Big Publisher Horror Stories

Some Thoughts on Big Traditional Publishers

Posted on May 30, 2018 by Jim

We’ve all heard those horror stories of how one of the big publishing houses mistreats some poor author. In a previous blog post I mentioned how my own experiences with traditional publishers were quite enjoyable, and without any of the rumored drama or difficulties. But I’ve only published three books with two traditional publishers, so I recognize that my own experiences are quite limited and could possibly be an exception. And recently I heard of one author’s experience that opened my eyes a bit and made me wonder.

I was attending a science fiction and fantasy conference—names, dates and places are withheld here to protect the guilty. On the last day of the conference a good friend of mine invited me to join her and a number of other authors for lunch. The conference was winding down, so about a dozen of us had a few drinks and a lot of fun eating and talking and catching up. After about an hour and a half, a few people excused themselves, and the group thinned down to five of us. We continued talking for a couple more hours.

Seated next to me was a very well-known author, and at one point he bemoaned the fact that his publisher—one of the big five, or it is six or four—was ignoring him. He had been publishing with them for many years, and had developed what he thought was a lasting relationship. Then suddenly, for no reason, a few months earlier they begun to ignore him; wouldn’t return his calls, responded to his e-mails with short, one-sentence answers. Not only did it threaten his livelihood, but it saddened him considerably because he had thought they were his friends. He speculated that they had found another writer that they were more interested in, and were quietly putting him out to pasture.

While he was talking, it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever heard first-hand of such a mercenary and cold-hearted act by a publisher. I paused and carefully recalled that all the other horror stories I had heard were perpetrated by the famous they. “You know,” someone might say, “they will always . . .” And of course there is the twice or thrice removed story: “Fred heard from Jean that John’s publisher really screwed Janice.” But there I was sitting next to the author himself, and hearing the story direct from his mouth about a specific publisher, and the way specific people within it were acting toward him. They weren’t rude or unpleasant, but now they simply ignored him. I couldn’t ignore such evidence from a person I know and respect.

The conversation shifted, we talked about other subjects, shared stories on the books we were writing. With the exception of that one story it was a fun afternoon. And then about a half hour before we finally broke up, the author sitting next to me told me he was having trouble with writer’s block and it really had him depressed.

I said, “Gee, I’ve always been lucky that way; never had writer’s block. How long has that been going on?”

“About two years,” he said. “I’ve missed a lot of deadlines, missed a few really important ones by several months.”

That statement hit me between the eyes like a sledge hammer. I asked, “You mean contractual deadlines with your publisher?”

He said, “Yah. They were nice about it at first, but it kept happening.”

As my suspicions grew, I asked him about the timing of his failed deadlines. To make a long story short, his publisher had worked with him for more than a year after the first failed deadline. But when the missed deadlines continued, after repeated warnings they had finally started ignoring him only a few months before that lunch at that conference.

I sincerely feel sorry for him, but I remember thinking, I’d give up on you too.

So here I am. The only horror story about mistreatment by a publisher I’ve ever heard straight from the wounded party turned out to be a horror story of an author who is breaking one of the most fundamental rules of literary contracts: If you agree to a deadline, meet it.

I’m sure there are legitimate horror stories out there. After all, randomly select a hundred people off the street, and at least one of them is going to be an absolute jerk. And the same must be true of publishers and the people who work for them. But I still haven’t experienced any of that myself.