The writing business

Why do authors get treated so badly?

‘One person has been forgotten in this unholy publishing maelstrom: the author.’  That’s London literary agent Jonny Geller, from Curtis Brown, writing today in The Bookseller.

In a piece he titles ‘An agent’s manifesto’ he says: ‘The author is not an object a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication.’ Someone needed to say this and thank goodness he has.

Any author who has knocked around the publishing industry has hair-raising stories of bad treatment. Everything is usually fine if we keep their heads down and do as we’re told. But if we get out of our boxes, we suddenly meet unreasonable amounts of disrespect.

Battle lines

Typically this happens if we want changes to a cover or a blurb. Or we object to a title change. Or we make suggestions about the ebook release or the marketing plan. Suddenly we are treated dismissively, told we’re ‘only the author’, told to put up and shut up.

Publishers cannot change anything without the author’s say-so, but they don’t want us to know this. (Even though it’s probably in the contract.) And if we raise it, the standard tactic is not to discuss, but to bully the writer into agreeing by telling them publication will be delayed by a year or two, possibly indefinitely.

Now, having worked in publishers I know how important deadlines are. I know everything needs to run like clockwork. I know that publishers have not just one book to deal with, but twenty at least, plus all the other stuff that comes with working in a company. But they wouldn’t treat any other supplier or professional that way. Just authors.

Jonny Geller again: ‘If an author has a problem with the cover, blurb, copy or format, then something isn’t right.’

It is common, behind the scenes, to hear editors talk about authors with undisguised loathing – not just individual ones who may be difficult, but all of them, authors as a breed. There is a culture that authors must not be listened to.

The real work

They seem to think that because they do some editing and proofing they’ve done all the proper work, and the author was a slapdash child who spewed up a half-baked mess. That’s because the author had just spent months or even years locked in a silo with the book. We had to invent it, from nothing but ideas. The manuscript the publisher sees has another nine-tenths of work and tears below the waterline. If we put it aside and saw it with fresh eyes, we’d see a lot of those problems too (not all of them, but a lot). So no, the publisher didn’t do all the work.

Is it because they think they could write too, if only they had the time? Everybody says that. We’re used to it.

All the glory

Is it because writers seem to get all the glory? Most of us don’t get within a light year of glory. And if we do, we’ve earned it. Publishers get paid a salary, reliably every month. Writers work for several years on an idea and all we can guarantee from it is a lottery ticket that probably won’t pay back. In almost any other business environment, the one who puts in most risk gets the most reward. Try asking a venture capitalist for seed capital and see how much of your company they want for it.

Thumb-twiddling creatives

Is it because we’re uncontrollable creatives? That’s what brings publishers new, wonderful things to sell.  Jonny Geller again: ‘Remember, we don’t have a job without authors … Authors who are valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like adults will experience a phenomenon called Trust. Trust breeds loyalty; loyalty means longevity; longevity means sales.’

Heavens, we want our books to be a success. We want to work with professionals who will help that to happen. We are grateful for good guidance and support. But we want to work in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Thanks for the pic, Lydiashiningbrightly

Agree, disagree, add your experiences? The floor is yours…


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68 thoughts on “Why do authors get treated so badly?

  1. Thanks for sharing all this, Roz.

    I’m more convinced every day that authors need to brand themselves and become publishers, as well as authors.

    If our talents aren’t valuable — and clearly that’s what most of them think — then we should take our wares elsewhere.

    1. Hi Stan! It certainly does authors no harm to become savvy about how the publishing industry works. Sometimes publishing ourselves is the right move. Sometimes partnering with someone else is better. Some authors do both, according to the market they need to reach. But the more we understand, the more we can approach potential partners – whether publishers or not – as equals.

  2. Brilliant post! I have heard some horror stories, and it breaks my heart that the author is considered a puppet within publishing. To me it is about respect.

    My personal experience is not with working with a publisher, but one who wanted me to change my story to suit their needs. I turned down their offer and am now going it alone.

  3. I’ve been running a small publisher for the last year. We publish the books the way the author wants them. They approve final copy. They get approval on the cover. They get consulted on the price and the PR.

    We don’t get salaries. We give the author 50% of the gross revenues (i.e. after Amazon etc have taken their cut), and we get paid out of any surplus that remains after our costs.

