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The Myth of Publishers as Gatekeepers

I read a pair of posts over on Fantasy-Faction via Magical Words on the issue of self-publishing and its effect on the publishing industry in general.  The two authors took two very different approaches to the subject, and came from two different perspectives.

You should read the two posts if you really want to understand the full context for what I’m about to write.  But in summary, one called the explosion of new authors “the writer’s plague” and decried the damaging effect of much of self-publishing has had on publishing and English literature; the other expounded on how a self-publishing signal-boosting contest run by Mark Lawrence was “revitalizing” SFF.  The first comes across as very elitist even if it’s not meant that way, and the second is a massive exaggeration.  SFF is being revitalized by a large number of factors, of which one is certainly gems in the rough discovered from self-publishing.

But how does that relate to my post title?  Well, as often happens in self-publishing discussion, accusations of dreck-peddling by self-publishers and of elitist snobbery from fans of trade publishing came up several times in the comments to the two posts.  The existence of snobbery towards self-publishing and the justification for it are a mixed bag of truths that people rarely stop to examine.  But they should be examined.

Is and Why Is So Much Self-published Writing Crap?

Yes, a great deal of self-published SFF (and literature in general) is dreck.  So is s portion of trade published SFF.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Publishers have an investment in their lists and therefore want to do as much as possible to be sure they pan out.  And so they engage in editing and proof-reading.  These costs come out of author profit for obvious reasons.  Many self-publishers do not to to the same lengths as trade-publishers to ensure the quality of the work.  This is for many reasons.  They are more likely to have a biased view of the quality of their work as studies have shown it is much harder to be objective about your own material and also because they may not have written enough or studied writing enough to know how badly they’ve misjudged their work.  Trade-published authors can suffer from the same issue, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for.  Further, good editing costs money.  That’s why authors fork over s much of the profit to publishers and agents.  Which leads to the second issue.
  2. There’s nothing stopping you from publishing your trunk novels and high school angst poetry.  Self-publishing costs as much as you want to invest.  Stock covers and raw drafts and a few hours can get your book “published”.  This tends not to result in very good books.

 

People Misunderstand the Character of Publishers as a Business

Although publishers provide publishing services such as editing and cover design, publishers are not service companies.  Lulu, Lightning Source, and CreateSpace are examples of publishing  service companies.  You can pay them money for services.  There are many free-lance service providers.  But what they will not do is “buy your book”.  Which is itself a mis-characterization of what publishers do.  Publishers do usually buy the various copyrights associated with your intellectual property.  They don’t buy the intellectual property, though, only the license to produce a product from it.

But what publishers really are is venture capitalists.  Turning a manuscript into a quality book product is expensive.  Printing that book is expensive.  Just like a tech start-up tries to attract venture capital to start a business when they don’t have the money themselves, an author is something like a book start-up.  But they rarely have the money to take the risk on making, marketing, and selling their product themselves.  So the publisher comes in and looks at the product and if they think they can make money by fronting the author the money to produce and sell the book, they make an offer.

Now, the skills to produce a quality book from a manuscript are almost entirely unrelated to the skills required to produce a manuscript.  So not only does the publisher front the money, they provide the services in-house.  Their large reserves of capital allow them to take the risk of providing these services with no guaranteed ROI.  If the publisher publishers your book and it tanks, you don’t owe them the cost of production, nor do you owe them the advance on royalties for selling them the various license rights to the finished product.

It is the combination of these two aspects of a publisher that seem to cause people confusion.

Publishers Are Not Gatekeepers

Many people when self-publishing was just getting started were doing it because they couldn’t get accepted by a trade publisher.  Their product was not believed to be marketable enough for the publisher to risk an investment.  Publishers don’t give a shit about the quality of your manuscript.  They care about the commercial viability.

This is why you see so many books published by trade publishers that are total shit writing-wise, or you think are total shit.  Snookie’s memoir is going to sell a ton of copies and make a bundle regardless of the quality of her ghost-writer.  When you are a debut author of fantasy or SF or whatever, the publisher has no way to judge the risk involved in publishing your manuscript, except for their experience in publishing other manuscripts from debut authors.  And many books fail, or at least don’t succeed massively.  The publisher has to have a way to recoup these losses.  That’s why you get such harsh terms in your contract.  The few major sellers and many minor sellers have to not only pay for the non-sellers, they also have to pay the bills and then produce a profit.

