When Women Aren’t Well-Behaved

November 16th, 2006 · 13 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

The Internets are buzzing with shock and awe: an author dared to speak out against her publishing house. Now don’t get us wrong — we firmly believe that this type of conversation happens all the time. It is the fact that Anne Stuart’s comments about her relationship with her current publisher, buried in the middle of a long interview, have resonated with so many people that caught our attention.

Now let us make it perfectly clear that Anne Stuart does not need our defense (Anne Stuart probably doesn’t even know we exist). She published her first novel in 1974. She has won many prestigious awards. She is a bestselling author. She has seen editors come and go. She has seen publishing houses come and go. Thus when Anne Stuart says something like this, she at least has a solid foundation for her opinion:

So now I’m with Mira, who promised to love, honor and adore me. And maybe they do, but they could do more. I know every writer says that, and I hate to be greedy and ungrateful, but they’re not so much about the books. They’re about slots and numbers, not about passion for what they’re putting out there. Or so it seems to me. But then, right now I’m pretty disillusioned about the lack of support from them. I’ll get over it. Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong and I’m a middle of the road writer.

No, they’re wrong. I’m a goddess.

And maybe I’ve misjudged them. It seems to me that they look at my books like boxes of cereal on a shelf, and they’re in the business of selling cereal, not loving it.

Miss Snark, who prefers to blog anonymously but is, indeed, a real-life agent, came back with what we considered a most surprising response: “…don’t diss your publisher in public. Not now, not ever. Not even if you think you’re right…”

Anne Stuart is an author who passes out bumper stickers that read “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History”. Maybe it should read more like “Well-Behaved Authors Get Lousy Deals”, but that’s beside the point. As an author who has seen far too much in the publishing industry, Anne Stuart should speak out. How else are we to learn? Let us look at more information, however.

First, Stuart is currently publishing with MIRA, the premier imprint of the Harlequin family. This means she has sufficient sales and audience to carry a big book straight to the New York Times bestseller list. Say what you will about how this list is determined, but not every author has this ability. Harlequin wanted Stuart associated with MIRA because she would do good for them.

Now, it is no secret that Harlequin is often more about selling brand than authors. History is littered with the names of authors who achieved superstar status by leaving the Harlequin family — Nora Roberts, Carly Phillips, Anne Stuart (she comes, she goes), Jennifer Crusie. Many authors leave the house because they’re simply not getting the support they need from their publisher to move their careers forward. As hard-working and self-promoting as these authors are, a little extra love from the publisher is essential to increasing sales figures…especially when your book is only available for thirty days.

Here is our real problem with people to tell authors to suck it up, take what you get, and don’t ever, not once, take your publisher’s name in vain: it does your fellow authors a real disservice. Authors who accept a paltry six percent royalty on electronic books without a protest? Paving the way for another generation of authors who will put their heads down and say, “Six percent? Sounds about right to me.” Silent authors will sit back, never mentioning that their publisher hasn’t issued timely statements or payments.

Well-behaved authors get lousy deals. And the authors who come after them get lousy deals, too. Silence is not always a virtue. It is common in the romance genre for authors, often women who have worked hard to be published, to accept lower royalties and small advances. These women are grateful to their editors and publishers, sometimes to the point where they will happily change key elements of their books in order to satisfy the whims of a marketing department. Never mind that changing your hero’s occupation or motivation makes no sense at all. You trust that your publisher knows the score.

Should authors be so grateful that someone has deigned to publish their work that they should just check their dignity and opinions at the door? Who does that serve? Given the quarterly news from Torstar, Harlequin’s parent company, it seems that MIRA needs Anne Stuart more than Anne Stuart needs MIRA. Stuart has options. She can find another publisher, editor, agent, venue for her work. Because railing against the machine isn’t as much of a career-killer as they’d have you believe.

Gratitude — especially gratitude served by silence — is an odd thing when you stop to think that no author is published out of the goodness of an editor’s heart. They are not plucking you from the slush pile because you’re a nice person, because you mind your p’s and q’s. Every decision to publish a book is grounded in cold, hard facts. Publishing is a business.

