Whitespace E: The Publishing Industry
Shady hillside in Okaloosa County, FL

Skreyola's White Pages

- Whitespace E -

Glasses resting on an open book

- The Publishing Industry -

by Lincoln Sayger

967 wds.
First published on February 9, 2003

"Nothing written for pay is worth printing. ONLY what has been written AGAINST the market."

--Ezra Pound (1885-1972), U.S. poet, critic.

"Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened."

--George Orwell (1903-50), British author.

"You've only got to look around you to realize that most books that get published are NOT good."

--Nick Lowe

"Predictability, you see, even though we use the term disparagingly, has become in recent years a very bankable commodity in SF and fantasy publishing. The publishers know the public knows what it wants: it wants more of the same. Safe books. No surprises. Familiar surroundings from page one. And this means that even writers with considerable literary pretensions have had to learn the Art of the Predictable as part of the basic equipment of their trade."

--Nick Lowe

I have seen a lot of discussion lately, and in years past, about what a writer must do to get published, about all the tips and tricks, about layout and catching a reader's interest and a hundred different facets (usually of the first chapter) that a writer must make work for his or her novel. Many of them are garbage; a few are good advice for a person who is serious. One thing that I know from the words of other authors is that there are maybe three hard-and-fast rules you must follow if you truly want to be a writer. Nearly every 'rule' has been broken, and broken well, by some skillful writer who surprised the critics and made a wonderfully successful book. But there is one thing I definitely believe a writer should not have to do: I don't believe a writer should try to pander to publishers' whims and "quick read" criteria.

These criteria were not developed to help editors find good books among the mountains of submissions they receive. They were developed to help editors get through that pile of manuscripts more quickly. It is not respectful of the craft of any writer for an editor to thumb through the first few pages and make a decision based on the criteria that are discussed by writers' self-help groups. A writer shouldn't have to go through that. A writer shouldn't have to sacrifice his or her style to get a good book published (and a writer of bad books shouldn't be published at all).

Perhaps that seems self-indulgent to you. Perhaps you feel that indicates that a writer is not serious about being published. Before you decide on that, think about the point for a minute.

Consider this: Is it reasonable for a group of people; who, on the whole, do not take the time to read the books they decide whether or not to buy for the purpose of publication; to tell writers that they are the only, or even the foremost, authority on whether or not a book has merit?

I say, certainly not! I wonder why any writer listens to those people. The publishing industry, as I am given to understand it, is not at all designed to help writers of good books get those books published. As Nick Lowe pointed out, "most books that get published are NOT good." The publishing industry is designed to make money for the publisher. Most first-line editors in most publishing houses, by all accounts I have read, spend less than five minutes on any one submission. Most of them return full manuscripts without even looking at them. Most of them make their decision of whether or not to even read your full manuscript by looking at what you put in your query. If you don't produce a good query letter, the editor won't give you a second look, even if you are the next Heinlein, Hemmingway, or Homer. The industry is designed to favor the publisher by forcing writers to wring themselves through a machine process which crushes and stamps them into pre-defined shapes. Frankly, I don't think an author, who has spent more hours on a book than any publisher will spend on the same book, should have to master not only the art of writing but also the art of politics. Many writers don't have the stomach for it, and the world loses their brilliance in favor of the cookie-cutter crap you find with increasing frequency on bookstore shelves.

This whole model of the mighty publisher granting audience to the writer, who only has worth if noticed by some magnanimous publishing house, is archaic and creaky. With the technology available today for publish-on-demand, it is sinful that every good writer has to compete with, and lose to, countless hacks for a place on a bookstore shelf. It is terrible that many good writers are turned away from publishers because their works are not "what's selling these days" without even being given the chance to prove that their work will sell. Many publish-on-demand outfits require authors to pay to have their books published. This is not how the system should work. The author has put all the work into the book, and the publisher makes a profit whether the author recoups the investment or not. That's right. I am describing what was once called the vanity press. I say once because it isn't just those writers who have no business being published and pay for the vanity of having their own books to show off who are forced to go this route. I believe that due to the rivers of bad fiction flowing into the major and minor publishing houses, editors can't take the time to find the good authors, and if those good authors want to be published, this may be their only route. If I had the time to re-locate the information, I could tell you the names of at least four authors who are now big celebrities, whose books (not their false starts but the books that made them famous) were rejected time and time again by publishers, and of some publishers who are now kicking themselves for not buying the publishing rights to certain books, which eventually made their competitors thousands of dollars.

Publishers need to change their business model, because they can't count on the idea that some kid won't get the bright idea of opening a publishing house that caters to authors. Someone will eventually put that idea into practice, and if they play their cards right, they could topple the whole industry of traditional publishing. I have some ideas on that, but that's another discussion for another day... unless you have some venture capital, in which case I'll be glad to discuss it with you now.



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