The Publishing Biz

Once I saw this PBS thing about the Beatrix Potter story—how she’d inked her charming illustrations and written the stories to match and finally, bucking civilized behavior, actually found herself a London publisher to make all of this into books.  The thing in the story that amazed me and filled me with what was honestly yearning was this:  the relationship between publisher and artist; it was like the deliberate formation of family.  Beatrix didn’t always hand her publisher something that was perfect for publication.  But he had taken on her career, not just one book or two.  He had signed her on for the long haul, and he brought her along – pruning and teaching and nurturing her talent.  They worked together to make something beautiful that would last the ages, and they were friends all through her life.

There weren’t a million books published every year in those days.  And while, of course, profit was the point of the business, and while every business hopes for some kind of hit that will make it wildly successful, I think people had more time and patience – looking for authors they could establish long term relationships with, bringing their authors along and creating a strong vein of literature together.

It just seemed so personal.  So human.

As I understand it, F.S. Fitzgerald was a fairly horrible writer.  His quirky characters and edgy, relentlessly contemporary stories sold him to editors who had to reconstruct them using language people could decipher.  I wasn’t around then, so I don’t know if this is true; I was taught it somewhere along the line.  But again, here an editor or a publishing house recognizes something extraordinary in a writer and nurtures what they believe is there.

I knew of an R & R guy in the music biz maybe twenty five years ago who told us he got two hundred taped submissions a DAY from hopeful bands and artists.  How are you supposed to wade through all that hopeful material?  And editors and publishing houses?  I don’t know their numbers, but it has to be nearly that.  So much literacy.  So many people sure they’ve got a hit on their hands.

Couple that with this shift in the business of selling books – the mom and pop book stores closing all over the country.  Middle sized book sellers gone.  The huge ones beleaguered.  Hard to find a place where you can cruise the aisles and run your finger across the backs of likely books.  Now, you have to find them on Amazon.  At least you pay less when you stumble on something that looks (sounds?) promising.

The last year I was on the ALA Best Book list, there were two hundred books on it.  I think I was shocked.  I wouldn’t have guessed there were that many books even published in a year.  But these were only the elite out of maybe a thousand.  We’ve been drowning in books.  And judging from any number of published things I’ve picked up, a lot of this stuff is – ummm – less than stellar.  But still – published.

So when you’ve got a burgeoning supply and a dwindling demand  – and when your portals are closing right and left – you’ve got trouble, my friend.  You’ve got publishers having to cut down their editorial and production staffs.  You’ve got editors who are doing twice as much work as they used to do.  If you’re me, you’ve got a manuscript sitting on each of two NY desks for almost two years – liked by the editors, but still without contract.

The bottle neck is at once too wide and too narrow.  Way too narrow if you’re an author wanting to be read.

The way it used to be, you’d write your book (and hopefully re-write it fifty or so times), then write a query letter.  You’d search Writer’s Market or find some other way of getting a publisher’s info, then send the letter – and wait six months for an answer.  If the answer was “send,” you’d send and then wait another six months, hoping that the eventual response would be a single paged acceptance rather than a fat envelope with your returned, dogeared manuscript in it.

If the book had caught the editor’s attention (and here’s the chancy part: the editor who ended up with your manuscript might not like it, while the editor at next desk down would have loved it), she’d work with you on it – giving you instructions about how to make it better – so that she could hand it to the readers and take it to the publishing committee.  After all that, the committee would either take it or not take it.  And if they took it, then came the almost year-long process of editing and copy editing and cover design and printing and shipping.

Now, authors fish for agents the way they once fished for publishers.  Agents have become the first sieve you have to pass through. And unless you live in New York and travel in publishing circles, HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT AGENT TO APPROACH?  You actually sort of need an agent to FIND an agent.  And once you get one’s attention, that agent reads your stuff and passes judgement – on the story, the genre, the writing – all from her own point of view.  And agents have no problem rejecting you.  You’re a dime a dozen.  Even if you’ve had past success.  (Does this begin to sound like a personal experience?) Again, Agent A may hate the book while Agent B would love it.  But you don’t know which is which.  In fact, you have no idea how to find Agent B in all that city mess out East.


