Tag Archives: writers

Alas, Why? – The Problem With Big Publishing Rejection Letters

One would think well-educated, literate people, such as those who are attracted to and working in book publishing, would be able to write a rejection letter without using the dreaded “alas” word.

But it’s always there, in letters written by veterans and rookies alike. I’d like to suggest we break the pattern and either use form rejection letters that say nothing or try and write a meaningful response to those writers slaving over every word on their pages.

I mean, where else do you encounter this quaint word in modern usage to the extent we find it in Big Publishing rejection letters? Despite its common usage by publishers as “woe is me, if only I could, but now I must stab you in the heart, oh little one,” it actually means weary, stemming from the Latin word lassus.  As in lassitude. Is that how you want to present yourself to potential customers, even though it may well be true? Do you really want agents and writers to picture you asleep under your desk like George Costanza? Alas, methinks not (therefore I am).

Why does it matter, you ask? Think about it. Every writer wants to work with an intelligent, open-minded editor, who can appreciate and form unique expressions, same as they ask of them. Seriously, as a writer you can’t get away with using hackneyed words like  plethora, impactful, and no-brainer — unless you’re a sports announcer, which you ARE NOT.

It’s like—literally—unbelievably basically so absolutely not totally AWESOME.

Or compelling (ugh).

One of my favorite rejection letters goes something like this: “Thank you for submitting Honking Donkeys, which we loved! Someday we plan to read it.” I like it because it’s both funny and true.

I receive and write rejection letters at Publerati  (which Word wants so badly to re-spell as Puberty). Writing them isn’t easy and evaluating subjective works of fiction is especially difficult. But I know most editors understand there are common problems facing writers, and pointing these out via a standardized rejection letter might serve everyone better.

For instance, most submissions I read are reminiscent of some popular book already done better than anyone else is ever going to do again. Why bother? So try and write something unique to you. Do you have a voice of your own? Can you develop one with work and time?

Only the best writers are able to come up with metaphors that stand out from the crowd. As seen by the recovering alcoholic gazing at the ocean: “The sea looked like a giant Tom Collins.”

There are many common areas for improvement for writers, so at least offer some meaningful help.

Instead of pelting writers with a million hopeless alases, put together a helpful form rejection letter for each category you publish and send that instead. And whatever you do, don’t let your occasional personalized rejection letter make you sound like an antiquated stiff perched upon a high horse snoozing beneath a mahogany desk.

As you were. (Nap time yet?)

The Changing Face of Publishing

(This first appeared under a different title on the Book Business Website.) Let me preface this by saying I run a literary fiction micro-publisher operating much in the mold of how full-service traditional publishing has for years, although because my overheads are so low, I pay my authors 50% of print and 70% of ebook royalties, something I realize large publishers cannot do.

As self-publishing continues evolving, it strikes me that traditional publishers are losing one of our most important services for authors: bookstore distribution. The very distributors publishers have relied upon for years are hedging their bets (and expanding their revenues) by tapping into the self-publishing market. For example, both Ingram and BookBaby offer authors distribution to chain and independent bookstores. And the Espresso Book Network continues to expand a new retail solution for bookshops, libraries, and others. Not to mention the obvious: more and more consumers simply prefer buying print books and ebooks from Amazon.

More than just distribution, though, these new upstarts also offer the production tools needed to easily produce print books and ebooks. So there goes the production expertise competitive advantage of many publishers.

I realize many authors ardently support their publishers. I also know many are frustrated that their royalties are not higher, especially for ebooks. Traditional publishers and reviewers mostly dismiss self-published titles as “trash,” but what happens when established authors with large followings decide to go out on their own? Did you see this week that five of the top ten bestselling books sold by Apple come from self-publishing?

Any author can buy editing services. Any author can hire a book PR firm with social media expertise and mainstream media connections. And now any author can gain distribution to all the places their titles are currently sold.

There are many good authors frustrated at how fast they are forgotten in the Big Houses who pump out thousands of titles per year. I would think a lot of authors would rather hire the editorial and marketing services they choose on their own dime, using a portion of the extra royalties they receive from self-publishing at both book launch and as part of a sustained multi-year effort. To take complete control of their own book’s destiny, as opposed to assigning it to a company operating with high employee turnover and low morale. (Take a look at the recent Glassdoor ratings of the Big 5 as an indication of current employee morale.)

I believe this threat is greater for books than it would be for some other product type. Authors pour everything they have, over many years, into writing their beloved books. Giving their babies away to others is a big risk, especially for those who feel burned or overlooked in the past.

All it takes to demoralize an author working with a Big 5 publisher is to lose your editor in a layoff. Without that internal champion, you are sunk. The ensuing organizational chaos that follows just makes it more painful. This is a huge gamble on a co-dependent relationship where neither side typically feels great about it all the time.

The big strategic question for publishers is increasingly becoming how much does an author need to pay you to provide equal or better services available from somewhere else? Right now, the number they are paying is larger than the newer markets demand. The one big advantage of traditional publishing to authors is the royalty advance. But the few big names are getting more and more while the rest are getting less and are in essence being asked by the publishers to fund those large advances with their reduced 25% ebook royalty rates. How long will they put up with this?

So what should publishers be doing that they aren’t already? I realize many are working to establish their own direct-to-consumer businesses, which is a good start. But I am a skeptic when it comes to this, probably because my career working in five different industries trying this same thing has demonstrated that people like to shop where people shop frequently. The supermarket. Or Amazon. Or the local indie bookstore. Remembering to buy once or twice a year from a manufacturer with their own unique reseller site is inconvenient. And in my experience, the costs to the manufacturer (in this case publisher) become actually higher than the margins they provide to resellers offering a variety of products. Those resellers own the majority of the customer transactions. The tech and staffing requirements to run an in-house direct marketing and IT team will surprise most who are new to that business model.

How about providing a sliding scale royalty on ebooks based on performance, same as done in contracts for print? 25% for ebooks up to a certain number sold, 40% after that. But I doubt this will happen and also am not sure the margin is there. The poor author, giving 15% to an agent and then 15% to themselves. The publisher and resellers are getting most of the slim retail margin for themselves. Which is why I feel the current rules of the old business are not sustainable going into the future. So do you let others disrupt you or try and do it yourself?

Worst of all for publishers, they don’t own the content they deliver. They are completely at the mercy of their authors’ decisions on how they choose to publish going forward. Contrast this with a software publisher who owns the product they make and sell. So, in the spirit of looking for new ways to survive, why don’t publishers focus more on offering content outright and sell it under their own name. The Random House Book of Birding. Random House is the author, the staff produces the book, just as software engineers do for Apple and others.

I post this in part to make sure publishers are paying attention to the services their distributors and laid-off editors and marketers are providing through new channels. This is precisely what I saw in the photo industry as customers and staff moved from Kodak and Polaroid to Epson (first digital camera), Adobe (editing), and HP (ink and paper). And then, of course, Apple, Samsung, Facebook, Instagram . . .