Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's Publishing! Everyone in the Pool! (A Lament)

Since Trajan’s Arch was published back in 2010, I’ve once again been on the book tour circuit.  It’s different than it was in the ‘80s or the ‘90s, but it’s to be expected, because industries, like everywhere else, evolve.  But it’s a radical change, and at the risk of sounding like an incorrigible snob (I’m probably a snob, but probably not incorrigible), democracy is not all good.

I know, this is ‘Merica, and questioning democracy is like questioning Jesus.  Let me say up front that I like both Jesus and democracy, but when a twist in both affections leads to, say, the Tea Party, I’m still entitled (I hope) to walk it back, to question, to grouse.

So, my observation that there is a lot of crap being published—more than I ever recall seeing published—has  been met by liberal-leaning friends with the sound bite, “Welcome to democracy, Michael”.  A better response, by the way, would be, “Some of that crap is yours, Michael”: obviously, I would disagree with that, but it’s harder to argue because it might be right.  

Democracy and publishing have seldom been connected.  My friends are right that the major publishers are smothering in the tar pits of inertia and caution.  I’ve written for the big guys and for smaller presses, and one thing you’d have to say is that it’s almost impossible to imagine a major publisher saying, “Let’s take a chance with this manuscript.”  That strikes me as much more likely at a small press, for reasons that I do not fully understand beyond the simple factor that living on financial edges sometimes makes you more willing to gamble, sometimes makes you see that profit isn’t always the bottom line.

That being said, I continue to marvel at the writing panels where I hear people talking about their new “YA paranormal romance about a high-school war between secret werewolves and secret vampires.” It’s described in enthusiastic It’s never been done before  tones, when what the writer is hoping is that It’s never been done enough.  But how do they know?  They read stuff.

I can see how the caution and commercialism permeate all kinds of publishing, and the industry is straitened by a non-reading culture.  No, the flood of small, micro, and self publishing doesn’t seem to indicate an upturn in reading:  many of these writers read only themselves and occasionally their friends.  Reading only your friends is fine if your friends are, say, Melville and Borges and Philip K. Dick, but usually most are simply Gus over there with that manuscript about the werewolf-vampire wars.  To me, the downside to democracy in publishing is not that it’s letting in more writers, unrecognized writers, experimental writers, or even ego-driven or talentless writers.  It’s that I’m beginning to think that half the publications out there are being written by non-readers.  It’s like democracy run by non-voters or religion run by non-believers.  Democracy by voters doesn’t always work, nor certainly religion by believers, but the opposite is just absurd.  I don’t know what it is.


  1. My grouse is that it's hard to find the gold amidst all the silt, but it pans out in the end. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go feed my mule and ask these nice fellows to show me their badges.

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  2. You're not wrong. And yet...

    On the micro scale, on the personal level, I think that the publishing industry used to be this, pardon my French, big ass chasm. A few writers made it over the chasm into commercial publishing. A few had the resources to happily self-publish enough copies of their unedited manuscript for their friends and family. And everyone else just stood there staring at the hole, throwing ropes at agents on the other side and praying someone grabbed it eventually.

    Yeah, there's a lot of crap out there, but some of that crap is the trail of a writer on his or her learning curve towards being damn good, and getting at least some real reader feedback along the way through self or small publishing. Of course, there's also a lot of delusional "I'm already awesome! All the cheerleaders I've accumulated on Facebook and Twitter tell me so!" out there, too. Aggravating in my day job, also aggravating as I poke around the edges of publishing.

    I get a little more hope on the "is the chaos driving off readers?" front by looking at the music industry. They're about 10 years ahead of publishing as I reckon. A ton more music, most of which was crap, did not discourage people who loved music.

    I'm reading Dexter Palmer's "The Dream of Perpetual Motion" right now, and there's a quote from it where an adult character is discouraging a kid from becoming a writer when he grows up: "Storytelling--that's not the future. The future, I'm afraid, is flashes and impulses. It's mode up of moments and fragments, and stories won't survive.”

    There's truth there, but not the whole truth. The world *is* cluttered with fragments and flashes and impulses and really bad YA paranormal romance, but stories will survive. I'm not sure we can survive without them.

