Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to Complain About Your Publisher in Public

In terms of freedom of speech, which I support in every form: complain any way you want.

In terms of smart career advice and behaving like a professional: DON'T.

In the many comments about the Magic Under Glass cover, a few people have wondered about the author's relative quiet. It seems there are two very different questions, though:

Some people seem to be asking "Why wasn't the author the very first to object publicly to the cover?"

When you, as an author, form a professional business relationship with a publisher (ie, contracts, signatures, money changing hands), the publisher expects you to act professionally. What that means is that in most cases, you should take a 'no comment' approach to the publisher's mistakes, in the same way that the publisher will take a 'no comment' approach to your mistakes, if you make any.

If a newspaper article runs about the time you accidentally showed up at your job clothed only in tequila, your publisher will not be happy. But to the public, its response will be 'no comment'. You are its business partner, and short of canceling your contract, that's not going to change. So your publisher realizes that if it became one of the people publicly objecting to your behavior, that would not help the situation. At all.

And the same goes in reverse. I would say that the only time it would be smart to publicly distance yourself from your publisher is when/if it has done something that will cause continuing public outrage and bad feeling even after it makes an attempt to mitigate its mistake. You may have noticed that much of the outrage and consternation about the cover is dying down now that Bloomsbury has capitulated. This was not one of those times.

So while I, like you, am curious what the author's personal feelings about all this are, I don't feel she should have felt any pressure to share them with the world.

If your publisher does something so outrageously offensive or stupid that other publishers (the other publishers you would be going to if your current publisher relationship soured) want to distance themselves from it publicly, then THAT is your invitation to excoriate your publisher on your blog and twitter and to burn them in effigy on your front lawn. Not before.

And you should take comfort in knowing that unless you decide to start habitually showing up for school visits clothed only in tequila, your publisher will let you deal with your mistakes your way.

But some seem to be asking, "If the author has no problem with her cover (if in fact that's so, and she's not just being discrete), what gives other people the right to find it objectionable / racist?"

Excuse me? The author is not the arbiter of what cover matches her text when there is an obvious contradiction. No one, absolutely no one, would describe the model on the cover as "dark-skinned", which is how the author described her main character.

One of the problems we have with racism today is that a fair number of people think that racism can only be deliberate. As in, it doesn't matter if something you say or do is racist. If you didn't mean it to be racist, then it's not.
For the record, and I hope we're all really listening: THAT IS INCORRECT.

And also for the record: those of us who objected to the cover were not objecting on the author's behalf. We were objecting on the readers' behalf. And especially on the minority readers' behalf, because some of us understand how excruciating and demoralizing it is to children to be made to feel that they are the wrong color. This is a question completely outside of the author's participation or non-participation. No matter who approved or disapproved that cover, no matter what was meant or not meant, that cover on this book was wrong.


Sam Hranac said...

Well said. And, so true about complaining. I'm sure the author was working WITH the publisher to help repair the situation. But complaining is antagonistic. It assumes a position on the other side.


I just typed and removed a paragraph suggesting my hopes that racism was not involved. I just couldn't support it. I hope the publisher settles things with an explanation and better practices in the future.

The Storylady said...

I can't help but wonder if the author spoke up to the publisher before the book hit the shelves. Would she have seen the artwork before it was final? Would most publishers have listened to her when she pointed out the obvious?

Andrew Rosenberg said...

According to news reports they've pulled the book and will re-print it.
Here's Jaclyn Dolamore's statement on the whole thing:

Seems like she's a go-with-the-flow kind of person.

L Hewitt said...

Thank you so much for posting this. If I were in Jaclyn's shoes, I'd keep my mouth shut and just be excited to have my name on a book. It is good that people are discussing the issue, but don't fault the author.

Steve MC said...

Well said.

Linda said...

Yes! Thanks, EA, for making clear what racism is.

MAGolla said...

Years ago while I was at the bar during an RWA conference, a disgruntled author was making the rounds asking everyone their opinion about her cover. The cover featured a mid-section of a woman, but definitely 20ish. Author was upset because the character was in her 40's.
Years later, I still haven't bought this author's books because the whole thing bothered me. She had an agent that I would give my eye-teeth for and she should have kept her unhappiness between her agent and herself, not share it with everyone at a bar.
I found out later that this woman was a professional journalist prior to being a published author. Go figure.

Emma Michaels said...

