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Old 05-20-2012, 08:37 AM   #1
kennyc
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Are Writers being exploited?

Excellent blog article about the publishing industry by J.A. Konrath:

Quote:
Exploited Writers in an Unfair Industry
exploitation: The act of using another person's labor without offering them an adequate compensation.

Are writers being exploited? I'm talking about writers working for what I call Big Publishing (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harlequin, Hyperion/Disney, Scholastic, Tyndale, John Wiley & Sons, Thomas Nelson, and others.)

Here are my thoughts.

Back in the pre-ebook days, paper was the dominant way to deliver media. This is worth repeating, because it is very, very important. Paper was the delivery system.

Years ago I explained this delivery system in great detail. In short, the book exists in the mind of the reader. It doesn't matter if it gets there via paper, or e-ink, or audiobook, or a pill that will someday burn the story into your memory. The method of getting the story to the reader is nothing but delivery.

Without anything to deliver, the deliveryman goes broke. We need writers, because they create the book. We need readers, because they consume the book. The deliverymen are middlemen.

The middlemen, pre-ebook, were publishers. If you were a writer who wanted to reach readers, you needed a publisher, because you couldn't get into a bookstore on your own.
...
Rest is here:
http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/0...-industry.html
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Old 05-20-2012, 09:27 AM   #2
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A very interesting article, Kenny, thanks for posting the link.
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Old 05-20-2012, 10:08 AM   #3
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Sighhhh, another Konrath rant about the evil publishers who were the ones that gave Konrath a middling reputation that he could ultimately exploit himself. And his history is a bit faulty -- just a bit, not greatly. Yes, the railroads exploited cheap labor, but then so did every other employer at the time. That was why the union movement came into being.

And Konrath, as usual, also screams that publishers are just one thing -- in his view simply paper distributors -- and that they do not contribute anything else to the creation of a book. I can only assume that in Konrath's pre-ebook existence, his work was so perfect no editor ever made a worthwhile suggestion, no publisher ever helped market, no one did anything -- it was all Konrath. Thank the gods for Konrath; where would we be without him to bow before.

And I get tired of his never-ending rant that once publishers cease to exist everything will be perfect for writers who will then be in command. Konrath is a believer that corporations like Amazon or Barnes & Noble or any other outlet for his books would never be in a superior position to him and thus be able to dictate terms. Gosh, I'd like to see Amazon decide not to carry Konrath's books unless the royalty were reversed -- 70 for Amazon, 30 for Konrath. I wonder if he would consider that exploitation and, more importantly, whether his brilliance would survive should Amazon stop carrying his books.

Finally, as always, Konrath believes that writers and writers alone create the market for books. No credit is given to anyone else. Yet, it is historically pretty clear that even the best of authors needed the help of agents, publicists, editors, publishers, and others to get the word out about how great the books were and to keep the books before the public's eye.

Yes, I already know what the response to this post will be -- that I am a shill for the enemy. Publishers are not perfect and they are certainly obstructionist when it comes to ebooks. But are they the evil Konrath and others portray? Do they serve no positive function? No, they aren't and they do serve a role, even if it is not a current role for the likes of Konrath. And at least for the moment, as fast as the ebook market is growing, paper still dominates at 70% to 80% of the entire book market and even many ebookers go to b&m bookstores to browse the paper books that they want to buy in ebook form online.

Last edited by rhadin; 05-21-2012 at 08:45 AM. Reason: corrected a misspelling
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Old 05-20-2012, 10:32 AM   #4
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T'was ever thus ............

Writers are (nearly) always "exploited" - like any craftsman who creates something that needs to be sold to a middleman for the creator's existence.

(And that's meant to be a small t & c.... )
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Old 05-20-2012, 11:40 AM   #5
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I had to look through the blog again, to see if Konrath actually used the word "evil" in there anywhere. (He didn't.)

Yes, it's a bald-faced rant on publishers as an industry, and it draws good comparisons to the railroads--and, as Rich points out, plenty of other industries. This is how industries work: They massage a system for their own benefit, and someone else always comes out with the short end of the stick... usually the workers. It doesn't automatically make industries evil; it does make them capitalists. (Okay, picking on the railroads and their minority labor force is clear button-pushing; pretty much any industry would have done fine as analogy, but who can resist a Mel Brooks reference?)

