Writer Power: The Rebirth of the American Author

This week Ruth Harris gives us some powerful reasons to be happy about the ongoing changes in the publishing business.

"What?" sez you. "But we see such woeful lamentation and wringing of hands over the demise of the book industry."

It's true about the laments. Scott Turow, bestselling author and president of the Author’s Guild mourned “The Slow Death of the American Author” in an Op Ed the New York Times in April. And James Patterson took it one step further, paying for a full page ad in the NYT to ask for government help to "Save Our Books"  and bail out the beleaguered industry.

But not all established, bestselling authors think the upheaval in the book biz is a bad thing. Some, like Ruth Harris, think it's greatly needed.

Yes, the industry is going through epic changes. But it’s not a case of a healthy industry afflicted by a sudden plague of the Big Bad Ebooks. The industry has been unwell for a long time.

The system of returns—where every book in a brick and mortar store is sold on consignment and can be returned for a full refund—has been causing unsustainable financial drain for decades. Up to 40% of books printed are re-shipped, warehoused and then pulped when they don’t sell in an increasingly short period of time. Can you think of any other industry that willfully destroys nearly half its own product, then routinely blames the suppliers for their financial losses?

The book business was already in decline long before the ebook "revolution." In the 1990s the “Big and Nasty” chains like Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million—with their sweetheart deals with the Big 6 Publishers—put 1000s of indie bookstores out of business. Bestsellers were created with boardroom financial deals and paid-for store placement, not word-of-mouth from the wise and dedicated bookstore clerks of yore.

Then along came Amazon to "Kindle" a revolution.... and now the Big Bad Zon is accused of destroying the poor little bookstore chains (formerly known as Big-and-Nasty) and their partners, the supposedly in-need-of-a-bailout Big Six. (Two of which are now owned by Rupert Murdoch.)

But guess what’s happening in some of the old “dying” bookstore buildings? They’re being bought up by independent shopkeepers and bookstore owners. And the indie bookstore is making a comeback.

Yes, as Ruth says: “what goes around comes around.”

Some of the indie stores are selling Kobos and other ereading devices and doing very well with them. It turns out ebooks aren’t incompatible with indie bookselling after all. In fact, there's been a 27% increase in foot traffic to brick and mortar bookstores in the first quarter of this year.

Best of all, the ebook revolution has challenged the master/slave relationship that had been created between the big publisher and the lowly author.

Unlike Rex Pickett—author of the 2004 bestseller (and film) Sideways—today's indie and hybrid authors no longer have to sit in limbo for a decade while their agents and editors conspire to keep them in the dark and treat them with sadistic disrespect. Pickett  has documented his tale of abuse in a 3-part series in the HuffPo

Ruth Harris was a New York Times bestseller in those “good old days” of the '80s and '90s—as well as working as an editor at several of the Big Six houses—so she knows what she’s talking about here.

I think you’ll find what she says about those days enlightening. It should make you glad you're living and writing at this moment in publishing history.

Sorry Mr. Turow, American authors aren't suffering a "slow death." We are being reborn—as our own masters.

And big publishers aren't dying either. The "hybrid author" is the future. Publishers who respect their authors will survive. Bookstores who serve their customers, not a distant corporate office, will too. And agents who represent their actual clients, not Mr. Murdoch and co., will thrive.

But some may get a few lessons in Karma. Yeah, it does come back...

POWER SWITCH: Or, What Goes Around Comes Around
by Ruth Harris

Once upon a time, way back in the middle of the Twentieth Century, thriving bookstores
dotted the landscape. Wire racks crammed with tempting paperbacks stood in every drugstore, grocery store, supermarket, even in gas stations. Publishers—and there were lots of them, big and small—needed writers and the work they created to fill those bookstores and wire racks.

Lots of markets existed and lots of genres were routinely published. Editors & writers were colleagues who worked together coming up with new ideas or new twists on old ideas.

More contracts were signed, more books were published and sold, more writers were able to make a living. When that massive distribution went away, a power switch occurred: the writer lost and became a beggar shaking his/her alms cup hoping for a crumb, a penny, a kind word.

Over time, the writer was placed in the position of the abused, rejected, criticized and undermined child—even though the parent (the publisher) would aver how much they “loved” you. Out of that unequal relationship a demon’s brew of writer bitterness flowered.

Every book that didn’t sell up to expectations—basically just about every book published—was almost always the writer's fault.

Never mind that the ad/promo/pub budget ranged from miniscule to non-existent. Which is why most writers—at their own expense—hired their own PR reps.

Nope. Blame the writer

The book didn't sell so it must have sucked—even if the publisher willingly, eagerly paid a lot of money to acquire it. Even if the reviews were spectacular. Even if book clubs, paperback publishers, foreign publishers, and movie companies spent beaucoup to acquire the rights. In fact, by selling off sub rights and thus recouping the amount of the advance, publishers had even less motivation to aggressively sell the book in question.

