A study of about 80 authors who have been published by the nation's largest publishers confirms the often quoted—and vaguely articulated—belief that authors are not satisfied with levels of marketing and, to a lesser degree, editing that their books are receiving. The study, conducted by the National Writers Union and unveiled at the National Press Club in Washington on November 8, asked authors published by Penguin Putnam, Houghton Mifflin, Random House, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster to assess the performance of their publishers.
The results left those running the survey unpleasantly surprised. "Most of the complaints we hear usually come from smaller authors and mid-sized houses," said the study's designer, Gerard Colby, who oversees the NWU's book division. "It was unusual to see that there was concern about the bellwether firms not performing their contractual obligations. It was a dismal result." Colby noted, however, that the survey was meant to root out areas of concern. "It's an organizing survey, not a poll," he said. "We were looking for problems."
Respondents were given categories and a checklist; they were asked to check off applicable observations about how their publishers' did business with them. The biggest complaint came in the area of promotion, with many authors saying they felt that publishers did not live up to promises made in catalogues and contracts. Marketing personnel, respondents added, were often inaccessible, and promotional efforts were abandoned far more quickly than they felt comfortable with, sometimes in as little as two weeks.
Authors tended to be most sanguine about production, but were often of two minds on the question of editors. While most were happy with the level of guidance and attention they received, they were frustrated by what they said was the high turnover rate among editors. On this, Colby noted that S&S elicited the poorest marks, which he said surprised him, "because they don't have a reputation for that." An S&S spokesperson said that he hadn't seen the study and couldn't comment directly, but stressed that S&S was committed to "taking care of the well-being of our authors."
Publishers and others in the industry warned that the results had to be taken in context. As an activist organization, the NWU was hardly objective, they said, and the people who respond to these surveys tend to come disproportionately from the ranks of the curmudgeonly.
One of the unusual conclusions that emerged from the study was that authors felt publishers should be releasing fewer books, a position that the NWU said it may soon endorse. "There are a lot of authors who feel there are too many books being published, that the publishing industry is losing its historic mission," Colby said.
Precisely how the NWU will use the study remained unclear. Colby said the group was coordinating results with its grievance department and was working "to open a dialogue" with authors and publishers. He added that the group might use the study to urge publishers to more strongly enforce promises. " [We want to convey to publishers] that to publish a book is not just to print a book," he said.