Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is...

First, a little housekeeping! I did misread the calendar. Yesterday was the feast of St. Cyril...last Thursday was the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. Think the man ever dreamed so many people would know his name every March? (hee hee) Can't imagine how I made such an egregious mistake, since my day gig is all about making sure to AVOID egregious mistakes. (I just love that word "egregious.") But, onward and upward. Was having an interesting conversation this week about publishers' interests versus authors' interests--and why in the world they have to be "versus" in the first place--when the notion once again reared its ugly head that publishers have all the control, authors have none, and that's why things sometimes turn into the messes they do. But is that truly the case? I submit not. Or at least, I submit that it doesn't have to be. But it can only change if we're willing to stop being so danged scared of our own shadows. For years, I've seen authors--both the unpublished and the already-published--walk around on eggshells, afraid of the slightest thing. They're afraid to ask an agent for a status report after six months without a word. They're afraid to ask an editor for a status report after a year (!). They're afraid to ask for changes in a contract. They're afraid to ask that a royalty statement be printed in English. They're afraid to say anything that might be misinterpreted in an e-mail, in an elevator, or even in the privacy of a conversation among friends. But most of all, they're afraid to be honest about a lot of personal experiences...when honesty might actually help a lot of people in the long run (including themselves). But honesty sometimes means that what you say could sound negative to someone, some time, in some instance. So, no matter how true it is, they hold back. Why? Because someone, some time, might overhear it, get offended, the next thing they know, they'll be "blacklisted" forever in the writing business. All that anxiety, and all so unnecessary. Some years ago, a prominent male author was in a public interview situation (a press conference? book signing? whatever) where news had just broken that he'd left one publisher to sign his next book with another. In the process of talking about why he'd left, he simply said outright that one publisher gave him a better deal than the other one. He hadn't felt that the first one was ready to go to the mat quite as strongly with his second book as his new publisher would. They'd offered more money, they'd offered him a better marketing plan, etc., etc., etc. The reaction from most of the marketplace? "You go, guy." The reaction from RWA? "OHMYGOD!" Rampant horror. Rampant dissing of the man involved, indignation that he would act so "unprofessionally," etc. Did the publishers care? Heck, no. They smiled, went about their business, and life went on. Now why the disconnect? It sounds sexist to say so, but I suspect it's because RWA is predominantly made up of females. And for some reason, the female mind seems to prize "niceness" above all else in the world--even in business. Males, as we all know if we live with them, put "niceness" way down the list of things to even think about, much less worry about, especially in the marketplace. (!) A man's world is dog-eat-dog, may-the-best-man-win, and if you don't like what I say about you...oh, well. Maybe you'll learn from it and do better by your next customer. Which is nothing more nor less than a) perfectly good business sense, and b) the way the free market operates. You treat me well, I'll stay with you. Someone else comes along who's prepared to treat me better...well, you just may lose me as a client. C'est la vie. No one holds a grudge against you if you take your business to Dominick's instead of Kroger's when Dominick's gives you a better deal. You can even go back to Kroger's when they have a sale, and the checkers will happily wait on you. They may even smile at you. In any event, they sure won't "blacklist" you or "blackball" you or consider you "less than a reliable businessperson" for shopping around to get the best deal for yourself. They'll be happy they provide the best deal, and they'll leave it at that. So why is the writing world, in so many circles, considered so different? "Publishing is a small world," is usually the answer that comes back. "It's a small community. You do something nasty to someone in it, and word will get around, and you'll appear less attractive to everyone else in it. And THEY'RE ALWAYS LISTENING!!!!!" (Note: in the real world, that last sentence is considered a treatable mental illness. 'Nuff said.) I can understand if you actually do nasty things, how they'll come around to get you. Even men will waste no mercy on someone who (pardon my French) screws 'em over. But a good healthy attitude of do-unto-others gets out of control when we start defining "nasty" as including everything that has the remotest possibility of offending someone, somewhere. --like asking a clueless question at a writers' conference. (Hello? Aren't writers' conferences supposed to be for learning? So how do we do that if we don't ask?) --like failing to "dress for success" when it's called for. (Like anyone really knows what that is, or when the instances are. But heaven help you if you actually think that blue jeans can be professional attire, anywhere, at any time.) --like (horror of horrors) daring to say out loud that Suzy Millionseller's latest book was less than stellar, and that you didn't much care for her previous two, either. --like (double horror) saying that the romance genre--or any genre of which you're a part--doesn't always hit a home run. That some books out there are just plain stupid. That some of them are pornographic, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word that we all "know when we see." And that, far from "empowering" women, many of these books set up women to believe that if they just play their physical card effectively enough, they'll "tame" an alpha man and make him their slave. (Yeah, right. Now there's a healthy basis for happy-ever-after.) --or, like (worst horror of all) daring to say out loud that one publisher was willing to pay you more than another, and so--nothing personal--you're jumping ship. Or that Mr. High Powered Agent may be high powered for some people, but he didn't do right by you. Or that you sure wish those royalty statements you get from Major Market Bow Down and Thank Your Lucky Stars Publisher were actually written in a language normal human beings could understand...so you could know for sure if they were really paying you what they're supposed to be paying you. Yes, there will always be stupid people out there in publishing, just like there are stupid people out there in all the other occupations we inhabit. And rude people. And snotty people. And people who walk all over someone else to get to where they're going. Those people deserve whatever they get. The majority of us, however, are not stupid, rude, cruel, snotty, or manipulative. Yet we can be made to feel any of those, or a combination of them, if we start speaking out too loud, too publicly, or too impolitely...by standards that would dismiss most churchwomen as impolite. And that's insanity. The reason authors have no control, quite simply, is because they take none. Because they're convinced it's somehow not "nice" to take the power. Or to ask someone else about it. Or to spread the word when they don't get treated well. I can tell you from this side of the desk, trust me...if you're good enough, and a publisher wants your work, you can ask for a lot of things, and you just might get them. Go for it. See what happens. And off the record, every editor I've ever talked with will tell you the same thing. But I don't know more than a handful of authors who truly believe it. Just as one example--we in romance celebrate that now, authors don't "have to" use a pseudonym at the big houses. Isn't that wonderful? Hardly. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for not insisting upon it years ago--not celebrating when the publishers were finally "gracious" enough to give us what was ours to begin with. And the fact is, certain authors did always have that right...because they were willing to walk away if it wasn't given to them. In short? Abusive boilerplate contracts, bad royalty statements, sloppy bookkeeping, lack of promotion, or broken promises happen because no one says, "No, I'm sorry, that's not good enough." Or even "Wait a minute." It's because so many of us are so desperate to see our names on the cover of a book...we'll sell out for the proverbial "$1.49 and a kitten." And keep our mouths shut about the rest of it. But that's not just dumb; that's perpetuating a standard of behavior that would be considered bad business behavior in pretty much any other industry, among pretty much any other people. One of the few authors I've ever heard of who had the courage to say "No, thank you, that's simply not enough money," and hung up the phone, not only didn't get blackballed--she got Zebra calling her back in less than three minutes with a better offer. On a first-time contract. Without an agent. It can be done. It has been done. But when someone does it, we write it off as an "exception." As "luck." Or, worse, we react with horror instead of admiration. We diss the author in question, instead of taking a page from his or her book and being unwilling to give up the power we do have--which is the power of having a product that, like it or not, publishers need. If we all said "No" tomorrow, we'd all get better deals the day after tomorrow...because they've got to have product to survive. Yes, we need them to sell it. But they also need us to create it. So what are we so afraid of? Fear is a lousy reason to do anything, especially in our writing careers. Let's screw up our courage, determine what we need and what we're willing to sacrifice, and then stick to our guns. And let's encourage other people to do the same. Who knows? If they're really "always listening," maybe they'll catch on fast! Thoughts? Janny

