The Psychological Structure of the Publishing Industry: Writers and Authors are the Children, Literary Agents Are the (Good or Bad) Parents and Publishers Call the Shots

Addiction. This drawing by my daughter Lily shows the many-tentacled nature of addiction better than words. The thing about addiction is: It ain't fun.

Today, we examine the psychological structure of the publishing industry, trying to figure out why we may feel so lousy pursuing a literary career. (Unless you’re one of the anointed few making mega-bucks with your scribblings. I doubt that feels lousy.)

We’re going to take three different points of view, which add up to very similar conclusions. My fellow authors, Ruth Harris & Anne R. Allen, wrote a great blog article about Writers’ Masochism.  That refers to writers taking  garbage and ill-treatment from their bosses that no one in any other industry would tolerate.

Except maybe in the practice of law, our second point of view on this issue. Here’s a  link an article by Will Meyerhofer, an attorney and psychotherapist. If you read Mr. Meyerhofer’s article, I think you’ll agree that the legal profession and publishing industry have much in common. Or at least many people living and working in them feel just as rotten.

After practicing law for a period of time, Meyerhofer discovered that depression is common in attorneys. He became a psychotherapist who treats attorneys. In his article, Meyerhofer presents a psychological model explaining how depression is created and supported within the individual’s mind and by the legal industry. The depression-creating system he presents is one basis of the writer’s masochism post by Ruth Harris & Anne R. Allen. I recommend reading both for an understanding of writer’s masochism. Meyerhofer’s description of how lower level attorneys feel in Biglaw mirrors my own feelings as a fledgling author.

Then there’s the systems approach, widely espoused in many schools of counseling and psychotherapy. Before leaping into the world of writing, I had a broad professional life. I was an economist, negotiation coach, businesswoman, and horse rancher before the need to write knocked on my psyche. I have a couple of master’s degrees, including one in counseling. I earned my counseling degree in a program stressing family structure and systems – how a family’s unspoken rules can work to keep some family members powerless and unhappy and allow others to be fat cats and bullies. This background has served me well.

After a devastating personal experience in 1993, I entered the world of writing. Was I healing myself? Yeah. I jumped into writing groups and spending quality time with editors and spent all day sitting at a word processor. Once I learned to write decently and had enough  work on paper to need a publisher, my personal learning ratcheted up.

I became acutely aware of of the psychological structure of the literary/publication world.

At the bottom of the pyramid are hordes of wannabe authors – and they have to be published traditionally, only. Being traditionally published means: a publisher buys your manuscript according to a contract, which the publisher writes and controls. You get money (but dribbled out over time, so it’s not as much as it seems when you sign on the dotted line) and they get to do whatever they want with your work, including not publishing it. If your book does come out, you, the author, get to pay for marketing it and do the work involved. (This is lots of work.) Because of this, being traditionally published is considered by many to be far superior to and more prestigious than publishing your work  yourself. 

I recall seeing a video of a famous author giving a seminar about writing. Her fans gazed at  her with devotion normally reserved for east-Indian gurus. Rapture didn’t come close to the intensity of their focus. They were addicts, of her and of getting their work in print. Lust lived in that room. I’m astonished that no one noticed how bizarre the situation was.

Back to the publishing industry: Above the wannabe authors in the power hierarchy (way above) are the literary agents, gatekeepers to the hallowed realm of the publishers. The literary agents are numerous, but a tiny fraction of the number of wannabe authors.

Above the literary agents are the publishers, a much smaller group which  hold the keys to kingdom: the transcendent realm of publication.

In this system, power flows downward: publishers have way more power than agents who have way more power than writers/wannabe authors, who have almost no power. Publishers decide what goes into print, period. That’s power. Agents can funnel authors and writers to the publishers. No agent’s endorsement means no access to publishers. That’s power. Writers without agents learn to write powerful query letters. Imaginative query letters to seduce agents into loving them in three paragraphs. They write a lot of these. This is not power.

