Why is my publisher doing that?

Until moving to my current position–oh, last month, when I started this stupid thing–I worked in professional publishing. That is, I worked on books that sold primarily, not through traditional trade channels, but direct online, at professional conventions, or through university adoptions, associations, or other professional networks. My list spanned a variety of topics of interest to businesses and nonprofits–board development, leadership, strategy, ROI, training and development, talent management, perhaps most startling, coming from a literature back ground, industrial and organizational psychology. For the (I’m guessing here) 98% of the population who’s never heard of it, OD/ID is, in layman’s terms, the study of what makes workplaces productive. The science combines elements of statistics, group and individual psychology, and detailed analysis.

Anyway, the reason I’m sharing this: I recently received an email from one of my former authors asking, essentially, the questions above–why is my publisher doing that?–but asking it in a way only an I-O Professional ever would: what are the incentives and disincentives to action within this company?

So here we go. Bad news first. In general, I would say, the disincentives to act within a publishing company (at least the four I’ve worked for) are as follows:

A prohibitive workload

If you work in publishing, you never, ever run out of things to do. Your to-do list is long, and probably color coded–and, like Homeland Security, threat levels red, orange and yellow are the only real options–blue and green might be on the chart, but you never actually use them. This is okay. It’s actually kind of exhilarating. But it does make it hard to pick up those little extras.

Budget constraints

Budget is a problem in every business of course. In publishing, budget rears it’s ugly head in two main ways. First, all expenditures are supposed to be tied to particular book projects. This is designed to ensure that publishers don’t spend more making a book than they have projected they will earn by selling it, but it has the (unintended?) side effect of making it insanely difficult to invest in non-book projects–like infrastructure, a better website, an alternative content delivery system, or hiring staff. Basically, if the RIO can’t be measured on an expenditure-to-sale basis, it’s not something publishers will do easily. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get funding for a long-term project, and that in turn makes publishing companies cumbersome and slow to adapt to certain kinds of market pressure. Second, marketing budgets (like marketers’ time) are tied to next seasons’ front list. If your book didn’t launch strong, it’s really kind of too bad. Your money has been spent and your marketer is already working on whatever is coming out in six months. Any secondary marketing efforts are going to be gorilla-style, and on a shoe string.

Bureaucracy

In a billion dollar international company that has absorbed dozens of smaller companies wholesale, it can be a real challenge to figure out how to perform certain tasks, who can help you to perform them, and sometimes even whether they are possible. And of course, there are all the usual bureaucratic issues. Like the age old question, famous among editors and salesmen alike: who’s territory is this, really. No one is totally sure, but you can bet they’re going to hammer it out, over and over and over again. And then there’s that other favorite: what does the boss like? If your publisher has decided that, say, strat planning books are out this year, and everyone should sign vampire romances instead, that’s what’s going to happen.

Basically, if the world were full of time and money, and everyone answered “yes,” then publishing would be a perfect business.

So, what are the incentives to act? What makes publishing people jump up and get things done?

Sales

If there’s real sales potential your publisher will move, probably faster than you’ve ever seen them move before. If you wrote a history book that’s supposed to be out in May, and you get a gig as key note speaker at the National Historical Society conference in March, odds are good that schedule will move up fast. This doesn’t mean your book was on a slow schedule before. It means your publisher offered the copy editor (and the pagers, and the indexer, and the illustrator) a raise to turn the manuscript around in half the time. Also, perhaps, a drop ship. This is the flip side of the budgetary coin. Book specific expenses with a good upside are easy to get approved.

Professional pride

A successful book gives everyone who worked on it–the publisher, the editors, the assistants, the marketers, the sales team, the production staff, the designers, the web guy, the systems people, everyone–a sense of accomplishment. When authors do well, it means publishers did well. Tons of work goes into every book, and the whole team wants to see it succeed–not as much as the author does, probably, but a lot. Working on to a high quality book mean a lot; working on a high quality book that people end up loving is the best thing ever.

Friendship

Books are prioritized based on projected sales numbers. Certain sales thresholds are tied to corresponding levels of marketing and production expenditure, and there’s only so much an author can do to get around that. HOWEVER, if your publisher likes you, they’ll go out of their way to help you. It’s a function of limited time and limited resources, divided by who calls yelling and screaming vs who calls and asks for help. Somewhere between the “squeaky wheel” and “you win more flies with honey” is the approach that will serve you best with your publisher: when you have a small question: email, when you have a big question: call, AND be nice about it.

Personal gain.

This is actually less of a motivator than you might think (or at least, than I thought going into it). Only two groups within a publishing company have financial incentives they can directly impact, but they are arguably the two most important groups: editors and sales staff. Virtually everyone else, from the support team to management, earns their bonus based not on the performance of the books they personally work on, but on the success of the company a whole, or a particular imprint, or some combination. For editors and (some) sales people, however, compensation is tied to the success of their own particular books. Many, but not all, sales staff earn commission. Editorial compensation is somewhat more convoluted. An acquiring editor is generally evaluated based on three criteria: signing, delivery, and profitably. That is, the number of projects signed within a fiscal year; the number of books published within a fiscal year; and most important, the value (perspective and actual) of those projects. Obviously sales expectations and signing goals will vary from topic to topic and from publisher to publisher–but wherever you go performance in these three areas determines an editor’s bonus. A little practical application for you: if you’re getting a lot of pressure to turn around a contract fast, it’s probably close to the end of the quarter. Delivery dates, though, are more complex.

