Talking & Doing: Readers on Publishing

(December 1997)

Several issues of Laurie's News & Views, as well as Barbara Samuel's Write Byte and Katherine Deauxville's Quickie, have been based on readers concerns about publishing. Whether it is the price of paperbacks or the disappearing mid-list, readers are concerned.

Included on this page:

  • Reader comments from the mail bag concerning publishers
  • A sample letter as written by Judith Anderson protesting the increasing price of romances
  • A letter to a publisher I wrote back in 1995 praising a mid-list author
  • Listing of past issues of Laurie's News & Views concerning publishers
  • Link to Katherine Deauxville's Quickie on the mid-list crisis
  • Link to Barbara Samuel's Write Byte on the mid-list crisis

Lastly, I'd like to suggest you take advantage of the publisher information below not only to complain to publishers, but to praise your favorite authors, from the upper echelons of the industry to the mid-list and lowly new authors. Before I started writing on the industry, I used to make it a point to write publishers (and this was a time before most publishers were on-line) about books I thought were good or great. A side benefit of this was that the authors themselves were often forwarded my mail. I don't know if that'll happen via email, but, who knows?

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Reader Comments:

Katarina Wikholm (wikholm@algonet.se):
I decided to do something about the midlist - I ordered about 20-25 Regency Signets at my local bookstore, do be delivered a few at a time. So, there were a few Baloughs, I admit, but the majority was authors with 1-3 published titles.

The Regency Signets I read for pleasure, I really don't demand much more than an hour's light entertainment from them (and they're reasonably priced -$8-10!) so I decided to make a tiny contribution to the budding new writers. Expectations have an effect on judgements - a 200-page stand-alone medieval is given a great deal more scrutiny.

So far, I've read 2 newbies and a Balough. The newbie standard was fair - there was room for improvements in writing techniques, but practice makes perfect? In fact, I'll keep my eyes out for a sequel to one of them. Sorry about being so vague, but I left the books in my other bag, and can't remember the titles off-hand. I'll get back to you on that.

So, do you think anyone else is willing to join the Midlist Crusade?

Patricia Carlisle (patc@community.net):
Thanks for posting Judith Andersons' (see below) letter to the publishers. It is great to see someone finally take on a cause that has most of us pulling our hair out and spitting cotton. I have gotten so sick of the same old authors, shelf after shelf of them, that I have quit buying books for a while and am just going back to my keepers and re-reading them. Also, I refuse to pay seven dollars for trash, and unfortunately that seems to be the majority of the books being offered.

LLB responds (tongue firmly in cheek): Did you put your money where your mouth is and pop off some e-mails to publishers? Or did you complain just to me?

Pat responds: I always put my money where my mouth is.<g> I sent the letter, or a variation of it, to every publisher on line. As a matter of fact, I believe I was the first one to contact Zebra regarding this matter, and this was before Ms. Anderson's' letter was posted on your site. Unfortunately, Zebra's response could, if one were inclined to be generous, best be described as tepid. Their philosophy appears to be" if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and trying to convince them, that it is indeed "broke" is an exercise in futility. But I still maintain that "It is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease" so I will certainly keep trying and hopefully so will everyone else who feels the same. Have a nice Turkey day!

Jennifer Stevens (jlstevns):
I have worked in the publishing industry for the past four years (magazine, not books), and I know that a couple of years ago the price of paper for printing went through the roof, and so, consequentlly, did the price of books. However, the price of paper has gone down considerably in the past year or so, but you will note that the priuce of books has not. If publishers want to know why mid-list sales have swindled, it is because of price and lack of marketing support for mid-list authors.

I used to take a chance on a book, if I thought it sounded interesting or if someone I trusted recommended it to me. Now, I wait until I can get it at my favorite used bookstore (thank God for them!), because I can't afford to spend $5.00 to $7.00 on a gamble. I have to know that I am going to enjoy the book before I plonk down my hard earned money. I used to read anyone and everyone, but now I only read certain authors, unless a new author is highly recommended to me. Anything else is too much of a gamble at today's prices.

Publishers need to lower prices on books, so that more of them will be bought. They also need to promote their mid-list authors as much or more than their high-profile authors. High-profile authors don't need as much support as mid-list authors because they already have a fan base.