No one is stopping your from publishing your book.  A publisher is not preventing you from being on bookstore shelves.  The bookstore is the gatekeeper, although honestly, would you go in and yell at Shark Tank or Walmart for not investing in or stocking your amateur product?  No, you wouldn’t.  Because that’s silly.  Publishers are investors with services-added, and they have no obligation to invest in your product/company/brand.

Agents Are Not Gatekeepers

Similarly, an agent is a company offering services.  Services on commission.  They are not a gatekeeper trying to screw over brilliant but misunderstood works of art.  If they think your manuscript will make them money, they take it.  On spec.  No charges.  For which you agree to pay them a percentage on future profits.  If no publisher takes on the book, you don’t owe any money.  In fact, the agent is out time and money on your book that they could have spent elsewhere.

Publishers Accepting Only Agented Manuscripts is not Gatekeeping

If you need an agent to get your work considered by a publisher, it’s not “gatekeeping”.  Well, it is, technically.  But gatekeeping is not a crime.  It takes me four or five hours to read a standard-length fantasy novel.  If a publisher would receive a reasonably-expected 10,000 manuscripts a year, that’s 40,000 hours.  If they pay minimum wage to their first readers–which would be stupid, because knowing whether a book is potentially commercial is a high-skill job–that’s $320,000 a year just on the first screening of a manuscript.  Let’s say 10% of those manuscripts are worth a second look by a more experienced reader, or even just a second read by another first reader.  $32,000 a year.  That’s equivalent to an entire employee position.  Why in the world would you expect someone to provide you that service for free?  Some entire businesses have net profits less than $352,000.

Publishers want agented manuscripts because then that process is already completed, and without them paying for it.  Shit, the agent doesn’t even get paid for it.  Do you as an author really want to be shelling out a minimum of $32 a manuscript submission?  If you submit to 10 publishers, that’s $320 out of pocket for a manuscript that is unlikely to be picked up.

Now imagine that, but you’re paying for all the costs associated with production of the final text and the printing.  You’d rather be paying for that?  Please.

 

The Pros and Cons of Trade Publication

 A trade publishing deal takes care of all the technical aspects of publication and getting space on bookstore shelves.  Publishers are respected brands.  You can expect to sell many copies on name recognition of the publisher alone.  I know that a book published by Orbit or Tor with an interesting cover blurb has a strong chance of being worth my time and money.  And you get thousands of dollars up front, which you will keep even if the books sells not a single copy.

But you do have to get accepted by a publisher, probably pay an agent, sign over your copyrights, and for a general average of 10% of the cover price in royalties, and you have to pay back your advance with sales before you get more money.

 

The Pros and Cons of Self-publication

You retain full creative control, keep all the copyrights, and get a far larger share of the profits.

In exchange, you front all the money for production and have to source and compensate your own talent.  If you are wasting your money on a bad book, tough luck.  And you might honestly not realize the low quality or commercial value of your manuscript.

 

Snobbery

So, you often hear complaints about snobbery from trade-published authors or trade publishers and readers towards self-published works.  There’s no inherent reason for this, of course.  Great books have been self-published and horrible books have been trade-published.

But!

There is practical reason for this snobbery, condescension, etc.  Readers get burned by self-published works all the time.  There are tons and tons of horribly written, edited, and produced self-published works.  The majority of them suffer from fatal flaws.  And there are hundreds of thousands of them.  Why in the world would a reader want to run those odds when the odds are much better (though far from perfect!) when going with a trade-published work?  That’s a silly expectation.

But!

There are many reasons an author might choose to self-publish besides they couldn’t hack it in the trade publishing world.  That creative control can be very handy.  There are many horror stories of publishers fucking over authors in contracts or with rights reversion.  There are horror stories of shitty or racist/sexist/etc covers an author has limited say in.  There are terrible stories about marketing from trade publishers for midlist books.  If you happen to have the necessary skill-set for publishing and marketing a book, it may be a much better choice to self-publish.  Hugh Howey got a trade publishing deal for print, but he kept e-book rights because is was financially sensible for him to do so given his success in that format.  He should be applauded for that decision rather than looked down on.

Maybe the writer knew they could make more money by ignoring the desires of the publisher.  If you can sell more shitty pulp novels at a higher royalty than you could a better quality novel through a publisher, who’s to say you shouldn’t, if profit is your goal?  (As long as you aren’t deceiving readers, in my opinion.)

