Writing in the Digital Age: R-E-S-P-E-C-T the Diva

One of the sharpest lessons of the digital revolution has been that authors who had been treated poorly by publishers were eager to take their case (or books, as may be) directly to the readers. Publishing professionals are still having some trouble wrapping their minds around the concept of authors actually enjoying sharing their work directly with readers (and, even better, getting paid to do so). Bestselling authors, who are well treated, also seem to be having trouble with the idea of ignoring the gatekeepers. There’s buzz about an interview on the The Daily Beast where Jodi Picoult offers advice (in all caps, no less) that writers not self publish.

For many decades before the digital age, authors (even some bestsellers, but mostly those who were not) tended to feel they were like little Oliver Twist — holding up a bowl, hoping for more gruel, but expecting to be roundly scolded for doing so. Respect, for most of us, was a one way street.

Once, when I was working on the fourth book of a series for my publisher, DH took a summer research fellowship at NASA. We packed up the kids and ourselves and re-located to Huntsville for six weeks. Being a believer in communication, I let my editor know my new address, and also told her there was a week where I would be unavailable to turn edits around for the third book due to the summer schedule.

Naturally, the edits arrived exactly when I specified they should not. I had seen friends and other authors deal with this situation (one choosing to bring her edits on vacation with her!). But I contacted the editor and told her I would not be able to meet the deadline set for return of the edits. She and I set a (very short) turnaround window that allowed me (not much) more time. She seemed to think she was doing me a huge favor, instead of accommodating me as I had accommodated her several times already. This was not a surprise to me, as I’d understood the one way street nature of the biz before I signed my first contract. I didn’t like it, but it was the only way to be published.

Not any longer.

Anyone who has done their homework on the writing profession has seen the advice given freely and often to aspiring writers: don’t be a diva. This behavior was defined broadly and included sending in multiple submissions, contacting an agent by phone with a query, sending anything other than what the particular agent/editor requested, etc. The infamous “manuscript under the bathroom stall door” was usually mentioned.

It grated on me even back when I was a young aspiring writer and observed that diva behavior often led to sales for the diva. I believe in being polite and exhibiting mutual respect. But these same editors and agents who were demanding good manners from authors were not exhibiting the same. Right now, there are many agencies whose policy states that silence means no. This is not only discourteous, it demonstrates a lack of respect bordering on contempt. And yet I’ve met some of the agents with the agencies that have this policy. They are polite, kind, truly interested in getting good books published. Authors who find a place with them may be (like lottery winners) lucky to find the right editor and make that all important sale.

Of course, actually being published by a traditional publisher comes with its own surreal air of disrespect: contract negotiations rife with “non-negotiable” clauses, deadlines to suit the publishing staff’s schedule (which the author must not miss, but the publisher can take as advisory), the author-as-the-last-to-know when ARCs are sent out or a pub date is changed. After you’ve survived a few years, you do begin to understand the temptation to be a diva.

If one party has no respect for the other, then it isn’t any wonder that being a diva could be a successful business tactic. After all, every one of us knows someone in our lives who plays the diva and gets what she (or he) wants. We are even a little awed by someone who has the inviolable belief that she deserves exactly what she wants when she wants it (admit it, you are!). I sometimes wonder where my career would have gone if I was able to play the diva every now and again back then.

Which is not to imply that playing the Diva card always ends up in success. I observed my share of Diva turns ending in disaster, too.

So, what do publishers and agents respect (then and now)?

  1. Big sales
  2. Big buzz
  3. Celebrity cachet

Right now, those three things are hard to accomplish for an author who is not already an established bestseller. Bookstores are closing and reducing stock on the shelves at the same time that more books are being published than ever before. Not only are authors choosing to go directly to the readers with their indie published books, but smaller cooperatives and publishing boutiques are springing up all over (BookView Cafe, to name a successful example).

So what is an author to do? Search for the Inner Diva, and bring her out when needed. Respect your work. Reward those who respect your work by respecting them back. Ignore or work around long-ingrained industry contempt for the author.

The world, she is a changing. But it takes some time for the clueless to catch on. The right dose of Divatude may just clue in the clueless.