    We’ve been working that way because we all fundamentally believe that the author is central to what we do. Without authors, publishers have nothing. With the rise of quality self-publishing, and new entrants into the publishing field, traditional publishers who treat their authors with contempt deserve to find themselves without quality writers. The book business is booming. It’s a land of opportunity for writers. Publishers are in danger of being cut out if they don’t treat their suppliers with more respect.

  4. The evolving Amazonian Cylons are replacing the author abusing publisher priest elite and their minions. The author may be made Cylon king and queen for a wink, but when the honeymoon is over the toaster priestess elite will shed their disguises, cyber-bully the author anew, and become the new oppressive keepers of the keys to reader gates. As Steven king once wrote: “Same shit, different day.”

  5. I wonder if it’s different with the small press? I’m really hoping so. So far my experience with Muse has been awesome, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to start at a smaller publisher. They treat authors so well, and the group is supportive in all facets. And like anything, I think it’s individual experience. I’m sure there are plenty of editors out there in the Big 6 who treat their authors well and probably don’t get the mentions they deserve. Great topic, Roz!

    P.S. How did you set up the link to add to the mailing list for the news letter? I need to do that.

    1. Fair point, Stacy. If you’re having a brilliant experience, long may it continue. The small publishers are better able to hold onto their values.

      Just saw you subscribed – thank you! I did it via Mailchimp – it’s reasonably easy, although a bit fiddly to customise the outgoing message. And I used WordPress custom menus to make the sign-up link in my sidebar – which you probably can’t see among all the other guff, but it is there.

    2. Hi Stacy. No, it can be just as fraught with small presses. I got offered a contract from a very respectable small press (it wins prestigious awards every year), but the clauses were so restrictive — and the short dialogue I had with the publisher so patronising — that I felt I had no choice but to walk away. I have since self-published that book and, while it’s selling only a fraction of what I think it would have sold with the small press, at least my future is still mine.

      1. Good point about contracts. I’ve heard that small presses can be rather devious with this. Check everything with a fine-tooth comb.
        Kaz, it would be interesting – and enlightening – to hear what conditions they tried to foist on you.

        Big publishers are rotters too, though. Some of my ghosting contracts had deadine dates that had already been and gone. Probably it was incompetence, but I wasn’t going to agree to deliver a book by an impossible date and then have them withhold my money. I made them change the dates.

  6. I’ve heard similar horror stories from authors, many of whom have since turned to self-publishing their work. It seems to be the rule that authors are treated poorly by both agents and publishers, although I know exceptions exist. I once made a comment about publishers treating authors poorly on a blog that was largely populated by traditionally-published authors (and desperate wanna-bes). I was beaten about the head and shoulders by one of the contributing blog authors who claimed the opposite.

    I believe that the reason authors are treated poorly is because of the psychological dynamics of the situation. You are one of thousands who come to a publisher with hat in hand, begging for a chance to get your words into the hands of readers. Often, you are coming from a vulnerable place where you aren’t sure that your work is “worthy.”

    From a bargaining standpoint, you are starting in the worst possible position. You are willing to accept almost anything just to get a deal, you aren’t sure of the value of your work, and you begin the negotiations filled with emotional insecurity. The publisher can’t lose in this situation.

    It is human nature for the strong and confident to dominate the weak and insecure. This is what bullying is all about. Not all publishers are necessarily bullies, but the dynamics of the situation and the business mandate of maximizing profit make it almost inevitable that they fall into that role.

    1. ‘The psychological dynamics of the situation…’ Ab-so-lute-ly, Daniel. Many first-time authors feel like they shouldn’t really be there, which is not a good start.

      And you’re right that not all editors behave like this, and that some agents are just as bad as the worst editors. I certainly don’t want to tar an entire profession with the same brush, but I think it’s good to let authors know they’re not quite as powerless as they might think.

  7. I definitely think that smaller publishers treat their authors better. The big publishers are really only interested in their A-list authors, who they treat like royalty (and, of course, in many cases they aren’t actually the writers at all). Big publishers mostly couldn’t care less about the mid-listers – the very people who are the mainstay of smaller, indie outfits. And it’s only by nurturing the mid-listers that the great works of the future will be found – a future that will belong to the smaller, more nimble publishers, while the big monolithic houses will start to break up.

  8. I still want to punch something when I think how my agent mistreated me. There’s probably karma there somewhere.
    Virtually everything about the industry screams contempt for the actual writers: take the term slush pile for example.
    I despair some times, I really do.

      1. I think I have experienced some pretty awful treatment, over my life, that follows the same sort of pattern. I clearly have something to learn!