Maybe MIRA decided that Stuart’s books weren’t their thing, maybe they took a look at the bottom line and felt the investment wasn’t justified. Things happen after the honeymoon ends. Does that mean that Stuart should just suck it up and take the fall for low sales and missed projections when her publisher doesn’t offer sufficient support? She’s out there doing promotion and selling herself to readers old and new — but meeting sales goals is a team effort. MIRA believed in this author enough to sign her; shouldn’t they be held accountable if (and we do not know the whole story, remember) they don’t fulfill their end of the bargain?

And shouldn’t other authors have this kind of knowledge when they sit down to negotiate with MIRA (or another publisher)? If only to help them with their own careers?

File Under: Square Pegs

13 responses so far ↓

  • KathyF // Nov 16, 2006 at 12:24 pm

    I didn’t realize this had reached brouhaha status. I’m having a hard time believing this is the most controversial thing Anne Stuart has ever said.

  • Deborah Smith // Nov 16, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    I have commented in support of Anne Stuart elsewhere but never so eloquently as has Booksquare — Huzzah to Booksquare! As a twenty-year survivor of the romance genre (30+ books and counting, one NYT bestseller) I have recently switched to publishing my novels via my own small press precisely because of the issues Booksquare mentions. Publishers often do the most bewildering, destructive, incomprehensible things. I’ve been paid buckets of money only to have my books slapped with horrible covers and then published with no discernible marketing plan — and I’m talking about books that got rave reviews and sold film rights to major studios. I’ve worked with editors who thought nothing of ordering me to gut my storylines, as if turning a main character from, say, a lawyer with no children to an actress with ten foster kids is a sane and simple rewrite. The romance genre is notoriously dependent on submissive, grateful women authors who are told by society and the publishing industry that their books aren’t “real books” and so they should shut up and be happy anyone publishes them. Anne Stuart is a rare goddess who simply tells it like it is.

  • Karen Scott // Nov 16, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    I must admit, I did feel that this was a bit of a non-issue. I’m happy as long as she’s not slagging off her readers.

  • Joan Kelly // Nov 16, 2006 at 5:37 pm

    Thanks, Booksquare, for this post. I do think there’s a difference between being a high-maintenance author who doesn’t do anything for herself and complains that no one else ever does enough, versus having some balls and some self-respect and talking about shitty publisher-behavior. Yes, I get it that the business of publishing these days is about authors basically doing everything for themselves, promotion-wise. Especially first time authors like me, for instance. But I wholly reject the notion that authors – particularly women romance authors, as you pointed out – should just be grateful no matter what a publisher does. And I HATE that people expect women romance authors to be submissive like this. It’s bullshit.

    Thanks again.

  • harriet may savitz // Nov 16, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    Silent No Longer
    By Harriet May Savitz
    I am publishing my books with Print on Demand. I am doing so while traditional publishers decide the future of the publishing business. I am doing so after being published by many prominent publishing houses of the times, including John Day, Scholastic, Thomas Y. Crowell, New American Library. I am paying to have my own books put in print after 22 published books in both the children’s and the young adult fields. I cannot be silent or allow my messages to go undelivered any longer.
    While the publishing business goes through its 21st Century adjustments, I must keep my writing voice alive. Though my essays have been published in a dozen of the Chicken Soup for the Soul Series and newspapers and magazines, it is discouraging when book manuscripts do not sell. Or when there is a waiting period and promises are broken. As with one large publisher who gave me an advance, kept a book for three years, then, when the editor left, dropped the book Along with a request to return the advance. I did not.. There were manuscripts held for a year or more and even when a book is published, its life could be short. Shelf space is difficult to obtain and sales have to be high to keep a book in print.
    I could not allow myself to wait until the publishing world gained its balance. I was producing work and I wondered would others think I was not because my books were not appearing on new lists. A pile of unpublished books lay in the files. I had stopped submitting them long ago because the quest seemed futile. I found the same problems with an agent as without one. Manuscripts were not being read. Telephone calls were unanswered and one manuscript after another received little attention.
    But I can not blame the publishing business for my discontent. They are in the process of change. And that is why I decided I must change also. Always before, it was the traditional publisher who accepted my work. Now, if I wanted to be read and my voice heard, if I wanted others to know I was still working, still producing, I would have to take control. And so I am being published by Print on Demand. It is not an easy task to be in control of editing, marketing, and the design of a book. For no matter how many are at the other end with advice and guidance and expertise of their own, it is the author’s decisions that shape the book.
    But the thrill of breaking the silence is worth the effort. With POD, I have the ability to get a book out in a few months. It exists at last. No more waiting. Rejection. Frustration. In two months, I can hold my new book in my hands.
    The down side is the marketing. If no one knows of the book, it will not sell. It will sit either on my website, or in my home. I must work to get it out there. Marketing is available through the print on demand companies or can be done and is being done by POD authors. It takes a lot of blogging, chat rooms, speaking engagements, mailings, and publicity.
    During a time when technology has sent the publishing world into an incredible era of exploration, I have chosen to explore as well.
    Who knows what each of us will discover?.