4 comments:

Deb said...

I don't think you're gonna rid us women of the "nice" gene anytime soon. We may (or may not) be wired that way. Or, it may be nurture, early "if you can't say something nice..." injunctions by Mom. Can't Mom be blamed for practically everything? I believe so. Just ask my daughters.

Now, that said: you may be able to exert power in certain situations. I'm looking at one myself, in that I may have a book in progress that I can say "no advance, no deal" with. I'm certainly willing to give it a try.

T2

Janny said...

I've always maintained that it's not being "nice" that's the problem; it's an overly expansive (or restrictive, depending on how you look at it) view of what "nice" is. Being assertive, appreciating one's own worth, and being willing to say "No, you don't mistreat me. No, you don't restrict my ability to get information. No, you need to put your money where your mouth is, and no, I'm not going to assume all the blame if or when things go wrong"...none of that is not being "nice."

Unfortunately, all of that nowadays is subject to censure under the guise of somehow not being "polite" or "professional." Or at least it is, as long as we allow ourselves to be bullied...

So take little steps. One tiny step for each writer equals a lot of big steps, eventually, for all of us.

T1

The Koala Bear Writer said...

Good thoughts. I think the biggest problem is that there are more authors than publishers, so the publishers hold a trump card that all of us authors are dying to have. Which sometimes mean we'll settle for whatever we can get, just to get it. If we've worked ten years to get a contract and get offered a lousy contract, well, it seems better than no contract. You're right, however, that that has to start changing. We deserve better and won't get it unless we demand better. Of course, there are those out there who are demanding and not deserving, but the majority of authors aren't like that. :)

Donna Alice said...

It's true I've often believed publishers hold all the cards---but look at the authors who have the million dollar books --bet they can call their own contracts.
Maybe we need to believe more in ourselves and be less afraid of waiting for the "little gold stars" of the publishers to reward us for good behavior.