Great post! I completely agree. This isn't about what the author has or has not done in regards to the cover because she is the one who gave us the amazing book that makes us so upset that the cover doesn't do it justice. It is about how a reader feels when they see a good they want to read because they feel a likeness to the main character only to see that even the cover refuses to accept that likeness. I don't care whose mistake it was I am just happy it is being fixed.

Anonymous said...

EA, I would like to know what you think of NUMBNUTS sharing their royalty statements on their blogs. I, as I've perhaps already revealed, think they are NUMBNUTS for doing this.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I hope when my book is published that my publisher screws up the cover so badly that it generates this level of press.
I guess I should start recoloring my characters now.
The author must be reveling in this attention. Why complain??

Eilonwy said...

The only difficulty with EA's clear description of a professional business relationship is that it leaves out the fact that the author has a different sort of a professional relationship with the reading public. And most readers do not, unfortunately, realize how little control the author has over design and marketing decisions. An author is liable to be held responsible for the cover of his or her book by most people who view it.

An author who doesn't like the cover selected for a book--especially if the grounds have shifted from the aesthetic to the moral--is in a tight corner. He or she risks losing a relationship with the public who may be holding him or her responsible for the moral travesty.

Sure, to begin with, the author should take any disgruntlement to an agent and editor rather than the public, but once that has failed, the author has, to my mind, some responsibility to speak up about something as important as racism.

If we entirely excuse an author from speaking up because of a business relationship, we are in effect saying that financial well-being trumps moral well-being.

Perhaps Dolamore is a model author who has spoken clearly and vociferously behind the scenes and thus is behaving in the best way possible. I have no way of knowing. I'm happy that Bloomsbury has acknowledged the problem, but I'm not entirely happy with EA's use of a professional relationship as a cover for ignoring a moral problem.

"No comment" is a good comment only for the time it takes for the publisher to reach a new decision. If the publisher is not willing to own up to an error, "no comment" runs the risk of becoming collusion with that error.

Unknown said...

Great post. Very well put.

Editorial Anonymous said...

"No comment" is a good comment only for the time it takes for the publisher to reach a new decision. If the publisher is not willing to own up to an error, "no comment" runs the risk of becoming collusion with that error.

I agree with you, Eilonwy.

But I'm glad that in this case the publisher did own up, and that situation was sidestepped, because I wouldn't wish such a fix on any author.

Anonymous said...

This has been discussed before, but it bears repeating. The author *did* make some small commentary about the cover before this thing exploded:

"My cover was already made before the LIAR controversy, of course... It would be nice to see a darker girl on the paperback...the hair, particularly...Nimira's hair is her best feature! Although I love that dress. =( It will be nice when the industry straightens this out. Ever since Liar I've noticed a lot of books with white girls on the cover and non-white girls in the pages..."

Even that little statement was risky, and who knows what the fallout with her publisher was just over something so innocuous?

There is also the fact that her own official trailer and art depict the protagonist as a woman of color. And while the author talks about how she likes the mood of the cover, clothing, and lighting, NO WHERE does she say she approves the model (believe me, I've looked). Some may see that as a small thing, but I personally think it speaks volumes.

So, just because she didn't get into a public bloodbath over the cover, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt as her actions (spending years writing a PoC lead in the first place comes to mind) and what that she never states her approval of the model come to mind. Indeed, a look at her art page reveals an early version of the story from years ago with a different romantic lead, but even then, the PoC protagonist is depicted with dark skin.

Lapetus, while I can appreciate some cynicism here and there, I doubt that the author is "reveling" in this attention.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you, thank you for the second part of this post.

A friend of mine made a similar point after a fraternity on her campus dressed up in black face (!) and then insisted they didn't mean to be racist. Defining racism by intentions leaves it up to the perpetrators to define what's racist, instead of focusing on how people of color are affected.

It seems especially insidious when the affected are children, and the medium is something that's meant to expand kids' lives.

MotherReader said...

"those of us who objected to the cover were not objecting on the author's behalf. We were objecting on the readers' behalf."

Thank you for that very intelligent sentence that sums up a very important point. I could easily see why a first-author would not be at the forefront of a fight about her own book. People already forget that the first word on the Liar cover wasn't from the author - it was only when a statement had to be made that she broke her professional silence to lend her opinion. It also was different in that the entire interpretation of the book changed for Liar with a different cover, which gave the author reason to defend her writing and vision, as opposed to complaining about a cover art choice that wasn't in her control.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, I'm so glad that you took this perspective and stuck up for the author's professionalism!