The publishers and agents take on the parental and adult roles in the system, doing everything good and bad parents do. Judging, evaluating, rejecting, and generally doing the naughty things described in Ruth’s and Anne’s article. This hierarchical dehumanization is part of the structure of the industry.


Angst - We all face existential anxiety, but the system in which writers operates creates a more than usual load for writes. Drawing: Lily Nathan

In this model, the writers/authors are trapped in a PERMANENT state of the powerless child. That’s what Ruth and Anne describe above, in talking about rotten deals and being forced to overwork and accept bad terms. This is a PERMANENT state, unless a writer gets lucky and enters the hallowed realm of the ACTUALLY PUBLISHED and her book sells like crazy. (Or unless the industry topples. It’s been shaken by the Great Recession and the eBook and self-publishing revolutions.)

Everyone in the traditional system is stuck. Literary agents and representatives of publishers are also mired in a PERMANENT state of the ADULT or PARENT. They are perennially superior to and controlling of the child/writers. Who are shoved into permanent INFANCY. This is lousy for the personal/spiritual development of everyone involved.

* * *

Attempting the traditional approach to publication in the beginning, I queried agents a bit and was rejected soundly. When that failed, I hired my editor to write a query letter for me. That was rejected just as fast as the ones I wrote.

The biggest learning came from watching one of my friends query. A very successful attorney, she whacked out a hundred queries for every one I wrote. She was efficient, ruthless, and did everything the books on querying said.

She said that some of the queries came back rejected faster than they would if bounced back at the agent’s mail office. “No one read the letter, much less my writing samples.”

My friend showed me that intensity and focus in the querying process yielded the same results as my dilettantism.

Nathan Bransford, the former literary agent turned author and popular blog writer said said something like this  in one of his postings. “I used to receive 15 to 20,000 query letters in a year. I took on two or three new clients.”

That’s a 0.015% chance of acceptance. Getting into Harvard Medical School is many times easier than getting an agent to take you on.

I got all this. Something inside me went, “**** this. I’m not willing to be abused.”

That was the end of my traditionally published career.

* * *

When I was in economics or coaching negotiations at the graduate level, professional life was different. In a “regular” profession, if you write and present a few excellent papers and do your work well, you’re treated like a valuable adult team member. Not so in publishing.

Anne and Ruth present some steps to take to reestablish oneself as a powerful individual in the writing world.

My solution was to create an independent press – a legal entity as  valid as any other press.

Some people start foaming at the mouth when anyone talks about  indie-presses or self-publishing. They assume that all self-published or  indie-published work is garbage. Some of these people are highly focal and even obnoxious about airing their opinions. I would like to suggest that that attitude belongs with the folks who are addicted to being traditionally published, at the cost of themselves.

People talk about the abysmal quality of self-published work. It’s true: A lot of it is junk from one cover to another. But not all of it.

As of this 2015 update, my books have won thirty awards at contests for indie-presses. I have judged one such contest. I’m not allowed to say anything about that contest, but I will say that the best of the indie-produced books far exceeded the quality of books published by the majors.

And of course they do – the majors can’t afford to put the resources into a book that some independently-funded small presses can. Books of amazing quality won in that contest.

What is the point of this diatribe? Everyone needs to create a path which will allow him or her to attain goals, while maintaining one’s soul. Anne’s and Ruth’s article gave some suggestions. Will Meyerhofer’s article gives others.

What do I suggest? Do what works and dump what doesn’t.

I chose to create my own press. I’ve got nine books on the market. Most have won multiple awards.

As an indie-press owner and indie-author, I work harder than even I, the achievement-addicted economist from Silicon Valley, could have predicted. Seven days a week at this point. The market is so flooded with author-produced ebooks and POD books, that making a good book show up above the deluge is difficult.

Communion is way more fun than feeling like you're going it alone. Drawing: Lily Nathan

The bottom line is: Writing/authoring is a tough way to make a living, no matter how you do it. Is what I’m doing easier than going the traditional route? No. It is easier on my gut.

