The publishing industry’s wells run deep with facts and opinions and emotions about the process of getting a novel from final draft to bookstore shelf. Some commentators — agents, publisher reps, etc. — speak from one side of the market divide; others know the joy and the sorrow of being an author with a manuscript to sell.

Of course, not every actor gathered around that well necessarily behaves in good faith. Some publishers are slimy. Some agents are too narrow-minded about marketability. And some authors and author advocates present as jilted lovers, eager to poison the well of good faith that’s an absolute pre-requisite for a well-functioning literary marketplace.

With all the information on the Web targeted at aspiring authors, it makes sense to sip lightly from the well so as to avoid the toxic ink dripped into it by some of those bad actors:

  1. Refer to the publisher’s editorial guidelines, not to some other person’s interpretation of those guidelines.  The only authoritative source of information about what a publisher accepts and how it conducts business is the publisher itself, so if you’re interested in a specific publisher, visit the company’s website and read the guidelines as they’re actually written. If guidelines aren’t available online, ask yourself: How did the secondary source get info that the publisher hasn’t released? And if the secondary source addresses points not covered in the publicly available guidelines, question the source of the augmentation. Sometimes, the secondary sources simply make it up assert that they’re “interpreting” what the publisher has released. When in doubt, just ask the publisher for clarification.
  2. Ask careful questions about why some provision is X instead of Y. Some websites or author advocates advance strong claims about intellectual-property rights. The default position of many of these advocates (and, for the record, also of Caffeinated Press) is that the publisher should license the minimum necessary rights to publish what we plan to sell, while we plan to sell it. So book publishers that want global film rights in perpetuity for your sparkly-vampire saga probably really are engaged in an unjustifiable rights grab. But the conventional wisdom of the anti-publisher elite doesn’t necessarily reflect insight into today’s market realities. For example, an author advocate might suggest that if you pitch a novel, the publisher should license book rights in English in the U.S. while the title remains in the active catalog. We mostly agree — except we license global rights, not domestic rights. Why? Because we work with a distributor that lets us — with just the click of a mouse — also include a title in Europe, Japan and the rest of North America in its catalog. Now, if an author only wants to license U.S. rights, that’s fine — we have no problem with that arrangement whatsoever — but realize that limiting the market to just the U.S. might affect sales. It’s no longer the 1970s; modern online catalogs allow for global listings at no cost and almost no effort, yet some advocates suggest that global rights is an unjustifiable grab. You be the judge — but let the evidence include arguments beyond what anti-publisher types merely assert (sometimes unjustifiably and sometimes justifiable decades ago but not any more) as “best practice.”
  3. Check the credentials of people who present themselves as experts or as putatively neutral arbiters of truth. You know that blogger you read who rails against publishers? Or that one website that purports to help authors retain their rights and their dollars? Or that for-author/by-author forum that talks about publishers or agents? There’s absolutely a place and a value for them. But before you extend your implicit trust to what you hear from those sources, learn more about the credentials and history of their loudest voices. Have they worked in the publishing industry? Are they successful authors? Unsuccessful authors? Lots of people who’ve had bad experiences with publishers nevertheless can be faithful advocates for other authors — but just as there are some squirrely publishers, so also are there axe-grinders out there who may not let truth and nuance get in the way of their anti-publisher rhetoric. The loudest and most authoritative-sounding voice might not be the unbiased voice.
  4. Watch for the weasel. Employ an extra-strong dose of skepticism about any blogger or website that doesn’t work with publishers to verify the accuracy of the publisher’s information, or which remains opaque about its own methods and procedures. Look for clues that a publisher’s information is inferred, interpreted or otherwise yanked from the ether, or which make assertions about a publisher’s policies or practices that aren’t supported by a plain reading of the publisher’s own guidelines. Inference alone isn’t necessarily bad, but when the overall theme of a site or a blog is that “publishers prey upon authors,” the site’s inference is likely to be misleading at best or defamatory at worst.
  5. Recognize that there’s a great, silent majority of authors on the Internet who exercise their right to remain silent. It’s human nature to complain when things don’t go according to expectation. We rarely complain about or praise things that are relatively satisfactory and frictionless, which is why some (although, to be fair, certainly not all) sites that rate or rank publishers tend to be filled with negative comments by people who believe themselves to have been slighted in some way by the publisher they’re rating. It’s not necessarily all that common to hear of authors who say something like, “I pitched Publisher X and they rejected me for good reason within the timeframes they posted on their website, so I found this experience to be worthwhile and satisfactory.” So let volume be a clue: A large publisher or a small publisher should correspondingly have large or small amounts of feedback. Publishers with out-of-whack feedback ratios (positive or negative!) are likely outliers that warrant additional review.
  6. Consume many sources of information before evaluating a publisher or agent. If one website says Publisher A is horrid and another says Publisher A is phenomenal, you know you have more digging to do. If eight sites say Publisher A is horrid, well, those sites are probably correct. Or if seven say horrid and one says phenomenal, verify whether the latter is just a publisher plant. Don’t just rely on one or two sources of secondary information about a publisher, to reduce your risk of being influenced by publisher interference or errant axe-grinders. Instead, cast a wide net — and if you see significant variation across online properties, think carefully about the reasons why.

One of the largest challenges in the publishing industry remains the love/hate affair authors and publishers enjoy. Publishers love easy-to-work-with authors who tell with literary grace a compelling story that practically markets itself. Authors love publishers that give fat advances and only minimally adjust stories on the way to speedy publication. Publishers hate authors who pitch first-draft material and don’t follow guidelines. Authors hate publishers that ignore them or act in an arbitrary or impersonal manner, or try to take unjust economic advantage.

The truth is, the incentives for authors and publishers are in many ways misaligned, and the supply of content from authors far outpaces the demand from publishers. So in the grey space between love and hate, some actors misbehave. Some publishers with a greater interest in dollar signs than literary accolades make everyone’s life miserable. And authors who cannot gain traction into this market sometimes give up — but sometimes they pivot to a venomous pen.

So when you do your online research about publishers or agents, remember — some of the water in the well has been poisoned, and its up to you to test the waters before you sip.

Six Tips for Avoiding the Poison of Online Comments About Publishing
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