Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The System Is Broken

Every day I read a number of blogs kept by writers. It’s no secret that many bloggers are frustrated writers who have been rejected by agents and editors. I recently read the same phrase on several blogs in their discussion of the publishing industry: the system is broken. I was entertaining some thoughts on this subject when the phrase popped up on W. S. Cross’s 756 Agents & Counting. What follows is the comment I left on Cross’s blog.

“The system is broken”

One’s evaluation of this is dependent on who you are. And what your goal is.

In terms of the acquisition of books, there are three groups of people affected:

1.  Agents and editors.

2. Authors who have had at least one book published by a reputable, trade publisher.

3. Writers who have been rejected by #1.

The system works fine for #1. Even if everything submitted to them was pure gold, it couldn’t all be published. Publishers, big and small, can only publish a finite number of books each year. Therefore, there will always be books that may be of publishable (whatever that means) quality that remain unpublished. Therefore, there will always be writers convinced of the merit of their writing who will become embittered by the randomness of the process (the role of taste in choosing what gets published). More on that below…

The system works well for #2, as least as far as having a first book published. Because BookScan exists, there may never be a second book if book one doesn’t sell well.

Go ask Norman Spinrad. See his web site for his attempt to sell his novel He Walked Among Us. Though a German language edition was published, he is now giving away the English e-book version. BTW, Spinrad has been writing science fiction professionally since the late 1960s. He’s not some hapless no talent.

The system is always broken for #3. For obvious reasons. Very few artists are willing to accept repeated rejection as proof of their lack of talent.

“Either he’s the captain, or you’re no good.”

Toward the end of the film The Caine Mutiny, a drunken Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer) intrudes on the celebration of the victorious defendants whose acquittal he produced by revealing the mental instability of Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) during their court martial. At one point, Greenwald lambastes the officers for failing to support Queeg, suggesting that if they did, they wouldn’t have had to remove him from command during the typhoon. When Ensign Keith (Robert Francis) acknowledges this, Greenwald says, “Ah Willie. You’re learning. You’re learning that either he’s the captain or you’re no good.”

It took me a number of viewings of this film over the years to figure this line out, but I finally did. In a command hierarchy, senior officers are presumed to be more knowledgeable and experienced than junior officers. Junior officers must accept this and obey orders, otherwise the system cannot function.

I think “Either he’s the captain or you’re no good” is applicable to the world beyond the military. I think it applies to the eternal dilemma of group #3. The publishing industry is the captain and the writer is the junior officer.

The dilemma is what conclusion you draw about your writing and yourself when you have been repeatedly rejected and what you do about it.

I confess to an inner tension on what conclusions I’ve reached about myself. If it weren’t for the fact that I have had some of my writing professionally published, sold one book proposal, and have had quite a few requests for proposals based on my queries, I might have been left with the last resort of the loser: to blame my failure on the fickleness of the market. But, because I’ve had a few successes, I tend to believe that the general proposition found in myriad books for writers sometimes proves true. A marketable idea, invitingly expressed and submitted with the correct protocol will find a buyer.

If I had never been able to sell so much as a film review, I would have concluded that my writing was at fault and would have thrown in the towel. There’s a dichotomy about personal psychology I was exposed to in an introductory psychology course nearly thirty years ago. People are either inner or outer directed. I am outer directed. I accept it. This means that I have accepted the decisions of agents and editors even when it has led me to a great deal of self-doubt, self-recrimination, and unhappiness.

I have considered self-publishing, but have rejected it as a workable strategy for myself. “Learn what you are, then be that.” Precisely because I am outer directed and know that I don’t have the resources and skills to successfully promote myself. There’s a guy online selling a million pixels on his web site, $1 per pixel. He’s sold a lot of his screen’s real estate. I would love to know how he managed to get so many people to mention him out of the blue. If he gave a course in it, I would take it. I have no conception of how to even try to do this, and given my entrepreneurial incompetence, I feel that any similar effort on my part would fail. Because I also know that I am not a lucky person.  

If a writer can’t sell their writing, is it the writer or everyone else who is wrong? I can’t answer the question for you or anyone else. I have answered the question for myself, and based on my sampling of self-published work, I continue to believe that most unsuccessful writers simply can’t write well. This is certainly not what you want to hear, but I had to say it.


Blogger W. S. Cross said...

I'm flattered that you would highlight my obscure blog, and that you found what I said worth commenting on. The system is broken because writers can get published, but the only ones who seem to make money from the process are agents and editors.

I'm not bitter about this, despite having been turned down by so many illustrious names. I don't earn my bread from writing fiction, and I don't despair about eventually having my book in print. But it's interesting how many people are rejecting the current system, and not just disaffected wordsmiths, either.

As to equating rejection with a lack of merit, I don't buy that, frankly. The system is about selling, and agents are looking for genre writing and particular stories, not necessarily for their literary merit.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Anne Merril said...

There's a huge gulf between literary merit and saleability.

10:24 PM  

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