Editorial – Issue 46

Publishers behaving badly

Writers can be an ungracious lot. They take offence easily; they rarely apologise or express thanks; even more rarely do they return favours. They are also known to derive as much pleasure from a friend’s literary failure as from an enemy’s. But all this is somehow understandable, if not forgivable. It’s a vulnerable thing, being a writer: so often they are misunderstood, under-recognised and underpaid, with a recalcitrant Muse, isolation, and paranoia all part of the deal. A certain amount of cantankerousness is to be expected. Sometimes, it is even endearing.

But publishers (and we include editors of journals in this category) also have their vices, and they have no such excuses, for a number of reasons. They don’t work in isolation – however harsh the business environment might seem to them. They don’t have such twitchy egos. And, most importantly, they are almost invariably in a position of power vis-à-vis writers: that is, they decide whether or not writers get published, and how well their books are going to be promoted.

There are many ways in which publishers behave badly, but among their more lovable habits are dilatoriness, lack of communication, insensitivity, and niggardliness. Let us expand on these.

How many writers have sent off proposals, manuscripts and submissions, only for them to disappear into a time warp? To some publishers, three months is the blink of an eye; six months a yawn; a year, two years, three, an occasional twinge of conscience. To writers these intervals are an eternity. This isn’t simply a question of curiosity, of wanting to know what the verdict is or to satisfy the ego. It is also career-making or breaking. Their work might have a topicality that is lost after a delay of twelve months, and if one publisher doesn’t want it, then there is a chance that another will. Meanwhile, the writer has to eat and pay the rent and nurse that ego.

Without naming the culprits, here are some more specific examples. There was the publisher who dithered for more than a year over the manuscript of a novel. In the end, the writer – quite rightly – lost patience and withdrew the manuscript. There was the editor who hung on to a submission for months, and then rejected it without returning the manuscript, claiming that it had been passed round the office so much that it was “in an unfit condition to return”. (You have to wonder what offensive comments had been scrawled on it!) There was the publisher who was so half-hearted about a forthcoming book they didn’t even bother to include it in their catalogue. And there was the publisher who published a book, made money out of it and never communicated with the author again, let alone paid a royalty.

Now we know that publishers have their own problems and imperatives. We certainly don’t want to hound them unnecessarily. We don’t want to pressure them into publishing bad or unprofitable work. Nor do we want – in this context, anyway – to try and secure better contractual terms for writers. But we do believe that there is at least one common decency that publishers can observe, and that is to follow the “three-month rule”. It’s quite simple. It says that publishers and editors must make some kind of response within three months of receiving a submission. If they don’t want the work, then they should reject it within that time. If they’re interested, but need to make further investigations, then they should let the author know within that time. The response doesn’t need to take the form of a treatise: a quick postcard will do – and just what is so difficult about that?

If publishers follow this rule – and we at New Zealand Books will now endeavour to do so – rejected writers will be able to move more quickly on to another publisher, another project, even, if they’re demoralised enough, another career. And, who knows, after the inevitable initial bitterness and disappointment, they might come to understand publishers a little better.


Bill Sewell & Harry Ricketts


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