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.