Monday, August 27, 2007

Auntie Emily’s Guide to Compassionate Complaining

The recent troubles at Silk’s Vault and Mardi Gras have brought back the issue of author complaints: 1) should you ever make them and 2) if so when. My suggestions would be:

1) Yes. This is on the simple basis that publishers’ interests and writers’ interests are somewhat the same and somewhat different. We have duties to both but in some cases out duty to our fellow writers is greater than to a publisher—especially if the publisher is incompetent or dishonest.

2a) True and Unusual Gripes
If a publisher does something you find unhelpful I don’t think it hurts to mention it to your peers on a purely factual basis even if it is a fairly minor point. It is probably wise to raise it with your editor or the publisher directly by email first to give them a chance to justify or correct the issue. There may in fact be a good reason for it that is to the writer’s benefit. But if they don’t respond well (especially if they a defensive, abusive or utterly unresponsive) IMHO the matter than is up for discussion unless there really is a compelling reason for it to be considered secret. If the press thinks the practise is acceptable and you still don’t, wider discussion in the industry is probably warranted.

Even minor issues can be discussed in appropriate forums so long as they are clearly matters of fact approached by a person with sincere and dispassionate interest in making their books a great success for themselves and the publisher. Often this is the quickest way to discover whether your complaint is in any way legit, significant and widely condemned. It may also lead to the press actually making changes to better serve their writers. Those that don’t ask, don’t get!

However if this practise, no matter how unhelpful, is very widespread in the industry then there is less of case for mentioning one specific press that is ‘guilty’ of it. In fact, it would be more helpful to point out the examples of otherwise equivalent or superior presses not perpetuating that particular nuisance. In this category might be charging for POD, calculating royalties on net, not having effective payment methods for foreign writers, not creating stable editor-writer collaborations and terrible cover art.

2b) Substantial and Persistent Problems
Another clear case is when there is a really serious problem, and repeated direct attempts to seek a solution have been unsuccessful. There is that sinking moment when you realise that the press is unlikely to rectify the situation and probably isn’t even trying. Bridges are burning in the rear view mirror. Being quiet and polite hasn’t done you a blind bit of good and leaves other authors submitting to the press unawares. In this category would be severely incompetent editing, non-payment of royalties, inaccurate reporting of sales, severely inappropriate conduct such as threats and deliberate spreading of damaging and inaccurate rumors about the author (when the author has not indulged in any such tantrums themselves). At this point a specific publisher really should be publicly named as a service to one’s peers and to set the record straight. If you are still in doubt, email a few other authors with that same press, severe problems are almost never isolated to one author.

My final point is that complaints should always be factual, with a minimum of emotion and a maximum of documentation. It pays to keep all contracts, unedited manuscripts, royalty reports, sales information from other sources, and all emails (although email should be considered private except in extraordinary cases it can be useful to document to the senior staff at the publisher just how long your were ignored and any contradictory information or abusive conduct from their staff). If in doubt, keep a record. If you don’t want to complain publicly this evidence can be forwarded to agencies like Writer Beware who will handle them in confidence and give greatest weight and credence to solid proof, over unsupported accusations.

Finally, do keep an eye out for things your publishers do well, especially things they do that other presses don’t. Failings should not be kept conspiratorially secret but presses should also get public credit whenever they do that little bit more for their authors—especially when they do things that are good for their authors and not entirely a matter of self interest. In this category might be: providing concrete marketing advice, giving prompt and detailed statement, having flexible payment methods, having a flexible house style that accommodates the author’s style, allowing cross-publisher promotions on their lists and forums and, of course, having high sales. If you have an editor, cover artist or other professional you particularly enjoy working with, let them know! If most of what you say is positive, then any complaints you make will carry more weight.

The bottom line is that authors talking about e-publishers should be a good thing because e-publisher should be a good thing. Good presses should see their achievements being praised, and so encourage this kind of free promotion. Indifferent presses should see their practises scrutinised and have every opportunity to address any accidental oversights or gaps in their expertise—and bad presses should have their abuses exposed. Only by this process will industry practises develop and improve over time and e-publishing become something we can all be proud of.


Anonymous said...

>>My final point is that complaints should always be factual, with a minimum of emotion and a maximum of documentation.

How true. There are a lot of people who should keep this in mind. There's been a lot of "Oh I didn't get paid, but I didn't want to complain"s, which ImHO is when you SHOULD complain.

Anonymous said...

I think this is where writer's organizations can come in by helping to keep their membership up to date and informed with what's going on with publishers. They should have some kind of complaints registry so authors can look up publishers and make up their minds about where to submit to.

That said - the preditors and editors site is very good for this sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

What you said. I've become increasingly impatient with the culture of 'nice girls don't complain' amongst some authors. Publishers are businesses. If they can't stand up initially to questions and possibly later to complaints, they shouldn't exist.

veinglory said...

I understand, and experience, the conflict. Before bad-mouthing a company and by extension some people--you want to be sure.