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Little Orphan Authors

Forget the telethons, forget the global awareness campaigns, forget the celebrity pleas for help.

Little Orphan Authors don’t get squat.

Being an orphaned author doesn’t mean that your parents are gone, it means that your major publishing house editor has flown the coop, leaving your published book to die of neglect.

THIS IS A JOKE, RIGHT? Sorry, but it’s true. When you have a book published by one of the major publishers, and your editor leaves, you are considered an orphan. That’s really the term used by the industry.

CAN’T A NICE, NEW EDITOR ADOPT ME? Sometimes. It all depends upon when your editor left. If your editor leaves at any point during the editing and production process before your book is published, you are a candidate for adoption by a new editor, but the closer you are to your publication date, the less likely you are to be assigned that new editor. Instead, you’ll come under the wing of one of the heads of the imprint. That’s like becoming a ward of the state: your book is officially taken care of, but, in reality, it’s not getting much in the way of personal attention. If you’re orphaned after your book is published –- even just a day or two after –- then you’re really in trouble. You most likely won’t be adopted by another editor, and your book will become lost in the editorial shuffle, officially overseen by one of the imprint heads, but, in reality, just another neglected orphan.

WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN? IT SEEMS LIKE A COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE, SELF-SABOTAGING WAY FOR A COMPANY TO DO BUSINESS. My thoughts, exactly (hey, what a coincidence), but since when have the major publishers been known for common sense in their business practices? This is common practice among the major publishers, but rare among independent publishers, some of whom don’t even know that this practice exists. A few years ago, when I mentioned it to the editorial director of a large independent, she thought I was making a joke. When she finally realized that I wasn’t kidding she couldn’t have been more shocked than if I’d told her that the major publishers gathered in the executive washroom once a day to flush money down the toilet.

SO, WHAT’S BEHIND THE TWISTED LOGIC OF ORPHANED AUTHORS? Well, there’s no logic to it, and no reasonable defense of the practice, but here’s the flawed thinking behind it: These days, an editor is a book’s team leader. The editor coordinates everything having to do with that book with all of the departments from editorial though production, marketing and sales, and promotion. Your book is one of your editor’s babies. When Momma or Daddy leave, all of the other mommies and daddies have more than enough to do taking care of their own book babies, so, since the major publishers believe that most books and authors are expendable, you and your book will be orphaned. That means that nobody is leading the interdepartmental team to oversee all the aspects of taking care of your book. This will affect everything from printing through distribution, sales, marketing, foreign and subsidiary rights, promotion…you name it.

Of course, when your orphaned book doesn’t sell well, you will be blamed. But, hey, there’s no surprise there. The author is always to blame for the publisher’s neglect, mistakes, shortcomings, and indifference, whether the book was orphaned or not.

HOW CAN THE MAJOR PUBLISHERS STAY IN BUSINESS THIS WAY? Oh, that’s easy. Nearly all of the profits at each house come from just a handful of bestselling authors at each one of those houses. That means that the dozens or hundreds of other authors at each house represent less than a drop in the profit bucket. It’s easy for the houses to view them as completely expendable under the best of circumstances. When one of those authors is orphaned, it’s viewed as a nuisance, and there’s little incentive to do anything but let it fall by the wayside.

SO, FAMOUS, BESTSELLING AUTHORS NEVER HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT BECOMING ORPHANS? Those at the very top never have to worry about becoming orphans. When their editors leave, they will be given a new one, no matter when in the process it happens, even long after the book is published. You can be pretty well known, though, and become an orphan. One household name journalist was orphaned just after his first book came out. That book did okay, but not nearly as well as it could have had he not been orphaned. He was viewed as expendable. His second book was demoted: brought out in trade paperback instead of hardcover, and largely ignored by the publisher. His third book was cancelled entirely. The publisher really screwed up three opportunities to make a fortune from this author. But, in the twisted logic so pervasive across the industry, the publisher views this as getting rid of a logistical complication. Had this author already made millions for the publishing house before he was orphaned, his book (and future ones) would’ve been well taken care of by a new editor.

SO, TIMING IS A FACTOR? Absolutely. If you’ve already made millions for a publishing house before you’re orphaned, the publishing house will protect the goose that has already laid the golden egg. But, a goose that merely has the potential of laying a golden egg -– as in the case of this well-known journalist –- is considered almost as worthless and expendable as a no-name midlist author.

THIS IS NUTS! Yes, I know how crazy this sounds. Publishers should take every opportunity to make a buck, especially as they whine about slow sales across the industry. Publishers know that their system makes no sense. That nothing about the way they do business makes any sense. But, they also know that to fix any of it means having to change the entire system –- quite a good idea -– and they’re just not up for that.

IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO PROTECT MYSELF FROM THE PERILS OF BECOMING AN ORPHAN? No, not really. You can have your agent try to negotiate a clause in your contract that stipulates that you will receive a replacement editor who will be just as active in coordinating all aspects of you book’s journey should your original editor leave, but that’s iffy because a publisher can make a lot of promises on paper that look very different in realty. All a publisher has to do to be in compliance with your contract is appear to be making a good faith effort to do right by your book. Effort is a very vague concept.

WHAT ABOUT ONCE I BECOME AN ORPHAN? Gee, I wish I had better news for you, but here, too, you’re just SOL. You know, Sh*t Outta Luck. Once you’re an orphan, you’re just Oliver standing with his empty bowl in front of the menacing looking orphanage goon, begging, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” You and your agent can badger the publishing house continuously, and you’ll receive, at best, placating reassurances that everything will be fine when you know you’re sinking fast. That will be followed by indifference and the message that they’re following company policy and can’t possibly do otherwise. Like I said, you’re SOL. You can promote the hell out of your book, but, as an orphan, you’ll often find that since nobody’s minding the store, quite literally, your books are unavailable at bookstores or even Amazon and other online retailers because nobody at the publishing house has bothered to make sure that more books are printed to meet the demand, or are distributed properly even if they are printed.

IS BECOMING AN ORPHAN A RARE OCCURANCE, OR DOES IT HAPPEN OFTEN? It happens quite a lot since the major publishing houses’ editorial offices are revolving doors with editors coming and going all the time. They leave for other imprints within the same houses. They leave for other houses. They leave and become agents, publicists, or something else inside or outside the industry. They leave to marry wealthy investment bankers. Sometimes they even leave to become authors. The best you can do is to have your agent make a lot of noise during contract negotiation and even more noise if you’re orphaned. The most dangerous time to be orphaned is just before, just at, or anytime after publication. The earlier in the process you’re orphaned, the better off you’ll be.

And, if you’re being treated as badly as Oliver was, just hope and pray that your editor left to write a book. And that your editor will be orphaned, too.

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Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.

Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for its entire run in Miami and select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works frequently with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction.

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Logo image courtesy of George Glazer Gallery, NYC