Why “Punishing the Publisher” Usually Doesn’t

So, let’s say you’re a reader (which, because you are here, is a reasonable assumption to make). There is an author who has come to your attention and whose work you’re considering purchasing — but then something that the publisher of that work is doing regarding that particular book is annoying you. What is it the publisher is doing? Who cares? This particular detail is not important. What is important is that you’ve now decided you’re not going to buy that author’s work, in order to punish that publisher so that it will stop doing whatever thing  it’s doing that’s annoying you. That’ll show them.

To which I say onto you: Congratulations, what you’ve really just done is screw that author.

Yes, yes. I know. That’s not what you meant to do. But chances are that’s what you actually did. And here’s why:

Take your average book publisher. Your average book publisher, over the course of a year, publishes a number of books, ranging from a few select titles in the case of a small press to literally hundreds of books in the case of a major New York publisher. They put money into all of these books and so each book carries risk, but in a general sense the publisher’s risk is widely distributed, so that the failure of one or more books can be compensated by the success of other books in the same general time frame. A bestseller can make up for several books which perform modestly or not at all. What’s more, the publisher has other books in the wings — which is to say, more opportunities on a continuing basis to recoup costs and make a profit. For a publisher, there is always another book.

Now, take your average author. Your average author sells a book a year, more or less, and is dependent on the success of that book in order to sell the next. Which is to say the author’s risk is generally not widely distributed but is sunk into a single book, or a couple of books at most. If the book fails to sell to expectation, the publisher is going to cut its losses and dump the author. When the author approaches the next publisher, that publisher is going to look at the author’s previous sales, and if those sales are too low, that’s going to make a difference in whether the publisher is going to take a chance on that author, regardless of the quality of the work at hand. Because publishing is a business, and previous sales count.

So, let’s return to the “I’m punishing the publisher” scenario. By choosing not to buy a book that you’d otherwise buy to send a message to a publisher, you’ve managed to hurt the publisher almost not at all — it’s one lost sale among a large class of potential sales, spread across a number of titles, in any given sales month, quarter or year. The author, on the other hand, has a much smaller pool of possible sales, sunk into a single work, once a year.

Okay, now pretend you’re a book publisher, and you’re looking at an author’s sales, and they’re not what you wanted. Which of the following two thoughts are you more likely to have?

POSSIBLE THOUGHT ONE: “Wow, I guess readers were punishing me for whatever policy of mine they didn’t like. I should change my ways and definitely not hold it against this author.”

POSSIBLE THOUGHT TWO: “Wow, for some reason clearly not involving me or anything I’ve done, this author just isn’t connecting with readers at all.”

I’ll give you a hint: Publishers are not generally known to be full of introspection, or of forgiveness for lower-than-expected sales.

So, on one hand, the attempt on the part of the potential reader to send a message to the publisher via the refusal to buy a particular work has succeeded. On the other hand, the message the publisher has received is “this author can’t sell.” To be fair, this has more to do with the publisher than with the reader. But that doesn’t change the result for the author.

If you will, allow me to suggest to you another course of action in situations like these: Rather than “punishing the publisher” by not buying a particular book you would otherwise buy, support the author by purchasing the book. Why? Because the support you give an author allows that author to have a better bargaining position with the publisher the next time the two of them negotiate a contract, and you know what? Generally speaking, authors like being able to make potential readers happy, and thanks to that there thing called “the Internets,” authors are often aware of the wishes and desires of their readers and will try to make them happy whenever possible.

But to do that, they need leverage. At the end of the day, the leverage that works best is an impressive sales record. Ask any author. Or, for that matter, any publisher.


For Those of You Who Missed the Live Show

Here’s a Web video of the Nebula Awards, starting with David Levine’s excellent keynote address about going to Mars. If you go to 43:18 in the video, you’ll see Toastmaster Alan Steele introduce me and then me give away the Best Novel Nebula to Paolo Bacigalupi. But the whole thing is fun.

