First off, thank you to everyone for your forbearance yesterday as I attended to work matters. Second, PUBLICATION ALERT for the paperback edition of FEAR, Jeff Abbott’s masterful suspense thriller, which I really enjoyed. If you’re on myspace, you can befriend Jeff here.
And now for today’s post.
Way back when in the early days of the blog, back when the blog was written in paper and then mailed to a distribution list who then called a phone chain where everyone was responsible for telegraphing the message in smoke signals… er, you get the idea… anyway, way back in March I was going to start a semi-regular feature whereby I presented a publishing myth and said Yea or Nay to said publishing myth’s validity. Then I promptly forgot about the feature. That is, until Andrew Sullivan decided to be the shotgun to the publishing industry’s clay pigeon.
So today, back like a phoenix rising from ashes of a, um, semi-frequented blog: Publishing Myths 101. Today’s myth: publishers only care about the bottom line and this is why only crap is published (but what I really mean is publishers only care about the bottom line because no one will publish my 978 page treatise on the human condition and its discontents).
First, let us trace the origins of today’s myth. In the dawn of man, back when we lived in caves, there lived a forward-thinking Neanderthal named Thad. Thad had a fantastic experience with a UFO, was chased by an evil albino, and exposed a secret society. He decided to write this story down, using newly invented devices called words. He tried to sell these words to a his friend Editorus, who carved words into stone and sold them to other Neanderthals. Editorus said no.
Thad was very distressed. First he said, “I hear Editoruses don’t edit anymore, they just carve out whatever crap they’re submitted.” Then he said, “All publishers care about is money.” Thus the myth was born.
So. You’d think a myth that has been around as long as this one would have been dispelled a long time ago. You would think wrong.
Some people probably think I’m stooping too low to even address this question (of course, such people probably don’t usually read this blog). But its persistence amazes me, and you know what, I don’t want to dismiss this out of hand. So here goes.
Publishers are businesses, agencies are businesses, businesses have to make money to put out books. Ever since Thad’s time there has always been a tenuous balance between art and commerce. There are huge massive corporations that sell a whole bunch of copies, a good deal of which is commercial and isn’t intended to be hung in an art gallery. But then again, these massive corporations also produce some of the finest works of literature ever written. And then there are small publishers, many of whom are not-for-profit (take that, myth), who are dedicated to new, innovative, overlooked voices. So which is it?
I think what is at the heart of this oft-repeated myth is the idea that people not only want idiosyncratic works to be published and find an audience, they want them to be HUGE BESTSELLERS. When a small, idiosyncratic work fails to become a HUGE BESTSELLER (or fails to be published at all) people think it is 1) the rank commerciality of publishers who are standing in the way of anonymity and bestsellerdom or 2) the stupidity and venality of the American public who don’t appreciate quality until the author has died of alcoholism and depression provoked by a public who doesn’t appreciate him (that is a topic for another day). But what is most ironic to me about this sentiment is that the same person who will decry publisher’s supposed commerciality is the same person who wants to be published and find a huge audience (and I doubt many of them offer to give the money back). So which is it, HYPOTHETICAL PERSON?
And then there are the Beatles of publishing, those Ian McEwans and Cormac McCarthys and Anne McDermotts and the Jonathans (Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer) of the world who are some of our best living writers AND are bestsellers. They tend to be published by the big publishers who supposedly only care about the bottom line, so these big mean corporations also somehow manage to produce much of our best literature.
But truthfully, at the heart of any myth there is a kernel of truth (well, except maybe this one) and I’ve had my heart broken many times by publishers who had to make a business decision over an artistic one. I don’t think publishers do this because they are evil, but because they are businesses who depend on other businesses (booksellers) who depend on customers who will buy books to keep the publishing machine running. So yes, the bottom line is important, essential even, to most publishers, but that doesn’t mean that gems aren’t published and that doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY thing that matters, particularly not for the independent presses who are dedicated to literary merit. Plus, publishers are highly functioning machines adept at giving readers what they want, and a good portion of the reading public wants quality (they also want something to read at the beach too).
So for this myth I will say: SORTA TRUE, SORTA FALSE, KINDA DEPENDS.
Hope that clears things up.
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green ray says
Hi Nathan, good to hear you spouting your usual pearls today! Really enjoyed that. A propos to this topic, what do you think it means when a big publishing exec finally reads my requested novel, writes one of the most dazzling letters I’ve ever received, but ends with she’s sorry that she can’t publish it in “a big enough way.” I think she means the big bucks. What do you think???
