Discussions with Kensington Publishing head Steven Zacharius lay bare the wide gulf between publishing execs and writers

Steve 3An interesting thing happened a few days ago. An author posted the details of her publishing contract, including exactly how much (or more aptly, I gather, how little) she was making from her traditionally-published book. She was forced to take it down for “contract disclosure reasons” shortly afterward, and it had already expired from Google’s cache by the time I went looking for it, so I don’t know the specifics.

When Passive Guy at The Passive Voice linked said article, the discussion became the most active he’d ever seen on his blog—298 comments at this point, and probably more by the time you read this. Part of this is probably because Steven Zacharius, CEO of Kensington Books, started commenting and engaging with authors in the discussion. (He had previously written a column on Huffington Post about “the myth and the reality” of self-publishing advising writers not to quit their day job yet; self-publishing writer Laura Kaye responded and a link in the comments led him to Passive Voice.) And from the way the discussion went, as well as the one on Kaye’s blog, it’s pretty clear that traditional publishing house execs and house-published/self-publishing authors have some way to go yet before they see eye to eye—if indeed they ever will.

Along the way there were comments such as this one from “Pam”:

As a self-published author who has sold well over 150,000 books in the last two years, I quit querying publishers. The contract terms are all in the publishing houses’ favor, often extremely detrimental to the author, and there is no longer any advantage to selling to a publishing house. Good editors are now freelancing and available to anyone can afford to pay one. Better proofreaders can be found than those employed by the Big 6, and definitely better cover artists. Formatting for both e-book and print has been simplified to the point that I can do it myself–without all the formatting errors I see in Big 6 books.

My first–and last–experience in selling my book to a publisher was such a bad experience that it would take a 7 figure advance to make me consider doing it again. A lot of very talented authors feel the same way. Go back to the days when authors were valued, and maybe you’d see profits go back up.

There was a good deal of back and forth between Zacharius and self-published authors, many of whom seemed to feel Zacharius was missing the point (as in the case where someone mentioned a list of the top 100 Kindle-published books and he responded citing USA Today’s top 100 books list). Some of them weren’t always the most polite, and Zacharius said at least once he was leaving the discussion (but he continued responding).

Then there was this series of posts, that started with six-figure self-publishing author Debra Holland noting that authors who have both traditionally published and self-published frequently discover the sales of their self-published books outstrip their traditionally-published ones, which is not how it’s “supposed” to go. She also points out that publishing executives are often far-enough removed from their authors that they might not know exactly how discontent those authors are:

I’m not attacking Kensington when I say that in the last year or so, I’ve heard/read so much negative feedback from your authors, that I now advise newbie authors NOT to sign with Kensington. That wasn’t always the case. Nor is it the case with traditional publishing across the board–although I always advise authors to first educate themselves about traditional and self-publishing and make an informed (and intuitively right) decision for themselves.

Zacharius replied, insisting that Kensington always shares royalty figures with its authors, and blaming sales discrepancies on self-published books that could be lower-priced because they didn’t have the publishers’ overhead:

I don’t know where you’ve read that some authors are unhappy with Kensington. I would venture a guess that they are probably authors where we have terminated contracts at the end because the books didn’t perform.

In subsequent posts, Holland noted the authors she’d heard from were ones who were still under contract, Zacharius said he would ask his editors about that at the next meeting, and Marc Cabot chimed in that the editors and the authors would both have reasons for not wanting to say anything publicly:

The authors who are unhappy with you have a huge incentive not to tell you unless and until they get so unhappy that they jump ship. If they have several books with tight reversion clauses with you, they have an even bigger incentive to grin and bear it whilst looking for an escape hatch. While I urge you to take Debra’s advice, you are going to have to work for it, and casually asking, “Hey, everything okay?” at the company picnic is not going to give you reliable information.

Nadia Lee suggested doing an anonymous survey to gauge author satisfaction, and Zacharius said that was an excellent idea and he would suggest it, so I have to give him credit for trying to improve.

But the real standout in the thread came from a Kensington author who replied anonymously out of concern that she (or he) might face retaliation. She claimed to represent the same story as “at least 10 other” Kensington authors, and complained that Kensington was months overdue in reverting her books, that renowned editor John Scognamiglio did not in fact actually offer any editing advice on her books beyond one-to-five-word replies, and that the books’ covers “were made from $10 pieces of stock art. The covers did not match the genre of the books.” (Passive Guy pulled this comment out into a new blog post, which started its own lengthy comment thread.)

