Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Dear Publisher

Thank you for sending me your contract for consideration. I am sure you will appreciate that talented authors receive many unsolicited contracts. Nonetheless, I am aware that a publisher like yourself relies upon discovering new talent in order to keep its lists fresh and win new readers, so I hope that you will not be too disappointed that in this case I am declining your kind offer. I wish you all the best in seeking exciting new talent elsewhere.

I understand that it is frustrating to receive a form rejection from an author, without any elaboration on specific areas to work on in your contract. I hope that the following general points may help you in your future submissions.

1. An author relies for their living upon a day job. They write, edit, and network in the evenings, at weekends, and in lunch hours and teabreaks. A publisher's advance, the largest incentive for an author to sign a contract, is not sufficient for them to give up their day job with any security.

2. Many talented, exciting authors write work that will not appeal to large readerships. Publishers need to sell large amounts of books. The result of this tension is that many of these authors will fail to recoup publishers' outlay within their first two books, and it will not be viable for publishers to keep them on board.

3. Without a publisher, a writer is under no such pressure, and will not be junked if their initial books "fail".

4. Should a writer achieve initial success wit ha publisher, they will be expected to produce similar works, and not explore or develop their talent.

5. Without a publisher there is no pressure to change for a writer the way they write in order to fit market needs.

6. Without a publisher there is the freedom to experiment, change genre at will, try, fail, try again, fail again, and devlop one's talent, voice, and potential to the full.

7. With a publisher a writer must concede control over cover design, the way their work is presented to the world.

8. The long cycle of the publishing industry means that the time from pen to audience inevitably freezes some of the initial energy and excitement of the creative process, leading to a less real and invigorating feedback process between writer and audience, and a less meaningful feedback loop.

9. With a publisher, a new writer loses editorial control. Not just total control of final cut, but control of which editor to use in the first place. An editor must have two qualities - the ability to be utterly ruthless; and absolute sympathy with an author's aims. An author needs to be free to select their own, trusted, editor.

10. Pricing - whilst unsigned, the author is free to set the price for all their books - and other merchandise. This includes setting the price at free should the author wish to do that with, for example, their ebooks. It also means the freedom to create and price specila and limited editions of their work.

In conclusion, I am afraid that an author must consider not just their short-term but their long-term future. And whilst I am sure that your kind offer, were I to accept it, would put me in a financially more advantageous position one year from now, and possibly three years from now, compared to that if I reject it; I am afraid that the models I have run show that in five, ten, and twenty years - that is, over the course of my career - there is no financial advantage, and in many models financial disadvantage, in my accepting.

I wish you every success in your future publishing career.


  1. Brilliant statement, strong argument, lots to think about as you and others edge us into new culture.

  2. Very thought-provoking. Love it.

    (Why can I never spell "provoking" right the first time? LOL)

  3. thanks!

    Marc, funnily enough, there isn't really - certainly not ill-feeling. Just trying to make a business case (arising from the last post on How Publishing Really Works) - and ask the publishers out there (and I really do hope they respond) - what do they have to offer? They need to put their case more clearly!

    Of course, what I hope for even more than publishers answering is for this to become a pro forma for authors to send back when they DO get offers!

  4. I wouldn't even give them a form letter. I think you should just make up rejection postcards.

  5. Talking of whcih I just got the SKIN BOOK postcards back from the printers - they look incredible. Now I've got to hole punch & tie 150 copies!

  6. I wasn't going to comment on this ... but what the hell. Hopefully this will be received in the spirit it was intended.

    Two things I don't like about your argument here:

    1) It is full of straw men. Which "publishers" are you referring to? Small? Independent? Vanity? University? Monoliths like Random House, Penguin, St Martin's? All of these businesses function differently, some fit these generalization, some do not ... some are even worse. At first glance it seems to me you are addressing the big guys, yet you open up the essay with this notion that these publishers are approaching you ... which suggests a much smaller press. Is it fair to ask a small press to answer for the business practices of a conglomerate?

    2) At the end of the day publishing is a partnership and this essay reads to me like this: "hey you, publisher, spend lots and lots of money publishing my book, but answer to all my creative whims and don't expect to make any money on the project yourself." Probably that's not the message you intended, but that's the way it reads. And this attitude is, in my opinion, just as irrational, unfair and illogical as the attitude of industry gatekeepers whom you are responding to.

  7. Very funny, and some great points.

    As you know, I'm not against publishers. I feel pretty sorry for them at the moment, especially with Amazon's latest move, but the balance has been weighted against writers for way too long.

    Writers need the skills of agents and publishers. Some writers will find those skills WITH agents and publishers and others will simply learn them. The landscape of future literature relies on the abilities of all of us to decide how much we value those skills and to what extent we are willing to learn or source them.


  8. @Isa - thank you. I'm very glad you did comment because it's important that I put the record straight if there's a misunderstanding. To get one thing over with - the set-up of the letter is intended simply to be light-hearted but with a serious message - I was hoping for a suspension of disbelief rather than for it to be taken as more likely addressed to a big than a small publisher.

