For both profound and pathetic reasons, no matter what rank someone holds in the publishing industry, it’s tough to escape stupidity. Most of us writers and editors try to abide by at least a modicum of civility. Lamentably, that courtesy is not extended by all players.
On the one hand, there are gatekeepers who have a high regard for themselves, but not for anyone else. On the other hand, there are writers who believe that all of the goodness inherent in contemporary literature would have departed this life if not for their arrival.
This post deals with the first of these forms of folly. The next post will remark on the second.
The faction of book manufacturers that attempts to employ despicable behavior, regrettably, over and over again, succeeds. Their comportment, in general, is immoral; more specifically, they are shameless about taking advantage of writers.
Their noxiousness can be explained in many ways. For this post, let’s use the lens that Liz Ryan supplies in her Forbes article, “Ten Things You’ll Hear in a Toxic Workplace.”1 Ryan’s commentary parsimoniously illuminates ghastly managerial practices, not the least of which are exhibited by corrupt editors and publishers.
To begin with, Ryan points out the ills of lazy executives; she clarifies that their attitude of “‘this is how we've always done it’ means ‘nobody here wants to expend one calorie or brain cell thinking if we don't have to.’” For a writer, that brashness causes book covers to be adorned with stock illustrations, and causes conversations, about broker’s insistence on heuristics for platform development, to falter. In short, sometimes, the folk in charge are not interested in fixes or even in dialogues about them.
In my circumstances, with one promoter, I had to argue about the proper use of present perfect tense. With another, I had to sort out the business of the California comma. In the end, those prime movers conceded – simply to shut me up. Ever an academic, I am sensitive to the correct use of conventions. I just wish that all of the individuals who print and distribute books would be thoughtful, too.
Second, Ryan mentions power plays. She talks of bosses who spout “that's not your decision to make.” Sadly, in the publishing world, some pen pushers would rather take up the baton for the entirety of a book’s production than delegate any of the responsibilities integral to creating a book,
Sometimes, the single sane response to such arrangements is to walk away from a proffered contract. Heads that bypass industry standards for layout, pagination, or typography, to maintain control, usually deliver crummy products. We authors might be “no more than” writers, nonetheless, our names are our brands. Consequently, every one of our products needs to be professionally cast. I’ve walked away from contracts with publishers revealed to be dunderheads and have never been sorry for doing so.
Third, Ryan mentions personal agendas. Beyond being disinterested in product merit, some people who prepare and issue books purposefully disregard norms. Those persons tend to be unconcerned with, or uneducated about: readability indexes, nuance’s role in description, and many factors that add to or subtract from books’ excellence.
Those irresponsible promulgators readily ship “saleable” works full of plot holes or underdeveloped characters, and react, when called out about their choices, by claiming that “‘if [they] can't measure it, [they] can't manage it,’ mean[ing that they won’t talk over what they] can’t perceive, value, or work.’” Note: in such cases, problems with plot and characters are the publishers’ doing. Videlicet, books get chopped up and recanted by those unscrupulous officials purely so they can make a profit.
Personally, I’ve gone head to head with would-be expediters who insisted money matters most. In almost all of those cases, one or both of us asked to be excused from our agreements.
Fourth, a minority of book facilitators expect praise and servility merely because they offer contracts. Ryan shows that those managers infamously spew, “don't ask questions -- just do your job.” Such individuals are “threatened by new ideas and [by] people with powers of observation and insight.” In other words, those publishers, for indefensible reasons, get hung up on things like promotional bells and whistles, or try to eliminate characters during the checking of galley proofs, i.e. during a fairly late stage of production.
I’ve had publishers who wanted me to sanction shoddy editing jobs or to acquiesce to extratopical covers so that they could get a product to market quickly. When I objected, those crooks tried to silence me by mentioning their “magnanimity” in granting me a book contract, rather than work with me on resolving our problems. On some occasions, I was anyway able to establish communication. On other occasions, the book never got printed. Gatekeeper foolishness aside, it’s a terrible idea for writers to approve slapdash merchandise.
Fifth, some intermediaries between writers and readers make issues personal rather than professional. Ryne regards such higher-ups as conveying, “I don't care, and I'm not going to get involved.” In such states of affairs, senior editors remove themselves from culpability for their underlings’ contributions.
For one of my books, I had to serve as my own grammar hammer to put right the wreckage wrought by a “proofreader.” Another time, I had to point out each instance of widows and orphans, i.e. of dangling words and lines, left behind by a sloppy typesetter. In both of those states of play, it took a lot of effort for me to make the business persons, who were initialing my books’ releases, care enough to sort out the glitches.
