|Publisher Decisions and Boycott Fallout
||[Dec. 29th, 2016|06:27 pm]
So today the news came out that Simon and Schuster, a formerly independent major publisher now owned by CBS, has offered a $250,000 advance to Milo Yiannopoulos for his book on himself. This is not a person I admire. The thought of his getting a book contract doesn't please me, and the thought of his getting an advance so much higher than I've ever had (or likely will have unless inflation goes through the roof) disgusts me. I have already been told (by someone who thought I was published by S&S) that they would no longer buy my books because they're boycotting Simon and Schuster in response to this deal.
People are certainly free to do what they think is right, but since most people know damn all about publishing, I'm writing this to explain how boycotting all of S&S's books is unlikely to hurt either Simon & Schuster or Milo Yiannopoulos, but will definitely hurt a large number of writers who didn't make that decision, didn't know about that decision, couldn't have affected it if they'd known that decision, and cannot get out of the contracts they now hold with S&S without paying a large penalty.
Starting at the beginning. Writers do not "work for" publishers like S&S or my publisher, Penguin Random House. The contracts that writers sign are not employment contracts, but licensing contracts, in which the writer agrees to produce a given work (if, as in most cases, it's not finished when the contract is signed) by a certain date, and the publisher agrees to produce, publish, and distribute the work when it's turned in. If either party reneges on the agreement, penalties apply. Writers are typically given an advance against royalties (and if the book doesn't "earn out" that's all they get) but must write the kind of book the contract specifies, acceptable to the publisher, and by a certain date. If the contract is for a mystery, and the writer turns in a gay erotic fantasy...that's a breach of contract. If the book is due September 1, and the writer doesn't turn it in (or give a good explanatio for the lapse) that is also a breach of contract. The publisher may cancel the contract and demand repayment of the advance. The same is true if a writer is angry with the publisher (for any reason) and refuses to turn in the contracted work. Both sides signed a contract. If the disagreement goes far enough, the courts will enforce the letter of the contract (plus court costs) on the one who broke it.
Writers can certainly refuse to work with a given publisher (for any reason) before they sign a contract, but once that contract is signed, they're stuck with it. Since large publishers (in particular) are often part of even larger corporations these days (S&S and Penguin Random House are both owned by larger corporations, but not the same one) publishers have entire legal departments and win most (but not all) disputes with writers over contractual terms. Writers in general have little clout and make little money; they're not capable of fighting a big publisher (or many smaller ones) if they want out of a contract. Their ability to keep getting contracts depends on "the numbers"--and the numbers means sales in the first 2-4 weeks a book is out. If numbers aren't good enough, they won't get another contract, or the next one will be for less money. Like many other writers--most, I think--I have had ups and downs in income related to circumstances other than the actual book. (Note: I am not claiming that each one of my books was substantially better than the one before. But two of the best--as generally considered--did not do well in their first release period. )
Writers' careers have been ruined by anything that cuts into sales in the week their first or second book comes out--the start of a war, a terrorist attack, a drop in the stock market, or (in one case) Amazon.com getting in a feud with their publisher and refusing to fill orders for that publisher's books for a week or so. And the blame always fall on the writer: not the publisher, not the war, or terrorist attack, or stock market, or Amazon.com. This is true for the majority of writers, the exceptions being a few superstars (Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling) and a celebrity who is, at that moment, the hottest thing going even for those who don't usually read books.
The situation for midlist and newer writers is even more precarious. If your first book tanks, you're not going to get another offer from that (or most of the other major) publishers. If you are bobbing along in midlist with modest advances and any book tanks...you can be dropped. You can be dropped at any time that your numbers drop below what that publisher (or that publisher's parent company's number-crunchers) has decided is the red line. You may be making them a profit--but if they think newer writers will bring in a bit more, you're out. Lots of people want to be published; there's no shortage of writers trying to make it onto some publisher's list. As Neil Gaiman has so famously said (but this is a paraphrase) if you do good work, do it on time, and are reasonably pleasant to deal with, you'll make it. And two out of three are mostly enough. The mostly--which he didn't say--is that if your numbers drop and your tend to be late or tend to be unpleasant to deal with, you'll be dropped first. Writers have to be cooperative enough to work with, not against, their editors and the production team...and they have to turn things in on time...and the work has to sell, whether or not it's good.
