The Writer Is the Brand

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The amazing Kristin Rusch posted this today:

Last week, Steve Hamilton utterly destroyed his career—or would have, if it were 2005. Steve, a New York Times bestseller and two-time Edgar winner, pulled his novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason, from St. Martins Press less than two months before the book’s release.

Steve didn’t just pull the book; he canceled the entire four-book contract. His agent repaid the monies that St Martins had already paid on that contract.

Why would a writer do such a thing? According to the articles I saw, Hamilton claims that the book, which had received excellent pre-publication reviews, was getting no support from the publisher.

What St Martins promised on the back of the galleys sent to reviewers and places like Publishers Weekly was this:

A 75,000 copy first printing, and a lot of national marketing, including a national author tour and a national ad campaign for the book.

But not even Publishers Weekly, an industry trade journal, was buying that. In an article about Hamilton’s parting with St Martins, Rachel Deahl of PW wrote, “It is an open secret in the publishing industry that claims made on galleys and other material for the trade–about everything from first printings to marketing budgets and efforts–can be gross exaggerations.”

In that article, Steve says he’s canceled the contract because of a lack of publisher support. Since he’s been with St Martins for 17 years, he knows what he’s talking about. He probably saw The Second Life of Nick Mason as his breakout book, and when the reviews came in, confirming it, and St Martins dropped the ball on its promises, he decided he’d had enough.

I don’t blame him.

In the past eight years, I’ve canceled two book contracts because publishers didn’t fulfill their promises. I felt relief both times.

Force the publisher to keep promises? Force the publisher to honor a contract? Horrors! Better to get some naïve young writer to write books than an old pro who knows what he’s doing.

Steve took a huge risk here to protect his art. And kudos to him. I wish him great success. I’m so very glad he stood his ground.

I’m also glad he’s speaking out about it. Initially, St Martins issued a snarky press release, making it sound like they threw him to the curb. Steve corrected that, and Publishers Weekly (among other places) picked up the story.

Once upon a time, a writer taking on a big publisher like that remained secret, partly so that the writer could sell another book. (Even then, the large publisher would often bad-mouth the writer in private to any other publisher who would listen.)

Times have changed. If you go to the PW link I’ve cited above, you’ll find a link chain of writer after writer after writer who has blogged about traditional publishings’ broken promises. You can find such things on my blog. You can find them aggregated on The Passive Voice blog.

Writers are the brand. We always have been. And because of that, traditional publishers are slowly beginning to realize that indie published writers are cutting into the bottom line. Mike Shatzkin admitted as much last week.

And as these opportunities grow for writers, as they have the freedom to publish their books without being blacklisted, then more and more authors will stand up like Steve Hamilton just did and say that the traditional publishers aren’t living up to their end of the bargain.

And then the writers will hold the traditional publishers accountable.

You have to understand the kind of courage that it took for someone who has spent over 20 years in traditional publishing to hire a lawyer and go to bat against a traditional publisher. Steve Hamilton showed that courage. He believes in his work.

He did a good thing.

Congrats, Steve. Well done.

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