      2. I do think that a great part of the problem is that there are simply too many good-enough writers, like me, and not enough truly and inarguably great writers. It’s a buyer’s market.

  9. It’s worth remembering that if a publisher has offered you a contract, that means they want your book at least as much as you want them to publish it. So, as Daniel said, don’t feel like they’re doing you a favor. You’re doing them a favor just as much! It’s a pity more publishers can’t see authors as partners in a venture – we’re doing the early-stage risk investment, they’re putting in cash as enablers. Instead, too often they seem to think that they’re the only ones taking any risk – as if you found that nanuscript on a park bench or something!

    1. From what I’ve seen, “chosen” is the word behind why many authors still go through the agony of getting a trad pub deal instead of going indie. Any marketer will tell you that we make decisions for emotional reasons and then rationalize them with logic. In this case, authors want that third party validation of their worth, and they are willing to endure just about anything to get it.

      Anyone can self publish. If you go that way, you aren’t “special” unless you sell a lot of books, and even then you don’t necessarily feel like a “real” author because you didn’t get the establishment seal of approval. You measure the value of your work by your readers alone.

      I’m not saying that going either way is right or wrong. But I do think we should be realistic about our motivations. It’s easier to enjoy the journey that way.

        1. Well, you really nailed something I’ve been feeling, but couldn’t put my finger on. I’m stunned at my sales, but it still feels a bit hollow, and I often still don’t feel vindicated, even though I’ve pretty much sworn I wouldn’t go the Big 6 route now under any circumstances. (Maybe if they let me keep my e-sales, and even that’s a damn big maybe.)

          But, with your comment, I now realize it feels this way because all my life I assumed I’d have to get published by them. That their blessing meant I’d be successful — despite how many mid-listers get screwed and forgotten, and all the other publishing horror stories. Anyway, I’m really glad you made that comment. It will probably help a lot more people than just me swallow down that last bit of weird feeling.

        2. I appreciation your telling me that. It made my day. Being independent is struggle enough without us sabotaging our own deserved feeling of success.

          Hold on to that “stunned” feeling! It is something only the successful get to enjoy, regardless of which path gets them there.

          1. This insecurity of self-publishers is visible everywhere (e.g. Konrath’s blog is riddled with it, both from him and his claque) and it has to stop!

            Great post, and great comments 🙂

  10. Authors put in more work than most other careers ask of workers. However, editors, designers, publishers, etc at a publishing house *also* put in a crazy amount of effort to bring manuscripts up to the best standard they can. Let’s not get too crabby at each other. That’s my rant. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Rebecca, for that balancing comment. I was careful in my post not to be crabby but to be fair – which is the only sustainable line to take.

      I wouldn’t want to think that traditionally published authors – or people who work at the traditional end of the industry – would feel unwelcome here. We’re all professional in our attitude, trying to produce great books. 🙂

    2. That’s certainly true, and I don’t think I’ve spoken to any commercially-published author who begrudges publishers, editors, publicists or designers the right to make a living from their valuable work. But why does the industry expect authors to believe that it is normal for authors (specifically, alone of industry participants) to resign themselves to having a second job? That belief underscores with dollar signs (if that’s not a mixed typographical metaphor) the attitude that Roz and Geller are both talking about: the notion that what authors do is expendable and low-value, and what publishers and editors do is not.

  11. As a designer, I see the same thing with my clients. Last week, I did perhaps 10 hours of work (although got paid for a full week and got to sit in the sun reading the brilliant The Book Thief, so yay!). The project must be finished by Tuesday AM, so that means I’ll be doing 30 hours of work in as few as I can manage, hopefully less than 24.

    I can’t speak for the publishing world because I’ve only worked on text books (and only for a year), but the problem persists even when creatives are in charge—at agencies and design firms. A lot of it comes from external sources (their clients have unreasonable demands; when things go wrong on the press, they tend to go disastrously wrong). Self-published authors printing and distribution needs are so different from the large press run publishing. The pressures involved with large scale runs of physical books, negotiations with chains for space, etc., all of which involves deadlines that the people the author is working with may not have much or any control over.

    I have close to zero expectation of making any significant money from my writing. It’s something I do for its own sake and because I feel oddly obligated to tell the story of someone who doesn’t exist (alas, this isn’t hyperbole—the idea of writing anything less than a near perfect book fills me with dread). I hope that I’m able to trade expectations for profit for a bit more control and respect in the process. I may be entirely naïve about that, but it seems a good number of writers expect to make money (an extremely reasonable desire, if not expectation) and that reduces their negotiating power.

