Publishers Hate Authors? Really?

Without a doubt, the silliest publishing-related article I read this week was this one: “Why Book Publishers Hate Authors” by Michael Levin. (Although this one, which argues that e-reading isn’t really reading, runs a close second.)

Levin’s article is exactly what its title suggests: a screed on how, no matter how things might seem to the hopeful author or the uninformed observer, publishers just really despise authors. I mean, REALLY despise them. Why? Well, according to Levin, authors are flaky. They’re anti-social. They miss deadlines. They ignore their editors’ advice. On top of that–gasp–they expect to be paid! Some of them expect to be paid a lot! And publishers HATE that!

So it’s understandable that publishers might feel churlish and uncharitable toward authors, on whom their entire publishing model depends. But since the 2008 economic meltdown hit Publishers Row, the enmity has turned into outright warfare.

This deadly conflict is “destroying the options of a writer,” as well as “the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book.” Publishers are striving, by various nefarious (and undisclosed by Levin) means, to “commoditize writing” in order to “keep the trains running on time” (i.e., protect their profit margins). It’s all a diabolical plot–“maybe,” muses Levin, “publishers are actually happy when authors fail”–and just one more reason why “book publishing as we know it is going over the cliff.”

Gosh! Maybe the US Justice Department should get involved!

Some of what Levin says is true. Returns are a problem, and publishers have curbed print runs to address this (though print run deflation long pre-dates the 2008 economic meltdown, which Levin blames for much of the publisher evil he describes). Bloated advances–while the exception–are a problem. And if you’re an author with lackluster sales, BookScan numbers are indeed something you drag around with you like Marley’s chains, and can affect your ability to sell subsequent books. Writing under a new name may fool readers and booksellers–but publishers always know who you are.

But does all of this (and don’t forget that famous author flakiness) really turn publishers into haters? Does it really drive them to wage covert warfare on the content suppliers that keep them in business? Does it–as Levin explicitly claims–actually benefit publishers to destroy writers’ options and careers? Levin’s case might be more compelling if he supported it with real evidence or reasoned argument. But he doesn’t. Instead, all he offers is a tautology. Authors are flaky and bad things are happening in publishing. Publishers must hate authors. How do we know? Because authors are flaky and bad things are happening in publishing.

Levin makes some other dubious assertions. Publishers are not, as he claims, moving en masse to “a minimal or even zero advance business model.” Publishers don’t do “zero marketing”–what, does Levin think they want to lose money? How does this fit with his claim that they’re doing all this anti-author stuff in order to protect their profit margins?

Levin also says that publishers are striving to “turn writing into a fungible commodity…[so] they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable and unpredictable writers.” He neglects, however, to provide any examples of how this is occurring or what form it’s taking (not surprising, for such a vague and sweeping claim). And then he invokes this doomsday scenario:

The problem is that [publishers] destroy the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book. As the quality of books diminishes, book buyers are less likely to turn to books the next time they need to get information about a given topic. They’ll go to Wikipedia, they’ll do a Google search, they’ll phone a friend. But they won’t buy another book.

Yes, it’s the “death of books” meme. (There ought to be some kind of corollary to Godwin’s Law for bringing this up in a discussion of publishing.) At which point you just have to shake your head. Plus, Levin appears here to be talking about nonfiction–since readers don’t generally turn to fiction to “get information about a given topic.” Is he really extrapolating from an opinion about nonfiction to all books everywhere?

Look, the book business is tough. There’s an inherently adversarial aspect to the author-publisher relationship, often expressed in contract negotiations. Authors frequently find themselves at the bottom of the food chain, and must struggle to survive and to thrive. Good books fall through the cracks; things go wrong and writers get screwed (we’ve all heard the horror stories). Not only that–we’re in the midst of cataclysmic change.

But publishers don’t “hate” authors, and they’re not engaging in any shadowy conspiracies to destroy their careers or their creativity. It’s absurd to suggest otherwise–not only because it makes no logical or economic sense, but because companies don’t have emotions. People have emotions. And if you’ve ever worked with people in the book business, you’ll know how many of them truly love books and writing–and writers, flaky though they be.

