Publishing – The Big “Thing” and how America reacts to it.
Here’s how America works. It seems to be the same in every industry, and every walk of life, and we are in a particularly good seat at the moment to watch the entire process unfold yet again. Someone invents something, makes something, or something that already existed somehow gains new traction and becomes a “thing”. The minute this happens, the gears start turning. While the originator of “the thing,” and the first few copy-cats out the door will do well, eventually people wanting to capitalize on “the thing” have to branch out. Suddenly there will be services to help you do what the originators did. There will be books about why it is successful, and how to emulate that success – mostly be people who have not done so, and - if they COULD do so – would BE doing so. Marketing schemes will rise. Consultants on how to do that marketing will rise. Analysts will roll out the adding machines and we’re off to the races. Half of what we spend our money on (and this is a conservative guess) could cost a lot less by simply cutting away the layers of industry that have been built around the original “things” – and the greed of the long string of leeches living off of them. This, of course, is a habit it’s hard to break. People have to work, and in among all the leeches, there are genuinely helpful, knowledgeable people trying to help. None of that is the point.
The point of this post is that Publishing – as an industry – is a perfect example of old school exclusivity, and a somewhat crumbling tower of layers it is going to have to shed to carry on very far into the future. In the old school model, it’s hard as hell to get a book published. They liked it that way (still like it that way) because it makes them seem somehow god-like and important. It gives them the leverage to control people and “things” that they could not otherwise. The same is true of agents. Somehow it has reached the point where authors vie desperately for the attention of these folks – writing what they are told, when they are told and absolutely terrified of doing anything else. The rulers of the industry would like you to believe that all of this is based on the quality of the work- that the agents and editors choosing the books being published are the cream of the crop from all possible sources – that they have magical powers that make their judgment calls the cornerstones of literature. Let’s be frank – those cornerstones support Fifty Shades of Crap and enough books NOT written by the celebrities whose names grace the covers to carpet a very large city. Maybe a country. There may have been a time when publishing was largely based on quality – but it is currently based on cash.
Marketing rules publishing. Hype rules marketing. You are more likely to see a pop-up picture book from Stephen King than a well-distributed book by a talented newcomer. Self-publishing and independent publishing is on the rise, but in many cases the sames rules are applying. Someone creates a “thing” and a million people rush to copy it. Ten of those million manage to do something that makes them money, the rest either rush off after the next thing, or branch out into the new surrounding industries. Those who succeed become gurus – despite the fact that becoming a “thing” is not something that they could recreate, or teach. Consultants build empires. Editing services by people with absolutely no credentials to BE editors are around every virtual corner. Services asking you to pay ridiculous amounts of money so your book can be “published” run by people who know absolutely that you have no more chance of success with them than you do without them, but that their dog will get Kibble if they convince you otherwise. A lot of these “publishing services” are run by respected agents and others whose place in the new schema is on rocky ground. These are people you would hope would be working in the best interests of their clients, but history says no. They are working in the interest of cash.
There is a great blending, as well. Agents – once very important, integral parts of the process, are mostly another blockage in the system these days. They have very limited outlets for work they can sell. If they are successful, they have clients they rely on, and the rest get little time, little consideration, and a lot of delay. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard authors say they’ve written dozens of proposals and sets of sample chapters that never got past an agent until they nearly quit writing in frustration. The odds are that agent is hedging bets by stringing them along, but is really hoping to get off the phone so they can talk to a successful client. It’s business. Another thing to remember is that, in most cases, agents are not editors. Editors, these days, have very little chance of buying something new that they really want – unless the deal is very much banked in their favor, or the product in question either is, or appears as if it might be “a thing.” Don’t count on this old standard route to get you where you want to be as a writer. Remember – despite what the Internet seems to believe – that not everyone can write. If you are good at it – you have a talent – a gift. Don’t sign that gift over to people who have no intention of helping you nourish it…and don’t spend all your time dashing after gurus. Study the market – study the new paradigm. Ask questions. There has never been a better time for talented writers, as artists, to stand up and change things.
As if it wasn’t hard enough to get through those old barriers, agents are now picking new clients from the self-published authors on the bestsellers lists – which obviously means less time for all of those people who made use of the services that helped them write their novels, edit their novels, write query letters for their novels – and submitted them in tight packages following said agent’s posted guidelines. Yeah, it’s like that. All that money wasted – all those services that really aren’t. Do you really need an entire book to show you how to write a query letter? Is there really anyone out there who can so influence your book / project / talent with their “proven formula” for ANYTHING that is more than another crutch to hold you up while the slow-moving wheels of publishing grind on past your efforts without a sideways or backward glance? Probably not. Still, I have a whole shelf of books on formatting and writing. It’s what we do.
Distributors – instead of being a convenient way for publishers to reach booksellers, they are now set up to make it more difficult for any but their chosen clients, or those who bow down to ridiculous demands, to get a product out there. They bully stores by only offering good deals in return for exclusivity. The bully publishers by demanding things like returns – knowing full well that just a couple of over-ordered titles could put a smaller business OUT of business.
And it’s all crumbling. As it crumbles, keep your eyes open. If something is a “service” now that was not there before, and it’s associated with “publishing” but really doesn’t seem to be… remember it’s how America works. A thousand businesses wills pop up for every new “thing” and they will prey on the 999,990 who don’t manage to immediately copy the “thing” for profit. The few that DO make it will be held up and pointed at to prove that ANYONE can do it – and there will be no articles written about the other 999,990 – it’s bad for too many businesses.
Things I’d like to see when the smoke clears:
- Authors publishing the books that move / inspire them instead of what an agent/editor says they should write.
- Editors and (if they make the cut) agents who respond promptly and remember that they work for the writer.
- A distribution system that allows independent publishers and sellers to interact fairly.
- More transparency on the financial side of the industry.
- A more cooperative world where – rather than huge advances, what authors want is steady, sustained income and impact – and where publishers don’t try to squeeze the majority of the profit out of those who created it.
I’m a dreamer, I know…but maybe that will be a “thing”.