“It’s Just Business”: Loyalty Versus Pragmatism in the Publishing World


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

17 comments to “It’s Just Business”: Loyalty Versus Pragmatism in the Publishing World

  • […] Misty Massey, John Hartness, and Mindy Klasky.  Today’s Magical Words post is called, “‘It’s Just Business’: Loyalty Versus Pragmatism in the Publishing World,&#8… and it is about the various factors that go into a writer’s career decisions.  You can find […]

  • sagablessed

    Yup. You have to balance loyalty with a living.
    Good post, and a very honest one.

  • […] Misty Massey, John Hartness, and Mindy Klasky.  Today’s Magical Words post is called, “‘It’s Just Business’: Loyalty Versus Pragmatism in the Publishing World,&#8… and it is about the various factors that go into a writer’s career decisions.  You can find […]

  • Ken

    Seconded. Thanks for posting this, David. It’s easy to fall into the mindset (Especially when you’re trying to break in) that you “Owe” something (outside of professional behavior…that goes without saying) to the house that gave you your first big break and that every book you ever write will be with “House X” because they’re the ones that started it all.

    Writing is a pretty emotional task and it needs to be said that there’s also a not-so-emotional part of the business. I certainly need to be reminded of that.

    Now to pull a complete 180 because I didn’t see it mentioned: Is there a risk of someone being considered “Flighty” if they move from house to house to house in pursuit of the best deals (Heavens grant that we all have multiple houses offering on all of our books :))?

  • Thanks, Donald.

    Ken, that’s an interesting question, and one I’m not sure how to answer. On the one hand, I do know that an author who switches agents more than once or twice can get a reputation for being difficult in a hard-to-work-with sort of way. But switching houses too often? As far as I can tell, there does not seem to be a stigma attached to that. I have a couple of friends who have moved around quite a bit (one in particular comes to mind, though I’m going to keep the name to myself). I have books from this author that are published by three different houses, and I’m not sure there isn’t a fourth somewhere in the backlist. And this author has a (well-deserved) sterling reputation when it comes to being pleasant and easy-going. That’s just anecdotal evidence, of course. But I haven’t heard of this being an issue. Thanks for the comment and the question. Interesting stuff.

  • This is a great post–esp. the “it’s just business.” It’s a great counter to the thing I hear a lot from writers trying to break in to the business, which is “it’s all cliquey–it’s all who you know…” and I’m finding that’s not true and a little bit true. I’ve gotten involved in projects because of connections I’ve made (the Big Bad being a shining example), but I’ve also had stuff published out of the slush piles, when I was completely unknown to the staff. So, the truth is that it *is* just business, and no matter how many folks you know, or don’t know, it’s the quality of work that does it, and expecting to remain loyal for some other reason that business isn’t, well, a good business decision. So I guess the lesson is don’t worry so much about having to shoot your wife that you end up almost being killed by your broken hearted, mob-boss-daughter ex. Or something.

  • Razziecat

    One of the things I like best about this site is that you guys don’t sugar-coat things. You give us the reality of the writing/publishing world. When I was much, much younger (sigh), I thought writing was all (and only) about inspiration, and that publishers had the same vision that the author did. And while those things may be partly true, it’s not the only aspect to the business–because it IS business. It might not be as exciting as the actual writing part ;D, but anyone who wants to be published, and published successfully, at least needs to know this stuff so they can make the best possible decision about their career. So thanks for being so open about your decisions re: Tor and Baen. 😀

  • So, here’s a bottom line question. Are you saying the industry (including agents and publishers) are only interested in publishing writers whose current entry has “big sales” written all over it, or are there still people out there who are looking for excellent writing no matter the current trend? In other words, do I need to put vampires into my current project in order to have hopes of being traditionally published?

  • “I am a businessman” pretty much says it all.

  • Emily, thank you. As you say, those who say that personal connections help are not necessarily wrong. Just as knowing someone in the car business can get you a few hundred bucks off the sticker price, knowing someone in publishing can get you involved with a project that might otherwise not be available to you. But just as that car won’t be free, any personal connections in the publishing biz will only get you so far. And from that point on, the realities set in — it’s a business, and you have to treat it as such. And yeah, I think that drawing lessons from Prizzi’s Honor only works to a point . . .

    Razz, I do think that the people who are most closely involved in the publishing business do love books and share with authors a deep passion for the written word. And that includes folks like Tom Doherty and the late Jim Baen, who can/could also be hard-nosed businessmen. But, and this is big, today those guys and people like them answer to the heads of even larger corporate structures who might not care less about books, but who are obsessed with profits. Thanks for the comment.

    Dave, yes, that is the basic reality at the core of everything else.