Kelly McClymer is an opinionated new member of Book View Cafe, and a cheerleader of writers reaching readers however they can. You can visit her on her desperately-in-need-of-update website; Follow her on Twitter, hang with her onGoogle+, Like her on FaceBook, and share Pinterests with her. Oh, and she’s on Goodreads, too (once a reader, always a reader)



Writing in the Digital Age: R-E-S-P-E-C-T the Diva — 9 Comments

  1. What a fabulous post. I have had these things happen to me and have seen them happen to others. What to do when handed a quick turnaround at a time when you specifically said, “I can’t?”

    That is a really tough one, because we’ve now moved into an era when this happens to everybody, not just writers. My husband has handled work issues from England when we were on our second honeymoon. A few short years earlier that would have been impossible. He was glad to be able to handle it himself, since the alternative was to return to his desk with a disaster waiting.

    I wonder if when we’re looking at “self-publishing” we’re looking at th difference between being employed and being an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs don’t have to answer to anybody. They set their own hours (which generally means longer and harder since they’re doing so much more) and standards. Entrepreneurs take all the risks on themselves, and either watch their dreams come to nothing or hopefully, reach a sustaining financial success level.

    Writing for a publisher (if it’s a major publisher) provides “benefits” the self-published don’t have. I’d prefer the benefits, but am also taking on the entrepreneurial mantle.

    • What a great point. Smart phones create this kind of demand for everyone nowadays. My daughter came for a visit recently, and she had her work laptop, so she could do a few things while she was away. Used to be a get away actually got you away.

      For me, putting my own books out, means I’m a 100% partner in the business. With my publishers, I’ve been an 8-15% partner. Originally, traditional publishing was meant to be more of 50-50 split, but digital publishing has really made clear how that model has changed. Authors still get 8-25% of cover price for hardcover/paperback, but “industry standard” for ebooks is 25% of *net* — and the publisher can play with the price at will, so the author is never sure what the per ebook percentage will be.

      When you think about it that way, you can understand why publishers and agents don’t listen to authors as much as we think they should — our percentage share makes us very junior partners…in their eyes.

  2. Right. And they’re coming from a different angle as well: they’re seeing this as a business and your work as “product,” analogous to toothpaste. Editors and some of the personnel above and around them have the view of authors as human and their work as art (without which publishers would not exist), but when the proverbial push gets in there and starts shoving, they’ll protect their jobs before they’ll protect you.

    Because there are still thousands (and I mean thousands) of writers eager to take your place. It’s supply and demand. If one of us doesn’t sell or becomes too “uppity,” we are extremely easy to replace–unless we’re bestsellers; then we’re given a whole different level of respect. But there are only a very few major publishers left. They’re like any of the rest of the 1%. They abuse writers because they can–and because there’s no downside to it.

    The rise of ebooks has thrown a wrench in this system, but it’s still too early to say what the real and full effect will be. I believe publishers will continue to exist, and will find ways to thrive. I don’t think this is a bad thing, at all. What I hope (and it may be a complete daydream) is that authors may have and keep more power, and publishers will become much less powerful while still providing certain useful services (editing, art direction, PR, distribution–and let us never forget the most useful one of all: advances).

    I agree with Jodi Picoult in one sense: would-be writers who “don’t want to bother with the hassle of rejection” almost always are not bothering to learn their craft before they consider themselves “published” (and therefore qualified to offer advice about writing and publishing). Just because you have a barn and have put on a show doesn’t mean you’re worthy of a Tony Award–or that you know anything at all about what it takes to produce a show at that level.

    So. Complicated question. Heavily dependent on the individual writer and situation.

    Specifically, on the Diva question, I am notoriously invisible to readers (writer’s writer to the point of vanishment), but I was always able to get extra time on deadlines by being unfailingly professional and courteous to my editors, going through my agent when I got rippy and snarly, and establishing a reputation for being good (though not easy, i.e. a pushover) to work with. Just basic smart tactics in any business setting. Which is something that maybe younger writers haven’t managed to find out about–and those who go the DIY route never will.

    • I believe publishers will continue to exist, and will find ways to thrive. I don’t think this is a bad thing, at all.

      I think it’s an excellent thing. What I would like to see, however, is the return of the bibliophile publisher: publishing driven by a desire to find interesting voices, produce the best possible book, and showcase that product to an audience. This means looking for writers, it means taking chances on books that aren’t easily classifiable, it means publishing a wide spectrum of books.
      Publishers who see books as an interchangable commodity are provably getting it wrong: in an age of declining mainstream book sales, readers are flocking to niche writers and authors catering to their individual tastes, so we’re not tired of reading, we’re just tired of reading the same old same old. Publishers who don’t understand how readers think will probably survive only in the (still lucrative) supermarket-bestseller market.

