When the Gloves Come Off

Fist Slams Table in Anger

The publishing experience is rarely done in isolation. This means working with other people. And if their performances or efforts do not meet your expectations, conflict can occur.

Over the years I’ve seen more conflict than you can imagine–of all types and variety. But the majority of issues boil down to four areas:

  1. Editorial
  2. Production (cover design?)
  3. Marketing and publicity
  4. Getting paid

The issues can range from an editor changing the name of your main character to horrific cover designs to absent support for a book launch to delayed income.

When (not if) something like this happens, it is critical to know how to respond. This is where a good agent can be of great help. Your tendency is to become angry and vent … on your publisher. (Please read my previous post “Never Burn a Bridge.”) While the anger may get results, it can also destroy any relationship you may have developed.

Questions to Ask When Upset with Your Publisher

(1) Is this normal?
Does this happen a lot? What you may think is terrible and horrible is actually normal standard procedure. Especially with getting paid. Each publisher has different payment procedures and policies. Your agent should be familiar with the differences. Some houses won’t pay any money on acceptance until after all editing is done and the book is sent to typesetting. Others may pay faster.

With editorial conflict, that particular editor may be known for certain things they like or don’t like. We can help you put that conflict in context. Some editors have a light hand; some have a much heavier hand in their approach. Neither is right or wrong; they are simply different.

An advantage of an agent is that we work with nearly everyone in the industry and see the road maps for each of them.

(2) Can this be fixed? And how fast?
Sometimes an error cannot be fixed. For example, a printed book is missing pages, which is a printer error not a publisher error; but you can’t recall all the books already shipped and sold. Usually something like that is an isolated error.

Or what if there are typos in your published book? Recently this happened to a client with an enormous number of errors discovered. The ebook was fixed within days. The printed book had already shipped, but everyone in customer service was alert to any complaints. The second printing takes care of the errors.

I remember one case where an author’s book was published with the author’s name misspelled on the front cover. It was correct on the spine, back cover, interior page, etc. But on the front cover? (Ouch.)

More often the issues can be addressed in short order. Maybe not according to your schedule, but maybe sooner than later.

One thing to remember is that yours may not be the only fire that publisher is putting out that day.

(3) Should this be fixed?
With cover-design disagreements, it may come down to personal taste and nothing more. You simply may despise the color orange because that was the color of your walls in high school and you don’t want to be reminded of high school. Unfortunately, that can be a weak reason to force a change when everyone at the publishing company is enthusiastic over the cover design. This type of disagreement can be handled, if handled right. If you have developed a good relationship with the publisher, then the speed bumps can be handled on a more collegial basis.

(4) How Can I Express My Displeasure?
My advice is rather simplistic. Don’t press the “Send” button on your angry email for at least 24 hours. If you must shout and scream, do so with your agent only. Not your author friends, not your editor, not your local critique partners, but only with your agent. (Please, oh please, not on social media.) That agent is your “safe place.” Your agent will likely move you to the next question below to give perspective.

This goes to that impulse to show your anger immediately. Frequently, all anger does is create a defensive posture by the recipient. Once that wall goes up, it becomes harder to hear each other.

I know of a case where the author took their dissatisfaction to their personal Facebook page. A page that was not public. What they forgot is that reader’s can copy and paste. Their specific displeasure with a named editor was circulated quickly and landed on the editor’s desk. Who then called me.

(5) How Bad Is It Really?
Sometimes it is pretty bad. I’ve seen some absolutely awful covers. I’ve seen editorial notes that are head-scratching at best, scream-worthy at worst. I’ve seen publishers do some bonehead things with a book launch. (But to be fair, they get it right most of the time, depending on their budget restrictions.) I have also seen some bonehead things that authors have done. No one can claim inerrancy in this life.

We agents constantly play collections agents instead of literary agents, tracking down missing payments or slow ones. However, I dare say that 50% of the time when the question of “where is my check” arises, the money shows up in 24-48 hours. The impatience clock just ticked a little faster than it needed to!

Fortunately, most situations are not as earth-shattering as it may appear at first. Issues can be handled with quality communication. Remember, there are real people on the other side of the equation. I’ve seen editors brought to tears by the vitriol of an author. I’ve listened to authors express severe depression because of a situation. In my days as an editor, I had an author question whether or not I was a Christian because he didn’t like the design of his book cover. I know of cases where authors tried to get an editor fired because of their disagreement over the work done by that editor.

I wish I had the space to give a half dozen examples of how things of an egregious nature were handled with grace by the author in concert with their agent and publisher. Things can be worked out. Maybe not to a 100% satisfaction, but at least to a point of acceptance.

[An earlier version of this post ran in October 2014.]

22 Responses to When the Gloves Come Off

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott August 17, 2020 at 4:35 am #

    “How bad is it really?”
    Back in my customer service days, I would get worked up over both the customers’ ridiculous demands and my coworkers’ crazy mistakes. I learned to ask myself, “At the end of my life on earth, when I stand before the Throne of Grace, will this come up for discussion?” The problem, I usually concluded, would not. My response, on the other hand, might–especially if I went over the top in anger.

