Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Publishing Article

Noted author and raconteur Garrison Keillor has an article out
about the publishing biz nowadays. He laments the passing of the old way, the traditional method of publishing.

He is aptly fit to pass sentence, having been an outstanding performer in different media, and has promoted and supported good books and good writers. He's also right, and it is a sad thing. Sadder yet is how the publishing industry is pulling on the lid of their own coffin, and sealing it from the inside.

Awhile back, publishing companies loved books and put them out because they mattered, and sometimes they made money doing it. That model gave way to greed and stupidity, where companies went into publishing solely to make money, as if books were any other commoditized product, like oven mitts or widgets. They consolidated from many companies into the handful that now represent the majority of published books in the country.

What's been the result? Walk into a bookstore and look at the shelves full of crap that get published nowadays. I was in one last night, and felt disgust and despair. Any idiot celebrity gets a six-figure book deal to get their kisser on dozens of books, most of which are badly written by ghostwriters. About half the fiction I pick up these days is downright bad or boring, and I wind up tossing the book without finishing (years ago, I never used to do that, because there might be something of value).

There used to be editors, who worked on books so they wouldn't look bad when they went out. They've been replaced by marketing “experts,” who care nothing about quality, only sales. Few publishers accept manuscripts now, preferring to let agents screen for them. They claim it's not cost-effective to look through “over-the-transom” manuscripts. Horse poop. There are many readers in this country who would be willing to offer a thumbs up-or-down on a manuscript, if asked. A company could send an electronic version out to say, ten people, and if enough said yes, it would go up to the next level. And the company would soon figure out who were the good screeners, and reward them.

But agents work on commission, and many are reluctant to accept new unproven writers, knowing they'd get less than $500 on average for developing a first book from a new writer. They're chasing the big fish, just like the publishers. But you have to go through them now for everything first.

Garrison, in the article, talks about mailing off a manuscript to a publisher and getting it read and accepted. That seldom happens that way anymore, your chances are better of winning the lottery. Most writers of the past couldn't get read or published today, because the authors weren't famous enough or have an opening “hook.” But if they did, they'd still get read, because there is still a market for good fiction.

For years, the publishers took advantage of writers, screwing them out of money through creative, sometimes illegal, accounting practices. Nowadays, it's mostly up to the writer to do their own marketing and selling anyway.

So why shouldn't writers go with the new model? Publishers claim that their business is expensive, but Print On Demand has made it less so, and someone won't have to wait years for their accepted book to see the light of day. Here's my own example: with three good novels written (and the one I'm sending around was deemed good and salable by industry pros), it'll still take about three years for the book to hit the shelves, even if it's picked up right away. Their lag time is ridiculous. And it would take a couple of years for the next one to come out, because they'd be waiting to see how the first sold. So in the next five years, I could have one book out. But with Print On Demand, I could have about 6 out in the same time. Hmmm.

Now publishers will whine about ebooks, fewer readers, and many other things to explain why they're in trouble. But few will admit that it's partly their fault, that for years they kept strangling the geese that laid golden eggs. Now they're standing around in dead birds, looking for someone to blame.

Many publishers wouldn't know a good book if it bit them. They want blockbusters, not quality. There are countless tales of rejected books finally getting out to a hungry public and selling millions, and/or winning prestigious literary awards. One such author won a major award for a book, and resubmitted it under another name. It was rejected- by the same place that had published it!

Let's put out the same challenge to Mr. Keillor-- take out anything that would identify you or the work, and submit your next book to publishers under a pen name, and say you're a new writer. Let's see how long it takes to get published.

There are plenty of good works waiting to be published. But too often the big guys won't seek them out. And yes, there are fewer readers, and more competition for eyeballs. So you'd think they'd change, but they keep their outdated model, and ignore good writers in favor of blockbusters. Thus pass the dinosaurs.

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