But if publishers don’t hate authors, authors sure do hate publishers. Whether from angry rejected writers who want to blame anyone but themselves, or self-publishing evangelists eager to dance on traditional publishing’s grave, the chorus of publisher-hating is getting louder every day. That’s the real message of Levin’s bitter screed (though I’m sure he didn’t intend it that way). Sadly, it will fall on receptive ears.


  1. Amazon is the future. Traditional publishing is so yesterday. With traditional publishing you don't even know how many copies of a book you've sold on a given day & you get paid through an agent ( who is supposed to be YOUR employee, yet you get your check from them like they are your boss).

  2. I am a published author with Ellora's Cave, Loose Id and Totally Bound, as well as opening my own small press, Ai Press, in 2010. Being an author as well as a publisher has enabled me to understand things from both sides and to create a balance. I certainly don't hate authors and i do my utmost to treat them with compassion and respect at every turn. I did have one bad experience with a publisher but i take responsibility for that since i did not readm y contract carefully before signing. If i had read it carefully i would have avoided the problem i had. I have found that if i work hard on my writing, weigh editor suggestions carefully before rejecting, meet dealines and treat the editor with respect and good communication, then i generally receive good treatment in returna nd no one has to hate anyone.

  3. After reading Anonymous's comments I've decided to give up trying to get my novel published and go back to driving a London bus. Less stressful and £40k p.a.

  4. The problem is not publishers. Actually, publishers are our own hope.

    The article is correct in one thing. Intellectual property will eventually become a very cheap commodity. It will be sold by one or two companies and by monthly subscription. The creator will be forced to comply with whatever contract the two companies offer.

    This is why large companies like Amazon allow piracy. They are only interested in establishing the monopoly, the platform, the reading device, the service. They made it possible for one to download 10,000 kindle books with a single click on a torrent file link, because they convinced everyone they need the electronic format. But how high are the ebook sales? Ebooks took only a small part of the mass market paperback sales. These companies don't give a damn about the creator. They will even buy a book from the reader to sell to another reader without paying the creator. The patent for the electronic format is ready and they are doing it for the print formats already on a massive scale.

    They will eventually say $0.05 per reading is good money for the author when there will be no other distribution option. The fun thing is that many will be happy. Many will offer their books for free. And very few people see where this is going.

    Authors believe that they are the same with musicians. No, we have nothing in common with musicians. Musicians just want their music heard so they can book dates for the live music performance. This is where the money is, tickets, sponsors, promotional material, the t-shirts. Authors only have their intellectual property, and soon, it will not be worth anything.

    Another issue. With self-publishing of all types of books, in a few decades from now, the large companies will have unlimited content in master form, ready to be sold. That includes the photos of that art photo album you printed in 2 copies and also your self-published novel. You kids will have no property in their hands to sell, you have given away masters of your work. It doesn't matter what it was. You have given it away in master form, ready to be exploited commercially when the time comes. When the rights expire or are claimed abandoned through loopholes in the law.

    Meanwhile, they are digitizing anything, only because it's cheap to do, ignoring the laws about reproduction. They want to be ready for offering the mega libraries, and the pay per use stock photography for a monthly subscription. They cannot do that easily with books from the 19th century, because that actually costs money to OCR and edit to a good searchable form, but we, the modern idiots, are offering the content for free in master electronic format, so we can sell 100 copies.

    If you don't believe that's the long term goal, try getting your content removed from the databases of the print on demand service you use. An opt-out of course like all scams. The more honest ones will say it's impossible until you get a lawyer to contact them with a legal threat. Others will simply keep it on their servers because there is no way you can check, and the license agreements usually allows them to keep it.

    So, it's not the publisher who hates the writer. Publishers and readers are the only people who DON'T hate the writer. And readers, when the time comes to get unlimited reading for $5 a month, will not give a damn if the writer is being exploited by a monopoly. You can't depend on readers. They have no investment in this.

