Your power in publishing

One of the things that has seen much debate in the last few days is a handful of sentences on the (now renamed) Harlequin Horizons website, which stated that editors would be watching products from the Harlequin Horizons line, with an eye towards inclusion in the “traditional” Harlequin imprints for manuscripts that enjoyed particular success. I can’t find that line on the new website of DellArte press, and much ink has been spilled (or rather, many pixels have been arranged?) into attacking that particular line, both as a positive (if it’s true, why not disclose it?) and as a negative (holding out hopes and dreams that are unlikely to be fulfilled).

I don’t want to talk about the pros and cons or whether it’s misleading or what have you. My reaction was slightly different, and it went like this: I was a little taken aback by the implication that someone would be doing you a favor for publishing you once you’d proven yourself a commercial success. Commercial publishing, like just about every other for-profit business, doesn’t generally make its money off of doing people favors.

New writers, I think, train themselves to think about publication as a gift from the gods, and so a statement along the lines of “if you prove your commercial success, we will include it in our traditional publishing program”–to a new writer, this signals the heavens opening up and glory shining down upon you. Someone might think that this is akin to a lowly worm being crowned.

But if you have a proven commercial success, no matter who you published it with, you are not in the position of beggar at the publishing industry’s table any longer. Whether you published originally with DellArte or Westbow Press; whether you release it for Kindle, or do it yourself entirely with Lightning Source, whether it is produced by Dorchester or Harlequin or Pocket–it really doesn’t matter. No traditional publisher is going to walk away from a commercially viable project that they believe will make money just because you self-published first with Lightning Source instead of LuLu. They care about the success, not the source.

(They may walk away from the project because no editor wants to champion it; or because it’s too similar to something else they have in the works; or because they don’t have the expertise to market that kind of work. But those are separate questions.)

And so my beef with that line is that it encourages people to continue to think of themselves as beggars after they’ve proven themselves to be businesspeople. Have you made a success of yourself with self-publishing? Have a little more chutzpah. You deserve it.

If you’ve proven your ability to be a commercial success, especially through the vagaries of self-publishing, you opened up the heavens, you found the glory, and yes, someone will want to publish you. Not as a gift or as a reward, and certainly not because the publishing industry likes wasting its crowns on worms, but for one reason only: they believe they can make a profit off of you. And you should not respond to positive overtures as if those offering them are strange and distant aliens come to uplift you to success; you should treat them as business partners, and you should choose to work with someone who you think will do the most to help expand your commercial success.

If you’re a commercial success, you’re not a beggar. You’re not a worm. You’re not beholden to anyone for their transcendent grace. (Neither are you a god descending from on high to grace them with your magnificent presence either; don’t get carried away.) Remember that it’s a symbiotic relationship, and if you’re a proven commercial success, you have as much to offer the publishing industry as it has to offer you.

Act like an equal, because you are one.

15 thoughts on “Your power in publishing

  1. Excellent post, Courtney, and you’re exactly right. It’s one reason why the “giving your book the chance it deserves” wording of so many scams and vanity presses bugs me so much.

  2. You wrote: “…and if you’re a proven commercial success, you have as much to offer the publishing industry as it has to offer you.”

    Very true, Courtney, and a good point for those who have (unfortunately) been made to feel somehow inferior for choosing to take a different route.

    I think the point also needs to be made that no one is doing you a favour even if you have NOT already proved yourself to be commercially successful. I know you didn’t meant to imply otherwise and I agree with what you’ve said here, but the same goes for any writer receiving an offer from a publisher (or agent). It’s a business decision with profit in mind. No writer should ever enter into that kind of situation feeling lowly or unworthy.

  3. Yes, absolutely, BCB. I completely accept your generalized statement. Maybe what I should have said is: this is not a business that should ever be cast in terms of one party doing another “favors.”

  4. I agree completely. When I teach my Warrior Writer workshop, one thing I point out is published authors who talk badly about themselves; who say they hope they don’t have to get a ‘real’ job.
    I heard a best-selling author on a panel advise writers not to quit their day job to try to make a living as a writer. I’ve heard that many times. This time, though, I took it differently. Writing is my day job and I’m not going to quit it.

  5. I write almost everyday and I’m not published (yet). I treat it like a part time job, as well as with my blog. I don’t get paid for it, but that is not the point. So many think something must have a monetary value in order for it to be rewarding.

  6. Love your take on the same thing I’ve heard, but really this needs to be a rally cry with authors. Your book is the product and a publisher has seen it’s selling points and bought the product. Or contracted it.

    Love the post.

  7. Yes to this.

    More writers should be able to value their work without a Real Publisher’s stamp of approval, but yeah, it takes real guts. It’s hard to kick that obedience to authority… that desire for a widely-recognized stamp of approval. I hear so many people say, “I’m not published yet, so I’m not a Real Writer.”

    For a lot of people, it’s hard to feel like a true success unless you win in a way that everyone else gives the nod to, like getting your degree from a so-called good school, rather than a community college. No matter how good the education, or how smart you are, you may still feel insecure compared to your Yale and Harvard graduate friends.

    In my critique group, all anyone cares about is getting in print by a Real Publisher from the Inscrutable Publishing Coalition. Anything else wouldn’t count — they told me as much, when I asked.

    If this is true, I don’t wonder that writers don’t have more confidence in their own negotiations. By their definitions, their successes aren’t true wins. They still have that not-published-yet feeling, and still think of themselves as beggars at the table.

    I think that, for some, even making $100,000 in self-published revenue wouldn’t have the same sparkle as making $10,000 with a Real Publisher.

  8. Kat said: “I think that, for some, even making $100,000 in self-published revenue wouldn’t have the same sparkle as making $10,000 with a Real Publisher.”

    Wow, this is so true. And this is odd because it’s opposite to most other things in life. Usually, it seems like you value things more if you work hard for them. And it seems to me that in many ways, you’d have to work harder in order to be a success with self-publishing (which I don’t think this Harlequin endeavor qualifies as, but that’s a different point).

    So, why do you think that’s the case? I don’t think most writers are in this for the money. So, it seems more like it’s an affirmation thing. Are we all so insecure that we want someone from “on high” to tell us that we’re good? Maybe getting $10 from a bunch of people gives less affirmation than $10K from one person? Maybe because we’d recognize that someone took a risk on us?

    Interesting post, Courtney, Thanks!
    Jami G.

  9. Jami G.,

    It’s about validation. Authors are always looking for it. Even in my critique group, the ones who believe in their writing the most still have a defensive “not-published-yet” edginess. Especially if they’ve already gotten rejected — everyone intellectually “knows” that rejection doesn’t mean their stuff is crap, but it almost always opens the door for self-doubt.

    Writing something that really works is so hard to start with, it’s horrible to have an open-ended sense of, “Is this right? Did I do good?” And it’s so reassuring to have a Real Publisher tell you that yes, you have value.

    This comment was getting lengthy and technical (cognitive & behavior science background), so I moved it over onto my blog here: http://www.adelejournal.com/2009/12/harlequins-lameness-cialdini101/

    I thought it was way too nerdy and long-winded to afflict people with!

  10. Kat,

    Yes, ‘validation’ is a better word than my choice of ‘affirmation’. I think we all get to the point as writers (well, I know I do anyway), where we don’t trust our judgment on our writing anymore. After a round of revisions, we think our writing is great until we think of something new and even better. Then what we used to think was great, we now think is crap. :)

    Jami G.

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