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Prime, the Spin

Now, here's something I find interesting.

Over the last few weeks, Michael Cisco's comments about Prime have earned him, I'm sure, a share of hassle and a share of praise, but what I haven't seen is the full spin of his statements yet. It was bound to come, of course: a business that receives a public bashing will have to install damage control. To an extend, Sean Wallace's public apology begins that. It's difficult to do anything with that apology, because it admits, first off, an error, and then continues, explaining how changes are under way, and that things will change. If it does or it doesn't, time will tell, but what the apology does is make is an prolonged debate impossible. It shuts it down. It was a smart move by Wallace, especially given that we have seen, throughout blog wars, what happens when one individual or company does no admit fault, and tries to justify its neglectful behaviour.

However, this post on mediabistro caught my attention, because it is the start of damage control:

Dark fantasy writer Michael Cisco broke radio silence on his blog last month to complain about his experiences with Prime Books, an independent publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction, starting with the fact that he hasn't gotten any royalties from his last novel, The Traitor. "Eagle-eyed vigilance in following the [Amazon.com sales rank," he writes, "especially following selection by [Jeff] VanderMeer for the top 10 fantasy books [of 2007], and a glowing review from Nick Mamatas, gives me reason to believe at least 500 books have been sold just at that venue."

"I am very sorry that we have, in Michael Cisco's eyes, failed him," Prime executive editor Sean Wallace emailed when I contacted him about Cisco's allegations. "And he makes one point that I will concede: We want to improve our ongoing communications with our authors. I hope Michael will allow us to do so in his case. What I must dispute is that Michael has been cheated. He has not. Our royalty statements are accurate and truthful and easily verified. He has now seen his statement and knows that his royalty payment is accurate. It would be unprofessional for us to share these figures in public and I am sure Michael would agree." (Rudimentary numbers are, of course, readily available through Nielsen Bookscan; I will merely note that Cisco's estimation of his sales was grossly inflated.)

But what about Cisco's other allegations about a lack of transparency, a failure to follow through on marketing commitments, and a haphazard-at-best approach to promotion? Well, as the ensuing commentary to his post revealed, those complaints aren't unique in publishing. After Cisco said he was convinced Prime was trying to sign up "authors they believe are already being talked about precisely to as to avoid having to do publicity," Poppy Z. Brite said she had an "almost identical" experience doing business on a much larger scale when she published three novels with Crown.

So did Prime deserve to be raked over the coals publicly by one of its authors—not to mention his final advice to other writers: "Try elsewhere! Don't the same mistakes I did!" Wallace admitted that the press had made mistakes along the way, including falling behind schedule on some titles, but "we are always striving to be a better company," he said. (As another author told me, "Prime has screwed up on occasion, but no more than any other small press does.") "I'd like to invite all of our authors to contact us directly," Wallace continued, "with feedback and suggestions about what, in their view, we might be doing better for them. We are listening." It's a diplomatic response that leaves an opportunity to move forward, unlike Cisco's remarks, which are likely to come across as bitter rather than older-but-wiser.

What is interesting is to note the emphasis on Cisco's incorrect guess at his sales at the start of the piece, and which are followed by Wallace's PR spun statements that carefully place him in the almost wronged seat, in the impression of a long suffering publisher dealing with cranky talent. To the goal, he tells you that he is trying to do better, that his open to suggestions and feedback, while Cisco--seemingly uncontacted by the author of the piece--is frothing at the mouth, telling writers to BEWARE! to HIDE! to LISTEN! and which is even, at the end, called bitter. Even Poppy Z Brite's short comment on Cisco's blog is spun within the article to give Cisco the appearance of someone who doesn't know what he is talking about. After all, she's had the same experience with larger publishers. Publishers suck, obviously, and there's nothing special about what has happened here. Brite's full comment, however, begins by quoting Cisco, "Prime's idea of publicity is sticking your book under a rock and informing the wind. You will have to do absolutely everything yourself. Blurbs, getting your text to reviewers, everything. Prime takes authors they believe are already being talked about precisely to as to avoid having to do publicity. I firmly believe Prime's neglect helped to scuttle my last TWO novels," and then says, "That sucks ... and, unfortunately, my experience with Random House was almost identical (except that they stuck three novels under the rock instead of just two), so authors shouldn't assume they can avoid these problems by working with a "major" publisher." The emphasis, as you can see, is a little different than what the article has commented--Brite is hardly pleased, or shrugging it off, or even saying that this is how it is and there's nothing you can do about, suck it up, Cisco.

In addition, the mediabistro piece has done a nice job of ignoring all the comments from authors the came out of Cisco's original post, while allowing for anonymous authors (such a fine species) to speak out in defence, a defence, I might add, that does not argue again that things were not done wrong, but rather that they are no worse than others. But who, anonymous author? Who are these other small presses? Are you someone we know, with a connection to Prime, or are you merely a figment of the poster's imagination, conjured up to make a point that you feel requires no support whatsoever?

