by Linda Rodriguez
This past week, we have been treated to the spectacle of the heads of of the hugest publishing companies in the United States sitting in a federal courtroom under oath, testifying about the publishing industry. We have heard things that were patently untrue, even if the CEO making the statement is sworn to tell the truth under pain of perjury, things such as, “$100,000 is a relatively small advance anymore”. Cue writers across the land for insane laughter at this preposterous statement.
We have heard things that were quite unbelievable and yet, apparently, true, simply because they were unfavorable to the executives testifying, their publishing company, and the cause for which they are suing. Statements which admit that the current CEO of one huge publisher has totally mismanaged his company (but he still wants the government to allow him to acquire another huge publisher, apparently so that he can mismanage that one as well?), or that even the largest publishers have absolutely no idea which books will sell or how to sell the books they have acquired, or the admission that they give no marketing budget and make no marketing efforts for the vast majority of their books which fall below the $250,000 advance mark.
These court proceedings have been live-tweeted by reporters for several industry publications and others with a strong interest in the industry. Their live tweets have been seized upon by writers across the country, who have been simultaneously horrified and stunned into laughter by some of the incredibly ignorant and inept statements these CEOs have made under oath. As one writer tweeted in all-caps response after a CEO agreed laughingly with the judge that their P&L statements had no validity, “An entire industry run on vibes!!”
Most of us who have been involved in this industry and with the Big Five publishers for any length of time have not been surprised at much of what has come out in this hearing. It tallies with what we have experienced and what we have suspected all along. We have had few
doubts about the mendacity and ignorance of the people in ultimate power at these houses (as opposed to their hard-working and wonderful editorial staffs). How could we, especially after seeing and experiencing events such as the purge by one of the houses in this case of all of its
cozy-mystery writers, no matter how successful, and of their knowledgeable cozy-mystery editors, only to sign a new set of inexperienced cozy-mystery writers for vastly smaller advances than normal? (Perhaps this irrational act played a part in the fact that this company had a
disappointing record of sales for the past few years and its CEO had to publicly admit to mismanaging it?)
But even veteran writers have been stunned by the sheer extent of the lies, the ignorance, and the deliberate mismanagement this week’s testimony has displayed publicly. These men are being paid multi-millions of dollars per year, yet are clearly incompetent in their roles. At least, if the goal is what the company publicly states it is–to acquire and publish books successfully and profitably.
On social media, writers across the country are moaning, laughing, and despairing as they read about each day’s testimony. I find myself wondering how many writers, who would otherwise have had a career with traditional publishers, will turn to self-publishing in disgust at the practices so callously outlined, most of which exploit, abuse, and humiliate the very writers upon whom this industry rests. This trial has only begun. We have weeks more of this testimony ahead of us. Will publishing ever be quite the same afterward?