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Also for your edification, the MidAmericaCon Fan Photo Archive of the Nebula Weekend, with pictures taken by Keith Stokes. Below is a fine photo:

That’s me, Krissy and China Miéville, for those of you needing a program for the players. I am definitely the least gorgeous person in the picture. But I’m married to the most gorgeous (sorry, China), so I’m okay with that.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

There are not a lot of books I am inclined to like just on title alone, but I have to tell you, Kid vs. Squid is one of them. Because, come on! Kids! Squids! You can’t lose. Fortunately, however, there’s more going on here than a truly excellent title, and author Greg Van Eekhout has come by to explain how an extended fit of author pique ended of generating a story of kids, squids, and Atlantis.


I was feeling really out of sorts one day. I don’t remember why. Lumps in my Malt-O-Meal, insufficient sock elasticity, who knows? Probably the world had once again failed to recognize my special snowflake status. In any case, I got angry about it (whatever it was) and I decided I was going to show them. Who “them” was and what, precisely, I was planning to show, I had no idea. But I would show them by writing something. In fact, I would write a whole bunch of things, one thing a day, for as long as my anger lasted. I asked friends and readers on my blog to send me words to use as story prompts, and they sent seventeen of them, and so I wrote seventeen little stories on consecutive days. (And if you want you can check out the full output of my FROTHING RAGE here.)

The word for Day 7 was flotsam, which is a fine, fine word, and I started my morning writing session with my customary very large Americano, a lemon scone, and a big dollop of anticipation for the fun I’d have crafting a little story around this word.

So. Flotsam. Junk floating on the sea. What would be an interesting thing to find floating on the sea? People? Okay, go with that. And where are they going to land? Um. Um. Sip coffee, chew scone … a beachside boardwalk? Okay, go with that. From there, the notion formed very quickly that these people land on the beach at the beginning of every summer and they work the cotton candy stands and T-shirt shops and midway games and carnival rides and tattoo parlors. And then, after Labor Day, the sea calls them back and they trudge across the beach and walk into the water and their lungs fill with brine and, once again, they drown.

Post to blog, finish scone, go to Day Job, and possibly be a fraction less angry with the world.

Most of the stories I wrote for these exercises were quickly forgotten, several were sold to the very fine science fiction podcast Escape Pod, but “Flotsam” kept scratching at me. Many an idle moment was interrupted by my brain going, “Dude, wait, who are these weird flotsam people? Where do they come from? How’d they get to be flotsam people? Not cool to leave your own brain hanging like this, dude.”

I found these questions sufficiently scratchy that I decided to answer them in a book. Even a short novel requires a commitment to months or years of work, so you really do want to make sure the scratchiness driving you to write a novel reaches all the way down to your bones. This one was hitting marrow.

Obviously, this had to be a book about Atlantis. Just as obviously, this also had to be a book about the weird town where the Atlanteans washed ashore every summer. I grew up near Venice, California, which was plenty weird but not quite in the ways I wanted it to be, and this book would be my chance to create a town with just the right kind of weird. This had to be a town with human-jellyfish hybrids, and haunted arcades, and lost and forgotten dark rides beneath the wreckage of old amusement parks.

And I wanted it to be a middle-grade novel (middle grade being a publishing category aimed at readers between the ages of eight and twelve), because I wanted this to be a summer vacation book, a book with weird magic and absurd situations, a book about having the best friends you’ll ever have, a book mixing humor and adventure, and a book about beginning to become the person you will be for the rest of your life. I wanted to write the book I needed when I was eight or ten or twelve but couldn’t find.

Also, one day when I was on the beach in San Diego I spotted this kelp man stomping across the sand. And I wanted to write the kind of book where guys like this make sense.

In the end, I don’t know if I ever showed anything to that amorphous “them” who’d made me so angry, but I do know that I’ve never had a more joyously fun time writing than I did with Kid vs. Squid. If readers experience even a fraction of that fun reading it, then I will be a very satisfied writer boy.


Kid Vs. Squid: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Greg Van Eekhout’s LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.

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