    That's important because yes, there are many small presses out there that do a great job - much better than many of the bigger publishers.

    And I REALLY hope I didn't come across as wanting a publisher to spend lots of money on a book and then get nothing from it - why on earth, as a business, should they do that? What my point is, is that they CAN'T spend lots of money on books of the kind authors like me write, because they won't get lots of money back. I'm not complaining about that - I'm simply pointing out that that fact of the business world means that authors need to think twice about what they're giving away when they sign up, as well as what they're getting. I'm trying to make the point that if you want a writing career, then going with a publisher isn't necessarily the best way - or rather, you need to think carefully. If you want the kudos and recognition of being selected for publication, that's great. If you want to be writing full-time 20 years from now, think about it carefully.

    And yes, I know I sound a bit precious about cover design and editing - but again, if I went with a publisher I would fully acknowledge what I was giving to them - I would be a vigorous but polite and, I hope, always punctual and well-behaved client. But - I can't say this without sounding pretentious so please forgive me - being the very best writer I can, and maybe one day creating a book that will last for generations is more important to me than getting an advance (and I think more writers need to consider that it's not a trade off between art and commercialism - most people who write commercial fiction won't be able to gice up their day jobs either!). With that in mind, signing up for a publisher isn't for me.

    Saying that if a publisher answered all my points I would reconsider submitting isn't intended at all to say I thin they should - it IS intended to get people thinking that self-publishing isn't just for people the publishers turn down - writers have every bit as good a reason to think about whether to say yes to a publisher as publishers do whether to say yes to a writer.

  9. @Rebecca thank you. Yes, I don't think publishers are ogres. I don't think things are so bad for writers as they were for musicians in label-slavery in the 80s (cue Marc coming in to say that the labels weren't so bad - yes, I know, it's a generalisation).

    But you make a very good point. What publishers do can be broken down into sub-categories - editing, design, printing, marketing, distribution etc. These are all things an author COULD do or outsource directly. What publishers need to show for their own benefit (and here I will follow Russell's argument in relation to the cosmological argument, and "the universe") is show that what they do is not exhausted by a list of these tasks. Because in an increasingly horizontal and outsouurced business world where economiy of scale and centralisation of tasks are no longer ideologically dominant, they really can't survive by just being a collection of functions.

    Up to now that extra ingredient has been reputation - the ability to open doors, prestige, for want of a better phrase - the imprimatur of pukka-ness. Increasingly, however, the doors that publishers can open (and they CAN, I'm not questioning that) are not the ones that matter to the reading public.

  10. Gosh some real food for thought! well done!

  11. Hey Dan!

    I'm impressed by your enthusiasm with self-publishing. It certainly fits better to writers who have a need to retain that liberty you mentioned, much like yourself, right? heh

    Also, I agree that the prejudice against self-pub authors is a stupidity. It's not the fact that the author was self-pub that should count if he/she eventually decided to try the traditional path, but the quality of the published work; and, as per market's present requirements, the amount of sales.

    I hate short-minded reasoning! Or lack of! heh

  12. Thank you. Indeed - I would love to be judged by the quality, or lack, of the work. That's all I really ask. If it's not up to scratch, of course people should rip it to shreds. If it's OK, it'd be great for people to say so in public :) - a lot of people seem to be happy secretly to say a self-published work is OK, in an e-mail to an author for example - sadly, not many of them will actually post a review saying as much alongside their reviews of regular published works - I wonder if they think it will lower their kudos in the eyes of their peers?

  13. a chewy, meaty piece as usual. I read this a few days ago and have had a few thoughts since then. I see many valid points in what you are saying esp. the pressure to stay in the same genre etc. When I started to write I made a decision to write commercial fiction and aim for conventional publishing with an advance and all the trimmings. I don't feel I have a book in me that would last generations or be hailed as cutting edge and I'm really comfortable with that knowledge. I spent twenty years in the visual arts, where everyone strove for immortality and after years you lower your sights and you just want an fkn audience, okay just one fkn sale PLEASE or a review or something SOMETHING because I'm spending a fortune and I'm working 'round the clock and I'm hungry and people like my work. I can't live like that anymore, I can't put my soul and my inner life into something and keep putting it out there for so little reward. The reward was a couple of reviews, or a profile in an art mag, or something for your CV, or a place on a shortlist for a grant, and you have to ask, all the time, for exhibition space, sponsors, for this and that because you are so broke you can't afford it and you spend money on printing invitations that could have been spent on something yummy to eat.
    I decided I didn't want my reward when I was dead. I don't want to do a Van Gogh, I don't have the inner steel. I want to be paid for my creative labours. I want the conventional reward we give people in this society-money. Not heaps, but enough to stop others from saying 'wanker' or 'give up' or 'wannabee' or whatever other insults we heap on lowly paid creative workers. It's a really disorienting feeling to walk into a publishers office and have peopel shake your hand, and congratulate you, and rave about your book...I couldn't BELIEVE it! I agree that you make a choice about creative freedom vs control, but I'm at a stage where I wanted to trade that control for a bit of sodding coin. I've managed it for now and if I ever change my mind I'll write under another name, but for now I'm feeling good with the decision I made, I made it with my eyes open and it's a relief, really, because-personally and I must stress it's a personal thing - I couldn't do it the hard way again.
    A bit of a ramble, I know, but you made me think.