Zacharius replied, saying he would look into the issues, and requesting the author email him directly to inquire about the reversions. He also called the criticism of Scognamiglio “uncalled for” given that there were “dozens and dozens of authors who will tell you how amazing he is to work with.” (Which I would note is great for those “dozens and dozens of authors” who received attention from him but apparently the anonymous one and her ten friends aren’t among them.)

On the other thread that post started, another moderately unhappy Kensington author, Anthea Lawson/Sharp, chimed in with her story. It wasn’t as negative as the anonymous one, but she still had her bones to pick:

It was a surprise to find out that the “nurturing” promised by the publishing company was NOT, in fact, for all their authors. Just the ones who had “good numbers.” Basically, the Debut program was a way to test the waters with a small commitment, and pick only those few authors who hit certain target numbers. Nothing personal. Purely business. I was not one of those authors, despite the fact that orders increased for my second book and my print run went UP (thanks in part to an actual historical-looking cover). My career was moving in the right direction, but not fast enough. At the time I was disappointed and bewildered, especially because I’d *bought* the line that the publishing house was truly behind the careers of all their authors.

She also reported not getting much editing feedback to speak of on her work either. So far, Zacharius hasn’t responded to that one.

The affair continued with Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler engaging Zacharius via their blog, spawning both some back and forth with Zacharius there and another discussion on The Passive Voice. (Juli mentioned that one earlier today.) And most recently, author Delila Marvelle posted her own open letter to Zacharius (be prepared to use Readability, Evernote Clearly, Instapaper, or some other reformatter if you go there due to the egregious white-on-black style of her blog), again linked from PV.

There are lots of great and insightful comments all over all of these discussions, perhaps too many to read. But I think Kathlena Contreras hit the nail on the head in a comment to the PV post when she said:

Okay, here’s the thing. Every single word I write is “on spec,” to borrow a contracting term. Every word. No matter how many hours, days and weeks I spend writing, there is no guarantee that anyone will ever buy my work, paying for my hundreds of man hours, much less whatever I spend on covers and so forth. I am taking 100% of the risk that I will ever see a dime of payback for my efforts.

Publishers, on the other hand, see manuscripts as fruit from a miraculous vine that never ceases producing. They go to the vine and select the most beautiful and succulent fruit, spend hours and money preparing it, then serve it for consumption. (Thanks to Kris Rusch for the metaphor of stories as produce.)

Does the publisher take risk? Yes. Does the publisher take as much risk as the writer? I don’t know. But if those hours and investments were added up, I suspect not, especially if you include all those manuscripts written that are never accepted by a publisher.

This contrast of writer’s vs. publisher’s views of the writer’s work is why publishers such as Steve Z. simply can’t understand what writers are saying and why they’re so angry with publishers. Until they do understand how much writers actually bring to the table and how much risk the writer is actually bearing, the defection to SP will continue.

It’s really been interesting these last couple of days to see the differences between the points of view of self-publishing and trad-publishing writers and a trad-publishing CEO laid bare like this. I get the feeling that neither side will necessarily ever understand the other (or be willing to believe the other could ever understand them)—the places they’re coming from are just too different.

For example, in his original Huffington Post blog, Zacharius had this to say:

In a perfect world (okay, in my perfect world) there would be a separate section on Amazon or B&N.com for self-published e-books, maybe even separate websites. I truly believe that it would help the reader distinguish the books as well. Readers don’t purchase books based on who the publisher is and don’t necessarily care. As a result, they might not even know if they’re buying a book that was professionally edited versus one that was self-published. Publishers are devaluing their own content as well by even adding to the confusion. All publishers will discount the first title in a series, and these get mixed in with the other less expensive books and just add to the clutter.

Leaving aside that a lot of self-publishers actually do pay for professional editing (and some trad-gone-indie writers actually report receiving more editing input now (found via PV) than they ever did from their traditional houses), it’s curious that he thinks consumers don’t currently have any way to tell whether the book they might buy is great or terrible ahead of time. Apart from the covers (which, as some of the previous author complaints have noted, are not necessarily guaranteed to be good even from a traditional publisher), Amazon offers reviews from satisfied or dissatisfied customers, and lets the customer read the first chapter or so of the book. If the writing quality is terrible, that will probably present itself in the sample.

