Thursday, May 20, 2010

Collateral damage

by Michael

I really feel for authors. Partly because it’s my job, but also because I work with them closely and know how hard the business can be. I wrote a bit about rejection the other day, that being rejection from editors, agents and other “gatekeepers.” But then there’s rejection from the buying public. Sometimes books just don’t sell—the book doesn’t find its intended audience. Worse, sometime people buy the book and then explain to the world, via blog, or tweet or Amazon review, why they hate it. Those reviews sting. But I think there’s something that has to be even tougher: when readers reject your work, without having read it, because of a decision made by the publisher—in fact, they may boycott the book to make a point. But as John Scalzi smartly points out on his blog, the one getting punished isn’t the publisher, but the author.

There have been a couple of major brouhahas that caused readers to consider boycotting books from certain publishers. Earlier this year, there were calls for a boycott of Bloomsbury books over their perceived whitewashing of covers, and there’s quite the Amazon backlash to titles not available in the Kindle format. As Scalzi rightly points out, when one boycotts a publisher, authors are hurt, not the publisher. The author benefits more from one book sale than the publisher suffers from a lost one, as the publisher has an entire list (and probably several other imprints, or even other businesses) from which to make money, while the author has just the one book.

Now, I know what you’re thinking—authors don’t have to be published by any one publisher (I’ll ignore that it’s often the case that only one publisher is willing to publish the book), so they have some say in the situation. But in the two examples above, the controversies didn’t exist when the author signed the contract, and in both cases, the authors had no control over the perceived malfeasance. Authors have control over so little in the publishing process, that singling any one book or author out just doesn’t make much sense.

Maybe you all disagree, and I’m open to hear your thoughts. I just hope people will think twice about who’s getting hurt.


  1. I'd never heard of boycotting a certain publisher, so it's nothing I have experience with, but what does bother me is when someone, or a group, tries to censor books from others. For instance, how Harry Potter was targeted by groups wanting to ban it from school libraries. If they don't want their own children reading, that's their right, but don't try to ban stuff from other people's children. They do NOT have that right. (Sorry, got a little carried away there!)

  2. "Boycott" might have worked in Ireland a hundred years ago but has neither purpose nor place these days. It doesn't work internationally, it won't work against publishers, and no decent person would participate.

  3. This seems to say that when a publisher does something wrong we accept it and buy the book anyway to keep from hurting the author? It gives us no recourse to do anything about opinions we disagree with -- about things that many of us feel hurt all of society. Is there a better way to object in a society where money speaks louder than people?

  4. I like this post. I agree that people lashing out and boycotting certain things can be ridiculous. Great to know that some people agree with the thought process I've had upon reading these 'boycott' requests.

  5. This is why I was annoyed with many of the comments about LIAR. The author couldn't have known they would put a white girl on the cover when she signed the contract, and it's only because she was already established that they changed it. I was thankful most of the commenters backed off after learning how little control even well-known authors often have once they've signed the contract, but the few who went as far as to claim she had no ethical principles for, basically, not being psychic really infuriated me.

    I do think ClothDragon has a point, though. I suppose one solution would be to write in after buying the book, threatening to boycott future books by that publisher unless it changes its ways. Such a threat would have to be followed through in great numbers to have any effect, though, and most publishers would probably view it as empty since it'd be hard to measure future loss of sales, especially if all authors under that publisher were boycotted. How would you compare expected sales to actual sales and trace the difference to the boycott, especially for debut authors? And it'd still be unfair to authors who were locked into multi-book deals or whose publishers had the right to look at their next book first. So ultimately, there probably isn't a solution that would punish the publishers but not harm authors who don't have the ability or opportunity to switch companies.

  6. I can honestly say that I don't even know who the publisher is when I buy books. That might change if I found out that a publishing house was torturing bunnies or something, but otherwise, I buy books that I want to read. Period.

  7. Nothing good ever comes of blaming the wrong person for something that someone else did.

    It's really sad to see these authors getting caught in the middle.

    With all the other pitfalls to avoid and stresses that writers have to cope with, it's sad to add to that list of worries the potential damage, intentional or otherwise, that their audience could do.

    You asked for our thoughts: I have to tell you I'm shaking my head. One star reviews of a book you haven't read because you can't get it on your Kindle right this instant? Seriously? Until this moment I never imagined anyone would do such a thing.

    It's something you never think about when you're up at 4am revising your manuscript(again) with dreams of sharing it with the world and hopes that people will embrace it.

    At least I didn't really think of it before today. It's frightening.

    Thank you for the thought provoking post.

  8. Usually when I write a review on my blog, it's because I love the book and want other people to know just how good it is. Why waste time telling people how awful something is when you could be telling them how great something else is?

    Only once did I compare two books dealing with the same subject and why I liked one, but didn't like the other. Perhaps I should have just stuck with the positive. Thanks for reminding me how powerful the written word is even when commenting on a book.

  9. On the upside of the whole Bloomsbury transgression, I ended up hearing about Magic Under Glass quite a bit. After reading the rave reviews from fellow Verla Kay memebers as well as Goodreads, I purchased the book. It was fantastic and I wonder if I would have been drawn to it without the added controversy.

  10. I agree with the thought that this sounds like letting the publisher get away with murder just to protect the authors. :(