Don’t Blame the Author

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. Since several of us have new books out just now, it occurred to me that talking about some of the things that are beyond our control might be a timely topic. There’s no reason to expect readers to be savvy about the publishing business. What is out there on television and in movies often gives the wrong impression. And of course the few authors who really do become rich and famous, do get to have more of a say.

For the rest of us, there are several areas where other people make the decisions. Sometimes the results are wonderful. Other times . . . not so much.

We’ve talked about titles before. They aren’t always the ones we wanted. Enough said on that subject.

unquietheartscover (184x300)So lets start with the cover art. Authors might be asked for suggestions, but no one in the art department has to listen to them. Sometimes no one bothers to ask for input at all. Now let me say up front that I’m pretty happy with my current cover art, but in the past there have been some real dogs. Back when I was writing historical novels for Harper Monogram, a line now defunct, I wrote a book titled Unquiet Hearts. It’s historical romance but it’s also a murder mystery involving accusations of witchcraft. The hero is the steward at a manor in Lancashire—gentry, not nobility. The heroine is in mourning and therefore is obliged to wear black. You can see how closely they paid attention to these details. I can only assume they decided she was mourning the large section of cloth missing from her gown.

The author has no control over what is put on the spine of the book. Especially with paperbacks, the genre is usually indicated on the spine—mystery or romance or fantasy, for example. With Unquiet Hearts the accurate description would have been “historical romantic suspense with a touch of the paranormal” but since that wouldn’t fit on the spine, they labeled it “historical romance.” Is it any surprise that readers who love that genre were less than thrilled with this novel? My “Secrets of the Tudor Court” series (written as Kate Emerson) occasionally had the same problem. All six books were historical novels—not historical mystery and not historical romance, just historical fiction. Unfortunately not everyone in the publisher’s marketing department understood the difference and they kept sending review copies to romance reviewers who, not surprisingly, didn’t care for them. Neither did readers who thought they were getting a romance novel through Goodreads or Amazon Vine.

largeweeSad to say, this problem cropped up in a slightly different way with my Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries. Oh, they’re labeled mysteries. No problem there. And I like my covers. But here’s the rub. The first two titles were just “A Liss MacCrimmon Mystery” but starting with the third book (A Wee Christmas Homicide) they were suddenly “A Liss MacCrimmon Scottish Mystery.” Well, okay. Liss does own and operate Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium and she was a professional Scottish dancer until a knee injury ended her career, but the series is set entirely in Maine and there are no plans to take it to Scotland. Don’t expect large doses of Liss’s Scottish-American heritage in every book, either. The marketing department couldn’t even come up with a Scottish themed title for Ho-Ho-Homicide and finally gave up trying.

My next book, Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, was written with me thinking it fit into the historical cozy genre. The publisher decided to call it a “spy thriller.” Guess who will be blamed if it doesn’t meet reader expectations?

Continuing on the cover theme, what about cover copy that gives away too much of the plot? Nope—we don’t usually see that ahead of time, either. And then there’s the problem with blurbs. These are quotes, either from other writers who read the book before publication or from reviews of previous books in the series. As I discovered when I was writing my Face Down series, featuring Susanna, Lady Appleton as a sixteenth-century gentlewoman, herbalist, and sleuth, some blurbs made the mistake of calling her “Lady Susanna” instead of “Lady Appleton.” In a previous post I listed getting forms of address wrong as one of my pet peeves, so naturally I pointed this out to the powers-that-be at St. Martin’s. I was told that since the mistake was in a quote, it could not be changed. Arrrgh!

51c4cPjbPWL__SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_What else is beyond the author’s control? If there’s an audio version of a book, the publisher chooses the narrator. The author only gets to listen after the book is already recorded. The publisher decides on the size of the print in a hardcover or paperback. How close to the spine the type starts, which can be a problem in paperbacks and large print editions, is also up to the publisher. Unless authors produce their own ebook editions, they aren’t given a chance to correct any of the squirrely stuff that can creep in with the different conversions required by Kindle, Nook, iBooks and so on. If the publisher of the print edition creates the ebook, we don’t see it until it is available online. Sometimes one letter shows up as another or there is a string of symbols instead of an apostrophe. Anyone who reads ebooks has come across similar oddities.

We can’t forget price. The publisher definitely sets that. How much a book is discounted is up to bookseller. As far as I’m concerned, all my publishers set their prices too high, especially for ebooks. You’ll find the backlist titles I prepared myself available for under $5.00.

The only way an author can usually control any of these things, unless he or she is a bestseller with clout, is by self-publishing original material or out-of-print backlist titles. That requires paying all the costs and doing all the promotion, an expensive proposition that isn’t always feasible, especially for someone who wants to have time left over to write more books.

Ho Ho Homicide-comp (199x300)There are three more things the author can’t control, even if they do self-publish. One has to do with distribution—the efficiency of bookstores in stocking titles (and packing and shipping them if they sell online). We have no good way to convince libraries, whose budgets are getting smaller and smaller, to buy copies of our books. Hint: reader requests do still carry weight.

And number three gets its own paragraph: what reviewers say. Heck, this could be a whole blog in itself. In a nutshell, good or awful, any review is just one person’s opinion. We can give away advance reading and author copies but we have no control over what the reader thinks of the book or what he or she says about it. And no, most writers do not “buy” good reviews or even ask their friends to give them five-star ratings. Most annoying, of course, are reviews with spoilers, followed closely by those that have nothing to do with the book itself but gripe about one of those things over which the author had no control. My favorite is a complaint about slow shipping by Amazon, followed by a one-star rating for the novel. Unless the impoverished writer is moonlighting on the Amazon assembly line, please don’t blame the author for that one!

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3 Responses to Don’t Blame the Author

  1. MCWriTers says:

    So true, Kaitlyn, so true. The cover of the mass market of my first Thea Kozak mystery, Chosen for Death, was so awful I used to go into stores and turn it around. Another got me nominated for a Raven Award for worst cover. As though these weren’t marketing documents.

    The cover of my new true crime has a darling black lab on it. Of course, the body was found by a German Shepherd…but hey…labs are cuter. I’ve taken to carrying a stuffed shepherd when I do book talks, so that Alex, the hero of the piece, can get some credit.

    Readers are also surprised to find out how little money we get from each of those hardcover books they’re paying $25.00 for. Less, as I often say, than enough to buy a cup of Starbucks coffee.

    Nice post!


    • julia summerhill says:

      Such an eyeopening article. I had no idea of the (nearly) helpless position authors could be in!

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Sing it, Sister!

    (I should say, I’ve loved all my covers, both Five Star and Kensington, and someone posted to Goodreads grateful my book cover didn’t contain spoilers for previous books. But those Amazon ratings complaining about the price of the ebook. Oy.)

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