Will I reject a book just because it’s self-published, or buy one just because it’s trad-published? Or for that matter, will I buy a book just because it’s self-published, or reject one just because it’s trad-published? No. I will look at the book’s cover, reviews, read the sample text, check Goodreads or google reviews of the book elsewhere, then make my decision. I’d be surprised if many people didn’t do at least some research before they spend their hard-earned money, on anything. (And if I should find I did buy a lousy e-book from Amazon, I have seven days to ask Amazon for a refund.)

But then, underestimating or discounting the reader seems to be something traditional publishing execs do all the time. Just look at John Sargent’s original tone-deaf statement on the agency pricing lawsuit, and his co-opting of the Tor.com blog to do it. Perhaps they should pay better attention to their ultimate customers—who are not, in fact, the distributors or even the bookstores. One thing you can say for self-publishing writers, they certainly understand who is buying their books. That may be why they’re making up 25% of Amazon’s e-book market at this point.

10 Comments on Discussions with Kensington Publishing head Steven Zacharius lay bare the wide gulf between publishing execs and writers

  1. I’m a bit confused when you say “I get the feeling that neither side will necessarily ever understand the other (or be willing to believe the other could ever understand them)—the places they’re coming from are just too different” as nearly all the examples you gave from authors in this discussion are trade published or hybrid authors. The disconnect comes from the situation, not the fact that these authors are unable to understand the situation.

  2. As a professional editor, I am happy that I can help my indie-pubbed clients find a better way. As an author, I am appalled and so glad I didn’t even bother with trad publishing!

    (http://magpieediting.com for those curious about said editing.)

  3. VALERIE VALICENTO // January 22, 2014 at 10:35 pm //

    I love this article. I am an avid reader.

    I do have particular publishers that I buy most of my books from, but that is because they publish my favorite authors. I buy the author–I don’t care if they change publishers a million times or go to self-publishing, I will still buy their books. A lot of my favorites have now gone from traditional publishing to self-publishing or are doing both. They have their reasons and I support them, no matter what. Tell me you have a new title out and I will buy it. If I don’t like it, that’s OK, because I still like you and I will buy your next one.

    I found all of the self-published books in my collection at Amazon and if I like the first one, I will find the rest and buy like crazy. My only complaint about self-published books are the covers–I have a seen several with the same exact cover, only by different authors. I understand those are stock photos, but to the people supplying those photos–circulate them better. I see I have 4 of the same cover on different books in my Kindle library right now. I can’t buy a new book if the cover is the same as something I already have. I may not notice the different title/author. (sorry I went off on a tangent, I’ll stop now)

    I’m glad writers have more options now then just big publishing houses. I always felt bad for people that submitted something to everyone and received rejections, rather than advice. Now they don’t even have to submit to a publishing house, they can do it on their own. They are braver then I am.

  4. Why is everyone so surprised that major publishers don’t have much connection with readers? Readers have never been their market; they sell to bookstores. All of their marketing is targeted and geared toward bookstores. A few have dipped their toes into directly connecting with readers, but it’s just too big a direction change for most of them to manage to any serious degree.

    As a small digital press, we were always a red-headed stepchild as far as bookstores were concerned, so we marketed to readers from day one. We put up with traditionally published writers telling everyone to avoid us because we were scams. We put up with being called nothing more than vanity presses because we didn’t pay advances (although we did and do pay 50% of net on ebook sales). Heck, we were roundly condemned for paying on net rather than cover price by people who had no knowledge of the facts of on-demand printing.

    I will say this: I have every bit as much invested in every book we publish as the author, because I’m the only one here. I do the editing, the copyediting and the interior design; I hire the cover artist and/or designer and work with them to get just the right cover for each book; I format the ebooks. That’s all time I could be writing myself, but it’s such a pleasure when a book we publish does well I’m willing to give it up.

    I know I get repetitious, but there are other options besides traditional publishing and self-publishing, options that were spurned for a decade and now have gotten lost in the civil war. The same caveats to do one’s homework apply, but some of we small fry have been publishing ebooks for more than a decade and a few have been at it for nearly two decades. Those who are frustrated by a lack of response from the trads but who aren’t sure they want to invest the time and money self-publishing do have more choices.

  5. Interesting article – and you might like to know that my organisation, The Writers’ Workshop, DID conduct a major survey of professional authors in the UK asking, ‘Do You Love Your Publisher?’ We got over 300 replies, most of them from well-published authors working with mostly larger publishers. Authors worked across the spectrum from literary and commercial fiction, through kids’ fiction, to niche non-fiction.

