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Feature

The Untouchables

How You Fit Into the Publishing Caste System
If you think that publishers believe that all authors are created equal, think again.

While anyone who’s been paying even the smallest bit of attention to the book world knows that already best-selling authors and new authors slated for lead title status and the accompanying engineered spot on bestseller lists get bigger advances, big advertising and promotion, and more press attention than other authors, the differences don’t stop there.

And they’re created intentionally.

Within publishing houses large and small, major and independent (though this is less of a problem with medium and small independents), a caste system exists that separates authors into distinct groups that are treated differently from the time an agent pitches the book to the publisher to well beyond the day it hits the bookstore shelves.

To understand why this caste system exists, you have to understand the one basic economic fact that drives every major publishing house and even the larger independents: The profits from the books of an extremely small handful of authors keeps that publishing house afloat.

The rest of the publishing house’s authors, therefore, are, quite literally, disposable. It really doesn’t matter if their books make any money or not. The publishing house isn’t counting on profits from those authors to stay in business. If their books happen to make some money, or a lot of money, well, that’s certainly a welcome event, but it’s rarely expected, let alone necessary.

All of a publishing house’s efforts and resources are directed to The Moneymakers, the stars and about-to-be stars of the publishing house because it’s the profits from their books that keep that house going.

A bit of effort and some resources are directed to The Up-and-Comers, another small handful of authors, those who are seen as potential future Moneymakers.

Little effort and few resources are directed to The Untouchables, the rest of the house’s authors. Their books, all mid-list titles, comprise 90% or more of the titles a house publishes, and those Untouchables comprise 90% or more of the authors published by the house.

While you recover from the shock (if you didn’t already know this before), here comes another one: The Untouchables’ books are usually just as good as The Moneymakers and The Up-and-Comers, and are often actually much better.

Because time and money is scarce for The Untouchables, those authors and their books have to succeed (from the smallest to the biggest level of success) despite the publisher’s tiny effort, neglect, and often downright negligence. If you’re an Untouchable author, you and your agent are gonna have to fight just to get your book properly distributed, re-printed when and if the first printing sells out, and shipped when orders come in from retail outlets. As for reviews, press attention, book signings, and other promotional efforts, you’re on your own.

Your publisher will have you fill out lots of questionnaires they say they’re going to use when marketing and promoting your book, but they’ll do little if anything. I promise you this: you’ll spend more time filling out those forms than your publisher will spend marketing and promoting your book.

During your book contract negotiations, your publisher may fight tooth and nail to get your foreign rights, but then not even bother to sell your book to foreign publishers. Now you’re stuck. You don’t own the foreign rights, your publisher does, so you and your agent can’t make any deals with foreign publishers.

The same thing happens with film rights, audio rights, and other subsidiary rights.

When you hear that The Moneymakers and The Up-and-Comers often meet with or speak on the phone to the publisher’s sales team, you figure you should too. After all, all those books and articles you’ve read on book promotion have encouraged you to coordinate your marketing and promotional efforts with the sales team and offer them your assistance – signing books that’ll be shipped to warehouses, signing books in stock at bookstores even if you don’t have a public book signing event, and other efforts.

So, you try to contact your publisher’s sales folks. And what do you get for your efforts? A nasty call (or these days more likely a nasty e-mail) from your editor putting you in your place, letting you know that the sales team is off limits, very busy people, and that you shouldn’t bother them. Like the publisher’s other resources, the sales force is devoted almost entirely to that small percentage of authors in The Moneymakers and The Up-and-Comers castes.

If you manage to stir up interest in your book and a lot of orders (even just a few dozen or a few hundred) come in beyond the publisher’s initial expectations, you’ve got yourself a problem. That’s because the publisher isn’t counting on having to allocate staff effort to deal much with you and your book. And even in the face of thousands of orders, your publisher may believe it’s still more cost-effective and profitable to just ignore your book orders and continue to put their human and financial resources into The Moneymakers (and to a lesser extent The Up-and-Comers) rather than divert them to your book.

Yes, that’s right – a publisher often turns away business.

Especially when it’s business they hadn’t counted on. When you go beyond your first printing, you’re in dangerous territory. Their financial model, they believe, wouldn’t suffer if they kept their people busy tending to The Moneymakers’ books rather than arranging to print, distribute and sell your books.

A few years back, one mid-list author, an Untouchable whose book had a first printing of less than 10,000 copies, hired a publicist who managed to get the author on a very high-profile TV interview program.

The author was such a big hit that about 300,000 book orders immediately poured in. The author’s publisher, an imprint of a major publishing house, was shocked. The house hadn’t planned for this, and probably never even thought the book would sell out its first printing.

Was the house delighted? Did the powers-that-be immediately order 300,000 more books printed and distributed so those orders could be filled?

Of course not!

They hemmed and hawed for days, trying to decide whether they should even fill the orders.

Two weeks later, the author again appeared on the show – back by popular demand! The books still hadn’t been printed.

Finally, after it began to publicly look strange, the house gave in and ordered the printing and distribution of the author’s now hit book.

More orders poured in, and he ended up on the best-seller lists. With his next book, he was elevated in caste: Now he was one of The Moneymaker authors. He even went on to have his own TV show.

What can an Untouchable do?

Unfortunately, even strong clauses in your contract can’t prevent most of the neglect.

But, knowing ahead of time that this caste system exists, and where you fit into it, can give you a much more accurate picture of the effort your publisher will actually make on your behalf. That will keep you from believing that your author questionnaire translates to marketing and promotion efforts by your publisher. That will also underscore how important it is that you persevere in the face of the minimal support given to The Untouchables. You can turn this around when you don’t give up.

You and your agent must stay on top of your book sales. Has your first printing sold out? If so, when? And when is the publisher printing more? Are they filling orders from stores and on-line retailers? If they’re not filling orders – the book will be called “out of stock” – get your agent to make a lot of noise. You can even take your problems to the press. Every newspaper (and yes, you can even approach the big guns, including The New York Times who give a lot of coverage to the publishing business) will be interested. Contact the business editor or book editor/critic.

Have your agent retain as many of your book’s subsidiary rights as possible. That way it doesn’t matter if the publisher doesn’t do anything with an Untouchable’s foreign, film, and audio rights. You’ll still have them and you can have your agent make the deals with foreign publishers, audio publishers, and film people.

Every obstacle thrown at The Untouchables can be dealt with if The Untouchables first understand where they fit in and why this is happening to them, and then hang tough, get touch, and never give up.

* * * * *

Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.

Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for its entire run in Miami and select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works frequently with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction.


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