His other points are sound, though: Businesses without competition get complacent; and when competition finally does come along (usually through progress outside of the established industry), the establishment usually gets its @$$ kicked, whether it deserves it or not (and obviously, in this case, Konrath says it does). That's exactly where the publishing industry is now... trying to get its collective @$$ out of the firing line in order to take control again.

Me, I like the fact that ebooks represent that game-changing technology, and that people like me can exploit it in order to avoid being exploited. I also have little sympathy for the industries that tried (and continue to try) to shut me out of the game. I may not consider them evil, but I do remember their past behavior and take that into consideration when I am offered the opportunity to work with them or stand beside them.

Here's my analogy: For years, the American automakers blew off the concerns about the environment and, determined to make money, invented the SUV, marketed the livin' hell out of 'em, and pretended there was no pollution or environmental damage. And even though they now try to sell hybrids and electrics, I remember their past behavior well, and have decided that they are not worthy of my money... nor anyone else that I can steer away from them.
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Old 05-20-2012, 12:03 PM   #6
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After reading, and enjoying, Konrath's post, I thought it made sense to look for something on the other side, so I thought I'd add this defense of traditional publishing link.

Like Konrath's post, this series of defense articles by Steve Laube has some serious holes (when looked at from a writer's perspective). Part five, infrastructure, speaks of the publishers need to report to the IRS etc - as if authors didn't also need to report their own incomes, however derived. The legal/technical aspects of part five are interesting and of potential significance. The whole of part two, curation, is really about the position of the publisher (and agents I would remind him) as a gatekeeper - this may be okay for readers, if/when it works, but doesn't serve the writer (keep in mind that rejected manuscripts only get form-responses, nothing useful that would help a writer to improve their work). The editorial and design aspects make sense, but then even Konrath acknowledges the need for an author to take care of these.

Does Konrath go over the top? Sure, but then being controversial is how you get people to link to your blog (and by extension, get to know who you are and possibly even buy one or your books ). However I do think that he makes some very good points (on the OP link, and on the related "are you dense" article).

Has Konrath changed my mind about looking for more traditional publishing options? I'm not sure yet, but it's definitely food for thought.
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Old 05-20-2012, 12:22 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Steven Lyle Jordan View Post
I had to look through the blog again, to see if Konrath actually used the word "evil" in there anywhere. (He didn't.)
....

His other points are sound, though: Businesses without competition get complacent; ....

Me, I like the fact that ebooks represent that game-changing technology, .....
Yeppers....

Thanks Steve!
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Old 05-20-2012, 12:24 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gmw View Post
....

Has Konrath changed my mind about looking for more traditional publishing options? I'm not sure yet, but it's definitely food for thought.
Yes. We are in that transitional/state-of-flux area at the moment. It is important to evaluate all options.
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Old 05-20-2012, 12:48 PM   #9
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Finally, as always, Konrath believes that writers and writers alone create the market for books. No credit is given to anyone else. Yet, it is historically pretty clear that even the best of authors needed the help of agents, publicists, editors, publishers, and others to get the word out about how great the books were and to keep the books before the public's eye.
I don't think anyone will deny that publishing is a partnership between publisher and writer and that both bring something to the table. The question is which party adds the most value? I think most readers would be shocked at how low the writer's percentage of their money is, and writers who entertain millions of people really shouldn't need to stack shelves just to pay their bills.

I know the publishers take all the financial risk, but that really shouldn't justify any more than a 60% share in the profits. As for ebook only publishers, where there is nowhere near as much risk, 30-40% for publishers would be more realistic.

As for Konrath, I'd never heard of him until his "Pirate This" marketing campaign went viral so I don't know how well known he was in the print only days. But I've read a few of his books since, both proper-published and self-published, and they are all littered with typos so proof reading obviously isn't one of the things that proper-publishing added to them. The self-published ones do have a lot more gratuitous violence in them though
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Old 05-20-2012, 12:54 PM   #10
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The whole of part two, curation, is really about the position of the publisher (and agents I would remind him) as a gatekeeper - this may be okay for readers, if/when it works, but doesn't serve the writer (keep in mind that rejected manuscripts only get form-responses, nothing useful that would help a writer to improve their work). The editorial and design aspects make sense, but then even Konrath acknowledges the need for an author to take care of these.
As full disclosure, I'll note that I know Joe Konrath a little and have been a guest poster on his blog. I'm also a long-time bookseller and co-owner of a specialty independent bookstore with two locations, and I worked in publishing for years (and still work as a freelance editor), in addition to being the author of many, many books (most published traditionally, a tiny handful self-published electronically). So I have vested interests in various parts of the discussion.

