Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Don't Get Primed: A Primer on Prime Books for the Novice Novelist

a) I think I remember what money looks like ...

The Traitor appeared the better part of a year ago, and your reporter has not seen dime one from it. The novel wasn't even listed on my last royalty statement. Eagle-eyed vigilance in following the Amazon sales rank, especially following selection by VanderMeer for the top 10 fantasy books, 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 not alone. Every Prime author I have spoken to - and in the interests of full disclosure I must say this runs to no higher a number than four, not including myself - has complained of long, inexplicable, and unannounced delays in payment. One author is still waiting, lo these five years, for money she is owed on original cover art!

b) Oh, uh ... yeah um ... what was the question?

Prime counters allegations of misconduct with handwaving and/or dithering (hereafter "hanthering"). This can be accounted for in one of two ways. It could reflect a sinister scheme of data dispersal designed to insure a strict separation of authors and useful information, so that nothing can be known of your payment status or release date until a series of secret maneuvers is performed under shadowy circumstances. The answer goes round and round, then comes out here. Does it make sense? Were you informed? Who can say?

Or all the hanthering may simply be a sign that no one there knows what's going on. Either way, it's less than refreshing to have to deal with and plan around.

c) No means (mumble)

"I'd like five ARC's available to hand out at ReaderCon," an associate of mine asked Prime.
"Affirmative," Prime chirped (simulation).
ReaderCon comes along. No ARCs. What does the affirmation of this plan mean?

Let's release The Traitor at such and such a date, so as to give momentum a little time to build, then debut it at the Con, your reporter suggested.
"Sounds good," is the reply.
Subsequent experience indicated that these cryptic words are best translated: "Go away."

So take any positive statement from Prime as a - oh I don't know - an impressionistic extravagance. Why be so tied down to the bourgeois gridiron of times and places and checks? I mean, it's all about the art, right?

d) What was it you published again?

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.

How many novels do you have to burn?

Prime is an attractive publisher for a variety of reasons, and I would advise any new writer to consider submitting material thereto, but do so forewarned and forearmed. You will not be told what is going on, your requests for information will be met with stalling, ignorance real or feigned, or - most often - silence. All the real legwork will be left to you. Payment will involve unnecessary headaches and a whole lot of waiting - if not outright defrauding (which has yet to be seen).

Good luck - and try elsewhere! Don't the same mistakes I did!


Hannah said...

Wait, Cisco has a _blog?_ My whole world has turned sideways and--I don't know--jiggled around a little bit.


Sara Amis said...

I had a similar experience, albeit with a smaller piece not a novel. No contract, no mention of payment, when I asked...after the book my piece was in came out...silence. Finally got paid by being persistent. My impression was of disorganization, but past a certain point that ceases to be charming.

Nicole said...

Here via Leah Bobet's lj ..

This is very good to know. Thanks for posting it. I have a novel forthcoming from Prime .. sort of sometime soon .. and while I've had to do a fair amount of asking as to what's happening with it at various stages, I've never yet been met with stonewalling or handwaving.

That said .. I had to ask several times before I got paid for the reprint of a story in Best American Fantasy. Poor Jeff V. was my go-between at that point, and he seemed as outraged as I was bewildered -- that was my first ever reprint sale, so I didn't know what to expect. I'm hoping that my experience there wasn't the norm.

Thought I'd throw my somewhat limited perspective out there as well! Thanks again for posting this -- now I know what I need to watch out for in the coming months.

P.S. The Traitor was an awesome book. I hope you get what you're owed, and fast. :/

Unknown said...

I've heard similar tales from other authors, as well, but nobody seems willing to say so out in the open... until now. Good job!

benpeek said...

hey, michael, there's some comments here in this post that will offer you support:


Jaime said...

There is so much secrecy in publishing, so much hiding the business end when we'd all be better off knowing what really happens.

Posting this was a good thing. With luck it will help some new, maybe naive author to make the right choice. Thank you.

Berni said...

They don't do a good job getting books in bookstores or libraries, either.

I was interested in reading your book but did not want to order it online. It was not in any of my local bookstores or libraries. I live in Silicon Valley and have 4 library cards: the county system (about a dozen libraries) plus 3 good-sized city ones. I can usually find anything I want. Not your book.

KAM said...

I have two book contracts with Prime that date from December 2005. Every year I have asked when my two novels would appear. Usually my e-mails go unanswered. When they are answered, I have been told "Readercon" for one book, and the other one shortly afterward. Readercon 2007 resulted in no release. Readercon 2008 has resulted in no release. Meanwhile I have written two more novels that sit on my hard drive, a publisher who won't respond to my queries, and quite frankly a lot of frustration.

