What happens to a dream deferred?

16 Oct

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The other day at work, my buddy came up to me to talk about my zombie book. A while back, he had expressed excitement about reading the book, and asked if I’d email him the manuscript so he wouldn’t have to wait for the scheduled-for-May publication. (If you’re new, I announced a while back that I had been signed to a three-book deal by apocalyptic publisher Permuted Press.)

Anyway, my buddy — Brent — said that he had sat down to read my book recently, but couldn’t get far into it. “I just don’t like reading on my phone,” he said. “I’ll definitely read it when I can buy the actual book.”

Sounds nice, yeah? Sure, it’d be nice if he was so excited about my work that he tore through it as soon as the words were in his possession, but regardless, my friend was speaking excitedly to me about buying a real, no-foolin’ book that had my name on the cover. Pretty cool, right?

I almost cried.

Brent said that to me around noon Tuesday. The previous Thursday night, at 10-damn-30 at night, my publisher had sent out a mass email. It said a few things:

  • The publisher would be moving away from print-on-demand technology, and going exclusively to ebooks for most of its materials. Select authors — ones with a proven sales record, ones with a history, ones with (I’m guessing) connections — would still be printed, but for the unwashed masses, those print books were off the table.
  • The publication schedule that had apparently been anguished over was out the window, and they would be rescheduling most everything. A publisher that had been putting out multiple books a week for most of the year was suspending all 2014 publications until 2015, with everything else moving back as well. And when publications did start back up, the schedule would be less aggressive. In other words, if you had a book scheduled for May 2017 (as I did), there was every apparent chance it could be pushed back until, I don’t know, 2020?
  • The publisher was no longer going to give authors nearly as much say in the cover art of the materials.

The reasons for these moves were pretty obvious. When I submitted to Permuted Press early in the year, the publisher was accepting nigh-on everybody. There was some push to find investors for the company, and a publisher with 500 authors is much more appealing than one with 50. The end result was that anyone who could string 80,000 words together and use “zombie” at least three times got a book deal, with an open invitation to make whatever it was a series.

It was a great way to make some writers, qualified or otherwise, very excited, and get a lot of works under contract. I saw loads of positive press out of Permuted for the last several months. But the other shoe had to drop eventually, and it came when the people in Nashville (Permuted’s home) had to crank out several books a week. It leads to overwork, sloppy production, and books that have no business being books. POD technology isn’t a huge undertaking, but it does require an extra handful of hours on each book, making hundreds of extra hours over the course of a year for hundreds of books. With the majority of the money for books these days coming in via ebook/digital material, the decision, in and of itself, makes some sense.

I don’t think the timing of this is any sort of surprise, either. Everything was coming up on the first swath of “authors we signed when we signed everybody” getting published, which meant something had to give.

This sucked. I had been proceeding for the last six months under the belief that I would have a book in a few months, that I could clear out a place on the shelf for something I wrote. There are three things most authors want out of being an author: being able to say you are a published author, making a few bucks, and holding your own book in your hands. That third one — holding my own book — was probably the biggest one, and it was the one being taken away.

It was damned disheartening. (And, before you ask, no, the contract did not specifically stipulate that print copies would be made; it strongly hinted at same, and pre-contract discussions had done so more strongly, but the contract itself left the publisher open to make this decision.) I emailed the managing editor at the company. I told her that, while I understood the decision from a business sense, it was depressing. I said that I have a reasonably large readership in my fantasy sports writing, in case a pre-existing audience would have an impact on whether my own books could be bumped up to print status. And I pointed out that heck, if the business has been going as well as they claim and they were still overworked, then it stood to reason that they might need to add staff, and I, as a trained and experienced wordsmith/editor, would be available for hire.

But most of all, I told her I didn’t want to hear back any time soon. My book was seven months away — I hadn’t even started the official editing process yet. There were a lot of authors whose publication dates were much earlier than mine who needed to be taken care of first, one way or another. I told her to take as much time as needed to get back to me, that I didn’t need any imminent response. Heck, I didn’t want one.

