In Response to “That Publishing Article”

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About a week ago, author Heather Demetrios published an essay called How To Lose A Third of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying. The response from the writing community was swift and varied. It was also emotional because a lot of the writers who reacted to things that Demetrios was saying as well as their own perceptions and experiences which they projected onto her.  Things got emotional and muddled and I think it’s worth taking a few moments to think through because, while I don’t always agree with everything she says, Demetrios makes some interesting points and has some good ideas to help writers in the future.

In the piece, Demetrios discusses her publishing career. Early on, Demetrios got two six figure book contracts. For a kid who spent her childhood on food stamps that was exciting to say the last. When she signed the first she tried to keep her head: she kept her day job.  But when the second check came through she figured that this change in fortune wasn’t temporary.

It had happened twice in a row, these six-figures: Surely I had somehow become one of the chosen few. After years of research and struggle to break out in such a ferociously competitive industry, I’d somehow come out ahead.

So Demetrios quit her day job and fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to NYC to write full time. She traveled, treated herself to concert tickets, shoes, $15 cocktails etc.  Her books were published to critical acclaim, but they didn’t earn out that six figure advance. So the next contract was lower: only $17,000 for her next book, because that was what her last book had made. With a very supportive editor on her side, eventually that was negotiated up to $35,000. When that book didn’t earn out either the next offer was $25,000. Demetrios found herself panicking and in trouble. She couldn’t afford to sustain her lifestyle.

Now a lot of other writers felt that she came of as “entitled” in this piece and that she didn’t do the necessary research to learn about sustainable financial management in publishing. That’s true. She made a lot of mistakes (something she admits). But she also feels that there should have been greater transparency within the industry:

Did anyone working with me — agency, publishing team — tell me that a sumptuous advance was not something I should depend on or get used to? Or that, in fact, it’s extraordinarily common in the publishing industry for untested debut writers to be paid large sums that they may never see again? No. Did anyone in the publishing house take me under their wing and explain to me how the company made decisions about future book deals? No. Did the publisher tap a more seasoned author on their list to mentor me, as many major corporations encourage within their companies? No. Did the MFA in writing program that I was part of, in any way, arm me with the knowledge to protect and advocate for myself in the publishing world? No.

Yes, all of that is information that she could (and yes, should) have sought out with research. But she also has a point in saying that traditional publishing could be a more  sustainable industry if there were more attempts to educate new writers about the realities of the business.  Writers would be able to make better choices if they had support. With the financial aspects more transparent, they would have more freedom to focus on the creative sides of their work. They could focus their promotional efforts on things that they knew had proven success. All those are good points that could benefit the industry as a whole.

The indie authors who responded with comments like “I wish I could get a $17,000 advance. Be grateful!”: I get it! I’d love a $17,000 advance. Hey, I’d love a $17 advance! But I (like you) made the decision to publish my work this way.  While we don’t get the advances we get to keep most (usually about 70%) of our royalties. Traditionally published writers don’t. We also (usually) don’t have to pay 15% to an agent. Most of us made this decision after researching the traditional publishing world as well as indie publishing.

Should Demetrios done that same kind of research about the traditional publishing industry? Yes. But unlike indie publishing, traditional publishing has the resources to put together established structural support. Doing so has few down sides.

Since I wrote about the way our society pays artists in What’s Your Day Job  I wanted to respond to this because it looks at some of these issues from another angle.

What do you think? Did Demetrios come across as entitled and privileged? Did she make valid points? Or both?

7 thoughts on “In Response to “That Publishing Article”

  1. She does sound privileged but also there’s nothing wrong with wanting transparency when it comes to your job. Yes, she should have been more responsible with her spendings and savings and done her research but it’s natural to get excited when you succeed and as she said, there were so many opportunities for someone to say ‘hey, calm down a bit. Nothing is secure here. ‘ If other professions deserve to know about their footing in their industry why writers shouldn’t?

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s my point! She also said that it was incredibly difficult to get sales information from her publisher. Why? Knowing that information could have prevented some of her mistakes. I think some people were so turned off by the privilege that they ignored some of her legit points.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes! It’s a difficult industry but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it a bit easier. And a part of her reason to publish this might have been ensuring that other young writers won’t make the same mistake.
        She is speaking from a priviliged place, yes, but we need to be a bit entitled when it comes to work or the employers will never give us anything just from the goodness of their hearts. There are writers who have it worse but asking to fix one thing doesn’t mean you can’t fix other things at the same time.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. By the time I saw the article it was surrounded by the comment cloud (much of it toxic) and so I didn’t read the actual article. I didn’t want to get too upset, frankly. I suspected I knew what I would find on both sides — and from reading your summary, it looks like I was right. I agree that she should have been smarter about it and done a lot more research. But I also have thought for a long time that the traditional publishing industry makes things a lot more difficult than they need to.

    Luckily for me (as an aspiring author), I have been semi-mentored by a couple of authors I respect. One had a writing group forum a while ago that I was a part of where we could critique each other’s stories and get advice on the publishing side of things from the established author. Another had a series of articles and (self-pubbed, I believe) books about how to write, including a few things on “when to quit your day job”. A third tweets about a variety of things in the publishing world, including sometimes the financial side of things. But without all of that? I suspect that getting a second large advance check would have seemed to me like all my dreams were coming true forever.

    Liked by 2 people

    • True. When I was looking into options for publishing Beautiful I did a lot of research into this and found a lot of blogs and forums that were great for advice. I think a lot of the criticism of this article came from the fact that she COULD have found all the information she needed to make better choices, had she done that same research. That’s true and it’s something that she admits. But I think her point is that having a major publisher behind your book means that they can and should give the author some support with some of this.

      Another issues was that this author also felt intimidated asking questions so she held back. By creating a more open, transparent environment in which writers can feel comfortable asking questions and know that they’ll get helpful advice, everybody wins. There’s no reason to keep things from authors or create a culture where people aren’t able to ask important questions.

      Liked by 1 person

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