Friday, March 26, 2004

Jane Austen wasn't as naive as this

There's been a minor flurry of interest on the web in an article published at by one Jane Austen Doe -- a pseudonymous American writer, apparently female. You can read her tale of woe online for free, but only if you watch an advert first.

In this article, J A Doe tells a not unusual story of how her first book earned her a largish advance ($150,000) but didn't sell very well, and how, thereafter, she found it difficult to find another publisher to take her work. She goes on to complain about how awful publishers are, and what a miserable life it is being a writer.

Well, yes. And then again, no. Some people, of course, would think J A Doe was damn lucky to get $150,000 in the first place.

As for the rest of it.... Well, there are undoubtedly a great number of naive souls out there who think that publishing owes a living to everyone capable of putting a book together. But, whatever impression you may have gained to the contrary, I am not among their number.

For anyone who has been around the writing and publishing business for a few decades, the situation is now perfectly clear. Publishers exist to make money. All the big publishers, with the odd exception, are part of enormous conglomerates which, while not actually being called Enron and WorldCom, might as well be, because they share the same attitudes. The bottom line is all. I don't have any problem with that. My criticism is that most publishers are very bad at making a profit. Many of them are, in short, less than competent.

As a writer, would-be or actual, you mix with these people at your peril. Even with a good agent, you are weak and essentially powerless. Your position vis-a-vis the publisher is far weaker than that of suppliers in relation to supermarkets. And if you've been following the financial pages with even half an eye recently, you will know that said suppliers have a list of complaints about how they are treated which is rather longer than the average arm on an orang-utan. Suppliers complain, just for starters, about such things as slow payment, changes in the terms of a contract after it is signed, and being made to contribute to marketing costs. All of these have parallels in the publisher/writer relationship.

So I'm sorry, J A Doe, but your whole approach strikes me as being a bit dumb. And to anyone else who feels like writing a book, my advice is -- take a long hard look over the wall before you jump.

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