Finally, publishers want all authors to write like the big-name authors such as Nora Roberts, Jude Devereaux or Jayne Ann Krentz, to name a few. This is what is destroying the mid-list market, everyone sounds alike. Every author needs to be encouraged to find his or her own individual style. I like chocolate, but nothing but chocolate would get boring after awhile (like ten years). I like variety in my reading, and I wish I could get more of it.

Wendi Shier (shier@echoweb.net):
I just read the letter from Jennifer Stevens, and I agree with what she and almost everyone else has to say about it. I think we're making a big mistake though. We discuss it amongst ourselves, we complain, we offer up solutions. But we already know what the problem is. We need to let the publishers know. Most of them can be accessed on the net we need to be writing our letters to them. (I'm going to do that after I finish this. Maybe if we make enough noise they'll pay attention.

Tj (tj_writing@classic.msn.com):
Mid-List Crisis scares the hell out of me and pisses me off. What pisses me off the most is the way publishers categorize us, the readers, i.e. consumers.

How dare they? They're not selling soap or lotion. They're selling books, which I consider are intellectual goods. Yet, how can they assume that all we want is a quickie read? Do they know how long Diana Gabaldon's books are? And how popular her books are?

Sure, life is hectic and fast. We wake up, eat quick breakfast, go to work/school, eat fast food, come home, cook microwave meals/do homework, shower, maybe have sex if you have any energy left, and sleep. Life, for many, is superficial and stressful and meaningless. Isn't that why sometimes we turn to fiction? To escape from the real life crap and find something emotionally touching and meaningful? How can this be achieved when publishers churn out formulaic blockbusters?

I have nothing against blockbusters. I read them myself, too. I like Nora Roberts, Patricia D. Cornwell, and others. But sometimes, I want to read non-blockbusters. I want variety. I want publishers to publish stories by new authors or less-than-blockbuster authors. Sometimes, I sit in my room and think, "I'm going to outlive all blockbuster authors. So when I grow old, what do I read? Reprints of the blockbuster authors of my teen years?"

I think the main problem with the industry right now is profit-mentality: little profit = unpublishable. Certainly, it isn't the editors' fault. It's the guys up at the top, the corporate conglomerates who only look at the dollar signs. More dollars, the better. Screw potential. Screw a few readers who want the author. I'd like to tell them to find some other ways to make billions of dollars because publishing is not about making billions of dollars. It's about finding writers with potential and developing them.

Since there's nothing we can do to change publishers' profit-mentality, I think we have to convince them that it's for their best interest to end this mid-list crisis. Dollar speaks louder than letters. If we resolve to buy at least one book written by unknown author per month, then I think we can make a huge difference.

Phoebe Imel (plimel@nltc.net):
I just finished reading your column on the vanishing midlist, tortured heroines, and favorite settings and timelines. Very informative, but I have some different takes on some of the points.

. . . Ok, the midlist.

I think it's futile to try and change the publishers. I believe it might be more constructive to contact the headquarters of the chain book stores and our local bookstores and get them to order more books from the midlist. After all, the publishers will print more of what is ordered and if the bookstores think that their customers crave midlist authors they'll fill their shelves with that. One thing that the girls over on the TLT BB have decided to do is to pick one midlist book a month - a new release and for all of us to go out and buy that author's book. This month it's Marsha Canham's Pride of Lions. We have an informal bookclub where we post question/answers on the different books.

I have a friend who's a Western Author and he says that the reason print runs have been cut is that it is so easy to make a second and third print run for the publisher due to the computerized printing press. Publishers have also been burned by the bookstores who will order way too many of an authors books and then when they're not sold will return them to the publisher. This hurts the author (who then looks bad because he/she got a high number of returns) and the publisher who put so much money into the paper and bindings.

According to an isse of the Romance Writer's Report (RWA) the publishers are now trying to limit the amount of returns a bookstore can make to encourage them to order what they can sell, and reorder when they sell out of a certain title.

The worst advice that any author can follow, in my opinion (even an author like Roberta Gellis) is to stay home, write good books, and not worry about your career. That's suicide. Yes good writing is essential, but one must pay attention to markets, do publicity to get the name out there, even writing articles and essays to promote themselves. That's smart. I see some midlist writers who have bookmarks printed, who do book signings even though no one shows, who speak at clubs and even post on BB on the web. Those who, gasp get their own website. It all helps.