Signal to Noise and Target Audience

The elitism in trade publishing is both misplaced and understandable.  The signal-to-noise ratio, or ratio of good books to bad, is drastically higher in self-publishing.  But it’s important to remember that even if an author is self-publishing because they couldn’t get a trade deal, it doesn’t automatically mean their books is terrible.  They may have a brilliant work that targets a niche market.  The publisher may have liked the book but felt they lacked the expertise to sell to its specific audience.  Perhaps it could have made profit but not enough.  Perhaps there was a glut in the market.  Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.  Maybe it didn’t fit the publisher’s brand.  Maybe it didn’t match any editor’s taste.

The sheer number of books being published today does make it a lot harder for even a brilliant story to stand out from the crowd.  Even though even more of the crowd of published books these days aren’t good.  It’s perfectly legitimate to complain about that.  Or to not read self-published authors because as a reader you’ve found it’s not worth your time.  There are more quality trade-published SFF books in the world than I could afford in terms or either time or money.  The review blog I participate in doesn’t review self-published books because we haven’t found it to provide us the same value as readers or reviewers.  There’s nothing snobby about that.  No one owes your book their time or money.  You may have a quality book that doesn’t succeed the way you want it to, and it doesn’t have to be malicious.

 

Conclusion

I am 100% against condemning other’s publishing decisions.  But I think it’s reasonable to discuss them.  If I think a writer might have done better to trade publish than self-publish, I’ll say so.  You shouldn’t call people stupid, or cast insults because they chose a different route than you.  You shouldn’t do that even if their book sucks, unless they are misrepresenting that for personal gain.  You’re perfectly welcome to say a book sucks, though.

The tone of the first article I linked to is distressing.  It’s metaphor is insulting.  It makes a few valid points, but there’s no reason why they had to be a jerk about them.  And it makes a few invalid points, as well.  Rather than just criticizing other’s “bad” decisions, we should first seek to understand them and the context in which they occur.  And then, with that understanding, we might consider critiquing them.  Maybe.

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A Trend in Trends: Why No Genre Ever “Dies”

Trends are a major force in commercial fiction these days.  Forum threads, blog posts, magazine articles, even how-to-write books are teeming with theories on how to spot, find, catch, ride, avoid, etc whatever the hot new trend is.  Dystopian is dead, the nail’s in the coffin on vampires, and we’ve found the cure for lycanthropy.

 

But it’s actually a lot more complex than that.  Vampire books are still being picked up, dystopians are still coming out, readers are clamoring for the next John Green-style YA contemp.  And there’s a good reason for that.  The anatomy of a publishing trend can be summed up in a few easy steps:

  1. Someone, probably long ago, wrote a story.  A novel or not, doesn’t matter.  The knowledge of it has survived until now.  There may be a few similar books, but no one really connected them before now.
  2. Someone, pretty recently, wrote a story.  It happens to have some elements in common with our previously discussed story.  There may or may not be direct inspiration involved.  The story sells, possibly for a lot, possibly for a little, to some publisher.  The publisher puts some marketing behind it–or doesn’t–and it’s a huge success.  It might take a few years, but eventually, the book hits its tipping point and suddenly everyone is reading it.  It struck a note, embodied the zeitgeist, whatever.  Suddenly, whatever the topic is, it’s hot.
  3. Several people, with previous novels, novels in the pipeline, or novels on sub wrote similar stories.  They were probably tapping into the same spirit.  Whatever the reason, these books are now hot.  They’ve managed to get in ahead of the trend.  If their book was previously published, now it’s getting a bump from comparisons to the hot novel.  If it was in the pipeline, their publisher is sad they missed the trend-setter, but glad they have a quick follow-up, bound to be successful.  If the book is on-sub–and decently-written–agents are chomping at the bit to snag it and pass it off to a publisher for the big bucks.
  4. The follow-ups come out, make bank, for more or less than the original.  People were hungry for more of what the original gave them, and these feed that hunger, more or less.  Now we have a full-blown trend.  Everyone wants more, movie deals are going out left-and-right.  Now anybody who ever thought about writing a novel, or writing this kind of novel jumps on their computers, starts typing.  Inboxes are flooded with queries, everyone jumps at the shot for more money.  The market gets flooded with books.
  5. Publishers buy, put out new books as fast as possible.  These books also sell well.  People who rarely read normally buy into this new hot thing, especially after seeing the movies.  The market hits saturation.  Agents stop asking for these books.  Writers keep sending them.  Maybe some really good ones get picked up.  Some sell to publishers, some of those do well; many do badly.  Trend is “over”.
  6. Nobody wants these anymore.  Agents and publishers are all booked out.  Authors still send them.  Some are still trend-chasing but have missed the window.  Others are just writing what they want to write and had bad luck with timing.  They get told no one is looking for those books anymore.  Maybe, if they’re really lucky, and have a great hook or fantastic writing, they might get picked up.
  7. The trend is dead.  And then someone writes a new book.  It’s great.  Most people only remember one or two of the trend books, probably including the original.  (Twilight, for example.)  The book gets picked up; rinse and repeat.

