Do Publishers Owe Us More?

I’ve been writing books full-time since 1986 and, believe me, I know that publishing books is a business. I also realize that publishers have to give the public what it wants. (Recently that has been love struck vampires and young English magicians.) I admire authors who can write books that reach so many millions.

But as authors and publishers do we have an obligation to go beyond the profit line and expose wrongs, introduce new ideas, challenge conventional thinking, and confront the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

When I began writing proposals, all that I needed to explain was the story that I wanted to write. Now authors are expected to include in a proposal who potential buyers will be. We are supposed to provide publishers with a list of successful books that are similar and discuss the best ways a book can be marketed.  I’m not lazy and I don’t mind taking a guess at such things, but I suspect that most authors are clueless about marketing and simply want to write what they consider to be a good story.

The truth is that despite surveys, focus groups, and predictions, no one really knows which books will be a big hit and which will flop – and that includes marketing departments who appear to cast the deciding vote when it comes to book projects.

Bantam Books didn’t know what to do with The Hot House when I finished it because there weren’t any other books like it on the market. The publisher wasn’t certain who would buy it. The publisher of Prophet of Death, however, was confident that it would be a big hit because it was about a cult, religion, murder, and sex.  The Hot House remains my best selling book, having recently surpassed 400,000 in paperback sales. Prophet of Death is long out of print and remains my least selling book. So much for marketing predictions!

I’m frustrated because I wanted to write a follow up to CRAZY about the number of persons on death row who have severe mental illnesses and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ridiculously low threshold for executing people who are clearly “insane.” I feel passionate about this subject because we are killing people in this country whose only real crime is that they got sick.

But none of the publishers I approached was interested. I was told that a book about mental illness and the death penalty was not marketable.

And then John Grisham wrote The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, and it became a mega best seller. What’s it about? A mentally unstable man who is wrongly convicted and sent to death row.

I’m certain my publishing friends would tell me that Grisham is so popular that he can write about any subject and it will sell. But I prefer to believe that good stories will sell regardless of who writes them and I wish that editors at publishing houses had a bit more faith in their own judgments than fretting about marketing studies and what has sold in the past.

When I worked for the Washington Post, I corrected a friend when he asked me what it was like to work for Katherine Graham, the then powerful publisher of the newspaper. I arrogantly stated that I did notwork for Ms. Graham. I worked for the public. That might seem niave,  but it was how I felt. I was a public watchdog. I believed newspapers had a responsibility to the public.

My statement might have been arrogant, but I wish more publishers felt that way today.

http://www.amazon.com/Innocent-Man-Murder-Injustice-Small/dp/0385517238

http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/mental-illness-and-death-penalty

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Lynda Johnston Vance

    “I arrogantly stated that I did notwork for Ms. Graham. I worked for the public. That might seem niave, but it was how I felt. I was a public watchdog. I believed newspapers had a responsibility to the public.”

    Pete, That statement right there… is why I have always loved reading your pieces back when you worked for the Tulsa World….. Your passion for your craft was amazing then and it’s amazing now…

    And It Is NO Fair! You still look like you did 40 years ago!

    Here is wishing you and your family a great year…. Glad to see you putting up a Blog… I’ll be checking more frequently now…

    Lynda

  • Lynda Johnston Vance

    “I arrogantly stated that I did notwork for Ms. Graham. I worked for the public. That might seem niave, but it was how I felt. I was a public watchdog. I believed newspapers had a responsibility to the public.”

    Pete, That statement right there… is why I have always loved reading your pieces back when you worked for the Tulsa World….. Your passion for your craft was amazing then and it’s amazing now…

    And It Is NO Fair! You still look like you did 40 years ago!

    Here is wishing you and your family a great year…. Glad to see you putting up a Blog… I’ll be checking more frequently now…

    Lynda

  • The public needs a follow up to Crazy! If I’m willing to buy it there must be many others like me out there. Those of us who are concerned about mentally ill loved ones need to know what works and what doesn’t so we can lobby in an informed way for better help for these people. What a waste paying for these people to be jailed and imprisoned when they could be helped.

