Friday, December 13, 2013
A Confused Industry
By OFW Member:
Carlos J. Cortes
Published: February 26, 2014
There’s a deepening rift between the two indispensable players in the publishing industry: publishers and writers.
We have an obsolescent industry that functions by sheer chance and the luck of numbers.
Major publishers manage to stay afloat praying that armies of literary agents sifting through mountains of unsolicited manuscripts will discover the next masterpiece and hand it over.
For a long time, I’ve had the uncanny feeling that, deep down, publishers hate writers. They hate depending on the fickle nature of artists and the subjectivity of prose. In particular, they hate that no acquisitions editor can spot a bestseller if it bit his ass, otherwise we wouldn’t hear frequent tales about how blockbusters passed under the noses of score publishers before a minion somewhere tossed a coin, and it came up heads.
Publishers, major publishers in particular, would love to have a computer program capable of churning out good stories. If computer-produced stories became reality, they would never again have to deal with writers. Unfortunately (for them) we hope such a program remains forever in the realm of acquisition-editors’ wet dreams.
The industry has always had this problem. The essential element, the fundamental ingredient of the publishing product—the story—is not what the industry makes. It develops that product, edits it, designs a cover for it, produces it, distributes it, publicizes it, and charges for it, but it doesn’t
it. What’s more: they don’t know how to; they’ve never have and never will.
Writers should entertain a sobering thought when considering the industry: Publishing houses overflow with experts: expert designers, expert buyers, expert readers, and expert editors. Yet, they are incapable of producing by themselves anything capable of selling in quantities. To survive, they need the only people who can produce the story-product, our writers, our wretched kin flung across the world in everlasting Diaspora.
An alien observer would deduce that such an industry would be exceedingly nice, supportive, instructive, transparent, and collegial to their indispensible workers. The same observer would be baffled to witness that the same industry flaunts its disdain for the sole originators of revenue and more often than not treat writers like shit. Perhaps the point is not clear enough: A publishing house makes money from selling books. Books is the product. Anything used to shape, drape or move the product is an expense. Expenses are liabilities. Therefore, in the book industry, executives, editors, directors, etc are liabilities, not assets. An asset can be converted into cash while a liability
cash. The single entity capable of creating a product with which a publisher may earn any money is the writer: he creates wealth, while everybody else only contribute to spend it
In these changing times, writers circumvent the hurdles to access traditional publishing by following alternative pathways to market, be it digital, small press or self-publication.
Online producer-retailers like Amazon offer far better royalty rates than traditional publishing and can display a writer’s work before an incomprehensibly large audience of potential readers.
The result? The core publishing industry is progressively being demonized by its suppliers: the writers. Scribes have developed a strong revulsion for an industry that doesn’t afford them adult status, for lack of a better term, and treats them like mushrooms (by keeping writers in the dark while they shovel shit over them at regular intervals).
Who is to blame? For a long time, the industry has been staffed by pseudo intellectuals; literary critics and scholars who despise the pulp fiction demanded by the masses. They see themselves as the elite having to suffer dirtying their hands with trash devoid of literary merit. In fact, many industry editors believe that to work on popular fiction garbage is beneath them. But the writers must share some of the blame.
From time immemorial, writers have had understood themselves as subservient to professional industry insiders. It follows that once a person submits to a parent/child liaison in any kind of relationship, the child is relegated to a position of inadequate immaturity and total dependency on his betters.
Traditionally, publishers have fostered a stable of self-denigrating writers; people they could chew to extract whatever juice could fatten their balance sheet and spit their empty husks when their productive juices ran off. Every time I hear or read agents or publishers mentioning their “stable of writers,” I want to puke.
In a way, the irruption of the Internet has further damaged the writers’ image. Everybody who can peck at a keyboard feel that he or she is a writer. People who wouldn’t for a moment think of themselves as engineers or rocket designers embrace delusion and believe that they’re writers, capable of handling the most sophisticated linguistic techniques known to man.
Thousands upon thousands of amateurs have become “authors” in recent years, and thus given the industry fodder to loathe even more writers in general.
The current overall picture is that on one hand, we have a publishing industry accustomed to cherry picking the rare successes of a largely amateur pool of scribes, and publicly celebrating their find as if they had created the stuff. Such an industry is unprepared for the digital transition, and the newfound ability of scribes to take themselves to market as self-publishers. Even worse, the rise of Amazon pampering writers with easy publishing and sales capabilities— while cornering the buyers with the best service, convenience, pricing, and delivery—is a tough rival.
On the other side, we have crowds of largely unprofessional would-be writers who threaten to choke the system with poor material. Those who do have the professional acumen to understand the business have little access to industry information, perspective, and guidance that publishing insiders have.
Though both actors share the responsibility for the dismal state of publishing today, the ball is in the publisher’s court: they must find ways to woo creators into an adult relationship founded on mutual respect.
I know… when pigs fly.
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