment in the book. Even if St Martins did not intend to keep up all of its promotional promises, it still put money into cover design, copy edits, proofing, galley mailing and so on. It might have bought ads in magazines (although given what Steve says, I’ll wager St Martins never spent an advertising dime on the book). It certain scheduled printing time, and may even have printed some copies of the book.

In addition to the monies paid to Steve, St Martins had probably invested $100,000 in actual costs and overhead on the book, if not more.

Pulling the book two months before publication guarantees that St Martins lost money on the deal. Other publishers know that. In this instance, they didn’t care.

But had it been 2005, they might have. And for this reason: Steve Hamilton is not a marquee bestseller, the kind of name that will allow a traditional publisher to take a risk even if the author is a flaming asshole. (Steve is not). And in the old days, the days before the indie publishing revolution, Steve Hamilton’s byline would have vanished.

Oh, he would have kept writing, and he probably would have had a frustrating few years. He might’ve tried to write under his own name, and except for the short fiction magazines, probably not sold anything. Then he would have moved to a pen name, and maybe used the cover of his agent to keep his real name out of the loop until the book was accepted (and maybe not even then).

That kind of secrecy revolving around a pen name happened all of time back then. I know of several writers whose real names are still hidden from their publishers because the writer did something to get blacklisted under that name.

And Steve would have been blacklisted, because of the fear that he would cost the publisher money.

Not to mention the fear of him.

Force the publisher to keep promises? Force the publisher to honor a contract? Horrors! Better to get some naïve young writer to write books than an old pro who knows what he’s doing.

Steve took a huge risk here to protect his art. And kudos to him. I wish him great success. I’m so very glad he stood his ground.

I’m also glad he’s speaking out about it. Initially, St Martins issued a snarky press release, making it sound like they threw him to the curb. Steve corrected that, and Publishers Weekly (among other places) picked up the story.

Once upon a time, a writer taking on a big publisher like that remained secret, partly so that the writer could sell another book. (Even then, the large publisher would often bad-mouth the writer in private to any other publisher who would listen.)

Times have changed. If you go to the PW link I’ve cited above, you’ll find a link chain of writer after writer after writer who has blogged about traditional publishings’ broken promises. You can find such things on my blog. You can find them aggregated on The Passive Voice blog.

It doesn’t take a lot of work to find a successful writer who has left her traditional publisher. Here’s my favorite post from the past week. It’s from Elizabeth Spann Craig, who was asked what it would take for her to return to her traditional (Big 5) publisher.

She wrote a long list of things that would have to be different and then added, “I’m still not sure I’d go for it.  I’m not sure exactly what I’d be using them for.  I’ve done all this stuff myself with better financial results.”

Yeah, me too. Dean’s asked me more than once what it would take for me to sell another novel into traditional publishing. (I sell other projects to traditional publishers—nonfiction, editing, short stories.)

If the novel contracts change, maybe, I would sell a novel to traditional publishing again. If I’m offered 7-figures and the contract change, and…

Probably not even then. As Elizabeth Spann Craig says, I’ve done all of this myself with better financial results.

Plus, as she says, I like the control.

Last week, it was amusing to watch poor Mike Shatzkin come to the realization that the publishing world he knew and loved is gone. I dealt with some of that in last week’s blog.

But Shatzkin still believes that traditional publishers bring added value, although he has trouble defining what that value is. He writes that traditional publishers have:

  • the capability to coordinate the many marketing activities that go into maximizing a book’s success in the marketplace, and;
  • the “brand” that tells retailers they should believe your hype and stock your book before they know for sure it will sell.

Sadly, neither of those things are true. In fact, I have some thoughts on why traditional publishing marketing exists the way it does and I hope to blog about that, while looking at the changes indies are bringing to the promotional marketplace.

But a publishing “brand”? Seriously? Have you bought a book in the past 5 years because G.P Putnam’s Sons or St Martins published it? Or because your favorite author just happened to be published by St Martins?

Shatzkin and his traditional publishing friends are still deluding themselves. Just like they delude themselves over one other thing:

They believe no “important” author has left traditional publishing to go entirely indie. By that, they mean a “big” bestseller like Stephen King or Nora Roberts. They conveniently ignore that J.K. Rowling has been a hybrid author for years, thanks to Pottermore.