Keep in mind that writers have zero influence on what other books their publisher chooses to publish--not even in the imprint in which they're published. (And S&S has many imprints, quite separate from each other. The children's book writers are a different clan from the mystery writers.) All of my publishers, over the years, have published books by people I liked and people I didn't like. I was liked by some of those writers, and disliked by others. None of us had input on who anyone in the company hierarchy wanted to publish. Only with small publishers can an individual writer blackball another writer or insist another writer be published. Nobody asks a writer "Should we sign up so-and-so? He's got a great social media platform." Nobody listens (except to put a check mark by "trouble" ) if a writer warns an editor or publisher about another writer.
So even if every S&S writer wanted to fly the coop when the deal was announced today, they could not do so if they were under contract. Legally could not. Probably also financially could not afford to return the advance. Writers are not, by and large, rich. If you're trying to stretch a $7500 advance to last a year, you sure can't pay it back in order to make a scene and walk out. It's already been spent.
So boycotting an entire publishing company will do the most damage to the freelance writers they publish. The damage will be financial, in lost income and the loss of future contracts when their books don't sell, and psychological--because writers like me, and 99% of the ones I know--commit to the books they write and put hours and sweat and struggle into them. Having that rejected for something that's not their fault--a decision they couldn't foresee, didn't make, couldn't change--is a blow that goes beyond the financial loss. Writers are responsible for what they write--but if they're published by S&S or Penguin Random House or many other publishers, they are not responsible for the choices made by the publisher...the paper, the binding, usually the cover design, the cover price, the choice of distribution...all that is out of their hands. They're also not responsible for their publisher's choice of writers.
If the boycott causes a publisher to lose income, then the publisher will simply drop the least profitable writers--set the red line higher--and lower advances and royalty rates for the writers above the line. They'll go right on, following the dictates of the larger corporation of which that publishing house is a part. They won't quit publishing disgusting people just because there was a boycott...they'll brag about their bravery and find the market for that book. (It's pretty obvious what the market for Yiannopoulos's book will be, and that they expect plenty of sales. If that book is a best-seller, and makes scads of money, while other divisions lag due to a boycott, what kinds of books will be increasingly published? Not what you like, but what made them the profit.) Yiannopoulos won't suffer, and the company won't suffer, but the many writers in the trenches will, and so will the publisher's editorial and production staff, also on the block during any belt-tightening. I have lost good editors from corporate "slimming." (Luckily, I have fallen into the clutches of one good editor after another, so though I hated losing the ones I lost, I have no complaints. Many others aren't so lucky.)
So what can the disgusted person who has bought that publishers' books before actually do, if you choose not to punish other writers by a general boycott of S&S? Several things. 1. Don't buy Yiannopoulos's book. 2. Complain directly to S&S and more importantly to its parent company, CBS. Boycott CBS shows and news, lowering their ratings, and make sure to let them know why. 3. Buy books from a different S&S imprint and boost those other imprints' numbers. There's a principle in psychology that positive reinforcement changes behavior more (faster, more thoroughly) than either negative reinforcement or punishment. As a parent, I agree. As a sometime amateur horse trainer I agree, too. So what is positive reinforcement to a publisher, and the publisher's parent company? Profit margin. Praise. Buy the books you like, praise them, tell the company you like them and would buy more if they'd only publish them. "It's too bad you're wasting money on that trash in X imprint, and can't publish as many good writers like A, B, C, D in Y imprint...please publish the kind of books I want and I'll buy them."
If you want to boycott S&S, I sure can't stop you, but I believe you need to know who you're really hurting and why they can't do what you think they should do (whatever that is.)
And as for me, I'm happy that it was S&S, and not Penguin Random House, who ended up with that creep.
(Comments will be allowed until they cross the line. Be polite, be factual, or be deleted and the party declared over.)