The reality of book cover designs is that there are many talented people with input behind-the-scenes, adding different perspectives that might not be "exactly what the author envisioned". Usually it's almost always better for an author to trust those people's instincts, and increase a sense of trust in their relationship with the publisher, than to cause a public stink.

In this case, Bloomsbury can take all the flak, and Jaclyn Dolamore stays classy.

Larissa said...

Awesome post, EA.

It is also worth mentioning that this was Jaclyn's debut, and that she has a sequel and a companion book coming out with the same publisher. (I do know her personally.)

MissA said...

Excellent post. It wasn't about the author's response to the cover controversary it was aobut the reader's response and the message Bloomsbury and other publishing companies send through whitewashed covers. Humph, Bloomsbury's statement was ok. I'm glad they're changing the cover but they need to explain why the keep doing this!

Anonymous said...

Mmmm. I wrote a second series with a biracial protagonist. I told my publisher, repeatedly, that I would be very upset if a pasty white person (such as myself) ended up on the cover. I embrace diversity, and I'm highly pissed off by prejudice of any sort--especially in a field that claims to be seeking out diversity in authors and characters. Still, I knew being a middle of the road author, I had no say whatsoever in the final product. And had the protagonist ended up white as Cool Whip, there wouldn't have been a thing I could've done about it...nor was the book high profile enough to raise ire in the readers if it had turned out that way. Luckily, the cover model wasn't white...she wasn't what I'd written, but she wasn't white. So, I took my half victory and counted myself lucky. I have discovered though if you do not dig your heels in over something at least once, your publisher will ride over you and never look twice at your twitching body in the rearview mirror. In the end, I know not to bitch wholeheartedly at what has been visited like the wrath of God down on me...but sometimes you have to comment on at least the little utterly insane things that they do. Or you'll lose your ever-loving mind.

Anonymous said...

This post still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's one thing to keep quiet when your publisher makes some kind of personal mistake. Like an author showing up to work drunk--that is a "mistake" sure, but it affects only the author and is not exactly morally reprehensible so much as simply bad PR. But whitewashing is more than bad PR--it's racist.

Keeping quiet because you want to be "professional" and maintain your contract with the publishing house says "it's ok to ignore racism when it's professionally profitable for me to do so." Which is exactly the attitude that causes cover white washing in the first place--the author doesn't want to speak up because they don't want the publisher to cast them loose and lose their contract and money, and the publisher doesn't want to put black people on covers because they think it's less profitable and will lose them money.

Racism is not the same as simply being "unprofessional." It's NOT OK to keep quiet about it because you don't want to be personally inconvenienced.

Now, if you mean that an author should keep quiet publicly while trying to straighten the matter out (vocally, strongly, using as much leverage as they can muster) behind the scenes--then I agree. But only then. If they're not doing that--if they're just keeping mum as it goes to press and are just maybe hoping someone else says something--then their silence is condoning the practice, then they are becoming collaborative in it.

It is certainly the author's right then not to say anything publicly, but it is then my right to judge them as a coward who cared for their bottom like more than for their principles.

Barry Eisler said...

Hi EA, I'd say there are a lot of reasons an author might not want to publicly distance herself from a publisher's screwup. Some of those reasons we might classify as professionalism. But just as I think it's overly broad to argue silence=professionalism, I also think it's too broad to argue that speaking out=unprofessional. More likely, it depends on the facts at hand.

And regardless of the facts at hand, a publishing deal isn't a nondisclosure agreement. If speaking out vs silence isn't a matter of contract but rather one of the spirit of partnership, doesn't the spirit of partnership include also an implicit expectation of real consultation and publisher competence in their presumed areas of expertise? And if the publisher violates the implicit expectation of consultation and competence, why would we expect the author to continue to be bound by an implicit expectation of silence?

In this regard, I'm not persuaded by the tequila example. An author's public drunkenness reflects on her publisher only tangentially, if at all. Likewise, if my editor does some boorish thing in public, it's no reflection on me and there's no use in my commenting on it. A quite different dynamic -- involving different expectations and different responsibilities -- ensues when a publisher puts out a book with the author's name on the front cover.

I'll say this: if any of my publishers would give me complete control over the packaging of my books, I would have no trouble at all with them complaining publicly about my decisions. If publishers insist on maintaining such control themselves, it doesn't seem fair for them to also require silence in the face of their mistakes.