 

We’re around step 5 or 6 for YA dystopian right now, near step 7 for paranormal romance.  Traditional high fantasy is around 7, as well.  This cycle is faster now, tending towards around 5 years from first book to first book, and around 3 years from first book to step 5.  And while you may have to update a few things between cycles, there will never be a point where a book becomes forever unsaleable based purely on having missed the trend cycle this time around.

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2014 in Publishing

 

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Your Opinion Does Matter: On Privilege and Conversation

I read a very interesting blog post recently.  That post was “I’m Still Here” by over on YA Highway.  Daud makes a lot of good points in this post.  About the issues of using your privilege to take over a discussion, for example.

However, she makes a key point in the post which I have to disagree with.  Particularly: “But here’s the thing: your opinion doesn’t actually matter.”  Please do click the link and read the entire post before you jump to judgement, or even conclusion.  Context is important.

But, even with that context in mind, I don’t agree with this argument.  Your opinion does matter.  What you have to be careful of, though, is that, because of historical issues that Daud explains in depth, the opinion of someone on the privileged side of a privilege debate is often taken more seriously than the opinion of someone on the other side.  That is definitely something that should be avoided if possible.

One of the supporting points Daud makes in her post is the issue of how the same conversation happens over and over again, and how that is evidence of people not listening.  But that’s not an issue of listening, and it’s not specific to discussions of privilege.  Neither side of the debate is a cultural monolith.  New people are constantly entering the conversation on both sides.  Constantly.  The same way they are in any conversation.  They weren’t there the last time.  They may have read the transcripts, if such exist.

But there’s a reason small group discussion is so common in schools.  That’s how people think and learn, by talking it out.  Until we get to the point where diversity is the default, there will always be more people to convince.  So yes, maybe you have just clicked with something that others have been discussing for ages.  That’s not called privilege, or not listening, or over-eagerness.  That’s called being new to the discussion.  Perhaps even relatively new to the planet Earth and life itself.  There’s a common saying in the writing community that every story under the sun has been told and retold a thousand times.  There’s a reason we get that repetition.  I still agree with Daud that new voices, especially privileged ones, should not be engaging in hostile, or even relative peaceful, take-overs of the conversation.  But to say that those new voices don’t count at all?  I can’t go along with that.

The following paragraph, on only talking to the privileged groups who control the structure of, in this case, publishing makes some good points, but I don’t think the transition to that from “your voice doesn’t matter” is quite so smooth as implied by Daud’s post.  That aside, I absolutely agree with the conclusion of the entire post: that rather than children or helpless invalids, minorities in publishing (and all other spheres) should be thought of as equals who are in fact driving the conversation.

Rather than muddying up that discussion, the people who are privileged on this issue should be having their own private rooms for private discussion, always remembering that those are side conversations, and that the real discussion is being arbitrated by the groups who actually have to deal with the unfair treatment, consideration, and lack of representation.  Your voice and your opinion are important, but they should be adding to the discussion, not taking space away from minority and under-privileged voices.  As a privileged person in any discussion, that’s a responsibility you must always keep in mind.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2014 in atsiko, Publishing, YA Fiction

 

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How Getting Published Has Become Like Getting Laid: Writing/Publishing is Emulating the PUA Culture of Modern Dating

While reading a thread over on AbsoluteWrite about the old adage: “You should pitch your book as a standalone-with-series-potential” I finally made the connection to a trend a lot of dating blogs talk about: trying to game the system.  Pick-Up Artists spend a great deal of time marketing–and I assume selling, or they would get a new gig–tips and tricks and even full-fledged systems for getting laid.

There’s all sorts of different people peddling different ideas, but the major idea of PUA is that women are gate-keepers (usually for sex), and that there are sure-fire ways to trick/convince them to unlock those gates.  If you aren’t getting laid, you just need to get more game, and the PUA masters can sell it to you for ten easy payments of $9.99.  These systems occasionally include good information hidden in the dross, but their main suggestion is that you need to lie, cheat, and trick women into liking you, and there are scientific reasons why and for how to do it.  In fact, you can even convince someone who doesn’t want anything to do with you that what they actually want is nothing else but you.  Hopefully you agree that that’s total bullshit, and dis-respectful at best, possible rapey at worst.

