The Publishing Industry: Here We Go Again

There is something rotten in the world of publishing.  And no, I’m not talking about Amazon. I’m talking about the stunningly illogical business models within the industry. Let it be said that authors like me have been complaining about publishers for, I don’t know, possibly centuries. It’s nothing new. Mark Twain was so dissatisfied with his publisher that he started his own publishing company. He was an early “indie publisher,” I suppose. Initially, the company did well. Then it collapsed. This is nothing new, either, and I am well-acquainted with collapsing publishers.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to 1996. President William Jefferson Clinton was running for his second term. I lived in Washington DC and had developed a reputation for making complex public policy issues easy for normal people to understand.  I had ghost-written Common Sense Government for Vice President Al Gore and soon thereafter the President called. Bill Clinton had been developing ideas for a book of his own but, on account of his being, you know, the President, he didn’t have much time to put it all together. He, or rather his publisher, a division of Random House, hired me to help. I was honored.  We worked together, the President and me, for three months, meeting often, though privately, in the Oval Office of the White House. It was all very secret. The final manuscript of Between Hope and History was about three hundred and fifty pages long. It laid out his vision of where the country should go in the approaching millennium and was informed by both his prodigious knowledge of our history and our constitution and by his own personal history and beliefs. Then his political adviser stepped in and said “Why would we release this ammunition to the Republicans when we’re so far ahead of Bob Dole (the Republican presidential nominee) in the polls? Cut it down to a hundred pages.” I called Random House immediately and told them they were in trouble. They told me I was only a writer and knew nothing about publishing. The book, stripped of anything personal or interesting, was a financial disaster.  Both the publisher and the editor departed Random House.

While working on that book I learned that the whole of Random House and all its subdivisions was being supported essentially by just two huge best-sellers: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Primary Colors.  Everything else was break-even or losing. This is like being General Motors and hoping that at least one good model will sell and keep you afloat (that didn’t work either).

Flash forward a decade. I started writing fiction. My first novel, The Long Walk Home, was bought by another division of Random House. I receive a six-figure royalty advance, almost unheard-of for a first time novelist. A year later, the same thing happened with my second novel, Water, Stone, Heart. Then, without warning, Random House shut down the division that was publishing me (and others) and, just like that, both books were “orphaned.” Random House walked away from this huge debt as if it were nothing. A third of a million is a lot of money in my book…

But I pressed on. I regained the rights to those two novels, wrote three more, and sold them all to a new “hybrid” publisher called Booktrope. I loved their business model, which involved putting together a creative team for each book—editor, proofreader, cover designer, project manager—each of whom would receive a percentage of every book sold. The model was democratic and author-friendly. Team members were motivated to succeed and give their best. This publisher did not sell to bookstores, however; it focused almost solely on e-book sales, principally via Amazon. This strategy worked for a while, but there was a gaping flaw in the business model: the publisher believed (right up to the end) that authors doing social media marketing would sell books. This turned out to be a fantasy. And despite big venture capital investments and the rapid acquisition of new books, costs outstripped revenues, month after month, and the company collapsed. Hundreds of authors, not to mention team members, were left high, dry, and broke.  Once again—and despite rave reviews from Amazon customers—my novels were orphaned.

I’m lucky, though. Having written twenty books and counting, literary agents want to represent my books.  But here, too, the world has changed: the major publishers are leery of buying books from any but already famous authors. They’re playing it safe and taking few risks.  A friend of mine, a writer for several very famous comedy television shows, wrote a hilarious novel, struggled to find an agent even willing to represent her, and finally sold her book to a major publisher for only thirty thousand bucks.  What happened next?  The book became an instant national and international best-seller and will soon be a movie…proving, yet again, that publishers actually haven’t a clue when a book is winner.  It’s all guesswork, risk avoidance, crossing one’s fingers, and hoping for the best.

You’d think that by now I’d have moved on to a new career path, but there’s a problem: writing is the only thing I know how to do well and I love the craft. And I am eternally grateful to the readers who demand to know when the next book will arrive.



  1. Dana Jensen says:

    Will, I am glad to know you are continuing to write. I have all your books and will continue to acquire them when they come out in whatever format that may be. Crazy to hear publishers think they know better than I do about what I want to read!

  2. Oh honest to God…I am so sick of everything having to be in the hands of the bean counters and it it doesn’t ‘fit’ the model of what they learned in grad school, it won’t work. I LOVE your books. I tell EVERYONE about them. I give them as gifts, I FB them. Don’t stop. You are truly a joy to read. My problem is they are hard to get a hold of. When I wanted the second book in the series I had to hunt around forever until I found someone selling it. So I bought 3 copies and donated two to our local library so others could ‘find’ you. Keep it up!!!

  3. I was introduced to your books by purchasing a hardback version of Water, Stone, Heart at Dollar Tree, of all places. I absolutely loved it and I’m extremely picky! I then purchased The Long Walk Home from Amazon. I love your style with history mixed in and can’t wait to read your other books!

    Some of my favorite books are those that are self-published. I’m so glad that authors have that option now.

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