Anyone who has been around young children has heard their cry of protest, “That’s not fair,” when some sort of consequence is meted out for misbehavior.
In reality, what is being objected to is fairness, as consequences were spelled out ahead of time and known to all.
Parent: “One more word about this and you will go to bed without dinner.”
Parent: “OK, to your room you go…no dinner.”
Child: “That’s not fair!”
We can insert Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers here.
Book publishing in the developed world is actually quite fair. But so many people view it as unfair. From the seemingly random and often callous manner in which proposals are handled by agents and editors to the contracts put forth by publishers, cries of unfair tactics and policies can be heard from authors, author groups and people who quit publishing altogether.
I certainly don’t mean to insinuate everything is perfect or the publishing industry is devoid of poor behavior and policies.
I’ve had any number of new authors from developing countries send me a proposal for their book. When I ask why they haven’t tried to publish in their own country first, their reaction can be summed up with an “Are you kidding?” type statement, alluding to a fact the book industry in their country is in such disarray or impossible to penetrate, western publishers, despite our imperfections, are an infinitely better first option no matter where you live on earth.
Most people attach the unfair label to something that didn’t go their way because we all want to be an exception to whatever rules exist.
That’s the perfect world. We get what we want.
There are comparisons in so many walks of life.
- In a legal case, if you win, the court is fair and just. If you lose, no justice done and the verdict was a travesty. The whole system is corrupt.
- In sports, when you win, life is good. If you loose, the referees are all incompetent and everything is rigged against you.
- If you get the job, they made a right decision. If you didn’t get hired, it’s an uneven playing field filled with unfair practices.
- In politics, if your candidate wins, you feel like society is moving in the right direction. If the other candidate wins, society is spiraling down to Armageddon.
- The sign says, “Construction Zone, 25 MPH, Fines doubled” and you get angry when you get a double price ticket for going 35 mph.
- You sign an agreement before attending a Christian college agreeing you will not engage in certain prohibited activities. Fair or unfair when you ignore it and are expelled?
The cries of “unfair” really come from the fact everyone despises not having things go their way. Rejection and failure to meet expectations of yourself or others raises anger and defensiveness from anyone. It’s understandable.
If an agent puts forth a process for submitting proposals and you choose to ignore the process entirely, is it fair or unfair when your proposal is declined?
If you signed a publishing contract and you turn in a manuscript months late without notifying the publisher beforehand, is it fair or unfair when a publisher invokes a contractual right to require repayment of advances?
Similarly, publishers who agree to do something in a contract and then don’t follow through, is it fair or unfair when the author withdraws from the agreement?
If an agent stops performing for an author, is it unfair when we are fired?
Publishing is actually quite fair. If your book sells well, you make more money than if it didn’t. If your first book meets or exceeds expectations, you will get another contract. If not, no next contract.
If you try to self-publish and have no constituency to tell about your book, it won’t sell well. If you do, it will.
It’s a performance industry. The system worked.
Sure, some people have nightmare stories, but for the most part, they are exceptions.
The book publishing industry says this to authors:
- Be a qualified and credible professional writer
- Make commitments and keep them
- Help to market your book
- Play well with others
- Write great
If an author writes with marginal quality, has no solid platform, doesn’t play well with others or follow through on commitments, is an editor or agent being fair or unfair for declining them?
Conversely, authors want from publishers:
- Good contract terms
- Editorial partnership
- Professional staff
- Collaborative spirit
- Keep commitments
When publishers violate one or more of these, authors don’t feel very good about the process.
When one party doesn’t uphold their side of the relationship, it becomes unfair and unpleasant.
You might disagree with all this based on personal experience and I know with hundreds of thousands of books published every year in the US alone there are some sad stories of unjust treatment, from publisher-to-author and visa versa.
For most, contracts are fulfilled, commitments are kept and fairness reigns.
But knowing this matters little when you don’t win.
I’d also add that it helps to have reasonable expectations as an author. Sure, we all dream of having a huge best-seller, but the reality is that most of us never will. Work with your agent and publisher on setting realistic goals and you won’t be as tempted to shout, “it’s not fair!” if your novel doesn’t soar as high as you imagined.
Like I tell my kids, it’s only “unfair” when it’s not what YOU want it to be. No child ever cries about fairness when Mom says, “Hey, let’s skip dinner and eat dessert instead!” The same is certainly true for adults.
Good points, Dan. It’s so easy to think things are unfair when they don’t go the way we want or expect. If we can take a step back from the situation and get a little distance, hopefully we can see the bigger picture and make wiser/different choices in the future.
Would it be horribly inappropriate if I were to say this blog is “such a butt kicker”? The very best kind of butt kicker, of course? Because let’s be honest, we all need to be kicked in the pants by the truth every once in a while. (Just me? Fine, then.)
The thing is, I think these truths presented extend into the very fiber of our Christian experience. Jesus told us, straight up-“in this world you will have troubles, but take heart for I have overcome the world.” And yet, when we do have troubles our minds are blown and we are that same child you’ve described, crying out, “This isn’t fair, nobody told me it would be this hard!” And we don’t take heart that Jesus has overcome the world because in reality we don’t really care about that. We just care about things going our way. (Just me? Fine, then.)
Dan, I think the question of fairness arises because so many of the hurdles that have been erected by the gatekeepers to traditional publishing have nothing to do with the quality of the book itself. The game being played isn’t the game the author expected, so of course the rules seem unfair.
At its core, traditional publishing isn’t about bringing the best books to market; it’s about bringing the books expected to be most profitable to market. It’s a business where a book by a celebrity that is mediocre at best will be snapped up while an inspired work, beautifully crafted and brimming with the promise of transforming lives and thereby becoming a classic beloved by millions of readers, won’t even get looked at if the author hasn’t already built a social network of 20,000 followers. Harper Lee would never have made it through the gate with “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
It’s like an athlete coming to the gym expecting a free-throw contest only to find the rules have been changed to dodgeball, and he gets hit in the head before he can even get to the free-through line.