I would argue that the publisher as gatekeeper does serve the writer, even in the case of a form rejection. Yes, there are very good books that get rejected all over the place (I've written some myself). Submitting a manuscript for publication is always a crap shoot, and the welcome it receives depends on many, many things beyond a writer's control and that may have very little to do with the manuscript's worth.

But it's also true that the new ease and relative respectability of self-publishing has encouraged many writers to get their books out before they are really ready to be published. Under the long-existing system, people worked on a manuscript and submitted it and if it wasn't accepted somewhere, they either a) worked on it more or b) put it in a drawer and worked on something else, or c) gave up. If they gave up, they weren't really writers to begin with. But if they chose a or b, then they became better writers simply by virtue of working at it, of putting down more words, of exercising those unique muscles.

Now we're getting people doing a draft and putting it online and calling it a book. Some of them even make some money at it, which encourages them to do it again. If they keep at it, they will (for the reasons stated above) get better. But they won't be challenged to work at getting better, because they have their book out and it made a few bucks and they can do that again. In my years in publishing I've seen a lot of people achieve moderate success but creatively plateau, never pushing themselves because they think they've reached their greatest heights.

Maybe mediocrity isn't a problem, though I think if readers are deluged with it, they can be turned off from reading altogether, or else start to accept it as the standard and not look for what's better. And I think writers being challenged--being forced by a series of gatekeepers--to do better work is important to each individual writer and to our literature as a whole.

To Joe's main point, the discussion of whether writers are being exploited, the answer is, probably, in the sense that our work is the raw material from which the product known as books is derived. Coal is exploited, timber is exploited, and writers are exploited. That said, more writers have made far more money from traditional publishing than from self-publishing. That may, and probably will, shift every year. But it's true for now, and will most likely remain true for some time to come.
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Old 05-20-2012, 01:12 PM   #11
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Yes, I already know what the response to this post will be
The response from me at least, Richard, is that I completely agree with you.
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Old 05-20-2012, 01:39 PM   #12
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As for Konrath, I'd never heard of him until his "Pirate This" marketing campaign went viral so I don't know how well known he was in the print only days. But I've read a few of his books since, both proper-published and self-published, and they are all littered with typos so proof reading obviously isn't one of the things that proper-publishing added to them. The self-published ones do have a lot more gratuitous violence in them though
I'd never heard of him in the print only days, and I voraciously read the genre he wrote. His complaints in other blogs about poor promotion by publishers is probably spot on for his own books. I don't begrudge him his axe to grind. Same as you, after reading some of his online posts I've since bought (or borrowed from the library) some of his books and found them quite entertaining. His newer works are darker and I'll pass on the horror stuff.
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Old 05-20-2012, 10:46 PM   #13
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[...]Maybe mediocrity isn't a problem, though I think if readers are deluged with it, they can be turned off from reading altogether, or else start to accept it as the standard and not look for what's better. And I think writers being challenged--being forced by a series of gatekeepers--to do better work is important to each individual writer and to our literature as a whole.[...]
I did consider this, but the way I see it, all that happens in self-publishing is that the slush pile has been made public and the readers have become the new gatekeeper. There is still pressure on writers to produce something that will stand out from the slush pile, so there is still pressure to do better, to not be mediocre.

I also considered whether there was some indirect benefit to writers by having a gatekeeper regulate the market (like De Beers and the diamond market?). The gatekeepers make sure the market is not flooded so my book, if I do get past the gates, may be more likely to get its share of the buyers dollars. But instead Konrath makes me wonder if this regulation is part of publishers' way of exploiting writers. If I get past the gatekeeper once I have a better chance a second time - but if I make too much of a fuss about the working conditions then they threaten to consign me back to the slush pile.

Last edited by gmw; 05-20-2012 at 10:48 PM.
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Old 05-21-2012, 04:02 AM   #14
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I did consider this, but the way I see it, all that happens in self-publishing is that the slush pile has been made public and the readers have become the new gatekeeper. There is still pressure on writers to produce something that will stand out from the slush pile, so there is still pressure to do better, to not be mediocre.
Yes but as a reader, how do I know that you as a writer is actually good? (Yes, by reading them, but that takes time I could have spent reading a supposedly excellent book.) Do these gatekeepers get it right every time? No. But this is also where brand starts to develop, and readers start following certain publishers/editors/authors (and avoid the ones they don't like).

