For those who enjoy sadomasochism combined with classical dance, may I recommend The Private Lesson, in the repertoire of the Joffrey and Royal Danish Ballets. The piece is based on a Eugene Ionesco play, La Lecon, in which a brutish, middle-aged teacher’s private lesson for an 18-year-old ballerina spirals painfully downward into an emotionally battering and physically crippling humiliation that leaves the young dancer limping offstage.
Most harrowing of all, the last thing you see before the curtain falls is another idealistic, impressionable 18-year-old ballerina, ready for her lesson, ringing the ballet teacher’s door.
Ionesco championed the theater of the absurd, so he would easily relate to the experiences of first-time authors at the hands of the New York publishing industry. They sound a lot like the ballet he inspired.
One might think that new authors with their first book deals would receive, if not outright lionization, at least faint praise.
One would be wrong.
The first sign that the publishing industry has little regard for newcomers is the miniscule or even non-existent advances on offer today. I’ve seen celebrities and CEOs whose names you would recognize offered from zero to $5,000 for their books and I’ve seen them take those deals.
Advances once were intended to allow authors to cover their (admittedly meager) life expenses while writing their books. Today, no such fig leaf exists. An advance is simply the lowest amount of money publishers can offer an author without their faces turning red from sheer shame. Never have so many publishers paid so little to so many.
The zero or minimal advance ought to be the first sign that you don’t matter to New York. The second is that they will divide up your tiny advance into as many slivers as possible and delay payment for as long as possible. Typically, you get a percentage of your advance on signing your agreement; another percentage when you turn in the complete draft; and yet another when the book actually appears (as long as you or your agent actually remember to request that final payment; they hope you’ll forget).
The next insult occurs when you don’t get your contract practically until the date your manuscript is due. Publishers’ attorneys are either the most backed-up or the laziest creatures in that entire miserable profession (I can make as much fun of lawyers as I want because I am one). There is nothing simpler for a publishing attorney to do than produce a book contract. All they have to do is type in Name of Author, Name of Book, and the schedule of payments, which are so puny that most attorneys could do the math on their fingers and occasionally their toes. And yet it typically takes a publisher six to eight weeks to generate one of these babies.
Why? Because the longer they hold on to the contract, the longer they can hold on to the author’s money. The author, of course, is still obligated to get busy writing, but the publisher has no contractual obligation to get busy paying.
Once the contract finally arrives, the deadline for completion of the book is so close that seeking to negotiate terms could end up scuttling the whole project. All that work, and hope, down the drain. So the author sighs and signs. And then more weeks go by before even the first modest payment occurs.
The publisher has now made a down payment on a book and gets to see most or all of the author’s work before having to make the second installment. If the publisher is unhappy, the author is screwed. If the editor quits or is downsized, as happens with increasing frequency, the book becomes an “orphan” book that no one else in the publishing house will care about. The author is screwed again.
But not screwed nearly as badly as when the book comes out and fails to sell, because the publisher expects the author to do all of the marketing. Not some; all. At that point, the first time author is viewed as a publishing failure with her miserable numbers for all to view, and snicker at, on Bookscan. The author feels burned and her publishing career is stillborn. No one else will touch her. Yet the publisher, like the ballet master, moves on.
What’s that we see outside the publisher’s door? Why, it’s another first time author, just as hopeful and excited as the next ballerina in the Ionesco-inspired ballet mentioned above. Brutalization, followed by a swift kick to the curb? It couldn’t happen to me, the new author says, ringing the doorbell. But it will. Oh, yes. It most certainly will.
New York Times best selling author and Shark Tank contestant Michael Levin runs BusinessGhost, Inc., America’s leading provider of ghostwritten books.