I saw this yesterday and thought it appropriate. It’s a letter from Sebastian Marshall, a non-fiction author, to his publisher, Simon & Schuster. It’s got a few minor typos, but I left them in. They don’t get in the way of the letter’s fiery tone.
I especially like the part where Marshall busts his ass to get his book in by the deadline, only to find out his editor’s on vacation.
IMHO, it’s about time someone said this to a New York publisher. This shit’s been brewing for a long time now, and this letter is way overdue.Â Let’s hope S&S reads it.
Sit down before you read this.
Weâ€™ve got to talk.
Look. This is going to piss you off. This is going to look like Iâ€™m causing problems.
Iâ€™m not causing problems. Iâ€™m just pointing out where problems already exist.
Your publishing company has treated me like a bitch over the last year. This is partially my fault, because Iâ€™ve let S&S treat me like a bitch. But itâ€™s also your fault, because you nurture and work withÂ artists, and artists really really really deserve to be taken good care of by their publishing house.
Iâ€™m not naturally an artist. Iâ€™m kind of sort of a businessman. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™ve finally got the nerve to write what Iâ€™ve been thinking for a year now –
Your company fundamentally mistreats its editors, writers, and all its staff. If you donâ€™t change course, youâ€™re fucked and out of business very soon.
I donâ€™t say that as an artist. I say that as a businessman. Your company is stuck in the year 1850 or whatever, when ships came from England with books to sell to the New World.
Your company (and indeed, whole industry) is stuck in slavery-era thinking.
And itâ€™s bad business.
So, weâ€™ve got to have a chat.
The Backstory Starts in Southeast Asia
After you read this, I suspect youâ€™ll be saying, â€œHow theÂ fuckÂ did we get in this position? WHOSE FAULT IS THIS?!!â€
So, for your convenience, and for the entertainment of the reading public, letâ€™s go through how we got here.
On 23rd December 2010, your publishing house agreed to sign me with a $65,000 advance.
Iâ€™m under the impression thatâ€™s pretty good for a first-time author, especially one as raw in writing quality as I was. But I really hit it off with the signing editor, Matthew Benjamin, and my agent, Jim Levine.
(Sidenote: Guys, Iâ€™m really fucking sorry to put you in the position I just did. You guys are both great, and Iâ€™m going to explain that youâ€™re great and that the industry as a whole is fucked in a moment. But sorry for the tidal wave this is about to unleash.)
This was good news. Iâ€™d been panicked a little, to tell you the truthâ€¦ my chief project had been consulting on high technology for the hospitality industry. My partner, Yifei Zhang, was and is incredibly brilliant, one of the most talented people I know.
Yifei and I built out processes for hotels to increase occupancy and revenues, and he was going to come meet me in Southeast Asia once we were ready. He designed a beautiful site (reachadventurers.com) that was about half-finished, and we had various creative and brochures and things like that.
This was happening in parallel with Jim Levine selling the book to various publishers, including your house.
Now, Iâ€™ve always been tenacious. If something important has to be done, give it to me.
Thus, I started â€œcommandoâ€™ingâ€ my way into high end hotels by just showing up and insisting that something really important was happening. I met the Director of
Sales and Marketing at Caravelle in Saigon (I totally embarrassed myself with a terrible pitch) and I met the General Manager at the Sheraton (who was really cool, and we talked for three hours and he referred me to their head office in Singapore along with useful information about the whole industry).
We werenâ€™t selling yet, but we had enough money for six months. Yifei was ready to quit his job, and weâ€™d work full-time, starting in Malaysia and then moving to Singapore.
Yifei gave notice, andâ€¦ his boss recognized he was a genius, and offered to triple his pay to stay, along with letting him hire six people and run his own skunkworks mini-division.
That motherfucker. What a smart move.
Yifei asked. He felt guilty. I told him take the offer. Amazing opportunity. And heâ€™d never made real money before.
So Yifei was out, and I didnâ€™t want to run Reach by myself. Iâ€™m not sure what was coming up.
And then â€“ two days later, Jim lets me know weâ€™ve got agreement and Iâ€™m publishing with you guys!
Title: for contract â€“ How to Make a Self-Made Man; but final title subject to mutual approval of Author and Publisher
Length: 50,000 â€“ 60,000 words
Delivery: July 1, 1011
Territory: world rights, all languages
1/3 on signing
1/3 on D&A
1/3 on first publication (which would probably be somewhere between January â€“ June 2012) but no later than 12 months after Publisherâ€™s acceptance of the manuscript
Staring At The Harbor
Our â€œdue dateâ€ was July 1st. Cool! Letâ€™s work fast, and bang this out of the park!
