Sunday, March 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Never again, New York: Authorship for no fun and no profit

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Whenever an author tries some new experiment in electronic publication and distribution to readers, publishers weigh in complacently with the news that their services are indispensable. Writers, they say, need the clout publishers can bring; they need book design, money and marketing. Electronic self-publishing and distribution will never happen!

They're wrong. Having spent seven years, over the course of two book projects, alternately enduring the support of publishing conglomerates and hearing fellow authors' tales of woe, I am here to tell you that publishers are in for a shock. It is true that this form of publishing and distribution has some serious problems to solve before it can be a viable business. But authors have stored up so much enraged aggrievance that that alone could propel electronic publishing and distribution into being, with enough energy left over to fill California's electricity needs forever.

Here, then, is the evidence, in the form of my own story - a story as common, alas, as it is entertaining.

The troubles and warnings began the day I signed my first contract with my first publisher, Viking Penguin (now Penguin Putnam, more or less). My editor called to say she "was putting the first installment through" of my advance. I took a leave from my job, started working on my book (eventually entitled "I Sing the Body Electronic"), and waited ... and waited ... and waited for the check to arrive. Days passed. Weeks passed. Calls to my editor went unanswered and unreturned. I called my agent, who comfortlessly assured me that this was business as usual. "If your life depends on a publisher paying you," he said with a gruesome laugh, "you will die."

I was soon to learn the amazing array of tricks all publishers employ to delay payment to authors. If payment is due upon acceptance of a portion of a manuscript, they can: a) delay acknowledging receipt of the manuscript; b) delay accepting the manuscript on one pretext or another; c) report that they are "putting payment through," then drop out of sight and sound; d) all of the above. My editors over the years always settled on option d).

When your lifestyle depends on a publisher paying you, you find yourself slipping by degrees into an excruciating disconnection between image and reality.

There is a widespread perception in the world outside publishing that authors are well paid and highly respected in the publishing world. Your neighbors have a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous view of the sort of life you lead, their image distorted by People magazine features on writers of the Stephen King/Anne Rice ilk. So while you are trying to keep up appearances, telling your neighbors constantly that work on the book is going well, you also are constantly begging the family dentist and legions of other creditors for mercy while your kids are back in the house bleating, "Why isn't there any food in the refrigerator?" After dark, your trash collection having ceased over nonpayment of your bill, you are sneaking down your street on the night each week the neighborhood puts its trash out, stuffing a little bit of your garbage into each neighbor's trash can.

Ain't authorhood glamorous.

It fell to my brother Pat, during the writing of "The Visionary Position," my second New-York-published book, to strong-arm money out of my editor at Random House. Pat, who owned a bookstore at the time, wrote to Random House president Alberto Vitale explaining that he was writing a check to me for the amount he owed Random House because he heard the publisher was having trouble paying me. There must have been subsequent rumblings in the corporation, for my check from Random House arrived within days, along with a letter from my editor saying that she hoped this "cleared up any misunderstanding" I might be having about her.

This would be the single joyful moment, aside from the time spent on actual writing, that I can remember from the New York phase of my life.

At first I thought it was just me. But during one particularly long cashless stretch, I went to my neighborhood American Marine Bank and explained my "situation." I thought I was telling a bizarre and unbelievable story to my banker, but she just smiled knowingly, explained the kind of loan she could offer me, then said, "We do this quite often for authors, you know."

If it were just money shenanigans, I could have endured. But it seems that everything a publisher does is calculated to make authors feel like publishers are in the game not to sell books but to demoralize writers. The day I finished my first manuscript was one of the happiest days in my life. I excitedly left voice mail with my editor alerting her that the book would be coming by Federal Express (at my expense, it bears noting) the next day, then shipped it off. Then I waited ... and waited ... and waited for acknowledgment of its receipt.

Ten days later, New York called. "This is Federal Express in Manhattan," the voice said. "We have to send your package back, because the address on it is incorrect, and the recipient won't return our phone calls telling us where to deliver it." It turned out that my publisher had moved while I was working on my book, had never told me, and that my editor had returned none of the Fedex representative's daily calls.