  • Thank you for taking the time to answer my question so thoroughly, David. I am both glad and sad at your answer. As a writer I would like to think that my contributions to a publisher meant something on a friendly level so that a long term relationship could be seen. It is as you say, however, just business. I guess in a positive light, it empowers the writers to go out and find the most favorable terms for their projects without looking back. You used it to your advantage just like hundreds/thousands of other writers have as well. This can be a great tool from a negotiating stand point.

    I guess I am just a romantic at heart. hehehe

  • I’m with Razzie. This stuff is really useful to know, and I really appreciate that you get down to the nitty-gritty like this. Thank you for being so candid, David. I was wondering about this myself, still only out of curiosity but also because this is worth knowing for all of the ideas that I have in me.

    How will you balance this new series with your current writing schedule, now that you (hopefully) will have two books out a year from two different houses? Are there any changes you’ll have to make to your current strategies and habits?

  • quillet

    I’ll third what Razzie said about this stuff being really useful to know. Thanks and triple-thanks! I’ll also second what Laura asked, especially about making any changes to your current strategies and habits. Two books a year from two different houses…sounds like a lot of work, but a good problem to have. 😉

  • Peter (xmanpub), sorry to have missed your question earlier — the spam filter caught you. Publishers want to make money. That’s the bottom line. That doesn’t mean that you have to write vampires or zombies or whatever else is popular right now. Writing to the market is almost impossible to do, and what’s popular when you start writing might not be popular when it’s ready for publication. And quite often excellent writing AND marketable go hand in hand (see George R.R. Martin, Pat Rothfus, Neil Gaiman, and others). Publishers want something new, exciting, well-written, AND marketable. They don’t always get all four, which is why sometimes a name will appear and then vanish very quickly. Judging the market is tough, and there is no secret formula. Write the best book you can, write the book you WANT to write. And maybe you’ll get lucky. At the very worst, you’ll have a book that you love that you might be able to sell to a smaller press. At best, you might be the next big thing.

    Mark, thanks for asking the question. There is nothing wrong with wanting to build a long-term relationship with a publisher and/or editor. I have been with Tor for 17 years, and I may well stay with them for longer. But go in with your eyes open and a clear sense of what the business can be like.

    Laura, thanks. Glad you found the post helpful. The biggest change I’ve had to make in my writing has been one of scheduling. I write 2500 words a day, and I KNOW that. So, since I have the fourth Thieftaker due on April 1 (the third Thieftaker is already written and in production), and the second Weremyste book due on July 1, and the third Weremyste due January 1, 2015, I’ve had to plan things a bit differently than I might have. I had been thinking of working on another project and some short fiction this fall. Instead, I am writing Thieftaker 4 right now and should have it done by December 31, three months early. I will start the second Weremyste book in January and get the first half of it done by March 1. Then I’ll take March to revise Thieftaker 4 so that I can make my deadline. Then I’ll go back to the Weremyste book and finish that by June 1, leaving myself June, July, and part of August to promote Thieftaker 3. Late in the summer, I will start Weremyste 3, leaving myself plenty of time to finish that for the January 1 deadline. It means a hectic year, but it’s manageable. And it beats the hell out of not having contracts.

    Quillet, thanks. Yes, definitely a good problem to have. It’s going to mean that I’ll be working harder than I ever have, but it also means more opportunities than I’ve ever had, and that’s kind of cool.

  • Michael J. Sullivan

    A good article. I really like seeing authors who think like business people. When publisher cancels a project, or doesn’t pick up the next series everyone understands that publishing is a business and they are making decisions to ensure their financial best interest. I’ve never understood why it is somehow wrong or “disloyal” for the author to do the same. Yes, we write first and foremost because we are driven to. But one of the way to ensure you have maximum time for doing that is to eliminate the day job (which too few authors are able to). Looking out for your financial best interest shouldn’t be condemned – it should be applauded. So I’ll add my hands to the that – good for you David.

  • Thanks, Michael. To be clear, I don’t think that Mark’s original question was asked out of anything more or less than curiosity. He wasn’t condemning my decision at all. That said, I know just what you mean. In some circles, authors are expected to place their art ahead of their business interests. As much as I love to write, and as much as I try to see myself as a creator first and a businessman second, the fact is the two are inseparable. To survive as an artist I have to conduct my business with the acumen of a professional. Again, thanks for the comment.

  • I work for a large corporation that does a lot of production. We have “preferred” suppliers, because they deliver a quality product on time, every time. Until they don’t. Miss a due date? Have a part returned for poor workmanship? Your part fails after only a few hours operation in the field? One or two misses might not dent the stats, but eventually they aren’t listed as preferred. And there are a lot of other suppliers out there willing to replace you.

    Publishing is no different. Publishers are in the production business, and we writers are nothing more that suppliers to their end product. If we don’t perform, well…