If a publisher doesn't want to spend the money for a print ad, the writer should offer to take .5% less in royalties to get one. This is basic marketing. More people will see and know about the title, more boookstores will order. Hell, take out your own ad. The advertisement will more than pay for itself.

Also, a good agent is invaluable. My western author friend had a very poor agent. She cheated him on royalties, didn't try to place his books at other publishers to try and get a better price, didn't try to sell film rights (even though lonesome dove clones were everywhere), cheated him on foreign rights by not telling him she sold his books overseas, and basically took the first deal offered...every time. Don't be timid...the agent is working for the writer, not the writer for the agent.

As you can see this is a subject I feel strongly about. You see, I can't afford to get discouraged now. The hope of getting published (second only to my love for storytelling) is what keeps me at the keyboard pounding away. One of the members in my writers group has a philosopy that basically says, "I can only do what others allow me to do." Well, phooey on that. I'm not about to let someone else dictate to me what my destiny will be. If I'm discouraged, tenative, and ready to give up before I even start, then I'm not going to last long. I prefer to believe that if I tell great stories, with compelling characters, market myself well by knowing the proper formats and professional behavior, that I can make it. After all, the ones who are one the best-seller list now didn't start with an unfair advantage. Most of them were parked right in front of the old keyboard, just as I am, pounding away for hours at a time. If they did it, I can do it.

Denise Campbell (QUJR95A@prodigy.com):
I've been reading your posts on Prodigy and your columns on the Web sites for some time now. For some reason (PMS) <g>, I felt the need to write tonite. I've been noticing alot lately that finding a new author/book to read is getting harder and harder. My TBR pile is only a few books high although I read at least 4 to 5 books a week. I'm in my local bookstores all the time. What I've noticed is that a few authors are hogging the shelves. Sandra Brown, Johanna Lindsey, Dannielle Steele, oh you know who they are.... they take up 3 feet each of shelf space. Haven't most of us avid romance fans read everyone of their books already? Do they really need all this space when we have such great up and coming authors? Shouldn't the readers have more of a choice on what to read? My daughter always tries to hurry me in the store and says just pick something. I can't lately; I've read them all already! I just can't believe that Nancy Block can not get published I thought her first book was fabulous.

Katy Cooper (madellio@classic.msn.com):
I read Jennifer's comments about reducing the price of books and I'd like to add something to it. I was talking to a writer I know about this very issue. Harper recently tried to offer "specially priced" first run books. One was Terry Lynn Wilhelm's Storm Prince; another was Barbara Samuels's Heart of a Knight. According to my published friend, the books didn't sell very well.

The thinking behind consumer resistance is supposed to have been, "If these writers were any good, the publisher would charge full price for them." Now, I've heard terrific things about Storm Prince and I thought Heart of a Knight was very, very good, so that isn't true. But I wonder if the lower price put people off?

Now, if all the publishers would lower prices by $1.00-$1.50, it might make a difference. . .

Mary McArdle (mcardle@ozemail.com.au):
Regarding the mid-list crisis, it is worse here (in Australia) as most stores have multiple copies of favourite authors (which now seem to be also full of re-issues) and not mid-list authors at all. One of our biggest department stores that has a fairly big boo section would have about 20 authors in the whole romance section. However just last month a small store devoted soley to romance books has opened in Melbourne and is offering books not available elsewhere in Australia (to the best of my knowledge). I have spent a fortune there buying books that might be good because they are not long on the shelves and so you cannot afford to wait and see. Books are going up in price her also and now average between $10 - $13 for each paperback.

Charlotte (charlotte@mail.alpha1.net):
I have found a small new/used bookstore in my home town. The owner has recommended some new authors to me and only a few I have not wanted to read another book by them. I feel that because of the interest of Christi (the owner), I will buy an unknown to me and give them a try. Christi has gotten to know what I like and keeps an eye out for authors that might appeal to me. I think the mid-list authors best asset is the smaller bookstores that give personal service.

LLB responds: - You, like me, are lucky to have a good relationship with a ubs owner. She recommends books to me as well, and knows my tastes. I buy both new and used books from her, even when I could get a better deal on new books elsewhere because she's a small independent bookstore, and stores like that need all the help they can get.

