Families are full of secrets. Publishing is no different.
There are the ho-hum secrets – the affairs, the folks who stole money from now-dead relatives, the folks who aren’t paying their taxes. There are also bigger secrets. These are the secrets that matter, the ones that could help others in the family if they were shared. These are things like mental illness – hiding an uncle’s illness means his niece may suffer for years in silence, thinking she’s the only one with that issue. And there are darker things, like abusive spouses and family members who abuse children. We hush these things up because we fear they’re too personal to share. Too personal right up until keeping that secret means your abusive spouse goes on to abuse someone else, or the children abused by a family member go on to repeat the cycle of abuse.
Secrets are knowledge not widely shared. Knowledge shared is power, and leverage, especially in the publishing industry. Sharing knowledge is how we change things.
The realities of publishing shock and awe many of us, but none so much as the first-time novelist. Stepping into publishing is like the first day you walked into a family gathering as a child and realized that there were a lot of things going on that you didn’t understand – knowledge that the whole family seemed to have and you were just expected to pick up. You’d find yourself used as leverage in some ongoing feud between your now divorced parents, or get shuttered out of the room when voices were raised over an aunt’s abortion.
We keep a lot of secrets in this industry that make it difficult for newcomers to succeed. Some of these secrets seem benign – that book advance that turned out to be lower than your last one, or that book that only sold 300 copies. Others are darker. The editor who makes a habit of sexually harassing authors. The publisher who verbally abuses authors. The agents who don’t return e-mails or phone calls. The publisher whose checks aren’t coming on time, or at all.
Like kids stepping into an extended family reunion, most first-time writers are clueless about how to find this information. When something bad happens, many writers shove it under a rug because they think they’re the problem. They think they’re the only one to ever have poor sales, or bad covers. Maybe they aren’t being paid because their book isn’t good enough, or they’re not good enough, or…. And then we cry into our cornflakes and say we’re just lucky to be published, right?
Being a writer is a solitary business, folks say. But it’s not the writing that’s lonely. It’s navigating the business. It’s spending a decade, or two or three, churning out work, and still never knowing which agent is best at managing foreign rights, or which publishers actually listen to author feedback about covers, or how many books you need to sell, outside of a million, to be considered a ‘‘success.’’
I published my first book in 2011 with Night Shade Books. I knew their reputation as a reader, not an author. They were the publishers of good, weird fiction with great covers. That’s all I knew, and my agent shared no concerns when signing with them.
The day I posted publicly that I’d signed the contract, I received an e-mail from another writer asking if I’d heard that Night Shade wasn’t paying several of their authors and was involved in disputes about selling versions of books they did not have rights to.
Why, no. No, I did not.
And so began my involvement in the long, slow dissolution of Night Shade Books – mine and that of over a hundred other authors whose work would be happily managed, poorly mismanaged, passionately loved, and ultimately neglected until the company’s eventual sale earlier this year.
What I began to hear from other writers as I brought up these issues and many other troubling ones in the industry was this:
‘‘Oh, everyone already knows that.’’
Everyone knows who that verbally abusive editor is. Everyone knows who that groping publisher is. Everyone knows….
But everyone didn’t know. I certainly didn’t. I learned during the long implosion of Night Shade Books that writers in our industry had many private forums and listservs and a lot of conversations at the bar about bad editors, bad publishers, and terrible agents (and the good ones, too) – but they tended to be in closed groups, not public forums. So when folks said to me ‘‘everyone knows’’ it meant ‘‘everyone on my listserv’’ or ‘‘everyone who reads the SFWA forum’’ or ‘‘everyone who was at the bar that time in San Antonio.’’
I started to wonder what authors had to gain through these splintered forums instead of having public conversations. Some of this was just venting, and I got that. I don’t want to tell the world how pissed off I am at some perceived slight from a publisher. And sometimes it makes sense to create groups for people affected by particular situations – one for Night Shade authors affected by its recent sale is a good example – but so much of the information I learned through networking with other authors were things that could have impacted the choices I made in my career, if I’d known them before I chose my first agent or signed my first book contract.
Venting privately can help everybody feel better. And it can even help the folks you vent to avoid getting into a similar situation. But real change – the sort of change publishing really needs right now – is only going to happen if we speak out publicly.
As one of the members of the private forum where authors affected by the Night Shade sale banded together to discuss contract options during the Skyhorse/Start sale, I can say it was a really great support network. But the real change happened when these conversations happened in both private and very public forums. Pressure from writers, agents, SFWA, and fans encouraged Night Shade’s new owners to change the terms of the deal for the majority of writers.
Change happened when people started talking frankly and publicly. Behind closed doors, it was just shouting at clouds.
When I was caught up in the maelstrom of the Night Shade disaster, I spent years nail-biting over late checks and contracts and feeling like I was the only one who thought the publisher’s behavior was a lot like an abusive uncle’s. Even my former agent said that taking an offer from them on my next book might be my only offer, so I shouldn’t make grand statements about never working with them again. Which led me to wonder how much agents talk to each other. Because I can’t imagine that working that hard to get a check is a good time on their end either.
What are we sacrificing by staying silent?
It’s quite possible we’re sacrificing a good many new writers. We’re letting them navigate the tricky waters of publishing on their own, with the expectation that their agent will be great, their publisher will always love them, industry professionals will always act professionally, and the checks will always come on time.
After the public outpouring that led to the better deal for Night Shade’s authors (not great, no, but better), I was hopeful. I wanted to see more writers talking publicly about their challenges. But it turns out that after we air some public laundry and speak up about all the messes we’ve got in this industry, we tend to retreat back again into our safe spaces. We lock up our concerns. We take the little indignities of publishing with a nod and a smile. And we ensure that nothing ever changes.
I received an e-mail in August letting me know that Jason Williams had resigned from Night Shade Books. This was the first I’d heard of it, though I’d been expecting it. When I shared the e-mail with a colleague, my colleague said, ‘‘Oh, everybody already knows that.’’
I wondered what else was going on with the family that I’d never find out until it didn’t matter anymore, or until I was too old and jaded to care.