Carolyn, I was really excited to work with you guys.
Really, really excited.
I canâ€™t even tell you how excited. Jim thought my first book wouldnâ€™t be a good fit, so I was going to write a new one from scratch from the outline I was given.
No problem! You know Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra in only three sets of one day each of manic writing?
Iâ€™m cyclothymic too. Like Nieztsche and Byron and those guys. Albeit, much less talented; Iâ€™m just saying I got the same affliction.
Whatâ€™s a cyclothymic? It appears that we feel emotions more strongly than other people, and cycle through them. Iâ€™m fucking awesome when Iâ€™m manic, I can rapidly
invent, experiment, implement, advance science, build systems, recruit and hire people, and just massively do unhumanly large amounts of stuff. Cyclothymic mania is when the SPIRIT OF GOD is within you.
Most people wouldnâ€™t get it. Couldnâ€™t get it.
Anyways. Itâ€™s pretty fucking awesome when itâ€™s going on. SPIRIT OF GOD WITHIN YOU. Imagine that, eh?
Thereâ€™s just one problem.
I need to feed the mania to keep it going. If I can chain manic successes together, it grows and I can go through multiple year-long mania runs where I travel through 60+ countries, explore the world, do massive deals, get invited to stay in mansions and villas and go to top nightclubs and parties and whatever.
Jut one rub â€“ itâ€™s a Faustian Bargain â€“ crashing isâ€¦ well, â€œhellâ€ is a cliche, so I canâ€™t use that. Iâ€™ll try to explain.
The more structured my life is, the better people around me, and the more resources Iâ€™ve deployed intelligently, the less likely I crash. But when a convergence of bullshit strikes, then I crashÂ hardÂ and Iâ€™m fucking useless for a while. Itâ€™s a real bummer, Iâ€™ll tell ya. All you think about when crashed is drowning. I mean, literally drowning,
Iâ€™ll stare the harbor in Hong Kong and think itâ€™s be pleasant to be under the water. I have to just remind myself that when Iâ€™m uncrashed Iâ€™ll be glad Iâ€™m still alive, and
someday Iâ€™ll probably be manic again, and then I can get back to serving humanity.
July 11th! Woohoo!
But thenâ€¦ your publishing house kind of drops the ball.
Thereâ€™s some back and forth talk, but I didnâ€™t a copy of the final contract to sign until 1st March 2011.
But fine, I signed quickly. Letâ€™s get to work!
Never Have Only One Thing Going
Now Carolyn, Iâ€™ve got to explain something. When someone doesnâ€™t do what they say, and you keep soldiering on, youâ€™re letting them treat you like a bitch.
You guys had already dragged ass for more than three months after we had agreement in principle. Then we sign, and the contract calls for payment â€œImmediately.â€
Now, how immediate is â€œImmediatelyâ€?
Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s a settled question in American legal law, but Iâ€™m not going to bother researching it. Iâ€™m sure itâ€™s not â€“
â€“ wait! Letâ€™s play a game!
Carolyn, how long do you think it took your publishing house toÂ pay me your contractually obligated â€œimmediateâ€ payment?
Câ€™mon, guess before I tell you.
Câ€™mon, câ€™mon, câ€™mon! Guess!
Three hours? The same day? The next day?
The same week?
Carolyn, do you think your publishing house paid me the same month? We signed on the 1st of March. Do you think you paid in March?
Hmm. I bet you know where this is going.
And itâ€™s not like weâ€™ve got any surprises coming up. We had agreement in December of the previous year, and you already dragged ass.
You paid me on 18th April 2011, six and a half weeks after â€œimmediateâ€ payment was due.
Unfortunately, I just accepted this nonsense.
At that point, I had demonstrated that I was a bitch that would accept table scraps from your company, and I started subsequently being treated like a bitch.
The Downward Spiral Begins
So, Iâ€™m not entirely sure, but I think your company signed me because I have interesting ideas, and I know how to market them. The team at Simon and Schusterâ€™s
Touchstone division (who are great btw, sorry S&S Touchstone team for causing you a headache right now) â€“ well, I was on the phone with THE WHOLE TEAM right away.
You guys were serious and ultra-professional in December. And you were excited with me. Particularly my marketing savvy â€“ the Touchstone team commented that I was extremely prepared (and they were impressed with that), clearly I understood marketing very well (and they were impressed with that), and they thought I had a chance at being â€œthe next Tim Ferrissâ€ (!!!!). (Sidenote: I think Tim Ferriss is much better at marketing than me.)