    • Avatar
      Glenda Zylinski August 17, 2020 at 5:57 am #

      Hi, Shirlee-

      Conflict is a fact of life. (For true!)

      As an aspiring author, this post and your reply helped me to focus on the things I can change: My schedule, my WIP, my attitude.

      Thank you for a much-needed perspective shift. 🙂

      Time, again, to dust off the Serenity Prayer.

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 17, 2020 at 6:01 am #

    Man, oh, man, what a mess,
    an out-and-out disaster,
    and you feel, like Hardy’s Tess,
    that misery’s your master.
    The timing chain has lost a link,
    and all has come a-cropper,
    and even demons pause to think,
    “My word, can this be proper?”
    Take these days as medicine
    that Mom gave, and you loathed,
    and make the bitter benison
    for in grace you can be clothed
    to not say ’twas done maliciously
    what’s explained by sheer stupidity.

  3. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver August 17, 2020 at 6:22 am #

    Nice poem, Andrew. You’ve summed it up quite succinctly, and so has Steve. Thank you.

  4. Avatar
    Karen Ingle August 17, 2020 at 6:40 am #

    While no one wants to hear that big things can go wrong, this matter-of-fact perspective is grounding. I need grace, those working with me need grace, and if we can all remember this it will help calm the anger storm when things do go awry. This post prompted me to pray today for agents as they stand in the storm with those they serve.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 17, 2020 at 10:49 am #

      Karen, I love the grace-note you added, on praying for agents caught in the middle.

      Lovely, and compassionate.

  5. Avatar
    DAMON J GRAY August 17, 2020 at 7:14 am #

    Goodness, I was just shaking my head as I read through that. It puzzles me how quickly we can lose the fruit of the Spirit and begin treating the person on the other end of the phone as if they are our adversary rather than our ally. We are on the same team, chasing after the same outcome. Given that reality, if we see things differently, we should be able to discuss those things in an atmosphere of love and shared goals rather than one of anger and impugning of motive.

  6. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU August 17, 2020 at 7:47 am #

    I just want to hear that my prayer has been answered; that at last I have been represented and my book has been accepted by a publisher. After that, I leave the rest to God. His blessings add no sorrow.
    Still, I Thank you Steve for this post as many of us do not know what goes on behind the scenes especially for agents. This post is an eye opener that if we get that great prayer answered, we should not relax but continue in prayers for everyone that is involved to the completion stage of the novel. God bless you, Steve, Amen.

  7. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU August 17, 2020 at 7:52 am #

    Hi Andrew.
    Good to see your lovely poem. It sounds angry but reminds us all that errors are not done maliciously if we can have the grace to remember that. God bless you.Amen.

  8. Avatar
    Carlene August 17, 2020 at 8:06 am #

    Grandma had a great saying: “Anger improves nothing but the arch in a cat’s back.”

  9. Avatar
    Megan Schaulis August 17, 2020 at 9:15 am #

    In my day job, I frequently go between “creatives” and clients, trying to help each be understood. I empathize with the peacemaking role you undertake each day, Steve. No doubt all sides are blessed by you.

  10. Avatar
    JB Blake August 17, 2020 at 10:14 am #

    That is a good summary of what can go wrong. I wasn’t aware of some of those issues but I can now see how they might happen. How would you compare this to self-publishing? Seems like some of the issues you mentioned would go away but others might arise.

  11. Avatar
    Claudia Caporale August 17, 2020 at 11:34 am #

    I value all the information you share in your blogs, emails and website. Being fair and kind in business is a rarity. Thank you for your transparency.

  12. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU August 17, 2020 at 12:04 pm #

    Thanks Andrew! I receive your prophecy for my success in faith. God bless you real good.
    Right now, I am at the waiting stage. Every stage from jotting the first word to the final goal seems beset with teething problems. What stage are you on?

  13. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka August 17, 2020 at 2:58 pm #

    It seems like the trials in life—and on this writing journey—will either bring out our best or our worst. Either way, they reveal the heart. Thank you so much for the reminders that all of us on this journey are human, and that grace is often the better response, and that anger spewed in the moment will never lead to a lasting good change.

    I so appreciate your perspective, Steve.

  14. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks August 18, 2020 at 11:46 am #

    Oh, wow! Not a Christian because of a cover?!? That is pretty amazing. Yeah, I’d say that waiting 24 hours to hit “send” is a fabulous idea. For all of our communications, not just publishing ones.

    • Avatar
      Kathy August 19, 2020 at 1:55 pm #

      Amen to what you said, Kristen!!

  15. Avatar
    Chris Sauter Manion August 20, 2020 at 9:46 am #

    I join you, Karen, in praying for all agents, not so much because I’m looking for one, but for the gap they stand in for us, the experience and perspective they offer us before we get ourselves in trouble overreacting or oversharing.

    Thank you, Steve, for your generous teacher’s heart.

  16. Avatar
    Ann L Coker August 26, 2020 at 12:22 pm #

    Thank you, Steve. These methods of approach can also be effective and gracious between an author and independent publisher.

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