When Publishers Fail: publishing and author service

So there’s this book, recently out, looks exactly my cup of tea, and a friend I trust recommended it wholeheartedly. Woop! I zoomed off to one-click, saw the publisher, and stopped.

Oh, I thought. It’s published by them. Meh. I’ll get the sample first.

I’ve abandoned several books from this publisher in the past because I’d found the editing unacceptably poor. I now hesitated, very seriously, over buying a book that I wanted–because the publisher was a significant strike against it.

And yes, I’m a nitpicking editor, but here’s something I read just today from the excellent romance book/food blogger Elisabeth Lane:

I recently closed my blog to unsolicited ARC submissions and I’m slowly working through a very small backlog of Netgalley advance titles. I don’t think I’ll be opening it back up any time soon. The reason is at least partially aesthetic. There are a lot of badly-written, badly-edited books out there. … I’m tired of feeling like I have to sort through a ton of chaff to get to the wheat […]

I had stopped enjoying myself. I’d read so many bad books in a row–books with no conflict, books with glimmers of a strong voice that wasn’t fully realized, books with dubious or incoherent themes and moral positions, books with cardboard characters that never move beyond archetypes and yes, books with typos, grammar errors, missing words and other mechanical defects in inexcusable quantities.

Now, if you’re self published and you decide not to use an editor, that’s your business decision. But if you’re with a publisher who doesn’t edit–if they make the business decision to put out your book in poor shape because they don’t know or care that it should be better, if their imprimatur is not a guarantee of anything like quality, if their editing is no better than you’d get from your mate who reads lots of books, if bloggers and readers are looking at your book and saying, Meh…remind me why you’re handing over 60% net receipts again?

Publishing is an author service industry. Publishers provide a set of services to make the book good, an imprimatur to tell people it’s good, a sales and marketing structure to get the book to readers; and they take all the financial risk for these things. In return for these services, the publisher gets a cut of the book’s revenues. When publishers fail to provide these services, when their imprint is no longer a guarantee of quality, the reason for authors to give them money disappears.

There are publishers that don’t pay for proofreading. There are those whose editorial fees are absurdly below professional rates, which makes you wonder who’s doing the work, and how fast they have to do it to eat. There are some that don’t pay editors at all and simply use people who do it ‘for love’, or, to put that in French, amateurs.  I’m well aware editing is a huge cost, of course, especially to small publishers. But if I go to a cake shop and ask for a cake, I don’t expect to be handed a bowl of raw flour, eggs and butter, on the grounds that ovens are just too expensive so they decided not to bake the damn thing. (For the avoidance of doubt: I am not talking about my own publishers, with whom I am extremely happy.)

Of course, it’s very easy to say, ‘Don’t go with a publisher that doesn’t edit properly!’ but let’s be honest, most aspiring authors would sign pretty much anything, with anyone, to get the first book published. (“Beelzebub Books, Inc? My name in blood? Sure!”) But as you develop a few books, a readership, a sales history, you can look at the deal again, as well as at what’s being offered to the reading public with your name on it. Because if the trad pub deal ceases to be worthwhile–if it doesn’t include good editing, cover design, marketing support, the halo effect of being with a respected publisher, a decent royalty split–authors can and should move to other publishers, or self pub, or a hybrid publishing strategy without a second’s hesitation. Once again: the publisher’s split of the receipts is their payment for services. If you’re not getting adequate service, why are you paying?

Don’t get me wrong: I love publishing. I believe in it as a good thing for authors and readers and the future of books. As an author, I would far rather be with a publisher, big or small, and work and succeed together. (That’s not to disrespect self publishers, it’s simply my personal preference.) As a reader, I want to be able to one-click a book with a blithe certainty that it will be properly edited and proofread simply because it carries a publisher’s imprimatur. But to make that work, publishers have to serve their authors properly, because if they don’t they will lose both authors and readers. Which is why a publisher that skimps on those obligations to its authors  is chipping away at its own future.


ThinkOfEngland72webKJ Charles is a very happily published romance author with Samhain and, coming this summer, Loveswept. She’s also a freelance editor with twenty years’ publishing experience. Her latest book is Jackdaw, out now, and her novel Think of England just won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.

My Manifesto for Global Book Dictatorship

I would like to submit my candidacy for Global Book Dictator, with full responsibility for all book-related matters everywhere. Here’s what you can expect from my ruthlessly autocratic regime.

The following will be instantly banned

  • Rubberized covers. The ones that make your fingertips feel weird, like the book is wearing a condom.
  • The use of the following in sex scenes: rod, nubbin, turgid, pebbled, intimate fold, rosebud. The use of ‘turgid’ anywhere at any time.
  • Fantasy book covers with the woman managing to showcase both her bum and her breasts to the viewer. (If you haven’t read Jim C Hines on this, do so.)

tits ass

If you want to try this position, I accept no responsibility for subsequent physiotherapy costs.

  • Snide remarks about publishers or authors “just trying to make money”, like that’s a weird thing for businesses and self-employed people to do.
  • Pink or blue on the covers of children’s books. The use of ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ ditto. In fact, any gendering of children’s books whatsoever.

The following will be placed under a three-year moratorium to see what happens if we have to do something else

  • Books about shifters. There is now a werehedgehog romance out there. The madness must end.
  • The Regency period. I love a good Regency romance but there are now more fictional Regency couples than there were people alive in England at the time.
  • Novels about writers writing or failing to write novels. Novels by graduates of writing courses about being on writing courses. Novels by literary people who went to Oxbridge about… etc. Yes, they say write about what you know, but damn.

The following will be strongly encouraged, possibly with government grants

  • Three hours of free editorial advice for everyone writing their first novel, as long as they commit to putting the damn thing in a bottom drawer without asking anyone else to read it, and writing another book instead.
  • Either all interviews will comment on the author’s physical appearance and include a sultry picture, or none will. I’m leaning towards ‘all’ because I’d like to see George RR Martin forced to pout sexily by a lake, but I’d be happy with ‘none’ and never reading a journalist’s assessment of a female author’s body again.
  • The return of double covers with die cut, so you have a hole through which you see the picture on the next page, 1980s horror novel style. I want these for all genres, including literary fiction and economics textbooks.


eyes 2

Just look how cool this is.

Vote for me as Global Book Dictator!

Anything to add to the manifesto? Comment away…