Questions, questions.

Now, to be clear, it's not that I believe the same hasn't been done, or that there are worse small presses. There are. Publish America, if I remember the name properly, was a publisher that deserved to get slapped around for its misrepresentation of the publishing scene, and sucking in naive and desperate authors and their money. And, in fact, if you are on the right side of the fence with Prime, you'll do well enough, as Kathy Sedia will attest to, no doubt. However, at the same time, the representation of Cisco as a bitter, and just plain wrong author, angrily bashing his publisher who has admitted to making mistakes, and is sorry they failed him, is not one I believe to be truthful, either. It's spin, either purposeful, or by not having acknowledged all the opinions presented through lack of research.

(Disclaimer: My interest in this arises from the fact that I had a book published by Prime, also. It was not that positive, so take this post, I imagine, with whatever grain of salt you need to take it with.)



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(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Aug. 6th, 2008 10:25 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2008 12:18 am (UTC)
oh, i dunno. i reckon i'm pretty easy to replace ;)

but yeah, there is that attitude. unfortunately, it's an attitude that gets rewarded, because for every prissy, preeny author who demands something, there are dozens waiting in the wings to trample over your corpse to get in the position you are, no matter what it is.
(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Aug. 6th, 2008 11:40 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2008 12:14 am (UTC)
the article is written by 'ron'. as for who reads it... well, i found it, didn't i?
Aug. 6th, 2008 01:39 pm (UTC)
It's interesting to note that not a single person who defends Prime against Cisco's essay says he is wrong about any points he raises (except maybe re: the amount of books sold), but rather simply says Prime has problems no different from any other publisher. As if some kind of "safety in numbers" rule makes it acceptable. Cisco was talking about Prime in his blog entry, and in my opinion to shrug it off that way does no one any good. It's like saying the the government of Myanmar is atrocious and repressive, and then being told, "Ehhh, they're no worse than the dozens of other dictatorships in the world." It unfairly belittles the point one is trying to make. (As for the extremity of the analogy, I'm certainly not likening Prime to the government of Myanmar, just using current world politics to make my point.)
(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Aug. 6th, 2008 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2008 12:17 am (UTC)
yeah, i find that interesting too. but it's not terribly surprising. there's always been an attitude that writers ought to be grateful that publishers take their work, that they can sell, and so forth. the shrug you pick up--and which i do as well--comes from that, i think. the attitude of, 'well, we have the money, we run it our way, and this shit is just there, so you got to deal with it, bro.'

personally, i'm waiting for when authors start leaving publishing houses, much in the way musicians have left major labels.
Aug. 7th, 2008 12:34 am (UTC)
Hmmm, it's a different kind of field. I think authors may need publishers a lot more than musicians need major labels these days. That may change when books become more of an online product, as music as become, but right now it's hard for me to imagine that. I mean, e-books? Right now they're marginal. The Kindle may change that, or it may not. I guess we'll see.
Aug. 7th, 2008 12:27 pm (UTC)
no, i don't think ebooks will change it, but perhaps we're looking at it from different angles. for me, what we've seen in the last ten years is a change in how musicians view their music. the internet is part of it, true, but the real change is in musicians wanting to control their work, from how it is distributed, to how it looks, to what it is, and so forth. to an extent, the music industry has really been changed by a shift in perceptions, where musicians now want to be their own bosses, and not be under the control of executives, advertising, and so forth.

the internet played a role in that, of course, but i think it was inevitable, and i suspect that the same thing could come from authors. take me, for example: if one stage i reach the point where i have the kind of reputation that will allow me to leave publishers, and be in control of the product produced, edited, and distributd, i would. in fact, i would do it now, if not for the way such work is viewed (and a complete lack of resources to do it properly).
(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Aug. 7th, 2008 01:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Aug. 7th, 2008 01:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2008 06:17 pm (UTC)
One other thing the publisher provides, of course, is the imprint itself. That is, the publisher's name. That matters less to some readers I'm sure, but it matters when it comes to things like getting reviewed in bigger venues.

Sure, writers can form their own "publishing houses" and publish under that imprint, but they still carry the scent of Vanity Publishing. And for now at least, Vanity Publishing has a whole different meaning in books from what it's equivalent has in music, you know?

(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Aug. 7th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 7th, 2008 11:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Brendan.

I try to emphasize the allies aspect of the relationship.

And you make a good point about advocacy. I've done several first books now and I think advocating for new writers is very important. I *hope* that the good will I generate via Polyphony, e.g., means that someone is more likely to give Ben or Josh Rountree a go when I publish their first books. If we're all doing things well, then it works!
(no subject) - brendanconnell.wordpress.com - Aug. 8th, 2008 06:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 13th, 2008 08:00 am (UTC)
I just stumbled onto this. I had sold the print rights of my collection, "In the Darkness, Hunting" to Wildside. In the four years that they had the book it sold only twenty copies. On the other hand, the ebook version, sold to Renebooks, did over 100 copies in the first month and kept selling.
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