    Writers and publishers can do something about the situation before it's too late. But it will take very important publishers and very important writers. And I mean important from a market point of view. And that's unlikely to happen before it's too late.

  5. I wonder what Michael Levin has been smoking. Publishers don't hate their meat and potatoes. Are writers flaky and anti-social as Levin says publishers feel? Yes, some are, but they mirror society. There are any number of writers who are recluses, who just want to write and not be bothered with publicizing their work. Publishers may not like it but they've published some of the biggest recluses in the world, especially if they were bestsellers. Do authors miss deadlines? Sure, just like in every other profession there are SOME authors who miss deadlines. Most don't. And as far as not getting paid on time (i.e.) royalties, publishers contractually have an obligation to pay their authors on time. That they sometimes don't is an indictment on them. The problem is not that publishers hate authors but they are are so centered on the bottom line they have in the past decade (or more) wiped out much of the author "middle class" who don't pay the bills of the publishers but are skilled writers with loyal followings. And, publishers are always on the lookout for "the next big thing" or copycats of the current trend (dystopian novels right now and dudes with fangs who attract teenage girls). Publishers can be criticized, deservedly so, but Levin is getting so petty he needs to be dropped by his publisher.

  6. I can't say that I agree with Levin, but I can give a personal account of one of the Big 6 boasting about ripping off a MAJOR author's rights at a Fan Con I went to. Yes, the author was dead, and so was the man who ripped him off. But they were BOASTING about this. And as an author I thought, "Yeah, that's the culture I want to send my next book to. Not."

  7. Perhaps Levin views self-publishing as becoming vastly more significant in the publishing world(especially those NY Times bestselling authors that are now self-publishing their work) and wants to make excuses why publishing houses don't want them anyway, LOL. It's a sad defense of traditional publishing.

  8. Oh but some people like blankets, sour grapes and publisher-shooting. As long as it's us v. them, authors don't have to admit complicity in the eye rolling department. All the little fish (and some bottom feeders) envy the big fish, and wish they were up there lording it over everyone. Until Jaws swims by.

  9. It sounds like Levin's a bit bitter, which I can understand. It's like when a girl decides all guys are philandering scumbags, because she's had bad experiences–it's not fair to make blanket statements.

  10. Hmmmm…if publishers actually hated writers, they really wouldn't be making any money, now would they?

    I'm actually quite pleased with my publisher, as much as it's been both an eye-opening experience and a valuable learning experience.

    Although this is my first commercial publication (having learned valuale lessons about self-pubbing both the hard way and the easy way), I have not gone into this with eyes closes and/or rose colored glasses.

    I truly love and enjoy what I do, and if I can learn something along the way, then more power to me.

  11. I'm so glad you posted on this. I saw that post last week and couldn't decide whether it was worth commenting on his blog to tell him how ridiculous his assertions were–based on no evidence and full of sweeping generalizations. In the end I didn't comment because–frankly–I didn't want to help his SEO. But it's great you said something, because people count on you guys as a voice of clarity.

  12. I think it's fairly common for groups of people who make their living by working with/serving other groups of people to grumble about them.

    Authors and publishers sometimes have strained relationships, and often grumble about one another. I can't say this surprises me, any more than the fact that teachers and students sometimes have strained relationships and grumble about one another (as a college teacher, I can say we all have stories about "those" students).

    This does not mean that teachers hate students categorically (they picked a strange profession to be in if they do) or that students always or usually hate their teachers.

    Its human nature to grumble.

  13. The problem with Mr Levin's viewpoint is that he is projecting problems with certain people at certain publishers onto everyone at all publishers in all types of publishing.

  14. Publisher/author relations have often been strained. Remember the account of the British writer who proposed a toast to Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, because

    "Gentleman, you must not mistake me. I admit that the French Emperor is a tyrant. I admit that he is a monster. I admit that he is the sworn foe of our nation, and, if you will, of the whole human race. But, gentlemen, we must be just to our great enemy. We must not forget that he once shot a publisher."