Actually, I don't think fairness is really the primary issue here -- nor, generally, do I think the primary issue is professionalism. I think the primary issue is self-interest, on the one hand, vs concern for one's fellow authors and the fortunes of the book business generally, on the other. It may make good business sense for any given author to remain silent and cause no offense no matter how badly his publisher screws up a book's packaging, placement, or promotion. But in the aggregate, such self-centered decisions hurt everyone. If more authors spoke out more often, publishing overall would be enjoying better health. And if we authors don't call publishers on their shortcomings, then like someone covering for a family member's drug dependency, we enable the continued shortcomings and make ourselves complicit.

I'm no paragon of speaking out, by the way; many times, I confess, I've bitten my tongue out of self-interest when one of my publishers has done some stupid or lazy thing. But I have -- I hope respectfully and constructively -- spoken out from time to time, and if doing so has cost me anything personally, knowing that I've helped someone else in some small way, maybe even helped the industry generally, has been a nice offset. In this regard, on Tuesday I have a guest piece running in Dear Author detailing an ill-conceived move one of my publishers insists on continuing. The publisher might be irritated, but perhaps they'll also be shocked or embarrassed into improving their performance. Regardless, others might learn from this publisher's mistake and from my prescription for how to fix it.

Publishers aren't very good at the business they're in -- which is why they're in so much trouble. They need our help, and sometimes that help will come in the form of a specific, public critique of their performance. For this reason, I can't support a code of silence, whether driven by what I think is a misplaced sense of professionalism or by anything else.

working illustrator said...

EA said: And also for the record: those of us who objected to the cover were not objecting on the author's behalf. We were objecting on the readers' behalf. And especially on the minority readers' behalf, because some of us understand how excruciating and demoralizing it is to children to be made to feel that they are the wrong color.

I do my share of disagreeing around here, but I'm on board for this statement one hundred percent.

Anonymous said...

"Now, if you mean that an author should keep quiet publicly while trying to straighten the matter out (vocally, strongly, using as much leverage as they can muster) behind the scenes--then I agree. But only then."

While this is true, none of us will likely ever know what happened behind the scenes in this situation. Unfortunately, people will often *assume* that because there wasn't a big public blowup, that they can judge the author on the actions on public actions alone.

We will never know what happened between author and publisher (due to the professionalism described in the post), but I think that the little hints described in other entries (the xicanti quote, the art, the lack of endorsement of the cover model) shows that this author wasn't as passive as some may believe, and truly did care about her creation.

But again, this is all pointless assumption. I just find it interesting that the cover was changed less than 24 hours after her statement. A statement that on the surface may not have been as publicly bloody as some wanted, but in private, may have had larger ramifications...

Thermocline said...

If you didn't mean it to be racist, then it's not.

Great line. That point is so often overlooked in many debates about racism.

Helen Hollick said...

I did not see the cover so cannor comment on that, but I did have an awful cover for my first novel, years ago now. Badly drawn, totally out of phase with the story and my characters etc. I bitterly complained to the publisher who told me it had to stay because "the bookclubs like a woman on the cover" (!?) As the book was supposed to be only for said bookclubs I let the matter go, muttering "Well I hope I just never see the darn thing."

To my horror they then decided to use it for the general paperback edition as well. Thank goodness, about a year later someone saw sense and agreed with me that the wretched thing was dreadful & produced a much better cover. Annoyingly, "the purple puke" as I called it is still around on e-bay, 2nd hand etc.
Thankfully, my present publishers have produced fantastic covers for me!

I think publishers listen a lot more to their authors now - or is it that I have gained confidence in myself and I am able to put my foot down? (In _private_!)

Re complaining in public about a publisher: Funny how the authors who moan and whinge often seem to be the ones whose books are not selling, the authors who do nothing to market their books for themselves, who have never heard of the word loyalty.... and seem to want everythng served on a plate.

Elizabeth said...

Thermocline: I think EA was disagreeing with that view of racism. My favorite thing about her post was the point that ignorantly non-racist intentions do not constitute a Get Out of Accusations of Racism Free Card when racism has occurred.

Anonymous said...


I know my publisher would have listened to such a concern, because they did, when I said I was worried about how a black character looked on the cover.

Bloomsbury seems to be a special case.

Anonymous said...