Nine months and one editor later, my new editor sent me a copy of the galley proofs sent out to reviewers, distributors, and bookstores in advance of publication. "First printing: 50,000," the cover read. I called him and expressed astonished gratification at the size of the printing - tremendously large for first-time authors. He laughed. "Welcome to the world of publishing," he said, "all lies and mendacity! We always say we're printing two or three times as many copies as we're actually printing, so that bookstores will get excited about the book."

With publishers, if it's not malfeasance and mendacity, it's baffling incompetence. Manuscripts, written and stored on computers, have to be submitted on paper so they can be rekeyed into computers. Authors are sent on tours that make no sense and sell no books. Between the extra hours they have to spend reproofreading retyped books, and the infinite hours they waste on weird tour stops, writers are left with the indelible conviction that publishers consider their time worthless.

This was brought home with particular clarity to me during a book tour that found me sitting disconsolate and alone in the bookstore of a poverty-stricken black college where you probably could count the number of students who could afford computers on the fingers of one hand. Not the ideal audience for a book about Microsoft. Only one student approached the entire two hours I sat there. "Don't got no computer!" he said, outraged. "Don't got no CD-ROM! Why the hell do I need this book?"

For authors in the publishing world, a new demoralizing experience is always just around the corner. Within days of the first printing of "I Sing the Body Electronic," the chain bookstores - Borders, Barnes & Noble - began reordering and reordering and reordering. The book was into its third printing less than a month after publication, causing tremendous excitement in my inexperienced heart.

Then came the returns - in such massive numbers that my publisher ended up selling fewer copies than had been printed on the first run. Chain stores routinely order in massive quantities because they want to avoid any risk of being caught by surprise without copies in stock, in the unlikely event that a book with no promotional or advertising support might catch on with readers. Publishers know this. But since they are even more willing to be degraded by chain stores than authors are by publishers, they happily fill stores' orders even though they know full well that the books will be returned unsold. If only they would tell authors ....

Okay, so my book bombed. But it had been a critical success, so I naively assumed that my publisher would attribute its commercial failure to its marketing department rather than to my abilities as an author. I proposed a second book to my editor, who rejected it in short order with a curt, "You could write the best book in the world on this subject, and no one would ever know it."

I like to think, in light of subsequent events with a different publisher, that that is true. It also is the most comforting thing a New York editor ever said to me.

The series of events that followed with my second publisher were remarkably similar to what had happened to me first time around, only worse, more demoralizing, less explicable, and over a longer span of time. Suffice to say that by the time the book, entitled "The Visionary Position" and now available on your nearest remainder table, came out, I was so sick of it that I had doubts about recommending it to readers.

The last two straws were laid on my back late in 1999. I received e-mail from a man in China telling me how much he enjoyed reading the Chinese translation of "I Sing the Body Electronic." Since I had no idea there was a Chinese translation, this was more surprising than gratifying. Thinking that it might be a pirated translation, I asked if he could send me a copy. He obliged. "Published by arrangement with Viking Penguin," it said on the copyright page. I subsequently dredged up news of a Polish translation on the Internet.

Note to self: To payment-avoidance options a) through d), add option e): Hide foreign-rights sales from authors.

After I finished "The Visionary Position," my editor at Random House, for reasons I still don't understand, asked me what I wanted to do next. I told him about wanting to write about cancer research from the perspectives of researchers, doctors, patients and insurers. "That sounds like something we'd really be interested in," he said. "Write me a proposal."

Two years ago, I did. And I'm still waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting for an answer.

Now that I have forsworn ever working with a New York publisher again, I have moved through grief and anger to some new place beyond bafflement. I could never understand why an industry would treat its most important workers - those who supply it with the goods it sells to make its money - so abominably. I used to attribute it to the kind of resentment business people in all arts industries feel toward "talent" or "content providers" or "creative people," as we are variously termed by publishers. But I think now it is more that the publishing industry is run by astonishingly clueless people. Looked at in the context of their other business decisions, the treatment of authors isn't all that remarkable. When you have experienced the colossal financial and psychological waste of a book tour, or been through the endless gauntlet of inexplicable business decisions publishers make every day, you begin to understand why they treat authors the way they do: They just don't know any better.

Fred Moody is the author of books about Microsoft, virtual reality and the Seattle Seahawks.


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