Something Rotten in the Publishing Industry

The traditional pose of author before literary agent.

The traditional pose of author before literary agent.

As a writer, the thought of the publishing industry shrinking or dying used to really bother me. What writer doesn’t want to see their name on the spine of a Penguin Classics novel or, upon walking into a Barnes and Noble, see their own work featured by the front door? If the industry shrunk, I thought, those dreams would also shrivel away. I’m pretty much over it now and here’s why.

I just picked up my copy of Writer’s Digest and flipped to a story called Leaps of Faith. This story concerned a Dan J. Fiore and his short story Masks. Mr. Fiore, it seems, has won the annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. I extend my congratulations Mr. Fiore. I hope he has great success with the novel project he’s recently begun. However, the circumstances of his victory are absurd.

According to the article, as a reward for winning, Mr. Fiore received $3000, a trip to a writing conference and the opportunity to meet four real life agents or editors in person. Four whole people who may – remember, no promises – condescend so far as to allow Mr. Fiore the privilege of giving 85% or more of the sales from his books to said agents and editors. Once again, Mr. Fiore just beat 8,000 writers in a contest. 8,000!

In a thriving entertainment industry like professional sports or Hollywood cinema, the gatekeepers spend a great deal of money finding talent, developing talent and promoting talent. NFL teams spend an average of 2-3 million dollars a year on scouting. Hollywood studios host hundreds of auditions in the hope a talented newcomer might make it through the door. Meeting a scout or Hollywood casting agent (the equivalent of a literary agent or editor) usually involves nothing more than going to the open audition or tryout nearest you.

It is not so with traditional literary agents or literary editors (newspaper and magazine editors, it should be noted, actually do want to speak with you). We writers are to, upon bended knee, humbly submit our manuscripts into the slush pile on the slim chance a literary god (intern) has enough time to actually look at the slush pile. We are to avoid making phone calls – how could those so low as ourselves dream to injure the mighty ears of a literary agent with our shrill, writerly voices? We are to stay away from the physical publishing houses lest we pollute their hallowed edifices with our vile personages. Where the vulgar, profitable Los Angeles Lakers spend money attracting talent to their tryouts and minor league affiliates, the great, endangered agents and publishers spend money keeping the talent very far away where it cannot be seen.

The sooner this system dies off and gives way to something rational – something where the publisher remembers that writers are potential revenue streams and should be treated as such – the better. Until then, embrace the revolution, it’s certainly needed.

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8 comments

  1. Excellent assessment from the Author’s point of view. When compared to other entertainment industries, the world of publishing seems surreal. However, thanks to ebooks we can bypass all of them. I hope the electronic revolution will now reverse the roles. Imagine publishers begging and pleading with Authors. I know it’s probably a long way off, but I can dream can’t I?

    1. You certainly can dream, I know I am. 🙂

  2. The digital revolution is hitting the publishing industry and, as an aspiring author, I find it exciting. It is not just the change to ebooks, but also self-publishing and crowd funding that are changing things.

    The last hurdle is building the cusumer awareness of self-publishing and developing credibility for this new market. I think Amazon is doing great things in this area (love them or hate them, they are helping).

    1. It’s really exciting to imagine the future. Times of upheaval are also the best times to take advantage of crumbling patronage and power structures and, thus, it is my opinion that right now is a great time to get into the book game.

  3. Brilliant call for literary revolution. Ink-stained wretches of the world, rise up!

    1. Is it the same as I describe in Canada? I’ve heard fewer horror stories outside the US market. Publishing in Korea, for example, is supposed to be relatively pleasant by comparison.

      1. Yes, it’s tight in Canada. Our market is smaller, which means fewer opportunities but also less competition than the US, which is a mixed blessing/curse. Don’t know much about Korea other than the food and the pop music!

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