Dora Adamson(Doraadams@aol.com):
I don't think publisher are listening to the reader if they don't went to publish longer books like Katherine Deauxville's and Robeta Gellis'. I love the Medieval time period and I await all my favorite authurs to come out with their new releases, but to think they are not be published makes me sad.

I read awhile back about how little the authors receive from publishers ,when they sell direct to us through book club. I belong to one but I don't like to think just because I buy through the club that they are short changed. I think authors work hard on their books, and they should get the benefits of that hard work. I read as must as I can and I buy alot of new releases, but I like geting my HH's in the mail because of their availability.,

I know the prices have gone up, but I still try to buy my favorite authors. I know I may not make much sense but I love to read and I wish it was easier for writers to publish their books. I hope there my be changes in the future to better help Authors along in their careers.

Cecelia Ressir (jassressir@aol.com):
I think what publishers are doing to mid-list authors is atrocious! I simply don't understand why, when they are in the business to make money they don't cater to the demands of their customers. They can't tell me that there is a huge market for reprints of a Brown, Spencer, Krentz or Steele. How many copies of one book do they expect us to buy? Do they not know that by continuing down this path they may "get" the new readers, but, they will be losing the older readers? As far as only publishing "big name" authors, isn't that like putting all their eggs in one basket? Most of the "big names" have put out rather lackluster works lately. (My opinion, of course.)

I believe they will only get worse as they start to burn out of ideas. I would much rather try 2 or 3 new mid-list authors than buy another copy of Hawk O'Toole's Hostage by Sandra Brown. Sheesh, at least the mid-list authors have new and fresh ideas.

Judith Anderson (dynadental@classic.msn.com):
I am wondering if you would be willing to participate in a romance readers revolt. My romance reading email pal and I are sick and tired of paying up to $7 for absolute drivel. If publishers keep increasing their prices this way, they must put forth better written books. Of course, some of what I consider drivel is someone else's favorite (otherwise how do Bertrice Small and Cassie Edwards continue to be published?) but mostly it's just drivel any way you look at it, and to add insult to injury, we are being overcharged for it !

So I was wondering if I composed a firm but nicely worded "letter to the publisher" regarding book prices, if you would be willing to post it on your web site for others to see and copy and paste and send off to the respective publishing houses. I figure if they get enough email on this topic, someone might pay attention. And you have those links to the publishers, so that it would be very, very easy for anyone who agrees to copy, paste and send. What do you think?

LLB responds: After reading both Wendi's and Judith's posts, I asked them to provide me with a comprehensive listing of publisher web sites, email addresses, and, if possible, contacts. In addition, Judith sent me a sample letter protesting the increasing prices of romance novels.

Both Judith and Wendy provided me with the publisher information and Judith revised her sample letter to tone it down a tad. Between the three of us, we've got most of the publishers' sites listed (Leisure/Love Spell is still not on the web that I am aware of).

Thanks, Wendi and Judith!

You can find the link and e-mail info by clicking here (this is a links page for authors and publishers).

(To return to the top of the page, please click here.)

Judith's Sample Letter:

To copy this text from the Web, use the menu at the top of your browser. Select View then Source, copy and paste to a text file, then save. You may make whatever changes you'd like, or use Judith's letter in its entirety.

Dear Publisher,
As a dedicated romance reader, I am writing to protest the recent rise in romance book prices.

If you are going to ask that we pay $7 per book, we must ask that you put forth better books.

This would include:

  • Character development
  • Interesting, original and credible plot lines
  • Ridding the genre of over-used stereotypes such as the evil other woman
  • Better copy editing
  • More accuracy in historical research
  • Character actions consistent with time period
  • Good dialogue

Also, please promote new authors! It seems that the publishing houses would rather publish sub-standard work by a known author than a brilliant novel by an unknown.

If book quality does not increase while prices continue to do so, I predict a sharp decline in sales. Romance readers deserve well written books!

(To return to the top of the page, please click here.)

Laurie's Sample Letter:

This was written back in 1995 and sent to Harlequin Historicals' senior editor.) To copy this text from the Web, use the menu at the top of your browser. Select View then Source, copy and paste to a text file, then save. You may make whatever changes you'd like.