Nathan Bransford says
Honestly, it could mean anything. It could mean she was being nice, it could mean it wasn’t quite big enough for her to acquire, it could mean anything really.
Here’s a post on the art of reading rejection letters:
green ray says
Nathan, you have got to be the fastest agent on the planet. Do you have an alarm, telling you when a comment comes in, so you can answer it immediately? Much appreciated. I remember that post. It came soon before this terrific rejection letter. Thanks.
Nathan Bransford says
Yeah, I get an e-mail when a comment is posted. Rest assured, I’m not sitting here clicking refresh.
“But what is most ironic to me about this sentiment is that the same person who will decry publisher’s supposed commerciality is the same person who wants to be published and find a huge audience…So which is it, HYPOTHETICAL PERSON?“
HYPOTHETICAL PERSON 1: I would like to be a Jonathan.
HYPOTHETICAL PERSON 2: I wanna be recognized, but, like, I don’t need to be a bestseller, or anything like that. I’m no sellout.
HYPOTHETICAL PERSON 3: I am clearly too unique and brilliant for those “commercial” publishers to understand. I will be huge, though. You wait.
Maya Reynolds says
Thanks for the publication alert on Jeff Abbott. I discovered him about eight years ago when I was checking Amazon.com for any Harlan Coben books I might have missed (I have a crush on Win). Mixed among the Coben offerings was a book by Jeff Abbott.
I emailed Coben to ask if he was writing under a pseudonym. He responded promptly that he wasn’t, but that he knew Jeff Abbott and I needed to check out his books.
The next time I was in B&N, I took a look at “Only Good Yankee.” He had me at the first line: “There wasn’t much to begin with in Mirabeau, so I was awful surprised when someone started blowing up parts of town. I mean, we did need a little excitement–but no one in his right mind thought explosives were required.”
dr. love says
I used to wonder… can it be “art” and also be a commercial success? Sure, why not.
And though it might seem like there’s too much disposable entertainment out there, I think there’s always something for everyone.
I want to be a mega bestseller, be given tons of money by my publisher, and have people worship my very presence. OK, maybe not the last one, but definitely the first two.
I write “beach reads,” and I do think the big corporations are far more about the bottom line than the smaller presses, but even I know they still only publish stuff that at least one person in the house liked.
Your joke there about someone who says “only crap is published” but really means “nobody wants my 978 page treatise” is hysterical because it’s so damned true. I’m always surprised when people make a statement like editors only care about the bottom line. Well, yes. They don’t call it the publishing “biz” for nothing, do they?
But you know, I think the book industry is large enough and varied enough that work of quality finds a place. I’m sure there are instances where a certain book falls through the cracks, but I think quality, ultimately, wins out.
I’ve never liked Andrew Sullivan. I saw him on Bill Maher’s show once and was unimpressed.
Excellent post – I learn so much reading your blog – thank you! nice to have you back. Hope you have a lovely evening.
sex scenes at starbucks says
Gee, thanks for clearing that up for us, Nathan!
Of course, all writers want to land that big publisher. Problem is, too many writers. So really good writers go begging. Ergo, myth is not so mythical after all.
There’s just not enough page room to go around for all the excellent potential best sellers.
On the other hand, those excellent writers who become frustrated may end up self-publishing. Now, here’s the big, bad myth. All self-published books are crap. Take that one on, Nathan. Myth or not?
Half of the books I read are non-fiction and related to C-SPAN or BOOKNOTES or BOOK TV programming.
When I listen to some of the book titles the publishers propose, they have to be nuts. 10 or 20 people in the world might buy the books. 50 might read it for free in the library at a rate of one per month.
Whenever I hear “They only publish the stuff that sells,” I get the giggles. Whether it’s the 5000th book on Lincoln, or the latest “hot” expose of some politician, or obscure letters from soldiers, or even the edited letters of presidents. There isn’t a money making market for any of that stuff. Go look at Book TV’s website if you want to see the “popular” titles like “Che Guevara and the useful idiots who adore him” or “Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip Hop” and the really hot one: “Subprime Mortgages: America’s Latest Boom and Bust” (that ought to sell with the disposessed and recently bankrupt USE-TO-BE homowners.)
I think there is lots of bias and snobbery among agents and publishers – Like 12 point courier, spaces after periods and margins must be 1 inch or die – and then there are the punctuation nazis who argue about commas and put me in a coma – but I don’t think that agents and publishers scrap or throw out quality writing.
Me and my soapbox will go home now.
