Fantasy vs. reality in publishing

There's an interview with the publisher of Grand Central about how they really, REALLY care about their books, and do all sorts of wonderful things for them, and love and cherish their authors, and are just the best thing for writers.

It's very touching. You read it, and you wonder why anyone would self-publish. And then you read things by people who have been or who know people who have been published by Grand Central, and a rather different picture emerges. Crappy advances. Authors who are expected to do so much promotion they don't have time to write. Poor financial returns. Minimal and ineffective marketing.

Basically, the publisher of Grand Central has a fantasy about what the company is doing for writers. If you're trying to understand traditional publishing, a big part of the challenge is that the people in it tend to talk about what they wish they were doing. Very few people go into publishing because they want to get rich (and those who do are as dumb as rocks). The vast majority really and truly want to be contributing to literature and don't think they ought to worry about money. The rest are trying to rip you off.

Which is why they all lie about the bottom line--it's a culture that believes it is nobler than filthy lucre. That's why I saw an agent tell a roomful of writers that there was only maybe a tiny bit of truth in the notion that agents are interested in commercial books, when the truth is that any agent who wants to stay in business won't touch a non-commercial book with a ten-foot pole. That's why the nation's largest bookstore chain can tell implausible lies about market share, and everyone else in the industry backs them up.

The problem with this from an author perspective is that figuring out what you should do in traditional publishing is really difficult, because despite the pretentions it is still a business, and you can't make good business decisions without accurate information about how the money is made. And no one is willing to tell you that--they either want to believe the fantasy themselves, or they want you to believe it so they can steal from you.

What's really nice about someone like Joe Konrath is that he'll break down the numbers for you. But even if he didn't, or even if he was lying through his teeth, self-publishing is just far more transparent. The amount of money a writer makes off of, say, selling an e-book at a certain price on Amazon is public knowledge. It's why, if you're nosy like I am, it's so easy to do the math and figure out who's making what. It's why you can easily see what's a good deal and what's not. The information is there, it's verifiable, and you aren't reduced to taking the word of someone who has an agenda.