And after reading some of the response to that thread on AW, I’ve come to realize that a lot of publishing advice tends in this same direction, although it tries much harder to present itself as education and understanding of what publishers want than PUA tries to pretend it cares about women’s feelings.  Obviously gaming publishers into giving you a contract is morally incomparable to the sorts of rape-tastic, misogynistic, creepy bullshit that is most PUA, but while the degree differs greatly, the pattern of thinking is remarkably similar:

If you just do the right things, say the rights things, have the right timing, women publishers  will give you a blowjob contract, and the reason you’ve failed so far is because you just haven’t learned the rules.  Even if you’re ugly/poor/an asshole your book has some issues, you can greatly improve your chances to get laid be published, if you just learn these ten simple tricks/pick-up linesbody language cues query rules/grammar tips/plot structures.

But that’s not really how dating writing works.  These ideas teach you to lie to women compromise your story on the basis of a few trends or anecdotes coming from a small group of people, many of whom don’t really have the knowledge or experience to back up their claims.

The issue that inspired this post was about querying series vs. standalones.  And how you should pitch a standalone-with-series-potential, even if you wrote the book you’re pitching as a pure series/pure standalone, and some fairly significant changes would have to be made to fit this “rule” of querying/publisher’s desires.  Otherwise you’re committing serious publishing faux pas.  And this is just one example from a long list of writing and publishing truisms, such as “show, don’t tell” that don’t reflect the reality that much.  There’s a whole mythology behind this type of thinking, and it’s being perpetuated even more now that the writing community is so interconnected and interactive.  Someone, no matter what their platform, spouts off about these rules, and the people who hear them take it as gospel and repeat it to everyone they know.  I’m not saying anyone is doing anything intentionally malicious here.  The fact that 99.99% of this interaction is in good faith makes it all the more insidious and damaging.

I have a problem with this type of thinking for a few reasons:

A)  A lot of it is just plain untrue, or misunderstood from legitimate/contextually specific suggestions and advice.

B)  Not every situation is the same, nor do all agents/editors/authors/readers agree on every little detail.

C)  It perpetuates an idea that the rules are what get you published, explain why bad books get published/accounts for why your literary masterpiece is still seeking representation after five years and forty rounds of increasingly desperate querying.

Much like the great majority of PUA philosophy, it takes the responsibility off the shoulders of the AverageFrustratedChump author, places the authority in the hands of a few misogynist assholes merely lucky/misguided/well-meaning-but-misinformed authors/agents/editors.

That’s not to say that these people are lying, or stupid.  Just that success doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding of that success.  Eeveryone’s experience in dating writing/publishing is different, and you can’t apply every little thing to every single person.  Sometimes you just have to admit you’re boring/an asshole/have bad timing aren’t quite ready for publication/this book will never be published.

I wish I had some answers.  Some way to remove this fog of misinformation.  A sure-fire route to publishing success.  But just like everyone else, the process is always going to be just a bit beyond my full understanding, and I’ll have to take some risks, indulge in some trial and error, and eventually work my way there by hard fucking work or a bit of lucky coincidence, just like everyone else.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in Publishing

 

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Naming Names

There are quite a few idioms in our culture that involve identification.  Due to things like privacy, bias, and fear, we often want to talk about a characteristic of something without identifying what the something is.

In the case of my inspiration for this post, that something is a book.  A famous book even.  But I don’t know what that book is, because the person talking about it refused to name names.  I respect this person, a well-known blogger in the circles I frequent.  I have probably read this book.  I would love to know what book they are referring to, because I would love to hear their opinion on it.  But for some reason, they feel uncomfortable expressing a public opinion on the subject.

I wonder why.  You see this all over the place, and especially in writing circles.  And I honestly don’t see a concrete reason why it should be that way.  I have some guesses as to why in some cases, but there’s nothing that defines clear, deserved consequences for breaking this apparent social rule.

First, there’s probably a desire to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.  In this case, referring to a published book by a famous author, I don’t think they really need that amount of protection from hurt feelings.

Second, I often hear people worrying about getting black-balled by the industry.  Now the fame of the author might be relevant, but I don’t know of any serious cases where this has actually occurred.  So again I wonder at this omission.

Third, since there does seem to be a a set etiquette here, there’s the desire to appear to be playing by the rules and not being rude.  Which probably makes the most sense out of all the reasons I can think of.

There are probably a lot more reasons, major and minor, that I haven’t thought of.

Any thoughts?

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in Authors, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

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