The publisher’s solution to the lackluster sales: Move on to the next book, the next writer. Then blame that one, too.

And what did writers take away from the downbeat response, the blaming, the unreturned phone calls, the memos containing suggestions or requesting information that went answered? They began to feel that the criticism was deserved, the disappointment was their fault, and the way to a more rewarding outcome was to write a better book next time. Except, of course, no one knew exactly what a “better book” was.

Except for the time Michael Korda of Simon & Schuster apologized to me for a terrible DECADES cover, no publisher of mine (or anyone else’s that I know of) admitted their publishing effort had been lacking. When several of my books hit the NYTimes bestseller list, the response was not pride or pleasure. It was flowers (sometimes) followed by a pout: “But it didn’t sell as much as we thought.”

With the advent of e-publishing, a second huge switch has taken place, this time, with the power going back to the writer. Now it’s publishers who are feeling threatened, rejected, ignored, undervalued. We hear the howls, we see how much they like it and how desperate they feel—just the way writers used to feel.


How about you, scriveners? Have you believed the stories that things were better for writers and bookstores in the "good old days"? Have you ever been disrespected by your publisher or agent?

Book Deals This Week

Ruth's Million-Seller Modern Women is on sale this week for 99c:

Kindle | Nook | Kobo | iBooks

"Author Ruth Harris' rapier wit spices up a coming-of-age-in-the-sexist-'60s story. Funny, sad, vivid, and more than raunchy enough to satisfy the most ribald appetites. Harris seeks to enliven and entertain, and she does it in spades. —The Cleveland Plain-Dealer

"Sharply and stylishly written." —Chicago Sun-Times

Ruth Harris's Park Avenue Box set is only 99c this week, too. Three New York Times Bestsellers for less than a dollar. Includes Ruth's bestselling Decades, which she mentions above. You can buy it here.

"DECADES an emotional blockbuster about three generations of American women, sold millions of copies in hard cover, paperback and ebook editions. Originally published by Simon & Schuster; revised and updated by the author for today's reader.

"Terrific!" --Cosmopolitan 
 "Absolutely perfect." --Publisher's Weekly 
 "Powerful. A gripping novel." --Women Today Book Club


1) Iron Writer Insane-a-Thon!

The Dreadful Cafe will hold their annual writing marathon on July 13, 2013. There are prizes for the most words written in a 24 hour period and for raising the most money for their charity, St. Jude's Hospital. It's a wild and crazy insane-a-thon for a great cause. More at The Dreadful Cafe. Send in your entry to submissions@dreadfulcafe.com before July 14th.

2) Spoonfuls of Stories Contest 

For new, unpublished writers of children's fiction. HUGE prizes for the winning stories for children age 2-6. This contest, sponsored by Cheerios, offers a $5000 grand prize and some hefty runners-up prizes too. More info at spoonfulsofstories.com  Deadline is July 31. 

3) FREE book advertising to British readers from EbookBargainsUK 

DEADLINE EXTENDED! Lots of authors and publishers have had huge successes with their free or sale books by advertising on BookBub, ENT, KND, POI, etc. But none of those target the UK, and their links go to US sites Brits can't use. But now there’s a newsletter for UK readers only. It links to all the big UK retailers like Apple UK, Waterstones and Foyles as well as Amazon UK. They don’t sell books direct or get paid for clickthroughs, so they don't have any restrictions on how many free books they can spotlight like BookBub and the others. So it's THE place to tell Brits about your book when it goes free or on sale in the UK. Since Brits have the highest number of readers per capita of any country in the world, this looks like a great idea to me: Plus: the site will be offering FREE book ads until June 30th, on a first come, first served basis.

And if you're in the UK, do sign up for their newsletter. It brings links to free and bargain ebooks—at the UK bookstore of your choice—in your inbox every morning. You can subscribe here.

Escargot Books is expanding its catalogue and are now accepting submissions.

Crime fiction (dark thrillers to cozies), women’s fiction, health and fitness, children’s, sci-fi and dystopian. All books will be published in digital format. Some books will be chosen for print and/or audio as well. Escargot Books does not offer an advance, but they offer higher royalties than traditional publishers, especially for direct sales from our website, as well as editing, formatting, promotion, and the company of bestselling authors. This is an indie press with some big name authors and a good track record. Here’s their online submission form.

5) The Huffington Post's Huffpo50 is now publishing short fiction!   The rules: You must be 50 or older to enter. Writers can submit only one story per year, and all pieces must be 5,000 words or less. Send your original submissions, as well as your contact details, to 50fiction@huffingtonpost.com. If you want to know what they're looking for, check out this great story by Judy Croome, a long-time follower of this blog.

WE WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS--and apologize that we've had to exclude anonymous comments. Deleting the spam had become a full-time job. If you can't get Blogger to take your comment, email Anne at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com. Thanks!

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