Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Death of Publishing

  I've never been one to cheer on the death of the  publishing industry. I've questioned their policies and I've wondered about their business practices, but it has always been my dream to walk into a bookstore and see my books on the shelf. Over the last few years, I've watched mystified as they shunned their own midlist authors and closed their doors to new writers. I've watched them completely ignore espresso printing machines that can sit in a bookstore and print on demand any book you want in less than ten minutes. I've watched them do their best to destroy this new electronic e-book medium. Instead of opening their doors and giving everyone a shot (ultimately allowing only the best sellers to reach print) they've shut their doors entirely and overpriced digital books, in many cases even more than their paper counterparts.

In April of 2009, Mary Walters wrote a blog post that was something of an open letter to literary agents and publishers. This post set the internet aflame at the time. I remember reading seething responses on a number of agents' websites, followed by page after page of comments agreeing with everything the agents had to say. Of course, in those days you had to follow an agent's blog if you ever hoped for that agent to read your submission, thereby giving it a chance to get to an editor at a publishing house. Agents didn't actually say that you had to kiss butt, but the implication was there and nobody did anything to downplay the idea. After all, if an agent says you must read and comment on my blog, research my preferences, and mention these things when you submit to me, that agent is clearly fishing for something other than great writers.

If you take a look at her bio, Mary is an award winning writer who has published books traditionally and served as Editor in Chief for a legacy publisher. The publishing world looked different a few years ago, and Mary made this post at no small peril to her own career. In those days the e-book was really just a fledgling idea and no one was really making money at it. Careers were both made and destroyed by those we once called the gatekeepers. You may know them as 'literary agents.' Here's a sampling of what Mary said:

"...I am a member of a growing company of writers of literary fiction whose works you have never seen and probably never will.It’s not that we are lacking in the talent and credentials that might attract your interest: indeed, we have already published one or two or three books with respectable literary presses, attracting not only critical acclaim but even awards for writing excellence. Our work has been hailed as distinctive, thoughtful, darkly comic. As fresh. Even as important! Reviewers have compared us to Atwood, Boyle and Seth. To Tyler, Winton, Le Carre.That you have never heard of us nor read a single paragraph we’ve written is not—as you might think—a side effect of the cutbacks, mergers and downsizings that have devastated the book-publishing industry in recent months. Nor is it yet more evidence of the impact of electronic media on the printed word.
The substantial and nearly unassailable wall that separates you from us has been under construction for decades. You can find the names of its architects and gatekeepers on your telephone-callers list, and in your email in-box. They are the literary agents—that league of intellectual-property purveyors who bring you every new manuscript you ever see, those men and women who are so anxious to gain access to the caverns of treasure they believe you sit upon like some great golden goose that they would likely hack one another’s heads off were they not united by one self-serving mission: to ensure that quality fiction never hits your desk..."

 Writers are still adding new comments to this post, and no wonder. It seems a lot of people got tired of playing the waiting game with agents who were too busy blogging and taking month-long vacations to respond to their submissions. It was that bad, and even worse. The internet is still of complaints about how agents signed authors and then ignored them, how agents made them jump through hoops revising again and again only to finally reject the finished work, or agents who never bothered to respond at all. These same agents who required writers to research them, read and comment on their blogs, and address their submissions by name, could not be bothered to respond at all. In some cases, they couldn't even be bothered to respond to writers who they were contracted with.

A few days ago, Kristine Kathryn Rusch made a similar post, this time regarding the practices of publishing house editors.  Kristine is another award winning and incredibly prolific writer (numerous genres and pseudonyms), and says:

"In the past two days, two different editors have told me that I don’t know how publishing works. One deigned to explain to me how something in book production worked when I questioned a scheduling problem in the publishing house. The other told me I had no idea how to write a good book in my genre...
I probably wouldn’t be this mad if it weren’t for the other editors who have treated me this way. The mystery editor with two years experience who told me—an Edgar-nominated, multiple-EQMM reader’s choice winner, and a bestselling mystery writer—that I don’t know the mystery genre. The agent who told me—the award-winner in every genre I’ve tried including mainstream—that I don’t write well enough to publish a novel into the mainstream.  The sf editor who told me—the bestselling, Hugo-award-winning editor & writer—that I don’t know what science fiction is. The unreturned phone calls, the unanswered important emails, the unfulfilled promises, and the lies.
I’m really tired of the lies."

Ouch. I can only shake my head when I read stories like this. It seems that publishing houses think they're too big to fail. I guess that's easy to believe if you also believe you're just selling paper. Problem is, that's not true. There is a degree of skill and creative talent involved in the creation of a novel, and now some of those pesky authors have decided to work for themselves. Agents are turning into publishers and authors are turning into publishers and publishers are turning into... what?


  1. Thanks for sharing the blurbs from those writers! Fascinating - and a little sad - to see the reactions of the literary world. But then again, that attitude and willful denial of technological changes is why they are where they are.

    I'm just glad there are so many other options for us now.

  2. Agreed Barbara, the writing world really is opening up. We can only hope the industry pulls it all together and turns this ship around. I really do enjoy shopping in bookstores :( Thanks for your comment.