  • ktwice // Nov 16, 2006 at 9:03 pm

    Kathy — You made me laugh. I’m sure that if one were to search the annals of Anne Stuart’s pearls of wisdom, one would find something much more blasphemous. Possibly even more scathing. I actually found her comments to be thoughtful — she acknowledged her current state of mind.

    Deborah — I am trying desperately not to go all fangirl on you (g). I think BelleBooks is a great testament to how good publishers can do good things. Small presses are among my favorites because they seem more agile — and more willling to take chances. As for changing key plot elements, I don’t get it. I know about sales, I know about marketing, I know all this stuff…yet when I read some of the books being published by Harlequin today, I scratch my head because elements feel wrong.

    Joan — You got my point on gratitude. I know how hard every published author works, but publishing is a partnership. Authors are, well, you know, really important in the world of publishing. They should at least be treated like they matter. Without them, there wouldn’t be books. Or at least as many books.

    Harriet — I’m a firm believer in making my own destiny. I’m also a firm believer in making informed choices. I wouldn’t have returned the advance either. Three years is far too long to tie up someone’s creative property.

    P.S. Since I pointed back to the Crusie rant (and rant is my way of complimenting a person), I should note that while I don’t blog under my own name, that’s more because it’s how things worked out, not necessarily by design. Pretty much everyone who cares knows who I am. When your mother gives you a name like mine, well, let’s just say Booksquare is easier to spell.

  • SusanGable // Nov 17, 2006 at 6:16 am

    Well said, Booksquare. Well, well said.

  • Kelly McClymer // Nov 17, 2006 at 7:44 am

    I think both Anne Stuart and Miss Snark are right, which is the frustrating and confusing part of the business. Anne Stuart has never kept her mouth shut about the business (and directly due to her open and honest snarking, I have been well informed about this business for over a decade). That openness is what makes her A.S. However, she’s well aware she’ll get slapped for opening her mouth, somehow, somewhere. She’s willing to take the consequences for being honest. Miss Snark is really just speaking for the majority of those who are not willing to take the consequences of speaking their minds and lose readers/publishers/friends. Clearly, she falls in this category, since she chose to be anonymous. I don’t fault her for it (I’d rather hear the true opinion of someone anonymously than the ‘gussied up’ opinion of someone on the record and trying hard not to offend anyone. Of course, I’d really rather we all were more like A.S. But I’m waaaay too old to think that’s going to happen.

    P.S. This almost exact same controversial discussion was carried on between Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein in the sf world twenty years ago. So it isn’t limited to women/romance or the current marketing strategy of publishers, either 🙂


  • Patricia Rice // Nov 17, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    Yay, Booksquare, Boo, Miss Snark! And Anne Stuart doesn’t need any encouragement from me or anyone else, so I’ll just thank her for raising an issue that ought to be discussed everywhere in BookWorld.

    The industry is in trouble. When a good print run is a stable one instead of an increasing one, we’re not growing, and in many ways, we’re sliding backward. Instead of snarking and hissing at each other, we need to all pur our heads together—from creative authors to penny-pinching bean counters and everyone in between—to find a solution to our declining business.

    Unfortunately, at the moment, it’s the bean counters who rule, not just in publishing, but everywhere. Without creativity, solutions are elusive. And this is the issue Anne Stuart is addressing, however creatively.

  • ktwice // Nov 17, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Hey, I resemble that bean counter remark…though I prefer “creative accountant”. It’s a better representation of my skills. Plus, I’ve heard rumors that bean counters can add, and I certainly can’t. I won’t get into the fact that the mere thought of debits and credits gives me hives.