Schedule

A late manuscript can theoretically impact an editor financially–but not that much. The real motivator here is the domino effect a late manuscript has on all the other team members. If a book is late to the editor it’s late to production, which means it’s late to the independent contractors, who may already be booked for some or all of the new time slot, so that new contractors need to be hired, which means it’s even later, which means it’s it’s late to launch, which means all the marketing needs to be pushed back. Just hope it hasn’t dropped out of the season, in which case the catalog is probably wrong, and the sale team and cover designers have incorrect information, and someone needs to make sure the book doesn’t get launched on the website based on the previous date. Is this the end of the world? No. But it makes everyone’s job harder, it costs you sales, and if a particular editor’s projects are chronically late, that editor gets get a rep. The odds are good that if your editor is hounding you to turn in your manuscript, it’s because a dozen other people are hounding them.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover illustration for Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo IshiguroWith the movie version of Never Let Me Go releasing last month, I was inspired to race through this book before the movie got nominated for something. Plus, never having read any of Ishiguro’s work (no, not even Remains of the Day), I felt it was a bit overdue. (As is this entry, given that I finished the book over a week ago.)

Never Let Me Go takes takes place in an alternate present (or an alternate late 1990s) with a dystopian bent. The novel is told in a conversational (and very, very English) first person voice from the point of view of Kathe H., a 31 year old about to retire from being a “carer” in order to become a “donor.” Kathe explains that, as she prepares for the next stage of her life, she feels the urge to recall her past with her two dearest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and more than that, to come to some understanding of what it has all meant. She begins her story at Hailsham, the boarding school where she and her friends grew up, on a beautiful but isolated country estate, and follows them through their late teens, living with a group of other students at a rural cottage, and into their adult lives as carers and donors.

The story, though phrased in a way that assumes a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader, isn’t intended to be mystery. Like the students in the novel, readers know from the beginning that the characters are being carefully groomed to become multiple organ donors. As the children grow up, their knowledge of the specifics increases, and so does their understanding of where they come from, and the what donation will mean. Readers piece together the details of the donation system gradually from bits of information dropped throughout the text. The antiseptic language and Hailsham-specific slang scattered throughout infuses the book with a sense of creepy authenticity.

Throughout Never Let Me Go, Kathy comes across as friendly, matter of fact and honest–but she is not strictly speaking, a trustworthy narrator. Her remarkable evenhanded forthrightness in relating the events of the story, even her own faults and her sex life, is oddly offset by her extreme reserve. As the work progresses, it becomes clear that her own emotions are tightly controlled and deeply suppressed, perhaps as a survival mechanism, perhaps simply as a function of the expectations with which she has been raised. She faces the deaths of her friends, if not with equanimity, than with acceptance. Still, there are aspects of the donor’s fate, particularly what may happen after they “complete” that she cannot face, can barely imply. The emotion and drama of the story, like the precise truth behind the characters lives, is left largely to the reader to uncover.

Never Let Me Go features an unusual narrative structure that is both striking and convincing, though occasionally a little wearing. The story is primarily a sort of continuous flashback, one narrator recalling a series of a events in chronological order. But within those recollections, the plot tends to swirl and eddy, doubling back on itself. Kathy H., like any of us, telling a story to a friend, might start out to relate a specific event, then become sidetracked by some peripheral detail–what a particular teacher was like, which areas at school were and were not considered “in bounds,” etc.–leading to a whole other anecdote. It might be 10 or 15 pages before the narrator brings us back around to the original tale. Ishiguro adds a further layer by including frequent references to subsequent discussions the characters had about the events in question. In this way, each incident is rendered using a rich depth of perspectives, all filtered through the narrator’s current self, creating something manifold and complex and at the same time entirely one-sided. It’s really a great device, although I’ll admit that by about halfway through the book, it had started to drive me a little crazy.

In it’s style, characterization, relationships, and even in the simplicity of many of the events, this novel is compellingly realistic. It’s one of those rare books that inserts one fantastical detail into a world that is otherwise utterly true to life. As so many have pointed out, Ishiguro uses the novel as a venue to raise implicit questions about science and morality; what it means to be human, and what human beings are capable of.

Equally present in the work, but less discussed, is the apparent ease with which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, and all the students accept their fate as donors. What is it that keeps these characters so grounded, so balanced, so willing? They aren’t restrained in any physical way–compulsion isn’t necessary. I would imagine that these students, released into the world as teenagers, would run as wild as Amish kids on Rumspringa, partying and shooting up and sleeping with outsiders. I’d expect runaways, or, if that were impossible, at least some self-destructive acting out–ODs, high speed car accidents, probably even a couple of deliberate suicides just before the donation processes begins. But none of that happens. In fact, the young people frequently make requests to begin their training early. There is only one context in which any kind of a reprieve is ever discussed, and even that is so modest: not a pardon, just a short stay of execution, a few extra years.

So why is that? I think Ishiguro intends it as a comment upon nature vs nurture, on the ways in which experiences and expectations can limit vision, can hold human beings in mental cages–and yet they still, as much as they are able, look for a way out. They crave the idea that a way out is even possible. It feeds back into the larger issue of amoral science: the author is saying, look, these children have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they submit willingly to their own systematized execution–but they still love one another, they will still fantasize about the future, they will still try. This acceptance makes sense in context, but I found it consistently troubling, the one aspect of the book I could never quite credit.