She responded Tuesday morning.

The response was less than a hundred words long. And it was a form letter. It said that there was no specific number of sales to reach print status (which I hadn’t asked about at all, directly or indirectly). And that was the only point the email made before moving straight on to “Oh, hey, if this makes you want to leave the company, let us know and we’ll let you out of your contract.”

Basically, they stole a huge chunk of my dream, ignored every facet of my response, and moved to “Wanna leave? Sure!” in a matter of 20 or so words.

Again, this all makes sense. They overbooked. They signed authors who shouldn’t have been signed. (Was I one of those? No idea. I hope not.) The easy fix was to let authors go, one way or another. Pushing back publication dates, removing a huge chunk of the “excitement” factor (print books), ignoring questions asked in direct queries — those are great ways to make someone want to leave.

A lot of authors ducked out of their contracts immediately. In a private Facebook group many of the publisher’s authors share, there were some shockingly harsh wars of words between those who felt betrayed and those who decided to stick it out, for better or worse. As for me, I urged a conservative approach, giving the higher-ups every chance to make things right, or at least make it look like they cared enough to try. It’s now been a week since that initial email, and nothing good has come at all. Heck, nothing either way has come at all, short of a hundred-word form letter.

So I’m leaving. Getting out of my contract. And it’s not because I’m not getting to hold my book in my hand. That sucks, and it makes me sad, but I get it, shady though it may have been done. I certainly could have let them publish my book as an ebook, in the hopes that eventually I could be published in print. The downside is, they would control the print rights ad infinitum, and if they never wanted to print my book, my book would never be printed.

No, I’m leaving because of everything that came next. They either wanted me to leave the company or didn’t care if I stayed, and didn’t put forth even a nominal effort at keeping me or many other authors. And if I can’t count on this company to even try to keep me once they have me, especially when they supposedly were excited to publish a trilogy of my work six months ago, why should I have any faith in its ability or willingness to provide me with reasonably professional editing, with marketing, with promotions, with anything that might lead to sales? And if I couldn’t count on all that, why should I commit a chunk of whatever royalties I would get to a company that didn’t care what came out of such a publication?

I hate it — not least because I have told anyone who will listen that I got a publishing deal, and that I’d have books to buy. But it was a deal struck under what are now clearly false promises, and as much as I wanted to be published, there’s no sense in doing it in a situation that isn’t going to benefit me in much of any way.

As it stands now, I’m moving back to self-publishing After Life. Depending on how it goes, I will probably continue with the trilogy, since I’ve spent the last half-year working on it, but at this point I have no idea — the first one can stand alone, so who knows. Ultimately, I think it’ll be better for me in the long run, but it’ll be a lot more work at the beginning, with even less of a known quantity.

A lot of the ex-Permuted writers have written blogs similar to the one I’m writing, but with far more vitriol, calling for boycotts and hatred and the like. I’m furious with the publisher and the business. I feel lied to and cheated out of six months in which I could have been working on my own sales, waiting for them to work on it as they promised. It sucks. That said, I don’t know what me bitching about it, rallying everyone to grab their pitchforks and torches, would accomplish. They aren’t going to apologize or print my books because I yell about them. I can’t really hurt them, even if everyone I know boycotts Permuted Press. On the other hand, I could hurt the innocent authors who stayed with the company. Permuted will still get sales. Individual authors might not. And that’s why Permuted has us over a barrel.

Basically, this post is to explain why the “I have a book deal!” version of me from a few months ago is gone, and why I’ll instead be the “I’m self-publishing my book!” version of me. When it comes — and lord knows when I’ll be able to get it done — I’ll be right back to the “please buy my book!” comments, only now I’ll be able to keep all the profits. And I’ll have control over the cover. And I’ll schedule the publication date myself.

And I’ll be able to put my book, with my name, on my shelf. Which is really why I did this in the first place.

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