    But frank discussion is absolutely necessary. Honest talk about author expectations and publisher fulfillment matters. If a house, for example, consistently promises more than it delivers, doesn’t it serve others well to know this — I’d rather go in informed and savvy than come out disappointed.

    In defense of Miss Snark, I believe her decision to remain anonymous speaks more to her current business relationships, on both sides of the table (that and she probably doesn’t need queries from everyone who reads her blog — and they are legion). She gives pretty frank advice and doesn’t pull punches when faced with idiocy. I do believe she missed the mark on this issue. As I noted above, she doesn’t really live in the romance community and may have been addressing the general issue without realizing that, in this case, specifics do matter (as Kelly said).

  • KathyF // Nov 19, 2006 at 1:31 am

    I will say that if there were more books published like Deborah Smith’s, I would be a much larger consumer of romance fiction than I currently am.

    (The F is for Fangirl.)

  • Jill P // Nov 21, 2006 at 6:26 am

    Argue about the mertits of dissing your publisher or not but there are some facts missing here.

    K you said:

    >>This means she has sufficient sales and audience to carry a big book straight to the New York Times bestseller list. Say what you will about how this list is determined, but not every author has this ability. Harlequin wanted Stuart associated with MIRA because she would do good for them.

    No. She never had a NYT book. She never had a bestseller. That’s what was wrong with the whole brou ha ha. AS complained about her publisher in public just as her publisher -was publishing AS’s book – which book, by the way turned out to be AS’s FIRST novel ever to hit the list in 32 years.

    AS and DS can complain about the publisher all they want and claim the book getting on the list was a miracle – but books do not get on the NYT list becuase the publsiher screwed up. They don’t get on the list miraculously.

    There is no publisher who needs an author more than the author needs them except when the author is J.K. Rowling. It’s the wrong equasion. Its a partnership. Authors need publishers, publishers need authors.

  • ktwice // Nov 21, 2006 at 8:22 pm

    Jill — At the risk of being overly precise (and we all know the dangers of that route!), I didn’t say that Anne Stuart had made the list in the past — my (obviously poorly worded) comment was intended to indicate that this is the level of sales that a publisher like MIRA is seeking. MIRA expects higher sales numbers and exposure from its authors. When authors move up to the MIRA level, they’ve reached a certain pinnacle. Yeah, you can always go higher, but MIRA is highly selective when it comes to signing authors for a reason. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. By signing Anne Stuart, MIRA exhibited great confidence that this was an author who could hit the major bestseller lists. This is not the same expectation Harlequin as a whole has for authors signed to other imprints.

    I’m not entirely sure who DS might be, but clearly Stuart felt that she didn’t get a lot of publisher support. I don’t know what sort of marketing dollars MIRA expended and I don’t know what type of promotional efforts they engaged — book tour? virtual book tour? lots of print ads in certain newspapers? increased ARCs to key readers (I didn’t get one, but, hey, I’m not the only one, I’m sure)?

    I do know that Anne Stuart has been doing self-promotion. This is so common in the world of romance that it almost goes without saying. I saw evidence that she was trying to reach beyond her core fan base and connect with new readers. Further to this, she was selling a book that, by some accounts, has a hero that might make romance traditionalists wary. I thought her approach was very effective; if I weren’t already inclined to read this author, I’d be intrigued by her Japanese anime-type analogies. I’m always seeking something fresh and different, being a jaded reader is sometimes rough.

    As for your final comment? We may need to agree to disagree. I think publishers need quality authors now more than ever. Authors have the luxury of finding the right house for their work. They also have the ability to take non-traditional routes to publishing. Maybe these routes aren’t MIRA-lucrative, but authors have increasing flexibility and that will give them more leverage — it’s going to take time for this to come to fruition. Even though the relationship is, as you say, a partnership, it’s the author who creates the work and ultimately connects with the audience. All the marketing in the world can’t create a bestseller if the words on the page don’t match the hype — Henry Holt discovered this with Jeb Rubenfeld’s “Interpretation of Murder”. All the elements were in place, right down to a highly photogenic author, but the book didn’t wholly connect with readers. One theory was that this book specifically didn’t connect with female readers, a large component of the book-buying public.