      (In the past two years, I’ve had one Big Six book on my to-buy-list, and I’m waiting for the paperback as I refuse to play DRM games.)

  3. I beg to differ with Ms. McClymer here: The behavior described in the OP doesn’t come from the money split.

    Rather, I’d say Ms. Tarr is more on track: Both the abusive behavior and the scant share are natural consequences of a drastic power imbalance.

    That’s why successful, “big name” authors don’t have to put up with the abuse: When someone else has something you want, and they don’t have to give it to you, they have power over you. When you also have something they want, and could easily take it elsewhere, that rebalances the power relation.

    The advent of e-books will slightly ease the traditional imbalance between publisher and author… but perhaps not as much as the author would like. The thing is, E-pubbing lets the author reclaim one piece of the publisher’s power base, that being basic access to distribution. But that still leaves the publisher with marketing channels, experienced editing staff, bargaining power with the big sales outlets, and surely much more.

    Of course, the author could handle some of those — but only by doing much, much, more work than is traditional for their role, and taking on many risks and expenses that are traditionally covered by the publisher. In terms of relative power, that translates to a weak limit on publisher power: The author could handle their own editors, marketing, etc.… but that’s a lot of trouble, and they’d mostly rather not. However, if the publisher pisses them off enough to make it worth the trouble….

    Another issue to reckon with is that the publisher’s power over the author gives the author some paradoxical benefits: Much like a lawyer or doctor, the publisher’s people (editor, proofreader, marketer, etc.), can correct the author when they’re wrong. And that means a better book, better publicity, and less risk of an expensive and painful crash-and-burn.

    • Dave, you don’t actually disagree with me (I didn’t claim the money split caused the disrespect, but that it reflected it).

      There are two kinds of power at work here: the power of the Big, and the power of the Many. Publishers (even small publishers) have the power of the big (writers want to be published more than publishers want to publish any specific author, but their mega bestsellers). Right now, in this moment, Amazon (and to a lesser extent, Smashwords and PubIt) has provided the Many with a weapon to counterbalance the power of the Big. Distribution. Historically, of course, the Many have been divided and pitted against each other by the Big. That may happen again (it only takes one shift by Amazon to the side of the Big to scatter the Many).

      I say, Power to the People. For as long as we can wield it. Maybe we’ll get a little lingering respect out of the deal. Maybe.

      • There are two kinds of power at work here: the power of the Big, and the power of the Many.

        An interesting point… but there are non-trivial interactions between the two, notably, that the publisher’s power depends on that of their readers. And while Amazon has distributed some power to the Many authors, it’s not at all clear that the latter are gaining collective power, because they still can’t band together very well. And then too, Amazon exacts a price for their beneficence….

        There is a school of thought that says readers will serve this function in the digital future … it is interesting to consider what that would look like (a million tiny editors…)

        It would be like getting nibbled to death by ducks! As I just commented (still in moderation) on the “High Concept” post, not all readers want the same thing! A big part of what an editor provides is having their expertise (and a share of artistic vision) in one person, so the author can negotiate sensibly with them. Doing that negotiation with two or three people is disproportionately more difficult. I can’t see doing it with a dozen, or three dozen or a hundred people… some of whom likely want a different book altogether! (“Whattya mean, the prince doesn’t marry the princess! What’s how these stories go….”)

        • Self-correction: the prior comment I referred to was/will be under “Literary Authority”, not “High Concept”. I plead distraction….

    • Another issue to reckon with is that the publisher’s power over the author gives the author some paradoxical benefits: Much like a lawyer or doctor, the publisher’s people (editor, proofreader, marketer, etc.), can correct the author when they’re wrong. And that means a better book, better publicity, and less risk of an expensive and painful crash-and-burn.

      I wanted to address this specifically. I have had fabulous editors in my career. I highly value them. But I don’t value them over the fabulous beta readers and critique partners I’ve had (except for, of course, their ability to actually buy and publish my book).

      There is a school of thought that says readers will serve this function in the digital future (it is much easier to address critic’s or reader’s valid concerns with a digital edition than in a print edition).

      I don’t know how I feel about that, but it is interesting to consider what that would look like (a million tiny editors vs one big one…hmmmm).