Welcome to the dance – who’s leading…?

The news in the publishing world is all over the map today. A writer with a $500,000 deal with a traditional publisher walks away from it to go it himself: http://barryeisler.blogspot.com/ An indie/self-published writer goes running the other way and secures a $2 million deal with a traditional publisher: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2011/03/author-amanda-hocking-signs-seven-figure-four-book-deal-/1

Who’s right?!?

The simple answer is, they both are, really. These days it’s like that Cole Porter song, anything goes, and if it works FOR YOU that’s fab.

But here’s a Hocking quote, from her blog, which puts it into a little bit of a more focused perspective:

” I’m a writer. I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full time corporation.”

There is, of course, a reason that publishing houses employ a bunch of specialised employees to take care of business. There are artists whose job it is to produce covers which catch the reader/buyer eye and help to sell the book; there are publicists whose sole job is to take a title and make sure it gets “buzz” and ensure that it gets reviewed, talked about, and thus gaining sufficient interest for browsers to name-recognise a title when they are kind of browsing books in a shop and go, oh, yeah, heard about that one, might as well try it; there are distributors who deal with having the book available in stores for those browsers to catch sight of them in the first place; there are marketers whose job is advertising, and that’s not even going down to the bedrock of it all, the editors and the copy-editors who make sure that the finished and published product which is peddled to the reader is halfway coherent, as error-free as possible, and (for what it’s worth) is something that somebody other than the author, the author’s mother, and the author’s SO might think is actually – yanno – WORTH READING.

Publish yourself – and you are ALL of those people. You are the editor who is the gatekeeper and you are the editor who deals with the prose at both story level and language level. You are the distributor. You are the marketing and publicity go-to person. You are the accountant. You are EVERYTHING. What you have less and less time to be is… the WRITER. There is only one of you. These are all full-time jobs. And remember, you don’t really get paid for any of them, not until and unless your stuff takes off like a comet and you hit Hockingland – and it is instructive, to me at least, that she ran, not walked, to the two-million deal which INCLUDES having all of those other people on salary so that she can go back to doing what she really wants to do, which is write.

I honestly do think that the playing field is changing, and changing quickly – but there are very many people who were turned away from a publishing deal FOR A VERY GOOD REASON. The fact that it is now just as easy for these people to publish their work as it is for those who do it for personal reasons which are nothing to do with overwhelming rejection from “the establishment” is creating a problem which is not going to be easy to get around – what used to be known, in the old Usenet days, as the signal-to-noise ratio. This is something that has killed many a decent newsgroup in its time – it starts out focused and on-topic, but quickly gets overwhelmed by people who talk about their own bugbears or agendas (which may or may not be related to the topic of the group) or who are there to shill, or who are just there to stir the trouble pot and take a fiendish delight in doing that. In the end the “signal” gets lost in the “noise” and the original people who held the group together depart, adn the whole thing devolves into a free-for-all where nothing of any value remains to be salvaged.

I am not saying that things that might be considered utter garbage can and do get published through traditional channels – the stores of are full of these books – no, really, you can browse the racks and pick up random books and occasionally you are just stopped in your tracks by a sentence which ought to have been taken behind the publisher’s barn and shot before it was allowed to escape into a book which is on bookstore shelves begging to be purchased. It happens. It has always happened. The thing about art in general – writing in particular – is that one man’s meat always IS another man’s poison and somebody somewhere would probably want to ask that sentence which I wanted shot to marry them and have their children. That’s fine. The gatekeepers are not in place to police public tastes – and all writing is subjective, really.

But the thing to remember is that these books have been WINNOWED. And if you have never seen a slush pile, and attempted to plough through some of the stuff that their proud progenitors thought was good enough to submit to a publishing house – and yes, Virginia, I have, I have worked as an in-house editor for a publishing company at one time – you have NO idea what sort of “reading matter” lurks out there to snare the unwary. The book you hate that’s on the shelf now – the book that somebody in a publlishing company loved so much as to pay the author a humdinger of an advance and put the book out here for you to find and gag over with such glee – it’s a survivor of that slush pile. And the acquiring editors at a publishing house are what holds back the flood of the rest of it from washing up on your doorstep. And when there is NO dam to hold back ANYTHING – when YOU are expected to be the one that wades through “slush”, this time “published” and on the shelves, well, you will find that you have less and less time to try and sift through it all to find those few gems that are hiding in amongst all the raw pebbles on the shore.

There’s the problem. With everybody free to publish and proclaim their masterpiece… the readers out there are overwhelmed. And if they guess wrong three, four, five times in a row – if they pick up a self-pubbed “masterpiece” which is not a Hocking and gag on it – they are increasingly less likely to pick up more, after that.

People might hate the idea of gatekeepers but like GIlbert and Sullivan once put it, if everybody’s somebody then no-one’s anybody – there simply has to be an independent judgment on a book, other than by the author’s nearest and dearest, in order to make it genuinely deserving of being described as a good read. And in order to get that far, the product has to be pleasing to the mind (well-written), pleasing to the eye (good cover, few errors in the text) and properly promoted. And the writer who takes all that on – ensuring that all those ducks are in a row – is still, and always, working on the book that they’re trying to sell instead of the next book that they have to write.

It’s a brave new world, and we’re fighting to be the ones leading the dance when we stand up for our waltz. But who’s to know? Hold out for the trad? Go indie? What’s a writer to do these days?

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  1. 1. Monique

    I recently finished my first novel and am working on a second. I’ve been tracking the changes in the publishing industry and the self/e-publishing fields and am intrigued, but this is an articulate summation of the reasons why I would prefer not to go that route.

    It just seems to me that if my prose isn’t strong enough to snag an editor’s interest, then it probably isn’t strong enough to pull in a reader, either… which means I need to improve. What I write is pop culture spec fic — not artsy, daring indy stuff that mainstream editors can’t grok.

    Frankly, the whole submission process is a bit terrifying, and yeah, I’m dragging my feet. I’m also well aware that if I ever want to call myself a pro, then I need to get over the fear and submit the damn query letters. That’s how it’s done.

    But my Inbox is full of emails from well-meaing friends and family — “have you heard about this Hocking girl?” “Why don’t you do that?” Most of the time the comments are meant as helpful suggestions; they just want to make sure I know about this option (as though I don’t spend several hours a day on the web). But now and then a friend gets really pushy about it. “This is the future! You’re an idiot to give a publishing house such a huge percentage! Print is dead!”

    E-publishing is in its infancy, and there might be a point where some of these issues get worked out. And it certainly is the best option for some writers. But in the meantime, if I don’t have the cajones to pimp my book to an editor, I *certainly* don’t have the inclination (or time, or skill) to try and sell it person-by-person to the entire internet. Gah.

    Signal to noise — that’s pretty much it, right there. The next time one of my people links me a Hocking article, I’m going to respond with a link to this one. Thanks.

  2. 2. Gyula

    I understand your point, and agree that there are a lot of self published books which shouldn’t be out into the public.

    However, in the last year I have read the same amount of bad books in print (published by big publishers), than in e-books (from indie authors).

    The trick I use to find good books is that I listen to the people. For example I always read Amazon reviews before buying (and I filter carefully the ones which are written by possible friends or relatives of the writer).

    Personally I’m satisfied with the recent changes in publishing, because I can get good books cheaper, so I can enjoy reading more.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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