Why American Book Publishing Sucks: A Personal Testimonial

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I’m old enough to actually remember the good old days of publishing, when authors had personal interactions with editors, publicists, and even sales reps. Today, with very few exceptions, authors are considered just low-level “content providers,” who can easily be replaced.

The Decline And Fall Of American Book Publishing

Having written more than twenty-five books over the last four decades, I’ve had a pretty good front-row seat from which to watch the decline and fall of American book publishing.

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My two main publishers are John Wiley and Sons and McGraw-Hill, once venerable publishing houses that turned out hundreds of decently-selling non-fiction books. It could be said that they did very well by me – and vice-versa: They sold over one million copies of my math and economics books.

So how can I be so ungrateful? We’ll start with Wiley. Although the company has long published college textbooks, its primary business is producing non-fiction paperbacks sold in bookstores and on Amazon. Their sales reps were excellent at getting my books into bookstores.

But that was it! Absolutely no advertising or other types of publicity. I had to get myself booked on the radio to get to talk about my books. But I did persuade the Literary Guild to make “All the Math You’ll Ever Need” nearly a best-seller as one of its featured selections.

One day, about fifteen years ago, I received a rather strange phone call from an editor at Wiley, who had some questions about my business math self-teaching guide. I had no idea who she was, or why she needed this information.

“It’s for the college textbook version of your book.” I truly didn’t have a clue where she was coming from.

She explained to me that my coauthor – someone I had never heard of – was completing all the stuff they were adding to make my book into a college business math text, and they just needed me to answer a few questions.

Looking back, I’m sure they were violating my contract and I probably should have sued them. But I was on deadline for a new edition of my introductory college economics text with McGraw-Hill, so I just let it go.

Since that phone-call, I completely cut off relations with Wiley, although they do continue sending me nice royalty checks every six months. And they are still selling eight or nine of my math and economics books.

Moving right along, let’s talk about how McGraw-Hill treats its textbook authors. Selling college textbooks constitutes the bulk of their business. And the engine that drives the entire operation is the 300 sales reps who call upon the college professors who assign books to their classes.

When my introductory economics textbook came out in 1988, I quickly figured out that if I were nice to the sales reps, they would be nice to me. And so, with the cooperation of my editor and sales manager, I phoned each of the hundred reps who sold economics and business texts – and if they were willing to listen – I held forth about all of the great features of my book.

One of the more seasoned reps suggested that I send each rep a list of the ten key selling points, which I did – along with a two-dollar bill and a note asking if I could buy a minute of their time. Not surprisingly, my sales went through the roof. I followed up by sending the reps Godiva chocolates every Christmas, and even making a few comical videos about my book which they enjoyed watching.

But over the last ten or fifteen years, the great minds running McGraw-Hill somehow figured out that authors communicating with sales reps was an invasion of the latter’s privacy. And that even mailing them the chocolates was an invasion.

But that’s not all, folks! The empty suits concluded that its textbook authors should no longer collect royalties – which can be quite substantial – and insisted that they become piece-workers – something akin to Chinese factory workers. But virtually none of the long-time authors were interested, since that would result in a very substantial pay-cut. Besides, most of us had long-standing contracts that could not be unilaterally abrogated.

Well, guess what! McGraw-Hill did just that a couple of years ago. They unilaterally cut our royalties across the board by about one-third in clear violation of our written contracts.

Was that legal? Well, a bunch of us decided to find out. We immediately filed a class-action suit, which is still being litigated.

My introductory economics text is now in its twelfth – and last -- edition. The incompetents now running McGraw-Hill are emblematic of what is happening throughout publishing. But look at the bright side: They do provide an excellent economics textbook example of the Peter principle – that people in a bureaucracy rise to the level of their own incompetence.