So yeah, you guys wanted my writing and marketing ability.
But now, shitâ€™s about to get ugly.
Subject: Has there ever been a moneyback guarantee on a print book?
I had an idea that might be interesting. Moneyback guarantees are pretty thoroughly proven to increase conversions and sales online. What if we printed this on the first or second page of the paper book?
This Book Rocks Your World, or Itâ€™s Free
To the best of my knowledge, this has never been done before.
I think this book contains excellent insight and guidance in it. The whole thing is tested and has been effective with a variety of people. But if you buy it, try the ideas, and theyâ€™re not worth what you paid, Iâ€™ll buy your copy from you. Go to:
And thereâ€™s instructions on how to sell me your copy of the book. Iâ€™m leaving this offer open for all of 2012.
Iâ€™m confident that I can serve you with this writing. If I canâ€™t, youâ€™re not out any money. So, read on and enjoy. Thank you.
Your loyal strategist,
On the terms and conditions of the guarantee, we specify that theyâ€™ve got to read some of the book, that it applies for only 2012, and then we set up a way that isnâ€™t a headache to deal with it. (Maybe they submit proof of purchase and proof of donation to a library or something? Screwing around with return inventory is a nightmare, probably much cheaper just to let them keep it) In the guarantee T&C, we also specify that it only applies if the store they ordered from doesnâ€™t offer their own guarantee first.
I think this could spur an increase in buying definitely, but more importantly I think it could be a really nice angle for the media and for people to talk about.
Could we try to do something like this? I think this could be really a boon for our marketing and PR.
I donâ€™t know Carolyn. Maybe itâ€™s a bad idea. But itÂ isÂ an idea, and it got no play from you guys.
Okay, whatever. At least you spent some time implementing theÂ three hour long design briefÂ I wrote for the cover, giving specific recommendations and historical comps?
Alas, no. When I got the cover, they totally ignored everything about my audience, my goals, my notes I gave you guys, and whatever else. I re-wrote notes, and they were ignored. So much for â€œmeaningful consultationâ€!
Iâ€™d list more, but itâ€™s all the same sort of thing. Suffice to say, I kept coming with ideas that might or might not work, and getting back nothing or less than nothing in return.
But The Worst Partâ€¦
â€¦is that I kept being given pseudo-deadlines, meeting them, and then whoever would be on vacation and wouldnâ€™t reply for a couple months. IÂ burned fucking hardÂ in Tokyo to meet my deadlines, BRUTALLY working on nothing else to get some stuff to Matthewâ€¦
â€¦and then heâ€™s on vacation, and didnâ€™t tell me. On the supposed very important deadline day.
So I kind of crashed. Hard.
I was pretty invested in this emotionally, and Iâ€™m usually able to will things to work. But here? Itâ€™s not happening. Iâ€™m being blown around in the wind, and I canâ€™t figure it out.
Itâ€™s Not The Editorâ€™s Fault. Itâ€™s Your Fault.
Itâ€™s not Matthewâ€™s fault. Matthewâ€™s fantastic, he pushes me, heâ€™s very intelligent and well read, and I like him a lot. (Sidenote: Sorry for doing this, Matthew.)
Hereâ€™s the thing â€“ itâ€™s the year 2011, and you guys lack basic technology calendaring. Your editors donâ€™t work with your marketers. Thereâ€™s no rudimentary project management system in place. Thereâ€™s no consistency or fairness or transparency in the authorâ€™s contract process. You guys donâ€™t keep your own promises.
Itâ€™s not Matthewâ€™s fault. Matthewâ€™s overworked, underpaid, and I imagine heâ€™s somewhat frustrated with your companyâ€™s bullshit as well. In fact, I think everyone is frustrated with your wholeÂ industryâ€™sÂ bullshit, which is why traditional publishing is dying.
You need better tech.
You need to pay your people better, equip them better, give them better tools and resources, and kill as much of the bureaucracy and paperwork they do. Matthew spends all his damn time dealing with internal bullshit, doesnâ€™t work hands-on with marketing people very often (your marketers and editors donâ€™t work together Carolyn! Do you know how fucking stupid that is in 2011?!!), and his authors wind up pissed off and disrespected.
Iâ€™m not much of an artist, really.
But letâ€™s play pretend. Iâ€™ll be a pretend artist. You too, Carolyn. Pretend youâ€™re an artist.
Youâ€™re kind of up and down, which is a common temperament for art-making people, especially weird-paradigm-shifting-art-making-people. Youâ€™re really excited, since youâ€™ve dreamed for forever of getting published.
All you do is work on the project, highly motivated.
