Those of you who have been around here for a while may have figured out that Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite authors. Her first book, The Sparrow, is on my "Of Significance..." page and is one of the three books I think everyone should read. I reviewed both A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day and will be reviewing Doc pretty soon here. The Sparrow has been optioned as a movie three times (once with Brad Pitt as the lead), but a screen play that satisfied both Russell and the potential producers has proven elusive. It also won several prestigious awards. Her latest novel, Doc, is in production as an HBO series.
Russell is a good writer. When I say "good," I don't just mean "good;" I mean she's an excellent writer. Her prose is wonderful; she researches her topics extensively; her characters are real. And, yet, except for hearing me talk about her here, most of you probably have never heard of her. And that's too bad, because she has deserved better than she's gotten.
See, Russell has been stuck as a mid-list author for a big publisher, Random House, since her first book. We all like to think that if you are with a big publisher that the big publisher is going to do things for you. Things like distribute your book and things like market your book. The publisher is going to make sure that people know you're out there, right? Well, not so much. As it turns out, the only people that get marketing dollars are the people that don't need the marketing dollars; everyone else is just quietly shuffled aside.
Let me give you a more specific example.
Russell was with Random House for 15 years and 5 books. During that time, none of her books were ever promoted. Nevertheless, her books made money. I say that they made money in that they (the publisher) made back its advance and the books continued to profit. But they were never blockbusters. Then, in 2011, just before the release of Doc, Random House let Russell know that they were not interested in any further books by her, and they dropped any and all promotional activity on Doc. They gave her no reasons at all. They were just finished with her. [Of course, I have to wonder if it would have gone that way if they could have guessed about the HBO series, which didn't happen until after the release of the book.] As she says it, it was like having your spouse throw you a huge 25th wedding anniversary party and serving you divorce papers for dessert.
Russell is not an exception to business as usual; she is business as usual. At least for Random House.
If an author like Mary Doria Russell can be dropped by Random House as easily as one might drop a tissue into the trash, what hope do the rest of us have? Random House (and one can surmise the rest of the big publishers) is only looking for the "next big thing;" if you're not that, they don't want you. There is no more development of the mid-list author, no promotion of authors who aren't already big, no more time or space for anyone that is not grand slam. So what hope do we have?
Well, I'd say that our hope is not and, in many ways, should never have been in BIG publishing. Unless things change, the future of publishing is not with Random House and the other large publishing houses. The present, the right now, of publishing is barely with them, and it's moving away. Fast.
All of the things we used to need the publisher for are available elsewhere, now. Except getting our books into book stores, and, as it turns out, they're not all that good at that and, actually, never were. Here is some suggested reading on the subject.
My point, though, is this:
As writers, our hope does not lie in the big, traditional publishing houses. If you think you need them, they don't want you. If they want you, you don't need them, although you may not realize it. [E. L. James certainly didn't need them. Random House only wanted her because she was already a success; they did not make her one. They just tacked themselves onto the end of all the work she had previously done so that they could get a cut of the profits.] Writing and, by extension, getting your writing out to people is hard work. Random House and their ilk are not interested in doing the hard work, so you're going to have to do that yourself whether you're an "indie" or with a publisher. If you're going to have to do the work, why pay them to take your money?
The hope of authors, at least until something else comes along, is in building a community apart from the traditional publishers.
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