How many of you remember the movie Prizzi’s Honor? It came out in the mid-1980s and starred Jack Nicholson as a mob hitman who allows his personal life to get in the way of his professional responsibilities. Throughout the movie, his character, Charley, is reminded by higher-ups in the syndicate that he shouldn’t take personally all the things they’re telling him to do, even though one of his assigned tasks is to murder his new bride. “It’s business, Charley,” they tell him. “It’s just business.”
Yes, there is a point to this.
My post last week, in which I discussed the sale of a new series to Baen books, prompted an interesting question from long-time Magical Words reader and commenter, Mark Wise. Mark, who has followed my career for quite some time and knows that every book I’ve published to this point has been with Tor, wrote, “I find it interesting you chose to go with Baen rather than Tor. Does that affect your relationship with Tor at all? Is there a publishing house loyalty expected of writers?” I answered his question at the time, but wanted to address the issues he raised in greater detail, because I think they are instructive for those who are still trying to break into traditional publishing.
Publishing is an odd business. Those of us who write for a living pour our emotions and experiences into our work, even when the pieces we’re writing are not even remotely autobiographical. We work closely with our editors (as well as our agents), and many of us come to be identified with a specific publisher, as I have been with Tor Books. It seems as though there should be a personal bond between writer and editor, and writer and publisher. And I suppose on some level there is. I have loved writing for Tor, and would like to continue that relationship. I hope that after the fourth Thieftaker book is published in 2015, Tor and I will sign a new contract for more Thieftaker novels, or perhaps for some other series. And, as I noted in last week’s post, Tor did make an offer on this new contemporary urban fantasy that I will be writing for Baen.
And this is where the relationship gets tricky. I think a case can be made that, since Tor gave me my start and has published all of my books, and since they have generally done a pretty good job of promoting me and building my career, I owed it to them to take their offer, even if it was not as good an offer as Baen’s. Those arguing the case would point out that, historically speaking, publishing has been a personal business (an oxymoron if ever there was one). Years ago (this could be an entry in Mindy’s wonderful “Then and Now” series) authors often stayed with a single publisher for their entire careers, just as baseball players often stayed with a single team.
Times have changed.
In the nearly 17 years since my first book was published I have seen the following: Mass firings of editors by publishing houses; trilogies and longer series cancelled in the middle of publication, so that the final book or books never see light of day; bestselling authors who are two or three books removed from that bestselling status denied new contracts and forced to take up pseudonyms in order to continue their careers; critically acclaimed authors — award-winners — denied contracts because their sales are not good enough; award-winning editors fired because the publishers wish to take the imprint in a new direction; beloved authors who once received six-figure and high five-figure advances now forced to accept fractions of those amounts in order to keep writing. I could go on, but you get the point. And let me be clear: As much as I find it disheartening to read about publishers taking steps like these, I also understand that, from their perspective, these are rational business decisions. They’re not being mean; they’re trying to maximize their profits.
The business landscape is not what it once was. Publishers used to be independent companies that prided themselves on being different from the companies that made toothpaste or cars or refrigerators. They could run on a smaller profit margin, and so take care of their authors. They could be patient with young writers; they could build careers.
Today, publishers are owned by huge multinational conglomerates, and those to whom publishers answer are concerned almost exclusively with the bottom line. If a writer doesn’t sell right off the bat, he or she can be replaced with a new writer. Yes, there are more options for authors — traditional publishing is no longer the only way to go. But there are also more authors than ever before, more books being published. It is harder than ever to get ourselves noticed. And so even with those other options, making a viable living as an author has never been more difficult.
My point is this: With all that I have seen, with all that I know about how publishing works today, I understand that Tor might very well drop me after the final (in current contractual terms) Thieftaker book comes out. Sales of the books have been good but not spectacular, and Tor might well decide that they can find another series to put in my slot that will earn them more money.
And I say this as someone who has a really good relationship with Tor. I have always hit my deadlines. I am friendly and respectful when I deal not only with my editors, but also with the art department, with my publicist and others in marketing, with the folks in the royalty department, etc. Earlier this year, my long-time editor at Tor left, and I needed to be reassigned to someone new. Word came to Lucienne and me that “David has a great reputation in-house. He’s known as someone who is savvy and professional. He’ll have no trouble finding someone new to take on his books.” And that proved to be the case. So as far as personal relationships with Tor go, mine is good. Better than good, really. (For more on this, please see the other post I have up today on a writer’s professional comportment.)
Despite this good relationship with Tor, in the long term, from a career perspective, it doesn’t mean a thing. If the Thieftaker numbers improve a bit, Tor will want me to write more books for them. If the numbers tank, they won’t. Period.
And so, when weighing my choices for the Weremyste Cycle (the series I’ll be writing for Baen) I took into account a lot of different issues. I wanted a decent advance, of course. But I also wanted a favorable accounting structure, good royalty rate schedules, generous sub-rights arrangements, and other contractual considerations. I wanted to feel that I could work with my editor (and I know that I could have worked equally well with the folks at both houses). And, I will admit, that I liked the idea of being with two different publishers. If the arrangement with one house doesn’t work out, I still have a relationship with another. I have long aspired to write for two different publishers simultaneously, and finally I can do that.
I remain fond of all the great people at Tor. I am grateful to Tom Doherty for giving me my start in the business, and I hope to write more books for Tor. But I am a businessman, and I made a business decision. Just as Tor will the next time they consider a book proposal from me. Sure, they might be a bit more willing to consider my proposal based upon the fact that I hit my deadlines and treat people respectfully, but even that is a business decision. And let’s be clear: If my sales are not good enough, or my book proposal is not compelling, they will not give me a contract simply because they like me. By the same logic, I cannot sign a contract that is less favorable to me simply because I’ve written my previous books for Tor. That’s not the way publishing works; not any more.
It’s business, Charley. It’s just business.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com