They also don’t understand something: they’ve lost hundreds if not thousands of important writers (no quotes). People like Elizabeth Spann Craig and Barry Eisler and J.A. Konrath. Writers like the ones in the Storybundle that I curated this month. Every single book, by every one of those writers, is indie published.

We might not change stock reports for Big 5 companies on the strength of our book sales, but until recently, we were the very writers who provided the foundation that those big authors stood on. All those products that come out of traditional publishing were written by writers like us—bestsellers, yes, and reliable sellers, writers with a fan base, a growing audience, and readers who don’t care who publishes us, as long as we give them the books.

That’s what Shatzkin and St Martins and all the others forget: It’s not their brand that the readers buy. It’s the writer’s brand.

When G.P. Putnam’s Sons publishes The Second Life of Nick Mason in 2016, Steve’s readers will flock to the book. They won’t care that the book is not being published by St Martins (although they will be disappointed they won’t get a book in October). They will be pleased to get the next Steve Hamilton book when it releases a year from now.

Writers are the brand. We always have been. And because of that, traditional publishers are slowly beginning to realize that indie published writers are cutting into the bottom line. Mike Shatzkin admitted as much last week.

And as these opportunities grow for writers, as they have the freedom to publish their books without being blacklisted, then more and more authors will stand up like Steve Hamilton just did and say that the traditional publishers aren’t living up to their end of the bargain.

And then the writers will hold the traditional publishers accountable.

You have to understand the kind of courage that it took for someone who has spent over 20 years in traditional publishing to hire a lawyer and go to bat against a traditional publisher. Steve Hamilton showed that courage. He believes in his work.

He did a good thing.

Congrats, Steve. Well done.

Every now and then, the changes in publishing make my head spin—in a good way. This is one of them. It’s no longer necessary to keep your battles with your traditional publisher secret for fear of being blacklisted. How wonderful.

The fact that I can blog about these changes on a weekly basis also pleases me. I’m glad you folks follow along, and respond. The interactive nature of this blog keeps me learning, as well as helps all of us.

Thanks for all the comments, shares, and emails. Thanks too to the handful of folks who donate. You all keep me coming back to the nonfiction chair week after week.

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“Business Musings: What Traditional Publishing Says It Does Best,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / iqoncept

20 thoughts on “Business Musings: What Traditional Publishing Says It Does Best

  1. Oh, yes. This happened to me. I sold a series to a big five publisher for a mid five figures. For just one example of how they killed the book: they promised a book tour (even went so far as to confirm dates and travel options), national print ads, placement in bookstores, and ads in the big magazines. On my end, I did endless blog tours, give aways, twitter parties, facebook parties, contacted every person remotely associated with the topic to ask if we could sen them a book for reviews (it was fiction but based on a popular person in history) and generally worked my tail off…. only for the book to come out without even a TWEET from the publisher. When I asked them to tweet the release, they linked it to someone else’s book on Amazon (NO KIDDING). When I contacted my editor about it, she said that the tweeting usually fell to “junior staffers”. No apology. No “let me fix that ASAP”. I think the tweet is still there. It’s quite a monument to what a cluster-fudge/ sack o’ lying bastards traditional publishing can be.
    Happily indie, I make mid three figures a month on a new series I started last Fall. I’d be happy making a hundred bucks a month as long I didn’t have to deal with the utter idiots I’ve found in two large publishing houses with which I’ve been contracted.
    Hooray for options and hallelujah for giving the finger to black listing.
    P.S. I think I had your editor. Or her sister. Or her demon spawn mother. All I can figure is that she was so vastly miserable in her own life that she had to try and ruin mine. (And probably is even more miserable since she couldn’t.)

    1. Typo! I make a mid FOUR figures a month as an indie. Hahaha… $500 would still be better than working with my last publisher but I’m sure glad to pull in $5K, not $500.