They keep jerking you around and treating you like a bitch.
Youâ€™re kind of afraid of them, because the contract you signed gives them all the power and you none.
(Sidenote, Carolyn: Fix that. Less draconian contracts will make it easier to build the goodwill and collaboration necessary to make art. The Sword of Damocles hanging over the writerâ€™s head doesnâ€™t help. Really, I promise it doesnâ€™t help. Trust me on this if you canâ€™t understand me.)
So, do you think you can make great art in those working conditions? Where youâ€™re being mistreated, not cared for, ignored, lied to, and having your â€œgreat marketing ideasâ€ just fall into dust?
Câ€™mon now. And mind you, Iâ€™m a hell of a lot less sensitive than most artists; Iâ€™m not even an artist, really.
This is 100% not the editorâ€™s fault, who is great. Jim apologized to me. He said, â€œSebastian, Iâ€™m sorry, itâ€™s just how the industry worksâ€¦ Iâ€™m sorry, I wish I could say more, but itâ€™s how it operates!â€
Carolyn, thatâ€™s a fucking problem. Itâ€™s 2011, youâ€™re running a sinking ship, and itâ€™s â€œjust how it operates.â€
Matthewâ€™s not a problem.
Jimâ€™s not a problem.
Your designer (who is good â€“ I bet heâ€™d have done good work if he ever saw my design brief) is not the problem.
I donâ€™tÂ thinkÂ Iâ€™m the problem.
Maybe Iâ€™m just a problem, and should be really grateful you were maybe going to publish me, and should just accept that I have to play by your rules, be ignored, be lied to (yes, lied, Carolyn â€“ when you said youâ€™re going to do something and sign your name to it, and donâ€™t do it, we call that lying), and otherwise just be jerked around?
But I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m the problem.
I donâ€™t even think youâ€™re the problem, really. Maybe it was rude of me to call you out personally. Itâ€™s not your fault, you took over the ship in 2008 and youâ€™re trying to keep it on course in a disinterested corporate conglomerate thatâ€™s all about P&L and various draconian bureaucratic bullshit.
I think the system is the problem, itâ€™s broken, and should be fixed.
Not Afraid Any More
Carolyn, Iâ€™m sorry for calling you out. I hope I didnâ€™t ruin your Wednesday too badly.
Iâ€™m not here to make you feel bad. I wanted you to see it from my perspective.
See, I stuck with you because I was afraid.
I was scared.
I thought IÂ neededÂ you as recently as ten days ago.
Ten days ago, a catalystic process happened. Iâ€™m back on the insane upward trajectory I was on a couple years ago. I just signed a business contract that pays me $40,000 to $700,000 in 3 months based on performance. Itâ€™s 54 times the highest 30 consecutive days net profit, on high dollar products â€“ the equivalent of 4.5x annualized. If you plug some numbers in, it comes out pretty big pretty quickly. Iâ€™m willpowering a business to exist that didnâ€™t before, just hired seven top-notch people at top of market pay plus fantastic benefits, and Iâ€™m arming them to the teeth with a top designer, a market researcher, tons of resources, and all sorts of great things.
And you know what? Itâ€™s not even all that expensive!
Iâ€™m building so fast with so little moneyâ€¦ itâ€™s amazing what you can do when everyone is in sync with no politics, no bullshit, everyone committed, and pure love and support.
Anyway, taking this position put me over capacity. From now until February, Iâ€™m at 180% to 240% of my maximum possible capacity at the current rates, obligations, coordination, and resources I have.
So you know what? I just told everyone in my life that theyâ€™ve got to do better to stay in my life. Not just be more professional or work harder or coordinate better.
But reallyÂ do better, on a philosophical level.
I called out one guy who has always been difficult that I worked for. Whenever I had a great idea for him that would make his business run better, heâ€™d drag ass on implementing it, make me explain myself 10,000 times, Iâ€™d have to press him and heâ€™d complain about the littlest expense or commitment.
And this, despite the fact that Iâ€™ve made him tens of thousands of dollars!
So I told yesterday, â€œHey! You donâ€™t appreciate me enough! Every time I have a good idea for you, you get pessimistic and stupid and whine. STOP IT AND BE MORE GRATEFUL THAT Iâ€™M MAKING YOU MONEY.â€
He starts to say, â€œWell, Iâ€™ve got to be carefuâ€“â€
And I say, â€œNo you donâ€™t! How much money have I made you?â€
And he says, â€œA lot.â€
I say, â€œYeah. At least 20 grand you wouldnâ€™t have. So STOP BEING A BITCH WHEN I WANT TO MAKE YOU MONEY. AND BE MORE GRATEFUL.â€
And he starts to dislike that, and I say it again, but louder. And then he offers me equity in his company worth something like $180,000 to $360,000 if I implement all the ideas heâ€™d been demurring on.