I’m going to take it one day at a time, noting the carpal tunnel creeping into my wrists and the shrieking of the bursitis in my hips that I got from sitting too long, and weighing them against benefits achieved.

That’s all a person can do.

Readers should note that many  other ways to make a living exist in addition to writing. In this market, I’d say, “If you’ve got anything to rent, do it. I can rent my vacation home and make more in a week than some poor soul who who busts her butt to get a publishing contract on a book she took two years to write.”

Writing is not the only game in town.

Happy trails and best wishes!

Sandy Nathan

Sandy Nathan has lots of books to explore. This is her Amazon Author Page.
Here’s her website. 

15 Responses to “The Psychological Structure of the Publishing Industry: Writers and Authors are the Children, Literary Agents Are the (Good or Bad) Parents and Publishers Call the Shots”

  1. What a great companion piece to our article, Sandy. I’ll link to it in the body of the blogpost. It’s great to have a professional’s assessment of the unhealthy nature of the publisher/author relationship.

    • admin says:

      Great. Glad you liked it. The system really is unhealthy. That’s why I chose to self-publish. And what that attorney says about the legal grind. Yipes!


  2. Sandy, what an enlightening article. I never thought about it from a psychoanalytical role. Yes, it is a bit scary to hold all the keys, but so liberating. And you’re absolutely right. I work harder 24×7 than I did as a software engineer at a top Silicon Valley company, even with the 3 am build breaks and bug scrubs with India team.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Rachelle! I saw that psychological system the instant I came in contact with the publishing industry. It’s really harmful. So, as I said in my post, I couldn’t do the traditional publishing thing. (I’ve heard even worse stories since making my decision. For instance, the author of a very large national bestseller, now out of print, can’t get the rights to his own life story back from the top 6 publisher. He achieved the dream––publication by that firm––and it’s blown up on him. He needs the book for his business, but it’s hard to find now, being out of print. Will he have to write his story again, slightly different so it meets copyright standards, just he have a book about his life. On and on.) So even going indie and working my buns off, I’ve attractd an international rights agent and a distributor in France. They came to me. You can succeed as an Indie!

      Please stop by often. I write about random writing related things all the time.

  3. I’m so glad you commented on Irene’s article so I could come here and read this. The family dynamic brings focus to what I’ve known about traditional publishing’s bad behaviour all along.

    “Do what works and dump what doesn’t.” Sheesh; if artists and business folks and parents and teachers all did that—and yet so many couldn’t even tell you which was which.

    Nicely done, Sandy.

    • admin says:

      Thank you, Joel. Glad you found the article helpful. The minute that authors/agents/publishers triangle became clear in my mind, I dropped the idea of being traditionally published. I’m not AGAINST traditional publishers, but I want the playing field leveled in my favor. What John Locke did creating super success as a self publisher thrills me. He then went on to negotiate a contract with one of the big publishers on HIS terms. He’s in charge of editing, the covers. I recall reading an article about him where he said that he went with a traditional publisher because they could put him places he couldn’t go as an Indie. Like Costco. Here’s an article I wrote about John Locke’s marketing skill: If you’d like to join this blog, I’d love it.

  4. Hi – thank you very much for your kind mentions of my recent interview with I would ask, if possible, that you correct the spelling of my last name. It has been variously presented as Meyerhoff and Hoffmeyer. In fact, my family is Swiss, from Zurich, and the last name is correctly spelled “MEYERHOFER”. Thank you. Will

    • admin says:

      Hi, Will! I just checked the more recent (well, maybe not so recent now) comments on this article and discovered yours. My goodness, I misspelled your name about a dozen times! I apologize. I’ve corrected the spellings. Thanks for your patience and for giving such a good interview.