A sixth flavor of ineptitude that Ryan mentions is found when managers’ cry, “that's not our policy … fearful people will always choose to rely on a policy than to consider a situation in context, [for the reason that consideration] takes more time, effort and insight [than abiding by ‘rules’].’” This sort of interpolation is used by publishers to excuse their own incompetence.
A commissioner of one of my books was targeting an American audience, but was insisting on South African idioms and spelling. In another setup, an administrator objected to my having more than one run through a book’s galley proofs, even though my first look at the book’s final state led me to producing a forty page list of discovered errors. Stonewalling, by publishers, can be vexing. What’s more, it’s not always possible to continue to collaborate with shutdown business partner.
Seventh, as Ryan astutely posits, some project supervisors insist that writers ought not “‘question the way [they] do things’ mean[ing the publishers’] fragile ego[s] cannot handle being questioned by a subordinate.’” This flawed response to writers, who want to discuss their manuscripts’ development, is at times, exacerbated by publishers, who, instead of participating in dialectic, flaunt the number of unique titles that they circulated in a given fiscal year.
When I’ve confronted this species of beast, I’ve politely and firmly pointed out the makeup of production problems, while insisting that they get addressed. Sometimes this tactic worked. Other times, my books were launched, in less than ideal form, without my endorsement.
Eighth, Ryan refers to horrendous powerbrokers who inform their subordinates that, “‘if you don't like the job, we'll find someone who will,’ mean[ing] ‘I am not above threatening you outright if it will preserve my shaky sense of self.’” It’s easy for book issuers to act this way since there are many more wannabe authors than there are publishers willing to back books.
Fortunately, Internet sites exist, such as Absolute Write Water Cooler, or existed, such as Preditors [sic] and Editors, that name industry bullies. Nevertheless, many emerging writers remain ignorant of these and similar resources. Thus, publishing aggressors have become, to the literary sphere, what casting couch leeches have long been to Hollywood.
B’ayin tova, I’ve been blessed to avoid such criminals. Sadly, not all writers have.
Ryan’s ninth contention about managerial improprieties is an extension of her eighth assertion. Some chiefs, she says, resort to threats. They say; “‘you should be glad you have a [contract],’ mean[ing] ‘I can dismiss you at any time. Be sure to remember my power over you.’” Experienced authors know that worthy products find homes regardless of the number or variety of hissy fits would-be producers have thrown at them. Inexperienced writers, though, time and again, get browbeaten by publishers’ tantrums.
When I had only one listed book to my name, I, too, nearly and mistakenly, almost signed with a “hybrid” press, which was actually a poorly disguised vanity operation. Providentially, I realized that if it smells like fish, it probably lives in the sea. Upon discovering the press’ true identity, I rebuked its overly enthusiastic issuer, i.e., I deconstructed my contract clause by clause. Having been a rhetoric professor, it pleased me to be able to analyze, interpret, evaluate, and then report on his arrogance. Hubby says I wasted my time since the publisher ensnared other writers after we parted ways and since, shortly thereafter, multiple presses offered me contracts for the same product. Remember: snakes, like fish, swim.
Finally, Ryan makes known that some managers stoop to claiming, “it's work -- it's not supposed to be fun.’” She sees this statement and its kin as “the worst business lie of all because of course work must be fun if it's going to produce anything worth selling.” Writers must grasp that there’s little point in smiling while being assaulted, especially if an attack sullies their reputation. Namely, if it’s not at all fun, skip it. If it’s traumatizing, skip it and then send in the authorities.
Like many other creatives, I work hard, but I do so because I enjoy writing. My earnings, while sincerely needed and appreciated, are not my bottom line. Some promoters, with whom I’ve considered working, can’t understand why any author wouldn’t make fame and fortune their priority. To wit, I join forces with well thought-of presses with varying revenue histories rather than partner with lucrative, untrustworthy ones.
In sum, most publishers are hardworking, honest folk. In spite of that fact, there exist a significant number of them that are disreputable. It behooves writers to anticipate and to avoid those serpents. As a starting place, new writers can reflect on collected warnings such as Liz Ryan’s “Ten Things You’ll Hear in a Toxic Workplace” to help them identify and sidestep exploitation. It’s worth a writer’s professional name and their overall sanity to do so.
On balance, as the next post will bring to light, there are more writers than gatekeepers who act in ethically doubtful ways. As an editor, I’ve encountered many of them.
1. Liz Ryan. “Ten Things You’ll Hear in a Toxic Workplace.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2017/05/12/ten-things-youll-hear-in-a-toxic-workplace/2/#6345e8597abc