    P.S. Roz, I love the way your comments say, “Your turn!” instead of “Comments” or something similarly unengaging.

    P.P.S. Gravatar won’t let me post because my email is associated with another account (aka, me). Dorks.

  12. The problem is that the power in the relationship is all in the publisher’s hands, unless you are one of the handful of bestselling authors whose books pay the salaries of everyone at the publishing house. I’m guessing such authors get more respect.

    Most books are lucky to break even, and that gives publishers the confident belief that they are doing authors a favour by taking a chance on their book.

    You point out, quite rightly, that writers invest a lot of time in their works. But I’m guessing publishers feel like the risk is theirs, since their investment is money.

    If the number of manuscripts written each year was less than the number of new books the public wanted to buy, things might be different.

    1. That’s an interesting and depressingly sensible viewpoint – especially the supply question. Much as I hate to say it, good authors are ten a penny. There is no shortage of people who could be plucked from the slush pile (apologies, Viv) and make a very respectable addition to any publisher’s catalogue. But once they have invested in you – made schedules, worked out marketing plans etc – you have to expect that they won’t drop you on a whim.

      The very worst person to be in this food chain is the author who has no moral rights. Which I found when I was ghosting. I was treated with such outright resentment I felt I was being kicked for every author they hadn’t been able to ride roughshod over.

  13. For too long the balance of power rested in the hands of big publishers who dictated every step of the publishing process, even the content of your book. In exchange they received the biggest cut from sales. As an author you enjoyed your name in print, the status of being “published” and a little bit of money. The upfront money helped of course, but lasted only as long as the immediate euphoria of being published. As for royalties, I’ll just roll my eyes and leave it at that. The resulting reality is akin to the economic state of a third world country: You have no middle class, just an increasing poor class while the rich gets richer.

    We now have a digital revolution that has everyone talking and it’s just picking up speed and in the process, it’s upending the publishing industry. Some of the power is now trickling down to the writer. For the first time you have a “middle class” of writers who can make a living writing, and it’s growing. This truly is revolutionary.

    However, I get the feeling that because of past abuses by publishers, there are plenty of resentful writers out there who will never again allow themselves to be tied to an unfair relationship. There is a possibility that this shift in power will force publishers, in the future, to jump through hoops for writers and not the other way around. It will be nice to see publishers actually earn the big cut they take. Besides, I think finishing a book is enough of a hoop to jump through.

    This is just my humble generalised and respectful opinion of course.

    Oh, and I just bought “Nail Your Novel” and looking forward to the read.

  14. Good post. One suspects that editors are akin to what Kristin Lamb ( referred to as “aspiring writers” (oh, I’ve got this great book I’m going to write … someday) rather than “authentic writers” (who are willing to struggle to write regardless). Knowing this, editors hate writers because they had the guts to do what the editors (most of them) do not. Well, it’s a theory. Also, in my own blog ( I analyze a reasonable price for an ebook based on a blog post by the CEO of the Independent Publishing Group. The relevance to your post is the “poor little me” attitude of the author — and his (gratuitously?) bad arithmetic!

  15. Agents can have this same attitude; the gentleman quoted seems an exception. I once read an article by an agent who urged writers not to quit their day job. Why? Seems “it will help to keep you real.” That particular day my “day job” (I work construction) involved some particularly dirty concrete work at a humitemp of 110* F. I wonder if that was real enough for this particular agent?

  16. Maybe sometimes it’s the publisher, not the publishing industry. I just self-published a 400-page page turner about aliens, UFOs, demons, fallen angels, and a bull-riding rancher who gets abducted, and another bull-rider was abducted, turned pastor and UFO evangelical — all in a mix that one reviewer called “The DaVInci Code meets the Left Behind series.” My awesome agent, seriously—she’s God’s gift to writers—is a former editor at Brown, Little. Colleen Mohyde is doing her darndest to figure out what genre it is so she can pitch it to the right folks. I can’t sing her praises high enough. She’s gracious, ethical, kind, funny, respectful and just a wonder to work with. I’ve also had the good fortune to work with Bill Novak, Tim Russert’s former editor. Based on the essay I submitted for Tim’s last best selling book, “Wisdom of Our Fathers,” they decided to include a new chapter in Tim’s book—on forgiveness. Novak was brilliant, compassionate, patient and helpful. All in all I’ve worked with several agents, publishing houses and editors as a contributing writer (including Penguin and Random House as well as some small publishers) and found all but one to be extremely professional, helpful and not all condescending or dismissive to me. I think it’s all in how the writer communicates with the publisher and the respect the writer exudes as well. As a journalist for 23 years it’s been my experience that the worst writers make the most annoying and narcissistic clients. Maybe it’s NOT always the publishers—but the writers “fault”? I’m sure it goes both ways, but I’m not seeing it.