  3. I agree with you, Michael. The world has become filled with writers who (with some support) adhere to the principle that quantity of products, with no regard to quality, will bring the coveted commercial success. The result is not only writers don't take the time to read, but also an ever growing pile of crap being pushed out by publishers and the self-published. A few gems are hidden inside, but it is becoming harder and harder to find a book I can stand to read to the end. In fact, the last one I finished was yours!

  4. You can believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that bad writing gets published by major publishers all the time. It is what they think will sell, not necessarily what is good. As writers, I stand buy the fact that marketing our work is becoming more important than the actual quality. Optimistically, there are very few truly bad writers, as few as there are brilliant ones. There is just so much of the mediocre to fair, and it is in that group that make the very good writers hard to stand out. Self- publishing is a tool that is often misused because the authors are not truly objective to their work that is far from ready.

  5. In my humble opinion it's a writer's job to write to the best of his or her ability, and to be read as widely as can be managed. Because that is, in the end, pretty much the only way most of us can have an impact on the world around us. It's most certainly the only hope we have of being remembered by anyone once our grandchildren have passed away, taking their faint memories of us in our declining years with them.

    If taking the path of self-publishing or micro-publishing helps to make that happen, then it's a net plus. The face that we are swimming through an ocean of cultural crap created by annoying, semi-literate overgrown adolescents right now doesn't really matter. We Americans have always swum through an ocean of cultural crap created by annoying, semi-literate overgrown adolescents – because for better or worse we always have been, and always will be, a nation of annoying, semi-literate overgrown adolescents. If you don't believe me, read Albert J. Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. He was making similar observations and complaints in 1942. (My favorite “America is the only nation to move from barbarism to decadence without ever once coming into contact with civilization.”)

    In any case, it's our job as readers to sort the wheat from the chaff (as Jesus would say), and let our friends and readers know which is which – and not to discourage Gus from writing his werewolf vs. vampire saga.

    After all, a lot of people like werewolves and vampires. Maybe they'll like Gus too. And what's a little more crap in the ocean?

  6. OK, guys. A sharp, interesting exchange of ideas, which is what I wanted in the first place. I agree, ultimately, with Kat and Jason that, in Jason's words, "If taking the path of self-publishing or micro-publishing helps to make that happen, then it's a net plus." I've gone back and re-read what I posted, and am rather surprised that it seems like some of you think I was advocating traditional houses at the expense of other forms of publishing: my experience with the big guys was, as I said before, an encounter with overly cautious, non-supportive corporate entities. There were more editors, mind you, which is a good thing, especially if the editor has in mind making the manuscript a better read, but even those were going by the end of my major press tenure, replaced by the lower-paid copy editors that everyone needs, but not as urgently as, say, those manuscript editors I met when I first published at ROC, who were devoted, conscientious, and perceptive with the entire book.

    That being said, I suppose the new paradigm is replacing old problems with new problems. What bothers me about what I am seeing is the point I majored on near the end of the post: that the democratizing of the publishing industry carries with it not only more opportunity but also more of what Jason characterizes as "annoying, semi-literate overgrown adolescents", among which good marketers rise higher in the food chain than the good writers.

    Kat, I loved your response but am not convinced by the music analogy. Music has always carried with it a certain artistic mystique, as does, say, painting. Not many people at all would believe they could pick up a guitar or a trumpet and, a month later, be ready to record. In the music industry, the guerrillas have always been better armed. Maybe I don't get out much, but my ventures into conventions are showing me a lot of people who are publishing without any apprenticeship (God, I sound stodgy!), not even the apprenticeship that comes from reading outside their genre, outside their time, or even outside their own manuscript. To me, the musical analogy would be like being trapped at one of those preliminary American Idol auditions.

    Yes, it's our job to pass on the books. We need readers who consider the pursuit a kind of duty, who are willing to cull through the crap to find the prize. That's why you'll find this blog very often recommends books that you might not have read, celebrates films that may have fallen from your sight.

    I hope this clears up things. You guys disqualified yourself from the group I was lamenting in that you took time to read and consider the post. Thanks, and watch this space for an upcoming speculation about mise en abyme, which I have only recently discovered I have been writing about for 20 years.