Are Big Publishers Compromising their Authors?

I read a book recently by one of my favourite thriller writers but was disappointed because it wasn’t up to his usual standard. The book extended to 500 pages in print but I felt that it should have been no longer than 250 – 300 pages. At 250 – 300 pages it would have been a good book but for me there were too many forced twists that were unconvincing.

To illustrate my point, here is a brief synopsis:

The protagonist worked for a protection agency in the US and he was assigned to protect a family from someone who wanted to obtain information bypolice-man-standing-smiling-12425-svg violent means. At first it was suspected that the father would have the requisite information as he was a law enforcement officer but it transpired that it wasn’t him. It may have been a convincing twist if played only once but that twist was carried out repeatedly. The author worked his way through each member of the family, four of them altogether, until eventually the person holding the information turned out to be the 16 year old daughter. Without all these unnecessary additional twists it could still have been a very good plot, which leads me to believe that the fault doesn’t lie with the author.

It isn’t the first time I have noticed this; the same thing has happened with other good authors. When I checked out the reviews of this particular book they reiterated what I was thinking and cited examples of other popular and talented authors where this sort of thing had happened. I’m not convinced that it’s because the author has run out of ideas. Take the above example; it would still have been a good book if it had been much shorter. No, I think the problem may lie with the publishers and here’s why:

When I studied for my writing course many years ago we learnt the way in which the major publishing houses operate. Once an author has signed up with them they will require the author to produce a set number of books over a certain time period and will also specify the required minimum word count per book. Therefore, on occasion authors may be forced to stretch a plot beyond the bounds of credibility.Clipartsalbum_16620 Books

At that time (about 15 years ago) I was informed by my tutor that publishers wouldn’t consider any novel of less than 80,000 words. In fact, the trend was for novels in excess of 100,000 words. I don’t know what the current requirements are but, in view of the above, I wonder whether these are still the same.

While I would be I liar if I said that I wouldn’t consider going with a traditional publisher if I was to be given the opportunity, the above is one of the factors that I would have to think long and hard about. Here are some other factors that are worth considering should you decide to follow the traditional publishing route:

  • How do the royalties compare to the rate you receive as an independent author?
  • Would any increase in sales compensate for the fact that this rate would be substantially less than the rate of 70% (in most cases and after VAT) currently enjoyed by authors independently published through Amazon?
  • How much promotion would your publishers undertake on your behalf?
  • Would your book be stocked by major book store chains?
  • Would you have any say in the choice of book cover design and the book’s title?
  • How much advance would you receive?
  • How long would you have to wait for your royalty payments?
  • What would the time lapse be between completion of the book and publication date?
  • Would you be expected to make public appearances etc.?

What ifFor anybody who is offered a contract with a major publishing house it is easy to become so carried away with the excitement that you lose objectivity and don’t think about all the implications. As independent authors we have autonomy and are used to making all the decisions ourselves. I therefore think it is important not to lose sight of this and I wonder how it would feel to have all of these decisions taken out of our hands.

On the one hand it would perhaps free up more time to focus on writing because you might get more help with editing, proofreading, formatting and promotion. However, on the other hand, how would it feel to be told, for example, that you couldn’t use your own title for your own book?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this one.

6 thoughts on “Are Big Publishers Compromising their Authors?

  1. Very interesting post. But what would worry me most, aside from the questions you ask, is what you imply in the actual article: would the publisher try to influence the content of my book? Would they try to change my story? to tell me how to write it? what to write? how long it should be? what twists and turns it should have? after all it is MY book, not theirs. This is ultimately what would worry me most.

    • Thanks for your feedback Martina. This is the impression I got from what I learnt on my writing course. I also watched a documentary once about a famous author (I can’t remember now who it was). An editor from the publishing company came to visit the author and suggested major changes to her manuscript and she was getting really stressed about it.
      I haven’t got first hand knowledge though so I might have a blinkered view but I have read a lot on the topic over the years. I definitely feel more informed than I did years ago when I would have settled for a publishing deal at any cost. I think the opportunities that independent publishing has opened up nowadays puts authors in a stronger position too.

  2. I appreciate what you are saying Heather. Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book is very long compared to his earlier ones. It is also pretty tedious in my opinion. No doubt he was also forced to write such a long book, which is a sequel to one of his earlier books – this despite the fact he once said he’d never write a sequel to anything he had written. Traditional publishing deals sound like a mixed blessing although the kudos would be good, and an advance of any kind is no doubt more than the vast majority of Indie writers will make from their book/s in the short term at least. Self publishing can work well and might be a better alternative for many, but it is a very long term commitment. I like the idea of a distribution deal whereby the publishers distribute your books to bookshops and you keep the ebook rights. This was an interesting post. Have a good weekend.

  3. Thanks for your feedback Guy. Your idea of a deal where the publishers distribute the print books to bookshops but the author retains the eBook rights sounds like an interesting proposition and I wonder how smoothly this would work in practice. I also think that the amount of advance would also be a major factor for any author. 🙂

  4. You have made so many interesting points here Heather. Like you in the past I would have jumped at an offer from a publisher but the more I hear about it the more I don’t like the sound of it. The most recent thing I heard about traditional publishing is that a new clause is appearing in many authors contracts which states that the author has to sell x number of books themselves within a certain period of time otherwise they are dropped and lose the rights to their books! Really! It seems more and more to me that there are fewer and fewer advantages to being trad published for most authors although there is of course always the lure that maybe, just maybe your book will be the one that becomes the big hit and obviously there’s more chance of that happening if you’re with a publisher.

    I would also hate anyone telling me to change my story/characters/setting/title though I guess if you got the deal you would just have to put up with that!

    • Thanks for the feedback Georgia. I think the key is to be aware of publishers’ practices and to make sure that you always read the fine print on any potential contract. 🙂

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