Dear Ms. Farrell,
I have been an avid reader for years and a romance reader for about 3 years. I just finished reading Velvet Bond by Catherine Archer. I broke a long-standing rule I have and stayed up way past my bedtime to finish the book. It was marvelous. After having read fiction forever and more than 100 romances, this book is now in my top 10 list of romantic keepers. I weeped, I tinged - sometimes simultaneously!

I have urged other romance readers to find this book and read it. I would very much appreciate your continued publishing of this very fine author and passing along my kudos to her.

(To return to the top of the page, please click here.)

Pertinent past issues of Laurie's News & Views

Issue #9Issue #10Issue #14 Issue #17Issue #20
Issue #24Issue #27 Issue #28Issue #29 Issue #36

(To return to the top of the page, please click here.)

Clare approached him slowly and, pressing the other pistol against his temple, fired. He slumped down in front of her and lay still.

That's how battered woman Lady Clare Dysart dispatches her abusive husband Lord Justin Rainsborough in Marjorie Farrell's romance novel Sweet Awakening. ''You read about domestic violence in the paper every day,'' says Farrell, a literature professor at Lesley College. ''So I asked myself what it might be like in 19th-century England.'' Not to worry for Lady Clare, by the way. She beats the murder rap and makes a smashing marriage with her childhood friend Lord Giles Whitton.

Welcome to the brave new world of romance fiction.

For decades, romance novels have been the laughingstock of what passes for American literature. Formulaic plots; the notorious ''clinch'' covers; books ''written'' by lunkheads like Fabio. Authors and readers alike were derided as curler-clad laundromat queens, holding a flask of Wisk in one hand and a Regency romance in the other.

Sales were strong, but reviews derisive. ''Nobody ridicules Tom Clancy, but everybody ridicules us,'' says romance writer Barbara Keiler, who has written more than 60 books under the name of Judith Arnold. Farrell agrees: ''Because it's a woman's genre it doesn't get much respect. Nobody jumps on science fiction writers and says, 'Hey, you're not writing about real life.' ''

Suddenly, much has changed. The steamy covers, which female editors say were forced on them by male marketing executives, are largely a thing of the past. Walk down the plentifully stocked romance aisle at Waldenbooks, and you see subdued floral designs. Sales continue to climb. Romances are now a $1 billion industry, accounting for 45 percent of American mass-market book sales. No longer limited to paperbacks, romance novels now regularly appear on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list. ''Basically, we're supporting the publishing industry,'' says Keiler.

Small wonder that the genre - written by women (the two best-known male romance writers have adopted feminine pseudonyms), edited and published by women, and read almost exclusively by women - is experiencing a sense of empowerment. Slammed by feminists in the 1980s as purveyors of escapist, addictive, patriarchist pap, romance writers are writing more about contemporary issues, and apologizing less for how they do so.

At the end of Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Hot Shot, the freshly married heroine takes over a business, and broadcasts her intention of turning the executive dining room into a day care center. In Barbara Delinsky's Shades of Grace, a daughter wrestles with her mother's debilitating Alzheimer's disease. Keiler's Barefoot in the Grass describes a passionate love affair between a man and a recent breast cancer victim who has had a mastectomy. ''My editor said, 'I don't want to publish a book about chemotherapy,' and I told her, It's not about chemotherapy - it's a love story,' '' says Keiler.

Farrell, Keiler, and many other romance writers describe themselves as feminists and point with pride to their assertive female protagonists. At the same time, they honor the ironclad conventions of the romance genre. First and foremost: all happy endings. (One reason - the other being male authorship - that Bridges of Madison County wasn't a romance novel.) Second, no adultery. Male readers may find adultery titillating, but women don't.

Some subjects - AIDS, for instance - remain taboo. And some writers heatedly debate whether allusions to birth control spoil the romance of Romance. ''It may be irresponsible not to practice birth control, but mentioning it in a work of fantasy read by adults is not a necessary duty,'' writes veteran romance writer Kathleen Gilles Seidel. ''My readers know where babies come from.''

Romance writers know they aren't going to change the world, but they're content to make it a more enjoyable place. Marjorie Farrell remembers when a friend gave one of her novels to his mother on her deathbed, and reported back on her intense enjoyment. ''That gave me tremendous satisfaction,'' Farrell says. ''After all, nobody read my dissertation.''

 




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