Tuesday, July 31, 2018

We authors owe a great debt to Judith Appelbaum

by Rick Blechta

First, you need to read this: Judith Appelbaum, a Guide for Would-Be Authors, Dies at 78

Back when I was getting started in the writing game, I bought books on publishing and production. It seemed the best course since the model I adopted was to get my first novel out quickly. I had some background in print production and family/friends in the business and this seemed best. My first two novels were self-published and surprisingly successful for a small effort. In producing them, I learned a lot about how the business worked — and also how much work it took. With a young family and a very full-time job, one thing was clear, I needed to let the pros take over.

Enter Judith Appelbaum. I read her excellent How to Get Happily Published in one sitting. Then I read it again, slowly and with a lot of highlighting and margin notes. If you are an author, new or “well-seasoned”, you need to read this book! This woman had great experience and clearly lays out how the publishing game works. Literally, everything an author needs to know about getting started and dealing with the publishing industry is in this book.

I was sad when I saw her obituary in the New York Times. Then I got a little angry.

“Why?” you ask.

Because besides being a first-rate author guru, Judith Appelbaum did something else very important for us. I’m angry because this bit of information has been nearly completely expunged from the coverage of her passing.

Now, please read this: Author Takes On Publisher Over Royalty Checks

At the time the lawsuit occurred (in the early ’90s), it was a very big deal in the publishing world. As you can see, the information that is so critical to an author (understanding the royalty structure and royalty statements) was a huge problem even for this industry professional of vast experience. If Judith couldn’t make heads or tails of her royalty statement — what about the rest of us?

It was a long haul to get HarperCollins to come to the table and deal fairly with the issue. You can be sure other large publishers were backing them up, and as the article lays out, the back-up Judith was getting from writer organizations was pretty significant.

One detail not in the article was that HarperCollins admitted that they had no clear idea about her foreign sales (actually, this is was what the lawsuit was mostly about, if memory serves). How can this be? Are publishing houses really this bad about their accounting?

The second article quoted sort of soft-pedals this. I don’t believe for a moment that publishers are this sloppy. The way royalties are handled tilts the playing field heavily towards them. I’ve heard experienced and reputable agents admit they don’t completely understand everything on royalty statements. Having everything being so conveniently opaque allows publishers to be on the windy side of contracts with their authors. “We can’t come up with that information!” is a pretty poor excuse. Wonder how that would go over if the tax man comes calling?

If you ask me, holding HarperCollins’ toes to the fire and getting them to finally pay up is possibly an even more important legacy to leave her fellow ink-stained wretches than Judith’s wonderful how-to book.

It is also pretty damning that her obituaries (and I’ve read five of them) do not mention Appelbaum vs. HarperCollins. Most of the articles about her lawsuit have also disappeared. Wonder why that is?

In any event, thank you for what you did for all of us, Judith. We really appreciate it.


Thomas Kies said...

I still have my copy of "How to Get Happily Published".

Rick Blechta said...

Me too. And I met her at a conference in NYC about 15 years ago and got to thank her in person. Very nice lady!

Sybil Johnson said...

I have a copy as well.

Jim Napier said...

I do as well. Very useful information, even with all the changes in publishing since then!

Rick Blechta said...

The first thing I tell any aspiring author asking for help is to go out and immediately purchase Judith's book. It really is that good.