Prologue, in which your hostess lists why she Thinks She Knows Stuff
Since I’m suggesting that other people are wrong, I figure a rundown of my own credentials (or lack thereof) is in order before we begin.
I have never taken a course in publishing. Nor have I taken classes in marketing, publicity, or any real business-related areas. The one and only management course I have under my belt was a GER my freshman year in college.
What I do have under my belt is almost fifteen years of bookselling. (Pardon me. This is my obligatory “Holy shit, that’s half my life” pause. Okay. Better now.) That’s split between being out on the front lines in an independent bookstore and working for one of the top publishers in the U.S. I haven’t clawed my way up any corporate ladders. I’m fairly low on ye olde totem pole. (I’m okay with that, by the way.) But that doesn’t mean I don’t hear about things that work and things that don’t within the industry.
I also have this crazy idea that, if I ever buckled down and finished something, I might be able to produce something worthy of being published myself. Which means I’m immensely interested in how one would go about finding an agent, submitting a manuscript, and going through the whole process of getting my words into bound form.
There are people out there on the internet who have been doing all three of those things successfully, for far longer than my measly fifteen years in the industry. They are authors and editors and agents. They have blogs and websites and participate in forums and comments sections of other writerly blogs. Some of them are over there in my links. More are in the links section of my hiatused book blog, which I need to port over to here. I read their words. I subscribe to several e-newsletters that dissect and discuss the goings-on in the industry.
It’s a different kind of education, but one I find to be just as valid as the guy who took a couple of classes this one time but never worked a day in a bookstore.
The Juicy Bits, in which your hostess finally gets to the frickin’ point
Though it was the article linked in the post below that sparked this rant, that wasn’t the first time someone’s come along suggesting he or she knew how to Clean Up the Industry. It won’t be the last. Words sound pretty. Speculation is fun. But while grand theories dreamed up in the middle of a seminar look great on paper and can generate some good discussion, that doesn’t mean they’re the right solutions. It doesn’t mean they’ll work.
When I think about the different kinds of people claiming they can fix all the problems in publishing, I find that they fall into three categories: the scammers, the snobs, and the starry-eyed. There might be more, and there might be grey areas. But let’s start with these for now.
The scammers are, of course, the lowest of the low. They don’t really want to fix anything. As a matter of fact, they like things just as they are. These are the “agents” and “publishers” (yes, quotation marks are appropriate here) who want new writers to believe that publishers are filled with dastardly elitists who will never give your manuscript a chance, ever, and that agents are lazy bastards who take 15% of your hard-earned money for making photocopies and stuffing envelopes.
They don’t want the publishing industry to change. Or maybe they simply don’t care if it does. What they want is to convince naive writers that there’s no hope of ever getting a foot in the door with the big houses, so hey, fork over your life’s savings to us and we’ll get your name in print. The scam agents pretend they’re talking to editors at large publishing houses.
The scam publishers might actually produce a book for you, but it’s never getting into bookstores. Well, not unless you do the legwork yourself, buying tons of copies directly from the “publisher” and hoofing it over to your local store. Booksellers get pitched by local authors year round, people who self-published a book and want it on the shelves. They think it’s just as good as the commercially published books. Often, you don’t even have to read the first page to see that it’s not; the shoddy cover art’s going to tip you off right away.
Scammers don’t care if your books look professional. They don’t care about how well-written or even coherent your story is. Often, their idea of “editing” is to run your manuscript file through a spellchecker. Are there legitimately good writers with books in the clutches of scammers? Absolutely, yes.
But unfortunately, they get the good writers along with the bad to buy into their screed that the publishing industry is out to get you.
So they pretend that they want change, and that they’re on the writers’ side, but what they really want is money, and the only side they’re on is their wallets’.
This is the category into which our friend from the previous post falls.
“Books have lost their souls! Editors have SOLD their souls to sell crappy books! Shame, shame, shame on you all!” /flails about, gnashing teeth and rending garments
Books serve many, many purposes. They can be educational, enlightening, thought-provoking, fun. They can make you better informed or help you escape from stress for awhile. They help you connect with other people, whether you’re theorizing in a shared fandom or whether you’re reading something that helps you understand someone else’s point of view.
The Snobs, while wailing that no one reads anymore, want to make books even less accessible to the average reader. Their Publishing Utopia would make even the Scammers’ version of Big Snobby Publishing look warm and inclusive.
They want All Literary Books All the Time. They’re looking for some new Golden Age of publishing, where you’ll never set foot in a bookstore and have to pass by all those horrible, horrible trashy books that the peasants so enjoy.
And yet, Mr. Wolff there seems to think publishers can still make money hand over fist while churning out only worthy contenders for the Nobel and Man Booker Prizes.
Now, some of you have heard me go on long, angry rants about authors that have made millions of dollars and whose books, frankly, suck. I’ve quite often wondered how they got picked up in the first place, and what it is that the people who read them find worthwhile. I talk about how much crap gets published. That, I won’t deny.
I recognize that people are reading the very books I turn my nose up at. They’re enjoying them, and it gets them to … gasp… read MORE books! Which helps out booksellers, and authors both old and new, and brings in even more readers when they recommend things to their friends.