Enjoyed your post, but think you went too far in your efforts to be diplomatic when you wrote “Publishers are highly functioning machines adept at giving readers what they want…”
Isn’t it true that publishers lose money on the majority of books they acquire? But in defense of the book publishing industry, I acknowledge that music, television, and movie executives have an equally poor track record at giving the public what they want. There was a recent article in The New Yorker on this very issue.
What do you think?
Nathan Bransford says
I think the only thing you could possibly say about publishers not giving people what they want is that they’re blinding the public with too many choices. Because with tens of thousands of books published each year, there SHOULD be something out there for everyone. The question is more about getting the right book in front of satisfied eyes rather than it being a question of the right book being out there. But that’s yet another question for yet another day.
Ah, I think you hit it there, Nathan. Getting the books to the appropriate readers who will like the story. One can’t just toss a new mystery title on the mystery shelves and expect it to get picked up by all of the voracious mystery readers out there. There’s a whole lot of weird little, idiosyncratic mechanisms that must happen, where all of the cogs in the machine get synchronized and a book gets tipped from obscurity into awareness. It seems that it must be like tossing a new title out on to a roulette wheel at times, where the publishing house is just hoping they hit the right number, because wonderful writing or not, sometimes it’s very difficult for anyone to see what that winning number is going to be.
Ok, all done with silly metaphors for today. I just don’t think most folks realize how insanely hard it is A: write something that is truly good, and B: have a book hit all of the right notes to reach popularity.
Great points, and much needed!
I think a lot of us don’t want to think of our tenderly crafted babies as product.
I don’t write to get rich. I write because I like it. Those times in my life when I didn’t write much were incomplete.
But I’ll tell you a secret. I do want my stuff to sell. A lot. So whether I want to admit or not, I do think of my work, at least in some way, as product.
I’ve been writing for companies for money for almost 20 years. Maybe that gives me a different perspective than some other people have.
Yes, I want to create art. I love b-movies and poker playing dogs, but I want to do something better than that. But mostly I want kids to read my books and like them and want to buy the next one, and maybe even buy more books by other writers. And I don’t want to do that for free.
And if I want to sell a lot of books, then the house that prints them all is going to have to have the money to pay for that production, which means it has to sell other books that sell.
The business side has to matter if we want to be professional. “Profession” and “business” are sort of the same thing.
David de Beer says
>but what I really mean is publishers only care about the bottom line because no one will publish my 978 page treatise on the human condition and its discontents).
hmm, yes, reminds me exactly of a link I found on Booksellerchick’s blog last year, about a guy who wrote a huge rant on the conspiracy of bookstores killing the industry. The long short was – bookstores sell crap, (he named said crap as chick-lit), and obstinately refused to stock quality books.
He made some good arguments, up till the point where I wondered “what does he mean by quality books?” and then I checked on the dude and it turns out he’s a writer too, of alien conspiracy wa-wa, a la von Daniken and Hancock.
What is disconcerting here is that there is a continual myth perpeuated by writers themselves, people who’ve been doing it for some time and should know better, about how signing with a major house is selling out, and sacrificing your dignity, artistic merit and probably your dog’s firtsborn litter too.
In SF short fiction, there is a continaul ranting against the idiotic, backwards thinking policies of the Big Three -Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog.
Yet spend enough time listening to these exact same people heaping scorn on the “sell-outs”, and you see them gushing when Harper Collins show interest; and they still send and want sales to those stupid, paper-quality digest magazines.
It’s very tiring to try and sort out genuine concerns and critiques from comments fueled by what is essentially the author’s own disgruntlement.
I have neither time nor inclination to do background checks on EVERYONE; so now I just pay attention to a few whose credentials seem sort of all-rightish, like your blog.
As long as there are writers, this particular myth will never die. Pity Johhny Hart isn’t around to draw Thad’s tale though, that sounds right up his BC alley.
Tom Burchfield says
JD: Actually, your metaphor is a good one because of how it relates to the randomness factor. A fairly recent article on bestsellers in the NY Times (that EVIL MSM publication that published both the Pentagon Papers and supported the run up to the Iraq war . . . so what is it? Evil or good?)used the phrase “the Big Casino” which continues to ring in my mind as I get closer and closer to readying my book for the marketplace.
Heidi the Hick says
I have every intention of selling out.
I have children and critters to feed.
original bran fan says
But really the bottom line isn’t, “sorta true, sorta false, it depends.” It seems like you’re saying, “It’s true–but that’s a good thing!”
I agree. I intend to write things that people will actually want to read. It’s called popular fiction for a reason.
David de Beer says
ebieconspiracies of publishing:
short fiction, admittedly, but just in case you need some motivation to read the slush pile and cannot muster the enthusiam without aid.