The problem with self-publishing is that while there are excellent works being written, some people's horrible first drafts are also being published.

While arguably Sturgeon's Law applies equally to both trad publishing and self-publishing, quantity-wise, there's simply a lot more in terms of output from the latter.

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I also considered whether there was some indirect benefit to writers by having a gatekeeper regulate the market (like De Beers and the diamond market?). The gatekeepers make sure the market is not flooded so my book, if I do get past the gates, may be more likely to get its share of the buyers dollars. But instead Konrath makes me wonder if this regulation is part of publishers' way of exploiting writers. If I get past the gatekeeper once I have a better chance a second time - but if I make too much of a fuss about the working conditions then they threaten to consign me back to the slush pile.
No, that's not what editorial gatekeepers do. It's not about "flooding" the market but thinking whether they can actually sell the book in X amount of quantities. That's why there's the difference between the mid-list (5 digits) and best-seller author (6 digits or more).

If the gatekeeper is looking for a best-selling title, and they think your manuscript is only good enough for the mid-list, then they might decline your novel. That doesn't mean that novel was bad, just that they're not the right published for that particular business model. (And why that novel would have worked for a different publisher.)

You don't get demoted to the "slush pile".

Although having said that, there are also publishers who have been abusive, such as delaying on royalty payments, if not outright withholding royalty payments.
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Old 05-21-2012, 05:10 AM   #15
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Yes but as a reader, how do I know that you as a writer is actually good? (Yes, by reading them, but that takes time I could have spent reading a supposedly excellent book.) Do these gatekeepers get it right every time? No. But this is also where brand starts to develop, and readers start following certain publishers/editors/authors (and avoid the ones they don't like).
I can't say that I've ever considered following a publisher, and it's very rare that I know who edited a book (I've only ever seen that listed on rare indie publications). I certainly do follow authors - which, I imagine, is why publishers/agents are happy to push already published authors but are so reluctant to look at new authors.

You don't have to read every book. The wonder of Amazon etc. is the availability of other reviewers that have gone before you. This is not 100% reliable, but you slowly do learn how to identify useful reviews - one of the best is to see what other reviews a person has done. Even here on MR there are opinions of books by some posters that I am inclined to listen to more than others because previous posts show that our tastes are not dissimilar.

Neither system is perfect, but because the public system has more people involved - it seems to me - there is perhaps more of a chance that good books will eventually show through. A lot of this is still working itself out, but it does appear that the gatekeeper role assumed by the publishers is not one they can claim uncontested victory over.

Quote:
Originally Posted by charlesatan View Post
[...]No, that's not what editorial gatekeepers do. It's not about "flooding" the market but thinking whether they can actually sell the book in X amount of quantities. [...] That doesn't mean that novel was bad, just that they're not the right published for that particular business model. (And why that novel would have worked for a different publisher.) [...]
From what I read about trying to get published - and I've read a lot from a lot of different sources - it seems to me that publishers and agents have trouble dealing with the volume manuscripts they get. If you want I can find quotes for you suggesting that getting published is who you know rather than what you know, and that manuscripts may be rejected on the first page (or even before). I even have a published book here telling me how important it is to get the name of the person that will receive your manuscript so you can address them by name.

If I can believe such claims, then I cannot necessarily believe that a novel was rejected because it wasn't right for the publisher or business model, but may have been rejected simply because they didn't have time to look further, or because that particular first page didn't sit well with the acquisitions editor assigned. As the rejected author you (may) never get to find out why you were rejected, or how close your manuscript may have come to being accepted. And none of this gives me a whole lot of faith in the traditional publishing system, especially not when an alternative is becoming viable.


I hope this is not coming over too whiny. I accept that traditional publishers have a business to run and have to spend their time where they get their best returns. But as a new author I have to look at where best to exert my efforts, and traditional publishing is no longer the only game in town. Given some of what I've read about agents and publishers trying to pick up successful indie authors, it leaves you wondering if independent publishing may become the new method of gatekeeping, even for traditional publishers.

Last edited by gmw; 05-21-2012 at 05:13 AM.
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