  15. @Marla Miller:
    Some of the people attending workshops suck at writing, or whine about their writing, seeking people to praise them for their genius. I'm sure that agents and publishers, after a day or several days of needy people wanting validation, roll their eyes and bash wannabes for some much-needed stress relief. It's not their honest opinion of all authors, on whom they rely for paying their bills. Agents and publishers have to pan through s**t creek to find gold, and if you've gone to sites where amateurs post their writing, you know there's a lot of crap out there written by people who think it's publishable as is when it's clearly not.

  16. Mr. Levin's post was silly and it bashed authors and publishers alike. And for what reason? What was gained? Maybe he was having a bad day, as we all do and is wishing now that he hadn't ranted publicly.

  17. I think it's worth remembering that agents and publishers see a lot of submissions that aren't up to scratch, or they have aspiring writers acting like they have a right to be published. It's an easy attitude for a writer to develop, especially today.

    Agents and publishers have bad days at work. Like all of us, they often want to vent and blow off steam. They likely get tired of having to deal with poor submissions and bad reactions to rejections, anyone would, but that doesn't mean they hate authors.

  18. Sorry but I think there's truth in what he says—I think lots of publishers loathe writers—I think many agents do, too–As a teacher/workshop leader, I've been privy to coffee conversations with both publishers/editors & agents–They're often not nice when they're in gossip mode, that's for sure. They roll their eyes a lot.

  19. My favourite quote ever on the relationship between authors and publishers was from James Branch Cabell in 1929, and I don't think things have changed that much since then:

    The ways of all publishers, however, I discovered some while ago to be incalcuable: and I do not think that any deduction can ever be drawn, through the channels of mere rationality, from any of their actions. It is perhaps the one trait which they share congenially with their authors.

    I've been rejected by many publishers, and I usually hate them for about five minutes. After that, I think about improving my writing.

  20. Depressingly the comments following Levin's article seem to include some from very offended publishers. I would prefer if he didn't speak on my behalf

  21. This just cries out for someone to deploy the lamented Miss Snark's clue gun! Or maybe something higher caliber. Does anyone have a clue bazooka? No?


  22. Wow, that's some pretty heavy-handed preaching going on there. I, for one, love my publisher, and they're great to their authors. Saying that publishers hate authors and are trying to stifle them is like saying film producers hate actors and want them to fail.

  23. Now that Amazon is a publisher, Levin's argument might be slightly more believable. Even the Amazon juggernaut probably doesn't hate authors, though they do seem largely indifferent to them as anything more than commodities.

  24. But publishers don't "hate" authors, and they're not engaging in any shadowy conspiracies to destroy their careers or their creativity.

    Oh, no. YOU'RE in on it, too? Denying that a conspiracy exists is the first proof that you're right in the thick of it. Oh, I am so disillusioned.

  25. I certainly don't hate Penguin, which published my book two years ago. They gave me a great advance, edited my book well, designed a fabulous cover and helped arrange for publicity. I'm also happy self-publishing books as well.

    Writers' blogs are full of stories about books that were cancelled, books that lost editors, books that were not pushed hard enough. That's all true. But it's not the whole truth.

    And as much as I know about the industry and it's doings, I can't imagine an example that backs up any of Levins' claims.

  26. I'd like to add that I don't hate publishers either. And I say this as a self-published author. Self-publishing was the better choice for me for a variety of reasons, but publisher-hate wasn't among them.

  27. As an oft-rejected author, I'd like to publicly and emphatically state that I do not hate publishers!

    Yeah, sometimes I feel I'm being passed by because the business is on shaky ground at the moment, and taking a chance on a complete unknown might not be the best idea right now.

    I'm also terribly aware that I might just be making excuses for what may be, in fact, an unpublishable manuscript. It plagues my sleep, in fact.

    But I do not hate publishers – even the ones who have rejected me.

  28. Good grief. If publishers hated authors, they would have to be pretty masochistic to choose to work in an industry of which authors are the most essential part.

  29. It seems to me that publishers are equally-if not more so-at the mercy of readers than writers. What does he have to say about that?

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