To be honest, I thought it was something about me; now I hear that the problem is endemic with Prime. Thanks for having the courage to go public, Mr. Cisco.

Billy Martin said...

"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."

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.

Michael Cisco said...

More commentary and discussion here:


Some brief follow-ups:

Berni: Libraries seem to follow starred reviews in PW. The Divinity Student received one and was duly purchased by libraries. The PW review of The Tyrant was negative, and also exhibited errors that no one who had done more than skimmed the book could have made, indicating to me just how seriously PW reviews should be taken as far as actual evaluation is concerned. The PW review of The Traitor was also negative, if mixed, but there I persist in sullenly disagreeing with the expectations of the reviewer. Them grapes are sour. At any rate, the lack of library copies isn't SW's fault.

Nick - I freely admit I pulled 500 out of my ... air. I don't want people to think I've been tossing and turning in a sweat-soaked bed every night muttering 500 ... 500 ... I do toss and turn of course, but I mutter "must kill mamatas praise Jesus" or something like that. Nor do I cherish illusions about the wild commerciality of my work. But I do firmly believe there are many more people who would enjoy my work if they knew about it, and they aren't likely to do that if things go on as they have.

Poppy - Your point is well taken. I don't think I'd have much trouble accepting the legwork if I could get the information I need in order to do it. Like a release date. It may be that the smaller scale of presses like Prime fosters the illusion that one can expect to work in some kind of coordination with the editors.

Overall, I think things would be fine if Prime were willing to say: look, here's how things go with us. You get paid when it happens, but we do promise to pay you. We can't really tell you anything and whatever you do get from us will be provisional. If you can handle that, go ahead and sign. Then you would know where you stood, even in the ensuing silence.

My thanks to all the commentors and others who have gotten in touch with me.

JoSelle said...

Hi Michael,

For what it's worth, I really dug The Divinity Student, but didn't know that you'd written anything else. So I'm definitely going to seek out copies of the Tyrant and The Traitor. :) If you bought any from Prime to sell, I'd prefer to buy them from you.

Rose Fox said...

My own professional dealings with Prime have been limited to the review copies they send to PW, and they always follow our guidelines scrupulously and send well-made ARCs. I can't say whether they have sent ARCs for every book they've published since I took over the SF/fantasy/horror reviews in November '07, but your mention of negative PW reviews does indicate that at least your books were sent to PW in such a fashion as to be reviewed at all, which perhaps belies your point d very slightly. That's more publicity than some other (and larger) publishers do.

I'm not trying to contradict your other claims, or indeed speak to them at all; I'm not an author. But on the matter of publicity, I do think Prime does at least the bare minimum of getting ARCs on time to a magazine that, as you noted, has a significant effect on library sales.

I'm glad you started this conversation and I will be following it with interest.

lucky2000 said...

Michael, you'll never work in Prine Time again. How goes it, man?


Michael Cisco said...

Joselle - I have none to sell, but I certainly wouldn't advise anyone to avoid buying from Prime in any case. I'll get my dollar a book from them eventually.

Rose - PW gets books into libraries but it doesn't get books to readers, because it's an industry insider publication.

The Traitor sold because Jeff VanderMeer and Nick Mamatas both went to bat for it. Sales spiked sharply as a result of their recommendations, and were basically flat otherwise.

I find myself in the odd position of being a deliberately a-commercial writer griping about sales, but it doesn't make sense to me that a company whose existence depends on selling books wouldn't do more.

By contrast, Ann VanderMeer (then Kennedy), published my first novel, The Divinity Student, beautifully. There was advanced promotion. I knew what was going on. The book was widely reviewed. She did this with, it seems to me, fewer resources than Prime now has at its disposal. As far as I can tell, this is the difference between a tight act and a sloppy act.

You seem to be arguing that Prime is to be forgiven its inadequacies because other publishers are no better. By extension, this means that the worse they all are, the less reason we have to complain. The inadequacies of other publishers, major or not, shouldn't be dismissed in putting together the big picture, you're right, but if they all excuse each other by being inept, the result is garbage for everybody, including them.

Lucius - Buy me a car bomb,* sailor? The docks is sticky and my barrel organ is logy this time of year. Even the monkey's sweating. I hear Switzerland is treating you well.

* (Attn homeland security: beverage)

Rose Fox said...

Oh, I'm not saying it excuses anything, just saying that Prime does at least seem to do something in the way of publicity, even if it's not enough. I think most publishers are hideously lax in that area, and genre publishers in particular (though often tiny budgets are partly to blame).

lucky2000 said...

I'll do it next readercon, any flavor you like! Switzerland is great--I'd get arrested if I said how great. I'm loving it. Working on a movie and other stuff. I hate the thought of ever coming home, but I probably will...

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