    The results of that survey are available here: http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/blog/do-you-love-your-publisher-the-results-of-our-survey/

    It’s worth reading the full bog post, but here’s the headine result. One of the questions we asked was, ‘If, with your next book, you were offered an equally large advance from another reputable publishing house, would you stick with your current publisher or would you move?’ The answers broke down in roughly equal thirds: Stay, Leave and Don’t know. It strikes me that those results point to a widespread disenchantment by authors with their current lot.

  6. You say, “One thing you can say for self-publishing writers, they certainly understand who is buying their books. That may be why they’re making up 25% of Amazon’s e-book market at this point.”

    I don’t think that self-published writers are any better at understanding who is buying their books than traditionally published writers are. Yes, self-published writers may be making up 25% of the e-book market at this point, but this may be that the number of self-published ebooks far outnumber the number of ebooks published by tradtional publishers. What’s more, some of the authors with mega ebook sales, such as Joe Konrath, got their start and achieved their fame because of traditional publishers. Unfortunately, these authors never give credit to the traditional publishers and are instead taking full credit for their success.

    One more thing: If self-published writers know so much about who is buying their books, why aren’t they also doing as well with print editions of their books?

    Incidentally, most of my books have been self-published. I started self-publishing in 1989 (I just laugh at people who claim to be pioneers in self-publishing given that there were a number of extremely successful self-publishers such as Robert J. Ringer with 3 mega bestsellers which sold in the millions well before I started). I have also had a handful of books published by traditional publishers. Having had three true bestsellers (each with over 100,000 copies sold in their print editions), I still would go with a traditional publisher in certain cases and self-publish in other cases. This I know: Most writers don’t have the critical thinking skills to choose which is the best route.

    In short, traditional publishers aren’t as bad as a lot of writers make them out to be. Particularly when it comes to publishing print editions, there is a lot of risk and money involved. Most writers are not prepared to take these risks. I am. That’s why my mainly self-published books have sold over 800,000 copies in print worldwide. That is also why I am now making a nice income from ebooks, although the ebook income is only about 25 percent of my total income from book sales.

    Here is one piece of advice that has served me well, whether the book is self-published or published by a traditional publsher:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.”

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  7. @Ernie, I don’t want to put words in Chris’ mouth, but one difference between self-published authors and traditional publishers is who we think is our market. Traditional publishers still think it’s the bookstores and distribution channels. Self-published authors (and small presses) recognize that the market is our readers. That is a key difference and may have been what Chris was referring to. (Please feel free to correct me, Chris.)

  8. hazelmary jackson // January 23, 2014 at 3:22 pm //

    A few years back I was approached by the literary heir of a deceased author of a best selling niche books to aks if I wanted to update it. It had been out of print for several years and the royalty checks, which he had been receiving, had stopped. He had written to the publisher asking about plans for another edition and been told there were none. He had all the original notes and and was happy to share royalties on an updated version with me but wanted me to liaise with the original publisher. I got in touch, with a covering note from him saying I was acting for him, and said I was planning an updated edition and would they be interested in publishing it as the previous edition was now out of date. The publishers are in the big league internationally, I was dealing with their London office. I got a reply from their legal “manager” saying it was true it was out of print and the copyright was now held by the author’s heir, but they still held publication rights. The author’s heir told me he doubted this as she was always careful to put in her contracts that the publication rights reverted to her two years after the book went out of print and she had died ten years earlier. Unfortunately she had died suddenly and he did not have a copy of her contract with this publisher. He wrote and asked for it, they replied that if he wanted to assert publication rights, it was up to him to produce the contract or sue them. He did not want to get into a legal row with them and backed off at this point. I meanwhile informed them I was writing a new book about her life and work and wanted to include quotations, limited in extent, from the original work. Thier legal manager informed me I should supply them with a draft copy of my new book, when complete, before publication, for approval and they would then decide which quotations I could use and how much they planned to charge me for using them. I too threw in the towel at this point. The book remains out of print and in literary limbo. I raged about the sorry tale to a friend of mine, formerly an editor with a major publishing company, and she said this happens often, a good deal more than you might imagine. Since then I have had NO opinion of publishers at all.

  9. http://www.bookbrunch.co.uk/pid/article_free/quality_will_survive_the_digital_disruption

    See the above — new forms of publishing = new ways of writing and reaching readers. There is a late Victorian precedent.

  10. Kennsington could do an ANONYMOUS author survey if it really wants the truth about how it’s authors feel about $2500 advances and no advances etc… Try survivormokey https://www.surveymonkey.com/mp/online-polls/

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