The Destructive Power of Publishing

I've been blogging over at Authors Electric about the current crisis for authors in the traditional publishing industry - this is cross-blogged from there.

The Destructive Power of Publishing - Kathleen Jones

In the past few months I've had some distressing emails from friends - successful writer friends published by big publishing houses here and abroad.  One of them was a Whitbread award-winner with his first novel and the others have also won awards, as well as being very commercial - one has regularly had books serialised by the Reader's Digest. But two in particular have really made me aware of the cruel and destructive power of the contemporary publishing industry, which cares more for its shareholders than the creative egos of the authors it depends on for its income.

Recently two friends have told me stories which are very similar. Both are distressed, depressed and have had their lives, their confidence - and their writing careers - damaged by the very people supposed to nurture and support them.  It's difficult not to come to the conclusion that the supposedly 'traditional' model of the publishing industry has begun to cannibalise itself.

One symptom of this is a recent post on the blog Random Jottings about the historical fiction author Cynthia Harrod Eagles - always chronically under publicised.  Recently the publishers have suggested that she should bring her very successful Morland Dynasty series to an end because it is no longer making quite so much money (but still selling and still in print).  This produced an outcry from her readers, but was apparently very wounding for the author. The publishers could have promoted her books (they're as commercial as Philippa Gregory)  in order to make themselves more profit, but they preferred to wield the axe instead. Why? Something is going on in publishing that is very damaging to authors.

One of my friends - with whom I shared an agent for a couple of years - had a couple of successful novels published both here and in America.  They are upmarket literary fiction - think Marika Cobbold, and Maggie O'Farrell - but they're also potentially very commercial.  She's recently had another baby and has taken a while to finish her third novel, which is a big, glorious account of twenty first century society - a complex Russian style novel with four main characters and narrative threads woven together.  Her agent (my ex for good reasons) initially praised the book, then began to make discouraging noises and asked her to rewrite whole sections of it, deleting characters and changing the plot.  But the book was complete just as it was. To delete characters and plot-lines would have turned the book into something it was never intended to be.  It could never be a commercial pot-boiler romantic saga - there's a lot of stark realism and some challenging situations.  To turn the book into what the agent wanted it to be would have maimed it fatally, even if the re-write had been possible. 

It's a situation that Costa award-winning Indie author Avril Joy addresses in her new book 'From Writing With Love'.  "It’s not difficult to find yourself losing your way and writing something that’s not true to who you are.  I’ve done it.  I’ve written more sex into a book to please an agent.  I’ve written crime fiction, invented a serial killer, ditched one book and moved onto the next, and more . . . Being new to writing I was vulnerable to such persuasions (which I have no doubt at all were made from a genuine desire to help me get a book deal). I wouldn’t do it like that a second time round because in the end if you’re not writing from your own truth the writing is not truly yours."

My friend wanted to believe her agent was right and could be relied on - we trust our agents to give us the right career advice, so she believed that the fault was with her and that her book was no good, although her gut feeling was telling her the opposite.  It came as a shock to realise that what the agent was really doing was advising her that she could only write for the market - the books she wanted to write, however great a work of art they might be, were just not going to be bought by a publisher. I read the novel to give an objective second opinion. It's a wonderful story, wonderfully written.  It deserves to be sold and sold and sold.  But her first two novels hadn't sold enough - there was some half-hearted muttering about re-launching her under another name.  My friend has lost confidence in her agent, the publishing industry and in herself as a writer, losing sleep and feeling depressed.

The cartoon says it all - but it's no joke for writers
Last week I got another email from someone else whose publishing career I've always envied.  Her latest novel, which her agent had raved about had - after an agonising wait -  just been rejected by her publisher with a brief curt note.  Other publishers weren't even interested.  She too was devastated and desperate, feeling that her writing life was at an end.  Her painful account of how she'd been treated made me very, very angry.