  2. Smaller presses have a brand. I regularly buy Hard Case Crime novels (an imprint, sure), Library of America books, and Subterranean Press books from authors I have never heard of simply because they are appeared in those publishers catalogs…

  3. “What Traditional Publishing Says It Does Best”

    LOL. What Trad Pub says it does best v. what it really does best: screw the authors — in a plethora of various ways, not just on $$$.

    I bet St. Martins is pooping in its shorts at all the publicity this is garnering among writers. Or maybe not… 🙂

  4. As it happens, another St. Martin’s horror story that came out today, from best-seller to “published dead” in only three books. However, the first book in this series was published in 1980! Clearly, St. Martins has been doing this crap a LONG time. It seems unbelievable that this kind of behavior hasn’t been more widely known, or that people weren’t being warned away from SMP as a toxic publisher to deal with. I can only assume it was the power of that threat, the “career suicide” that would blackball whistle-blowers at all publishers. It’s going to be interesting to see if this is just a transitory event, or if the gloves are off, and people start lining up to tell their St. Martins stories…

  5. I feel great joy at this report although if I was Steve I wouldn’t be signing with Penguin: their sales reporting is merely an algorithm of actual sales. They are in the business of ripping off authors:- that’s why they bought Author Solutions – to harvest hopefull newbies.
    I’m glad I left Penguin and have my rights back. I’ll never know how many of my novels they really printed & sold.

  6. Saint Martin’s Press had better treat Amanda Hocking fairly, after this. Because the impact would be tremendous if one of the most prominent figures of self-publishing decided to take back her rights from SMP.

    Imagine the symbol…

  7. I was a St. Martin’s author for my first four books and while I actually loved the people I was working with, I have to say that I felt pretty neglected on the promotional front.

    A friend (published by another house) said to me at the time, “I get the feeling SMP just throws the spaghetti on the wall and hopes it sticks.” And one of the many agents I knew said, “I don’t get it with these people (meaning publishers in general). They go to all this trouble to acquire a client, then they forget all about him.”

    So, yes, I believe Hamilton. And I hope he gets better treatment at Putnam.

  8. I find it interesting, because SMP’s snide is costing them tons of bad publi. Once upon a time, people wouldn’t have noticed; if they had, they wouldn’t have spoken; had they spoken, it wouldn’t have been spread. Welcome to e-news and blogs. Establishments (publishing, political…) seem to have a hard time with that.

    That… ‘fear’ that tradpub will always have new blood to exploit? I’m not so sure. New blood can read blogs. I recall when SF had printed lists of markets and requirements (address, SASE, expected delay, any special manuscript guidelines…). Now, I’m sure tons of writers didn’t follow those rules (though I wonder if they were any good writing, since they couldn’t read), but those who did? These days they’re doing the equivalent, much faster, and finding terror stories about… say, St. Martin’s. I personally loathe Penguin, sadly.

    Take care.

  9. Good for him! I wish him great success and I hope more writers like him stand up to their publishers and hold them accountable. It’s a different world now and they have to see that. Writers have options now and one of them is being in complete control. I’m glad I chose the indie route to have that control. I don’t think right now I would have it any other way.

  10. In the law firm I worked for, the name partner published a nationally recognized ‘how to’ series on an area of law. Her editor at West, the publisher, was someone she called a ‘baby lawyer’ — straight out of law school. Once or twice a year, she flew to meet with her editor and go over the updates to her series. Keep in mind that she was a nationally recognized authority on this area of law, and he was a newbie. Still he had the temerity to insist on changes.

    They broke for lunch, usually at an impasse. What the baby lawyer did not know is that the publisher took this partner to lunch 1) because she — the publisher — liked her, 2) because she — the partner — was sure money for West, and 3) to find out if there were any issues. After lunch, editor got a call from publisher and things wrapped up quickly. As the partner said, it made for a short afternoon.

    The amazing thing is that it took two rounds of this with the editor before he got wise.

    BTW the publisher promised the partner that if the editor left, he would be replaced with another baby lawyer; that is, one that could be bent to the partner’s will.

    In practice, the contract — which is personal to the writer — was made personal to the editor. I have always wondered why the same is not true of BPH contracts.