Businesses have to make money, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with trying to minimize risk and maximize profit. In fact, only a fool on the path to bankruptcy fails to do this. It’s just that authors inspired to write before they learn publishing is only a bottom-line business are shocked and disappointed to find the game they expected to play hasn’t been played for years.
Good points Carol.
I think a lot of the problem with the perception of changing rules comes from various presentations at writers conferences and to writers groups. Sometimes a presenter unwittingly communicates to prospective authors a publishing industry the way the would like to be…where it is all about the writing and the only thing that counts is the writing.
Sometimes I’ve had to inject a statement like “Remember, publishing is a business,” into a panel discussion simply because the conversation has become too focused on how we would like it to be rather than the way it is.
The conflict between reality and personal desires can be jarring.
Carol, Three years ago I became a vanity published author before I knew anything about the publishing business. Next, I decided to become familiar with the book marketing process so I could sell some books by getting them into the hands of the reader. I took online classes, read books on marketing, purchased a domain name etc. . . . .Wow! Not as easy as thought. That led me to indie publishing. Double wow. I’ve learned tons about self-publishing, and I continue to learn. I decided to write more books. This sort of forced me to become active on social media for some serious platform building. I know it’s a gamble, and I know it’s a business, but the enthusiasm for ‘what could be’ helps keep me focused and plugging along.
But the growth has been slow. Not to be overly much discouraged, hard effort is usually commiserate with success, I am now honing my craft to levels required for traditional publishing. That’s my goal, and I persist.
Your comments make me think of the scary, disheartening, discouraging side to getting published. I don’t know your story, but I do identify with the thread of your comments. It is a tough one. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes. I guess we keep plugging away and learning as we go. Traditional publishing hasn’t happened for me yet, so I don’t have any proof, but I do believe a consistent voice and a clean, clear message will gain traction over the process of time, especially in the ease with which we can get our message out.
That’s what I’m counting on.
Thanks for sharing your story, Norma. Like you, I’m pouring time and energy into honing my craft to where it would succeed in traditional publishing. When I started writing fiction, I thought traditional publishing was the only route I wanted to go. By following this and other blogs for the past two years, I’ve learned some of its characteristics actually work against why I started writing and what I want to do with whatever “success” comes to my work. I have a missionary heart that wants to encourage and help other believers to share their faith, and I want an income stream that can be used to fund overseas mission work. If I sign a contract relinquishing the rights to my work, I lose the freedom to use what I’ve written in creative and productive ways that contribute to missionary goals. I might be hamstrung by the contract on one work from releasing and using other works for an extended period of time, even as much as a couple of years. The novels aren’t serving God and touching lives while they just sit in my computer, waiting their turn in a traditional publishing schedule. I have five finished manuscripts now and two more that will be finished in less than a year. Loss of rights and restrictive time constraints on works that aren’t even under contract represent major opportunity costs. The platform work load is basically the same for indie and traditional success. The likelihood of success for debut authors going the traditional route is depressingly low. The question is, am I entrepreneurial enough to take the leap and go indie at the level that will be successful enough for what I really want to accomplish? It can take a huge amount of work and dedication, but is that what God is calling me to? I’m still praying about that one.
You’re good, Dan. You should write a book If you need a recommendation, I’ve heard the bunch at Steve Laube are good agents and generally regarded as fair!
For me, it isn’t a question of “fair or unfair”. Contemporary publishing is nothing more or less than any other business proposition.
They industry has decided what THEIR needs are, rather clearly defined them and is offering to consider the purchase of product (manuscripts) from ANYONE that meets their criteria (ALL of it). Its as simple as that. IT IS NOT A SOCIAL AGENCY.
There are other options these days for authors that don’t meet the traditional publishing criteria and have the gumption to avail themselves of these options. To hold a pity party and cry unfair may produce results elsewhere but not here.
QUIT CRYIN’ AND START TRYIN’. MAKE something happen on your own if necessary, if you are any good and have a somewhat “proven” product the world WILL beat a path to your door, hat in hand. These days no one is passing out cheese to go with that whine!
Thank you, Dan. Honestly, we needed this. I printed it out so I can re-read it and make sure I’m “on track.”
You tell it like it is.
I would rather climb the ladder you’re pointing me to rather than the wrong ladder. The truth is we don’t know until we start climbing if we’re wrong or not. Then the echoes of “it’s not fair” ring all around us.
Again, thank you.
Less than 20 years ago a book came out named, The Rules. It gave the framework and contents of healthy dating for good results. You are coming out with The Rules of healthy, productive publishing. Productive as in sales, reader volume, and business performance to achieve communication success.
Understanding is the key to wisdom. I appreciate all the blogs over the last 9 or so months that I’ve been reading them because my publishing understanding has increased. So I hope I am wiser in what is necessary.
My problem comes with being aware of when and who to ask for experienced wisdom on what to do next. There seems to always be something to do better or to do something I had not considered and how to be a better person in the process.
Thank you for continuing to bring clarity.
I’m a little late reading your post, Mr. Balow, and fully intended to reply until I read the replies that came before mine and realized I have nothing new to add. So I’ll just say “ditto”–because I really appreciate the insight you shared.
‘….western publishers, despite our imperfections, are an infinitely better first option no matter where you live on earth.’
This statement has just one signpost on it and that is :TRUTH. As a citizen of a developing country, this is just true. And so is every other insight shared. Thank you Mr Balow.
It’s sometimes hard to view things as “black and white” but you make some good points. In this industry especially, you need to be realistic with your expectations and cautious at the same time.