Both of them wrote to me asking for advice and there was only one piece of advice I could give - do what the rest of us have done and publish the b***** books yourself.  If publishers have lost the plot to the extent that they can't recognise a good book when they see one, then we have to take things into our own hands.  What bothers me most is that there are still a lot of writers out there who trust the traditional publishing system absolutely and are having their confidence and even their mental health affected by their treatment in the system.  Publishers want the new, the fluffy, the edgy, the quirky, the absolutely marketable, headline in the Mail on Sunday, one hundred percent guaranteed money-spinner. What they do not want is the quietly crafted good read that thousands of their readers enjoy - the mid-list that earned its keep but not the managing director's Bentley. Publishers have share-holders who need to be kept happy in this 'difficult economic climate'. They are no longer there to nurture talent and hold the hands of frail artistic geniuses. And agents are there to feed the hungry maw of the publishing machine with fodder, because they too have mortgages and cars and foreign holidays to pay for.

E-publishing is only one of several options . . .

It has never been easier to publish your own book - self-publishing is as old as the book trade itself. S** snobbery!  If a book's worth sweating over for years of your life, it's worth publishing - get out there and do it!! It takes a couple of weeks to turn a clean Word document into a published paperback and E-book courtesy of the Demon Amazon.  Go on -  I dare you .... press the button . . .


  1. So well said and so spot on! I will post this as a link on my writing blog, with a clarification that it is written by another “Kathleen Jones”!

    For many of the same reasons you clarify in your posting, I launched my last book as an indie author under my own imprint, Thinking Women Books. I learned so much during the process that I feel I should have earned the MA now on offer at CLU in the UK! (Not sure of the worth or wisdom of getting such a degree, but the effort I expended during the process of self-publishing was both worthy and wise.) I will soon be inviting others to submit MSS for review by my “small press” in the hopes of helping other authors who might not want to do it all themselves. But marketing is another long-leaning curve process I am still stretching to master.

    Hope you get a chance to read my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Should I send you a review copy for your reviewing blog? If you email me privately with the best address I will get it in the mail to you soon.

    Love all your posts in the “writing life.” We must do a blog exchange SOON!

  2. Economic "rationalism" is just so damaging wherever it touches.

    I have to say I can't imagine going any other way than "indie" next time (if that is I ever manage to my current MS).
    I have been earning a little pocket money from Veiled in Shadows which is most en-heartening.

  3. Thank you for writing such a heartfelt and accurate piece. I particularly love the sentence "What bothers me most is that there are still a lot of writers out there who trust the traditional publishing system absolutely and are having their confidence and even their mental health affected by their treatment in the system." This is, sadly, so very true. I allowed myself to be seduced into believing in the system for a good thirty years with the result that I gave up on my fiction writing career several times. In the meantime I enjoyed a very successful career as a textbook author (50 plus books) so at least I was writing professionally every day. But the lure of fiction would not leave me (thankfully!) so after many stops and starts, and years of very hard work and soul-searching and waiting for agents and editors to pay attention, I decided to not even send my current novel "out." Instead, I've set up my own company "New Arcadia Publishing" and have published "The Towers of Tuscany" about a woman painter in fourteenth century Italy.

    I know in my heart that it's a good novel and that it is time to get it into the hands of the people who really matter - the readers. I've spent four years writing and editing it, and then hired respected professionals for developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading. The reviews are creeping in and so far they are good: "The Towers of Tuscany is a beautifully crafted masterpiece of historical fiction ..." says one reviewer (and I don't even know them!).

    The point is that it is time for serious writers to "take back the means of production." Yes, the digital world is bursting at the seams with amateur, poorly written work. So what? The shelves of many a bookstore also groan with pot boilers and bodice rippers. That cannot stop writers from striving to produce their very best work and then get it directly to readers.

    And the best thing about indie publishing? Control!! I have been traditionally published for 25 years (albeit in a different genre) and I know the price authors pay for security. I'm not complaining - my textbooks are my bread and butter. But when it comes to my novels--the children of my soul--I no longer want to pass them over to others who see dollar signs instead of readers, formulae instead of originality.
    Thank you!


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