    I see it from both sides with a bipolar 20 year old grandson who is not making it very well, as well as living in Fremont County, Colorado, with the numerous state and federal prisons draining tax money. Let’s spend it to help kids before they end up behind bars for actions they are not accountable for.

    We Fowlerites are sure proud of you, Pete! Keep up the good work.

  • The public needs a follow up to Crazy! If I’m willing to buy it there must be many others like me out there. Those of us who are concerned about mentally ill loved ones need to know what works and what doesn’t so we can lobby in an informed way for better help for these people. What a waste paying for these people to be jailed and imprisoned when they could be helped.

    I see it from both sides with a bipolar 20 year old grandson who is not making it very well, as well as living in Fremont County, Colorado, with the numerous state and federal prisons draining tax money. Let’s spend it to help kids before they end up behind bars for actions they are not accountable for.

    We Fowlerites are sure proud of you, Pete! Keep up the good work.

  • Barb

    I’m Mike’s mom, Pete’s first wife. Our son is now working as part of the jail prevention program for the local community services board. It’s an excellent program; he went through it, and now as the ultimate success story he is helping others stay out of jail through it.

    Today he met with a “client” to play basketball. I likened that to finding ways to hook my students on learning. I didn’t care what it took because I knew once they had fallen for it they were going to continue on the road to learning. He just has to hope to find a connection to his clients. I told him some will, some won’t, but it’s not his fault. They just aren’t ready for it yet.

  • Barb

    I’m Mike’s mom, Pete’s first wife. Our son is now working as part of the jail prevention program for the local community services board. It’s an excellent program; he went through it, and now as the ultimate success story he is helping others stay out of jail through it.

    Today he met with a “client” to play basketball. I likened that to finding ways to hook my students on learning. I didn’t care what it took because I knew once they had fallen for it they were going to continue on the road to learning. He just has to hope to find a connection to his clients. I told him some will, some won’t, but it’s not his fault. They just aren’t ready for it yet.

  • Barb C.

    Pete — I saw you speak at East House in Rochester, bought your book and gave it to a professional in the hospital who shared it with his colleagues. I think your readers could do the same. The book I gave away had your signature in it — I know that it has been passed from person to person in the mental health field. It starts and continues a conversation from those on the front line of treatment. It’s important to remember the leagues of nurses and other treatment providers as another group needing to get into new thinking. I do believe that there is another story – the resiliency I see and the relationships made within the system. — This is less a critical position, than one of deep regard. — Barb

  • Barb C.

    Pete — I saw you speak at East House in Rochester, bought your book and gave it to a professional in the hospital who shared it with his colleagues. I think your readers could do the same. The book I gave away had your signature in it — I know that it has been passed from person to person in the mental health field. It starts and continues a conversation from those on the front line of treatment. It’s important to remember the leagues of nurses and other treatment providers as another group needing to get into new thinking. I do believe that there is another story – the resiliency I see and the relationships made within the system. — This is less a critical position, than one of deep regard. — Barb

  • Randi O’Brien

    Hi Pete. I support your idea to write a follow up book. I assign reading the book, Crazy, in a psychiatric mental health nursing course I teach at Washington State University. The students all read the book and write a paper about their thoughts, feelings, and implications for their nursing practice. They generally love the book, recommend I keep it as a course requirement, recommend it to others, and typically start their paper with “I had no idea….” This book is a great teaching tool and I appreciate the good work you are doing. Randi

  • Randi O’Brien

    Hi Pete. I support your idea to write a follow up book. I assign reading the book, Crazy, in a psychiatric mental health nursing course I teach at Washington State University. The students all read the book and write a paper about their thoughts, feelings, and implications for their nursing practice. They generally love the book, recommend I keep it as a course requirement, recommend it to others, and typically start their paper with “I had no idea….” This book is a great teaching tool and I appreciate the good work you are doing. Randi

  • Pete,

    First, I love the format of the new website. Second, I wonder how many reporters today actually work for the public – not many I’m sure.

    Bruce

  • Pete,

    First, I love the format of the new website. Second, I wonder how many reporters today actually work for the public – not many I’m sure.

    Bruce