Some editors and agents are brilliant stewards for their authors. I honestly believe most people at their core are good. They want to put out the best work possible, they want to guide the careers of the authors they work with to succeed, so the agent makes money, and the publisher makes money, and therefore the author makes money. They have great communication, and accommodate your needs. This post isn’t about them.
This post is about the ways traditional publishing is not working for many authors, and how that allows people with dishonest intentions to thrive.
Thanks to the friendships I’ve built between internships and pitchwars, twitter and facebook, among others, I’ve seen a fairly wide range of publishing experience. I’ve seen people stuck for years in the query trenches, people who get an agent but can’t get their books to sell to a house, people who get a deal but then little support after, and people who’ve built long term midlist careers over decades. I started writing 15 years ago, and got my first internship around 6 years ago. So I feel like I’ve got a fairly good cross-section to draw from.
What people won’t say-in locked, secret groups, in private DMs, in off record chats-People talk. “Does anyone know anything about (Person)?” is a common question, and the replies are almost always “I’ll message you.” No one wants to get blasted later because they were honest about their negative experience with someone, and it gets back to either that person or someone in the future they want to work with. People are AFRAID to say anything negative, for fear of professional repercussions. I’ve seen authors utterly traumatized by experiences with other industry professionals. I’ve seen people inappropriately propositioned, and afraid of what it would mean to their career to say no. I’m seem authors fret over questions that they’re scared to ask their agent or editor, but are perfectly reasonable business questions. There’s a multitude of other behaviors that would be more at home in abusive relationships than a professional industry.
And THAT? Is why scam agents and shady accountants can thrive.
Most authors don’t understand their royalty statements. Most authors trust their agent is doing what they say they are, because they never see proof one way or another. They rely on the fact that their agent only gets paid when they do, so they must be doing their best for them, right?
In most cases, yes, they are doing their best. Sometimes their best is incompetent. Sometimes the agent doesn’t have the right contacts for your work. Sometimes your agent has life shit going on and they’re just going through the motions while they’re working on getting out of agenting. Sometimes things honestly do slip through the cracks and people don’t notice it. And sometimes, the writer is the problem too.
But when there’s been 3 people in publishing in what, a month or two, between the two agents and the accountant? How many others out there are doing the same things and only warned about in secret, if you ask the right people in the right secret groups or the right hashtag? That’s a ridiculous way to work in a multibillion dollar industry.
What I think publishing needs is like Writer Beware, but able to act as a neutral party on a larger scale. Across genres, and with authority to request records, be that payment histories, contracts, to create some form of auditing system for authors (or editors, or agents) to go to with concerns. To have those concerns appropriately adjudicated, in a way that doesn’t put people on blast for simple mistakes, but resolves those complaints in a constructive manner. It’d take the whisper network that currently exists and transform it into something that keeps everyone involved honest. Ideally, organizations like the AAR would do this already, and they might. But with so many problems coming out this close together, it’s worth considering if some level of audit needs to be conducted across the industry.
The publishing professionals who care for their clients and do their best deserve to be lauded and valued as such, and the ones who rip their clients down, who deceive, abuse, or defraud them need exposed and removed from the industry. It would instill more trust in the process, and make it safer to reach out when there are concerns you just can’t resolve directly with the people involved, or don’t feel safe bringing those concerns to light.
At the end of the day, we’re all in this business to create the special magic stories bring. We just need to ward better against the evil spells of those who would manipulate and hide their maleficence in arcane deals. Until there’s some form of oversight, I expect more stories like this, whispered in private, and only revealed when the abuses become so egregious they can’t be ignored. I’d love to be wrong and these few bad eggs are just that, but from the whispers I’ve heard over the years, I know I’m not.