  5. Hi Sandy,
    I am so enjoying your writings, both this article and your article on Little India where we are going tomorrow! YAY! And your recipes, going to try your chai, first! After getting the ingredients in Little India, tomorrow! In this article, you mentioned your carpal tunnel and bursitis, I don’t know if it will help those, but it couldn’t hurt to try, my daughter and I both study nutrition, and last summer she announced that we were going to give up gluten. “Why?????” I responded, to which she replied that it is bad for our bodies… “hmmmmmm….” said I…. but we did. I had been waking up with serious shooting pain in my shoulders, was having trouble reaching back for seat belts, and was losing range of motion in my arms due to the pain. I figured it was just what happens as you age… A week or so after being gluten free, we got in her Mustang and I reached back for the seatbelt. It took a few seconds before I realized I had clicked it in place and had felt no pain. “Huh???” Hey, maybe she really is on to something there!!! I realized I was no longer waking up in the night with shooting pain, either, and I had full range of motion back. As a clincher for me, we had something with wheat in it after a while, actually 3 days in a row, and the pain started coming back. Lesson learned. I still eat wheat every now and then, I just try to limit gluten as much as I can and am aware of the consequences…. I certainly would suggest trying a gluten free diet for a week or two to anyone suffering from joint pain, it can’t hurt and may make a huge difference. Hope it works as well for you as it has for me! I don’t even have anywhere near the back pain I used to have! Turns out gluten is toxic to some degree to about 90% of the population. Who knew??? Hope this helps!! Trader Joe’s has a lot of gluten free products and Udi [sp?] bread isn’t too bad, not as good as regular, but still, to be pain free, it is GREAT!!! LOL!!! They have it at TJ’s, too… They have a whole line of gluten free bread products.

  6. This was a great article Sandy – it does seem as if the traditional route is flawed nowadays. Even when you Have an agent and seem like you hit the holy grail, you don’t. Good article.

    • admin says:

      Hi, Elyse! Glad you liked the article. When I found myself in the publishing culture with its toxic structure, I knew I had to find another way. Best of luck!

  7. EW Greenlee says:

    Nice article. I’m a CPA, so I know a little how professionals can be. You’d be surprised how many people feel they can do their own tax returns with comments like, “It’s not all that hard, the software does all the work.”

    As an epic fantasy author, I just want to bring my stories to readers. That’s it! I could care less about awards and articles from my peers. In the end, it is about the risk I chose to take by self publishing, the risk all entrepreneurs take.

    • admin says:

      Hi, EW. Glad you liked the article. Yes, the most polished and effortless-seeming products require the most know how, put people don’t know that unless they’re well versed in the field. Accounting, economics, writing.

      I think you’ve got exactly the right attitude toward self-pubbing. It’s readers we want, not glory. Most of the time, I also want glory and lots of money, so I torture myself a lot. Maybe I’ll grow!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. CF Winn says:

    The psychology of Indie Publishing can be downright paralyzing. I really feel like you brought out a whole new perspective that will make many relax and just breathe a bit. I wonder how some of the bigger names would be faring now, both professionally and mentally if they hadn’t come into the industry when e-books weren’t what they are now…just imagine how many potential “big names” are struggling to publish and promote, as you mentioned, “indie-produced books that far exceeded the quality of books published by the majors”. Thanks for posting!

    • admin says:

      Hi, CF. I’m glad my article had the effect of giving some peace. I wrote the article as much for myself as anyone else.

      I published my first book in 2007, a book about spiritual practice. It was followed by Numenon: A Tale of Mysticism & Money., my first novel. The books won six national awards each, including some big ones. Numenon shot to the top of the heap. It was #1 in Mysticism in three categories and cruised around the 1,500th level in all of Amazon. The reviewers LOVED it. This went on for a year. I had no idea that this wasn’t just the way things were. And then . . . it began to slip in the rankings. Then went into free fall. Poof! I hadn’t even taken screenshots.

      With the eBook explosion, the market is so different now. I expected my next efforts to do the same thing. Nope.

      I think the four or five Really Big Guys are OK, maybe. The mid-listers are probably suffering a lot. The market’s being squeezed so much by the state of the economy and the uproar in the publishing industry, plus the explosion of indies. There’s always the issue of just how many books can a person read in a year, anyway?

      Thanks for stopping by.

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