And your book has to be perfect.  Because that’s all editors have time for.  Books that are perfect.  Not interesting authors they can bring along.  But perfect hit books.  And they get them.  Because the agents have become editors and the editors have become – gateways.  And when you, as the gateway, have so many perfect submissions to choose from, all you have to do is pick your ten perfect hits a year.  Publishing houses have no time for potential, now.  And once you write them a really great book that sells well (Harry Potter really warped the YA market expectations), there’s no guarantee your house will even consider a second book.  Which means you start all over again with your second book, knocking hat-in-hand at some agent’s kitchen door.

Some authors start out by aiming at the hot genre (like SF and Fantasy or Urban Fantasy).  Usually, I have to warn you, the ones who do well are the ones whose minds and imaginations were already there – not necessarily first.  I just mean, the best ones were already “living” in that genre.   And sometimes authors publish themselves. (Here, a word of caution – there are, in this business as in the music business, shysters who pass themselves off as publishers – they take your copyright and they charge you big fees – and you get nothing in the end.  With no way to get your money back.  The “publisher” simply says your book doesn’t sell.  And they have your rights.  Be VERY careful of that trap – this is NOT a personal experience, by the way.  If it feels too good to be true or too easy or not right, then get out of there.)

Real self publishing is a lot of work.  You have to write the book, then re-write (find yourself a knowledgeable reader/editing advisor), design the book itself, then the cover, then find a printer you can trust and afford – then promote yourself all over the place.  It’s exhausting.  You have to do a large enough run to keep the single unit price down.  And then you have to warehouse the twenty to hundred boxes of books somewhere.  And fulfill orders – which means invoicing, processing checks, shipping.   If you sell enough books on your own to get some media attention (and it’s not all that likely you will), you may get the attention of the big publishing houses.  Of course, if you sell enough – you may not CARE whether you get their attention or not.

The interesting thing that’s happening now in both music and books is happening because of social media and the internet.  Self-publishing becomes a whole different thing if you can use social media to gather an audience and sell to them.  When The Alien was in the middle of selling it’s 110,000+ copies, there was no way to establish a network of readers.  I wish I could find them all now.  I have email addresses from many who wrote – but man, so many of those aren’t active anymore.  And you do have to stop and consider that returning a fan letter with hype for your next book might be construed as less than gracious.

So you learn to work the market a new way.  To find the people who love to read you.  And if you can do it, then you can develop this lovely little symbiotic relationship:  you provide them with dreams and words and catharsis, and they pay your mortgage.  It could be a beautiful thing.

I am not the person to tell anyone how to do this.  The person who can do that is Tracy Hickman, and you can find him at ScribesForge – there’s a link on my navigation bar.  It’s worth a look.  Tracy is a New York Times best selling author, and a very smart guy.  Take a trip on over there and see what he has to say.  Or find yourself a copy of Writer’s Market, pick a publisher or an agent out of that collection, write a query and give it a go.  It’s work.  It’s a lot of heartbreaking work – unless you’re inordinately lucky. Or unusually talented.  Or at least, your stuff, good or not, has hit the market where it lives at the moment.  And some people have been lucky – like one person in every several hundred thousand.

The hard thing about writing is this: you write a song, you can sit on your porch on a summer evening, strum your guitar, and charm the neighbors with it.  Then the song is real.  But with a book – it’s not real till somebody reads it.  And they can only do that one at a time.

So maybe the end of all this is to ask you – have you considered giving your life to song writing???


Tagged with 

2 thoughts on “The Publishing Biz

  1. W-S Wanderings says:

    Has the “great faith in a seed” been lost? Thoreau would be disappointed, perhaps, but still expecting wonders.

    The site is looking great, as I shyly poke about it. Compelling reading. And I know your words are rife with wonderment.

    • I think yes, that nobody’s interested in seeds anymore. They want quick results, sprung whole from the forehead of Target and Amazon. Nobody has time to love any more. And that is a sad darned thing. And don’t be shy as you poke, because, darn it, mi casa es su casa – always.