    1. I’m sure it does go both ways, Becky. It won’t help if writers behave like prima donnas – I’ve dealt with a few of those myself. But behind the scenes I’ve seen some shocking stuff. Excellent, though, that you have forged such good relationships, and thank you for reminding us that this can happen too.

  17. I ended up thinking about this all day, Roz, and wrote a long post ( on it, coming up with the same conclusion Glen did. It is tragic that artists so often are treated as disposable, or, worse, as barriers to those who have the numbers or whatever. But as long as their are more writers than the market needs, we’ll remain a commodity that constantly has to prove its value.

  18. Another ‘breath of fresh air’ post – with which I agree. Ironically, I read it just after I had opened my new copy of The Author magazine, to read a letter from distinguished writer Karl Sabbagh who had just received a rejection for a book submitted to a small Scottish publisher in 2005: ‘Dear Karl Sabbagh…it is unlikely we would be able to publish your husband’s work successfully.’
    I’ve had a similar experience with this publisher, and a friend received a delayed rejection letter for a manuscript which had already been bought and published by Bloomsbury to glowing reviews all round – which suggests that they don’t even care enough to keep up with their own industry! It seems to me to epitomise the contempt in which writers are held by certain publishers. Although as somebody pointed out to me – at least they replied eventually. Most enquiry letters of this kind disappear into a black hole from which no communication ever escapes again. I seem to have been banging on for years about the need for writers to treat themselves as professionals rather than humble supplicants. If we don’t, nobody else will. But it’s good to hear an agent saying the same thing. Good for him.

    1. Catherine, that’s hysterical. I still haven’t had all the rejections for My Memories of a Future Life. It’s been in the in-trays of several publishers for three years.
      ‘Professionals rather than humble supplicants…’ absolutely. We don’t have to be arsey prima donnas, just grown-up.

  19. After forty-nine comments, I imagine there’s little new to say. However, this is clearly an emotionally charged topic. While I am unpublished, my experience to date is frustrating. Lots and lots of positive feedback but no one willing to take me on. Of course, many can say the same.

    To some extent, this whole conundrum is about money. Follow the money – or lack of it – and you can see why and where the stresses and strains exist. As you point out, authors labour mightily to produce their product. Calculating the hourly rate for your work is a dismal task. As with all products, consumers want a bargain – why else has China been so successful as the manufacturer of the world? Fewer dollars to go around and an over-abundance of product creates a supply-demand imbalance. Folks fear for their jobs and livelihoods so it’s easy to be anxious and critical of everyone else in the chain of events.

    Just my two cents worth 🙂

  20. I’m lucky – my small press publishers are wonderful. I’ve not had disrespect or dismissing attitudes from them. Although sometimes I have to agree to cover art that I am at first not sure about, but really, when I try to think about what cover I’d use, I am not very good at that, and have to trust they know what the are doing.

    But, my publishers, all strong southern women, have been and are writers, so they have that understanding, and that’s what makes them wonderful.

    (as I write this I realize I owe you a music blog post and I don’t know if I’m too late – I am hitting myself over my head because I never drop balls, and here I’ve gone and dropped a ball – I won’t even offer up pitiful excuses!)

    1. Kat, that’s an interesting point – and many small presses are being started by editors who have been writers. Good for you for finding such a lovely bunch.
      As to your soundtrack, you’re not late and I would love to host your piece. Just saw your comments on the red blog and I have a feeling you’ll have some lovely pieces to share.

  21. Good post. These attitudes are a pretty good summary of at least the first fifty percent of why so many professional authors are walking away from traditional publishing and taking their books and readers with them.

    The other half is the criminal accounting and delayed or deferred payment of royalties, the dropping of authors based on increasingly unrealistic expectations of sales performance, the reduction of diversity and the scarcity of opportunity–all of which are also elegantly solved by publishing independently.

    1. Hi Arinn! Yes, the accounting, the impenetrable roaylty statements, the lies about sales, the idiotic marketing decisions that become a political tug of war when everyone should be acting for the good of the book. Grrr!

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