Jesus. Where was all this when I was being nice?
Most Artists Arenâ€™t Businessmen, And Thusâ€¦
â€¦you know, Carolyn, or whoever, Iâ€™d like you to treat me better, appreciate me more, and use my talent so weâ€™re all very successful.
But that wonâ€™t be enough.
Most artists arenâ€™t businessmen. So theyâ€™ll stay afraid, desperate, clinging to your company like a life-raft in a sea of obscurity and toil.
But your raft has holes in it. Itâ€™s sinking.
Itâ€™s really, really sad.
Artists expect toÂ do artÂ with you, and they instead get bullshit.
We canâ€™t work like this.
I donâ€™t know. Maybe other people can take being disrespected by a gigantic corporate clusterfuck, but youâ€™re missing like 90% of my talent.
Matthew wrote me. The last batch of my writing is apparently up to snuff. Quite good, even!
Iâ€™m almost done.
But you know what? The book isnâ€™t right. Itâ€™s like, 20% mine, 20% Matthewâ€™s, 10% Jimâ€™s, and 50% corporate clusterfuck.
I could put my head down and just grind, get it done at 4AM before I go to work, and whatever.
But you know what? Youâ€™re now the people in my life who treat me the worst.
I mean, youâ€™ve really treated me like dogshit. And I stuck around because I was afraid.
Who am I? Well, fundamentally Iâ€™m just some dude. If Iâ€™m saying anything that doesnâ€™t make sense or doesnâ€™t jibe with your experience, and the publishing industry is actually doing awesome, then go ahead and write me off and go back to your process.
But okay. You already know your industry isnâ€™t healthy. So you should very carefully evaluate how reality-based I am before making any decisions. Does what Iâ€™m saying make sense?
Youâ€™ve got a couple options:
Option 1: If you still want to publish me, Iâ€™ve got to know that things are going to get better.
Yes, youâ€™ve got to do better by me. Clearly.
But not just me. Everyone you work with, everyoneâ€™s whose lives you touch.
You need to do some sort of audit of all of S&S looking for stressful bureaucracy, unfriendly things for editors, lack of modern collaboration and technology, and unfriendly hostile terms to authors.
At a BARE MINIMUM, you establish basic project management, basic calendaring, drastically simplify the standard S&S contract, and provide plenty of paid time for knowledge share between different branches of the company so that editors and marketers work more intimately together and get in sync. Then start treating your editors like GOLD, kill their stupid bureaucracy requirements and let them run more freely.
Thatâ€™s the bare minimum.
I have other suggestions. I think you should get together with the other publishers and lobby Congress to let you automatically turn all paper books into digital form and pay a 3x higher royalty to any author who doesnâ€™t opt out of the deal.
I think youÂ reallyÂ ought to speed up. Itâ€™s not so hard. Modern businesses run fast, thereâ€™s people who know how to make that happen. Three months from agreement in principle to contract, followed by a six week breaching-of-contract delay? Not okay. Amazonâ€™s publishing wing doesnâ€™t make mistakes like that.
Oh, and you really need some new angles on marketing and distribution. You guys donâ€™t get my generation at all. You need to let your bright authors try crazy things.
Youâ€™re in a hits-based business, stop being so damn conservative. You need more big winners, which requires letting abstract creative thinkers try weird crazy stuff.
Option 2: Cancel My Ass, And Do Whatever Bad Things You Can To Me
I wouldnâ€™t blame you after this stunt I just pulled!
Look, Iâ€™m sure youâ€™re all unhappy with me. Iâ€™m not saying pleasant things.
But hereâ€™s my basic message:
*Your industry is fucking slow
*Your industry disrespects authors
*Your industry under-equips and disrespects editors
*Your industry is lacking basic modern technology
*Your industry uses draconian contracts with artists which destroy goodwill
*Your industry is conservative about trying new things despite being in a deathspiral (this is the most confusing one to me)
*Your industry doesnâ€™t foster a good enough collaboration among basic functions like editing and marketing
*Everyone knows this, and thinks itâ€™s okay â€œbecause thatâ€™s how publishing isâ€â€¦
*â€¦but itâ€™s not okay, and we all know that deep downâ€¦
*â€¦so, do something about it before itâ€™s too late.
Anyone is welcome to republish this in full or in part, anywhere, without asking for permission. Have fun.