Books are entertainment. Just because certain titles don’t entertain me doesn’t mean they should never see print.
Because as soon as I say “I don’t like that kind of book. It shouldn’t have been published,” not only am I practicing censorship, I’m also throwing the door wide open for someone to come look at the books I love and for them to say the same.
To take it out of the intellectual snobbery level, let’s look at cold reality.
Your moneymakers – the Pattersons, the Grishams, the Kings, the Rowlings, and, yes, the Meyers – allow publishers to take a chance on the smaller books, the debut authors who are never going to see a print run above 25,000 copies in hardcover. Though, sometimes you get a Lovely Bones out of that lot, or a Time Traveller’s Wife, and suddenly this little book by someone no one’s ever heard of before is going back to press, becoming a bestseller, being talked about all over the world.
But, of course, once something’s popular, the Snobs’ll look upon it with disdain, won’t they? (Unless, of course, they can say “I read it before anyone else noticed it.”)
It just doesn’t make sense to me. I will freely admit, I’m a snob about the books I read. There are titles that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, books I’ll tell my friends they shouldn’t either — but if they want to read them anyway, I’m not going to look down my nose at them or disown them, or declare that they aren’t True Readers.
The idea of all bookshelves everywhere being filled with only the modern-day equivalents of Joyce’s Ulysses makes me shudder.
These are the people who, like the two categories above, see something inherently wrong with the publishing industry and decide they’re going to fix it all by themselves. They often repeat a bit of the Scammers’ manifesto – the industry is too exclusive! No one gives the little guys a chance! And some of them either buy into the Snobs’ point of view, or at least believe their own books are Better Than All That Other Crap Out There, and deserve more of a shot than the other authors waiting their turns in the slush piles.
They may be like our pal Mr. Wolff, who have taken a course and argue that it’s all about passion yet jump up and down about how you could be raking in money hand-over-fist.
Let me clear this up right now: you don’t go into the book industry to become a millionaire. You just don’t. Most authors do not make enough from advances and royalties to quit their day jobs. Sure, big fancy editors get to go to big fancy parties, and make good money, but you have to work long and hard to get to that point. You know how you do it? By buying good books that people like to read, by cultivating good relationships with authors and agents and bears, oh my. (Okay, okay, there aren’t any bears writing books. I don’t think.)
A lot of the Starry-Eyed are simply poorly informed.
They think agents are out to get them. Hint: they’re not. A literary agent does so much more than photocopying your manuscript and making a couple of phone calls. That’s a whole other post, and honestly, one that’s already been written a million times better by some of the people I have linked over to the side.
They think publishers are out to get them. Hint: they’re not, either. Aside from editors who make your book better than it was, publishers have marketing departments to get the word out about your book. They produce seasonal catalogs that booksellers read when selecting the books they’re going to sell over the next few months. They do all the work that an author shouldn’t have to – promoting, setting up appearances and signings, making you look good.
They often even think booksellers are out to get them. Hint: oh, you know what I’m going to say. The Starry-Eyed will often wander into their local bookstore, with their pitch ready to go, and get angry when the booksellers say no. The accusations of “you don’t know quality writing when you see it!” and “You’re biased against self-published books!” come out. It’s not the case. Not at all.
I’ve spoken to one bookseller who gets at least one local self-published author a week coming into the store to talk about selling books on consignment. She has a few titles that have been there for years and never sold. Imagine if she accepted every single book that crossed her threshhold. Where would she put the books that do sell?
Understand – this is not to say that self-publishing is bad. It absolutely isn’t. I’ve seen it done successfully and professionally… often by people who already have an idea of how the industry works. While they may be looking to make a change, they’re not flinging insults left and right while they do it.
Can the Starry-Eyed make a good go of it? Certainly. The problem comes when they envision sweeping changes without ever digging in and learning about the reality of the publishing industry. You can read up on it all you want, take courses until you bleed ink, but unless you’ve spent time working at a bookstore or for a publisher, I’m just not convinced that you can truly fathom how everything fits together.
Unless. (Watch me second-guess myself!) There are, as I’ve said a million times, people out there who know far more than I do. They blog, they write articles for Publishers Weekly, and they’re honest and up-front about it. If the Starry-Eyed were to read their words and take them to heart – which means, honestly, dropping the “I know more than you do,” or the “I’m thinking out of the box; you’re just set in your ways” attitudes – THEN I think they could make a decent go of it.
It means being willing to ask questions and take the answers into consideration. It means being able to listen to honest criticism, and having the capacity not to get offended when someone tells you it’s been done before and failed and why. It means taking a long look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and being honest with yourself.
There’s hope for the Starry-Eyed.
There’s no question that the book industry is changing. It’s happening on the bookselling side, on the publishing side, and much of that is driven by consumers. Technology is changing the way we shop for books, the way we publish them, the way we hear about them and, yes, the way we read them.
It’s an interesting time to be in this business. It’s wonderful and, at the same time, scary to watch everyone figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
I honestly believe the trick is to be willing to work with the people who are already watching the trends and learning what comes next, not declaring oneself an independent thinker who knows better than everyone else. Publishing is too small a world for that.