Bookish Diversions: Publishing Troubles
Suicide Review-Bomber, Badreads, Literary Larceny, Publishing’s Future, More
¶ Suicide review-bomber. It’s hard enough making it as an author today without engaging in headline-worthy self-sabotage. The novelist-as-career option is, for instance, unrealistic for most writers; it’s tricky just getting a book deal. So when an author misbehaves egregiously enough to torpedo both their agent relationship and cherished publishing contract, we can only marvel.
Enter debut sci-fi fantasy author Cait Corrain, who used eight different aliases to review-bomb fellow first-time authors on Goodreads. When caught, Corrain initially blamed the skullduggery on a friend—who, it turns out, didn’t exist. Finally fessing up, Corrain attributed her bad judgment and slow admission to a mental breakdown and substance abuse.
By then her publisher had justifiably canceled her book deal and her agent dropped her as a client. Some of the authors she attacked were signed with her own publisher.
“It was just my fear of how my book would be received running out of control,” Corrain said. The fear is relatable; it’s challenging making it as a debut author. Of course, it’s even harder when you blow up your chance trying to skunk other authors facing the same challenge.
¶ Literary larceny. Between 2006 and 2022, high-power writing collaborator Kristin Loberg researched and penned almost three books a year—forty-five in all—many of which became bestsellers. The only problem? In just one of those books the Los Angeles Times spotted ninety-five separate instances of plagiarism. It wasn’t an outlier.
Loberg left a long, scorched trail of word-for-word copying, unattributed borrowing, and uncited sources, such that anyone who’s ever worked with her has spent the last many months trying to determine how much of their work was spoiled by hers. Effected books have been quietly scrubbed and rereleased by publishers, hoping to diminish the damage.
When I was at Thomas Nelson I had an author who plagiarized multiple sections of a book. We pulled it from the market, but not before I challenged him on it in my office. He was in town for meetings and asked to see me. Since the issue had only just come up, I quickly said yes and then prepared for the encounter. I printed off pages of the stolen material, and highlighted all the correspondences in the printouts and the book, dog-earing the pages to facilitate quick comparisons.
When he arrived I greeted him, brushed off his reason for meeting, and said I had something to show him first. With the two of us sitting together at my desk, I shuffled through all the highlighted pages one at a time, mentioning a filched phrase or two as I went.
“I don’t suppose I could say anything that would exonerate me,” he said when I finished, “could I?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, then, I guess that’s that,” he said and walked out of my office.
I canceled the contract and pulled the book. I can imagine what Loberg’s publishers are thinking—I’ve been there—though I’ll admit their situation is decidedly worse since it affects so many more books, and so many prominent books at that. No way around the verdict: It stinks for everyone, especially the authors and publishers who trusted her.
¶ Rotten in the state of research. Two hugely popular social scientists have been accused of faking data. I’ve never closely followed Dan Ariely’s work, but I have followed Francesca Gino’s. This New Yorker piece lays out the details, including the biggest irony of all: Ariely and Gino specialized in the study of dishonesty.
“We were, like, Holy sh*t, there are two different people independently faking data on the same paper,” said one researcher validating Ariely and Gino’s work. “And it’s a paper about dishonesty.”
¶ The cost of consolidation. “Between 1986 and 1996,” according to a New Republic review of Dan Sinykin‘s Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, “63 of the 100 bestselling books in the country were written by just six people: Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Danielle Steel. Astonishingly, five of those six continue to dominate bestseller lists to this day.”
Sinykin’s history has garnered a lot of attention since its release in October. The New Yorker engages with its thesis here. The gist of the story? In the second half of the twentieth century, publishing went from an industry of mostly family-run businesses to a cluster of a few corporate conglomerates, radically altering the work of authors, editors, publishers, publicists, marketers, and sales staff along the way.
The downside? According to Sinykin—or at least these readers of Sinykin—less interesting books, particularly fiction. The reason? Having added gobs of cost to the business model, publishers require safe bets to ensure their investment of scarce resources, which leads to homogenization. When you see a stat like “63 of the 100 bestselling books,” it sounds plausible. But there’s more to the story.
Tax laws played a role, as New York Times reporter Roger Rosenblatt explained, providing the impetus for family-held publishing firms to go public in the first place. “As the families of publishing were getting older, the new laws put great pressure on them,” said Rosenblatt. “To hold on to their money, rather than see it eaten up by inheritance taxes, the families had to take their businesses public. Once that happened, the whole scope and definition of publishing began to change.” I cover that part of the story here.
Another wrinkle: Most of Kristin Loberg‘s books were with the Big Five Publishers. Since her work was largely advertised by word-of-mouth recommendation, did conglomeration help her tainted work spread further than it otherwise would have? Contagions move faster in tight networks.
¶ Burnin’ down the house. The corporate giants typically organize themselves by imprints—smaller teams responsible for filling their frontlist (new books) and curating the backlist (the older, reliable sellers). You can see a helpful visualization of the various imprints of the Big Five—
Penguin Random House
Simon & Schuster
—here. But what happens when an imprint underperforms? If an imprint fails to reliably contribute to the bottom line, it can expect to be shuttered eventually, and its team either let go or folded into another imprint. In this piece, industry watcher Jane Friedman takes a helpful look at why imprints close and what effect it has on the authors signed to that imprint.
¶ Look into my crystal ball. Actually, it’s not mine. Studying an industry in perpetual flux, Esquire’s Kate Dwyer recently made six predictions about publishing. Here’s my take on three.
“It’ll be even harder to launch debut fiction.” Doubly so if your name is Cait Corrain. The reason? Getting enough people to pay attention to new authors in a media environment already saturated with offerings is a daunting challenge.
“People will pick up books not because of the plot, but because they want to feel a certain way (i.e. hopeful).” Feeling is an underappreciated part of the promise of a book, but books offer a powerful tool for shaping our emotional experience of life.
“Word-of-mouth recommendations will be more powerful than ever.” If you love an author and their books, make sure to talk about them—a lot. Take it right up to insufferably annoying and back it off a notch or two. One reason I’m always talking about Eugene Vodolazkin is that I want more people to discover what I’ve found in his books; thanks to my gushing praise a friend convinced her book club to pick up The Aviator to everyone’s delight. Remember, the publishing industry is composed of readers, too.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please hit the ❤️ below and share it with your friends.
Not a subscriber? Take a moment and sign up. It’s free for now, and I’ll send you my top-fifteen quotes about books and reading. Thanks again!