To step beyond the racism issue and discuss truth in cover art... fantasy/SF and romance have suffered for years from covers that often bear little or no relation to their storylines and/or characters; the covers were there just to attract someone enough to make them pick the book up and read the cover blurb. Pure advertising, in other words. Is children's publishing different? Should it be?

Núria Coe said...


Rachel said...

Excellent commentary on a clearly VERY hot topic. Thank you.

TK Roxborogh said...

Why I love my editor:

If I post something on my blog that is perhaps less than helpful/politically correct/not a good move, she will txt me with: okay, now you've had your say, get it off the blog. We don't write things like that.

I say again: I love my editor.

Anonymous said...

No one seems to be wondering if Bloomsbury did this intentionally. I'm wondering if the sales for 'Liar' were so good they decided it was worth creating some accidental *controversy* a second time round?

mallard said...

Great post and great answers. What bothers me about your original post, EA, is the suggestion that business trumps morality. I understand what you're saying has practical merit, especially for the author. Still I can't help thinking that mode of thought is what led Bloomsbury to try to use a racist cover to begin with.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I don't believe business trumps morality. I believe the difference between good people and bad people is that bad people think that ends justify means, and good people know that's just not true.

But I do defend the author's right not to speak out on this issue. Those authors who, in Jaclyn's position, would want to speak out about it would be welcome to, from a moral standpoint, and they could let the chips fall where they may.

It's also possible that in Jaclyn's position, and knowing what DID happen behind the scenes, an author might choose not to speak publicly about it, and not for reasons of prejudice OR cowardice. I hope you can understand that.

I also happen to know enough about what went on behind the scenes to know that Bloomsbury did NOT do this as a publicity stunt.

Anonymous said...

"...I also happen to know enough about what went on behind the scenes to know that Bloomsbury did NOT do this as a publicity stunt..."

Not to beat a dead horse, as the situation is being rectified, but I think for those of us who were speculating (myself included, of course) had known you had inside information to begin with, then we wouldn't have had so many previous comments in which we all took turns playing devil's advocate (i.e., maybe the author hates/loves the cover, maybe the agent/editor did/didn't speak up, maybe the pub is racist/are idiots/doesn't give a shit... maybe this/that/and the other).

If you're coming from a place of inside knowledge, well, then that is framing your assertions, which are naturally going to be accurate or at least more accurate than the rest of ours.

And, yes, I stand corrected. In a previous post I was one of the comments that felt bad for the author and stated if she loved the cover shouldn't we leave well enough alone. I said that as someone who didn't want a controversy to cloud what should've been her happy book release. I do realize that readers can protest a cover without bullying the author -- but at the time it seemed like the author was being pushed into a corner (and expected to publicly skewer her publisher) possibly to the detrement of her career.

susan said...

We were objecting on the readers' behalf. And especially on the minority readers' behalf, because some of us understand how excruciating and demoralizing it is to children to be made to feel that they are the wrong color.

Why was this lost on some bloggers? It quick and passionately readers defended the author but did not seem to remember Ari's point about what it means to be POC and not see your face.

I know others have quoted the same lines but this didn't seem to be obvious at the time and I don't want readers to forget it.

Thank your for the article and for linking to RAWW.

Anonymous said...

Well, hopefully a lesson has been learned and the reader's best interest, especially the younger one, will remain at the center of the preoccupation and business decisions, cover related or not.

Katherine Langrish said...

Excellent post, and - may i say - an impressively balanced and reasoned set of comments.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. It will give me something to link to next time a commenter complains that the author should speak up about his/her own cover.
I've had a hard time understanding that sentiment in these unfortunate cover whitewashing cases (and I'm pessimistic enough to be sure there will be more to come). But I appreciate the conversation on both sides, here. said...

One of the problems we have with racism today is that a fair number of people think that racism can only be deliberate. As in, it doesn't matter if something you say or do is racist. If you didn't mean it to be racist, then it's not. For the record, and I hope we're all really listening: THAT IS INCORRECT.

This is an exceptionally hard lesson to learn. And an important one.

Anonymous said...

How does it help the situation by Not complaining? That means stuff it inside and give up?
My Print On Demand publisher has been manipulating me for 5 months with threats of charging when I find errors in their work, to bully comments that it will take much, much longer to release the book if I don't approve of the book as is!
There must be a way to resolve these issues, but how if I don't complain to someone, somewhere to work on a resolution.

Unknown said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. no problem no life, no matter did not learn, so enjoy it :)

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