  14. Part of it, Phillipa, is that I know I couldn't write a book that lots of people would want to buy - I tried. I put a year and countless edits into Company of Fellows. And it's awful. Shocking, in fact. And I didn't really enjoy writing it - I felt like I was shoehorning myself. The fact I've tried and know I can't is one of the reasons I get cross with people who write off "commercial" books because "they're easy to write" - they're not. Well, they might be but the one thing I can say for sure is they're beyond me.

  15. I get your point, Dan. I found it impossible to make decorative artwork. To make prints of flowers and 'over the sofa' stuff made me depressed, I couldn't do it, I simply couldn't because my heart wasn't in it and I'd rather walk away than make commercial saleable art. But writing for some reason feels different. I know I have to respect the conventions of the genre I'm in, but within that framework I gave myself free rein, and it seems to have worked. When they asked for a sqeuel I remember walking out of their offices thinking wow, I have NEVER been directed in what I had to produce in my life. It's been a challenge, but one I've really got into, because there is still enough scope to be creative. Up to a point, and of course I can't cross pass that point or I'll lose my audience and I guess I have decided to look at it as show business, as popular culture, as a scriptwriter or designer working on a big movie - you still get to come up with ideas and create but you are given the parameters and the fun is in pushing out the boundraries of that genre or particular form of popular culture - like the Simpsons screenwriters.

  16. Well, it's been a while, but here I am again. And this little thread is right on the head.
    In fact it's why I attached the shoes' strings to my own (blog).
    Many years ago (sad to admit) I submitted a work to 50 places and got 50 rejections minus one. I knew the one would take it to heart. It was the one I least wanted because it would yield the least prestige (to my mind) and money, beng a very small eclectic press of 'lost literature'.
    My whole manuscript was duly read. We spoke on the phone. As usual, I was told the work (DEER) was very good, well written, but 'frankly, very o d d'. I of course took that as a compliment. The editor and the imprint partners did not. The main publisher simply couldn't sink company money into an unclassifiable, anachronistic, longshot oddity. I had started the conversation something like "I know you won't make much money on this. . .but. . ." Yes, I did.
    I used Graduate School profs (nice) and Loans to work on the thing. A work of genius I was told. I resubmitted it to the same quirky press. Now it had 3 imprint partners which corresponded to a novel grown to a Trilogy. DEER, the first book of the 3 was cut 100 pages. "Thank you for sending us the skinnied-down version." Still unpublishable. It arrived on my doorstep in a dishevelled heap as if a terradactyl had lazily dropped it, half-opened.
    Finally, I realized I had accomplished my goal: I'd created a text so out of line with the 'modern requirements' for fiction, that even the quirkiest press refused it.

    If I publish it myself, I don't pay back the huge Student Loan, I don't have a necessary audience, and I still have to pour infinite measures of thought and time and yet more money into how to convince someone to read it.

    Perhaps it has its time in the future (revision is always underway with a Classic work of Real Literature one hopes to arrive before one's death, perhaps).Moody as Doestoevsky, darkly inuendo-filled, mazey as Nabokov, ludicrous as . ..(fill in your favourite), and a frolic fest like. . .(your lighter work will do here). . .

    Perhaps it has trained me that there is another term for great and incomprehensible and eternal. Some Lit is simply not 'of this world'. I'm not sure why. I'm not sure there is an answer, but after 27 years and 50 revisions and after writing much else and returning to it again and again, I begin to believe it might be the author. . .Is she necessarily nuts? ( I mean past the high literary faddish sense of nuts) or is it just the time she lives in? Or is she the inviolable bona fide product of our times?

    Anyway, it gives me a link to the inner workings of that rarefied air and I may enter it and like the Scholar Gypsy, never return again. . . except in fragments, maybe.

  17. MM - lovely to see you! And Phillipa, thank you so much. Am on the hoof now but I will answer at respectful length of the morrow!!

  18. Phillipa, you are that idyllic combination of artist and pragmatist. I am of course envious. I don't/didn't have a blueprint for any of my 'literary' lit-work save my fairy tales, which are Very cliche and intentionally so. I respect those who choose to follow a pattern (genre?) and innovate. It is survival. Balancing outer and inner.

  19. I have to ask: What publisher, if any, actually offered you a contract? I'm guessing no one did.

    Which makes this theoretical rejection of a nonexistent contract offer kind of, well, pathetic to read, sort of like walking into a stranger's house and refusing an untendered offer to stay for dinner.