  11. I believe Shatzkin has a point about brand in regard to selling to retailers. Readers don’t care about the publisher, but Barnes & Noble and other retailers do. But independent authors can develop a brand on their own, one big enough to give retailers a reason to trust and promote them.

    If publishers actually developed a brand readers cared about, it would be an asset. Harlequin has done it. Samhain, too, to a certain extent. But publishers became so big over the last few years, they became a melting pot. They don’t build their imprint brands or treat them any differently.

    1. Sandy, since I’ve gone indie, the online retailers carry my books, as do many indie bookstores, so I think that’s less of a concern and will become even less so in the future. But you’re right about Harlequin. They’ve definitely developed a brand that has been beneficial to authors. When I wrote for them under a pen name, my first book sold more than any of my other books (under my own name) at the time. Readers bought because it was a Harlequin book.

    2. Yes, the reader/retailer distinction is important for brands. Indy publishing succeeds only because it does an end run around traditional retailers. Without amazon/smashwords/weightless et al, Indy would be dead in the water.

      I would have to look really hard to find a single Indy published paper book in Barnes and Noble or any of my local independents. Ditto for finding these books at my local library. They aren’t ordered and they aren’t stocked. Fortunately that matters a lot less than it used to.

      1. Rusty, all of WMG’s paper books are in libraries all over the country, and have been nominated for awards through libraries, as well as been on the recommended lists. The paper books are in many independent stores, including Powell’s. A lot of self-pubbed writers are in traditional bookstores as well. I’ve blogged about this repeatedly. It’s a myth that indie and self-published books can’t get into the regular retail channels.

        Just like it’s a myth that all traditionally published books are on regular bookstore shelves and in libraries. There are hundreds of books published each month by traditional publishers that never reach either bookstores or libraries.

        But you are right about one thing: it matters less than it used to. People can get the books they want online. I’m a bookstore person, though, so I love having my books in stores.

        1. Kris, here’s an example of your books at the Brooklyn Public Library, one of the largest circulating popular libraries in the country:

          42 books you wrote or contributed to, all traditionally published, not one of your Indy books. 🙁

          Let’s try the New York Public Library. It lists about 50 books in paper you’ve written or contributed to in its catalog:

          Is Sourcebooks Indy or small press? I’m not sure. If it’s Indy, then NYPL has a couple of your Indy published books. Otherwise, none.

          The third library I frequent is the Orange County Public Library. This is a smaller system. They have seven of your books, all traditionally published:


          I didn’t recheck the results for Dean’s books, but they were similar when I looked for his books a few months back, quite a bit of his older traditionally published work, none of the more recent material from WMG. These are all for paper, by the way. eBook results are even more disappointing. 🙁

          I don’t doubt that some libraries buy some Indy books, but I doubt most of them spend anywhere near the fraction of their budget on Indy books that the actual popularity of these books in the marketplace would justify.

          (FYI, I’ve offered to buy specific books for my local libraries; but they really aren’t interested. They only want unrestricted cash they can use freely.)

          1. Not every book is in every library, Rusty, even traditionally published books. Libraries order through various companies and organizations, which differ by region. My books are in libraries throughout the West (Utah is especially good about ordering them), and in the Midwest. It doesn’t surprise me that the books aren’t in East Coast libraries. They have a different regional ordering system. Librarians curate, just like every other bookstore owner and place with limited space.

            Right now, WMG is working with a company to expand to other regional libraries. It takes time, but it can be done with indie books. That’s my point.

            There is no magic fairy dust that gets traditional books into libraries and bookstores. Just pathways that are open to anyone willing to jump through the hoops–as we are.

            1. My local libraries have ways for you to contact them with recommendations for new purchases and I have used these links to make recommendations that have subsequently been purchased. I would assume that most libraries have similar links.

              I have also made recommendations via overdrive for e-book purchases that in my case are offered to libraries statewide. Some of my recommendations here have also been purchased.

              Unfortunately I have found that not all available e-books can be recommended on overdrive, at least without some delay after availability. For example, of the Anniversary Day saga only the first novel is listed there in Kindle Book format as a possible recommendation. I don’t know the reason for this, but it is annoying.


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