Precious Cargo

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

My Photo
Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The System Is Broken II

W. S. Cross responded to my comment. I then left a comment responding to Cross.

Dear W. S.:

“American culture loves to find blame (‘The Blame Game’).”

For me it is not about assigning blame, it is about swallowing one’s disappointment and finally accepting that there are certain things in this world I am powerless to change and that I may be on the receiving end of personal injustices that are delivered by human institutions like the current system of publishing.

“I would find Mr. Winkler's reasoning more persuasive if it were only unpublished writers who were clamoring for change in the system. In other words, it ain't just pissed-off writers who are mad as hell and won't take it anymore, it's also the buying public, who are looking for alternatives to the closed system of agented publishing.”

I keep hearing that 175,000 books are published a year. If prospective readers can’t find something there to satisfy them, I submit that they aren’t really that interested in reading for entertainment. Please don’t tell me those 175,000 are all celebrity spin-offs or bodice rippers or sci-fi media tie-ins. You can subtract all those and the heavily hyped would be bestsellers and hoity toity literary fiction and the short story collection from the latest winner of The New Yorker’s fiction contest and still have a huge number of fiction and nonfiction titles to choose from. It’s easy to see why most books don’t sell out their first printings. And it’s false to conclude that it’s primarily reader dissatisfaction. Only a small percentage of the many books published are promoted or reviewed. People won’t buy what they aren’t exposed to, unless they are very diligent in seeking out new books. Even when they are given wide exposure, many books are too esoteric to appeal to a large audience.

“I would be more persuaded if alternative technologies, delivery systems and marketing options were not spreading with the rise of the Internet.”

I’ve been hearing this since I first logged on to the internet in late 1995. I used to get a daily Wired news digest e-mailed to me and I wish I had a buck for every story I read about how e-books and POD technology combined with online sales were going to displace traditional publishing. Ten years have gone by. It hasn’t happened. You can pour your Word or Acrobat file into the form of an e-book or put it between covers or podcast it, but how do you connect with readers? How do you get readers’ attention? How does the internet really help?

“Now all large publishing house, and even some small presses refuse to read any manuscript or query that comes over-the-transom.”

That is just not true. Based on paper and e-mail queries and one cold call, I got editors at a number of trade publishers to request my proposal. Without consulting my submission log, here’s an incomplete list, but it’ll suffice: Knopf, Wiley, Kensington, Source Books, Robson (UK), Pearson (publishers of the Complete Idiots Guide series), Simon & Schuster, and Rowman & Littlefield.

“This seems to me to be the point where things get sticky. If agents are good at figuring out what editors want, then who is to blame for the writers whose books sell, but not well enough? The agents? The editors? The writers?”

Again, I ask: if it's just the pissed-off writers who are mad, then why are so many writers being dropped when their books don't sell?”

“An executive is a man who makes decisions and is sometimes right.”
                    Mark Twain

Agents and editors extrapolate from past success (and failure). They do it because that’s all they can do. No one knows what the public wants before they demonstrate they want it. They can only guess.

This is something I forgot to cover in my previous comment. Writers continue to say how the publishing industry is a malfunctioning mechanism as if it were exceptional. But it isn’t. Writers expect agents and editors to make perfect choices and work with 100% efficiency in their favor. This is simply unrealistic.

Thousands of new products are developed and introduced to the marketplace each year and many fail. Everything from soft drinks to electronic gadgets to automobiles. Companies spend much more money pre-market testing and promoting products than publishers spend. And still many new products fail. The Edsel was one of the first cars which was designed after extensive market research and use of demographics. New Coke. Betamax. Laserdiscs failed. CD-I. CD-V. Quadraphonic sound. Dockable laptops. The war in Iraq (heh heh).

Systems administered by human beings are as fallible as the people who design them. No one can quantify taste or the artistic value of a book and no one is clairvoyant. So we are stuck with a system that will always produce numerous discontents.

Either you accept this, as I have, or you find an answer, if one exists. I don’t know of one.

Where does one find a better alternative? Self-publishing as it’s been tried before and after the internet is a miserable failure for all but a very lucky few-far fewer than those writers published by traditional publishers. Rather than getting locked in a hopeless argument about whether all traditional books are good or all self-published books are bad except that there are exceptions in either category and that then proves whatever you want it to prove, I would like to see someone come forward with some clear ideas-if they have any-on how to develop an alternative that works.

That is my challenge to you and anyone who wants to contribute to your blog or mine. Because I’m punched out on this subject. I can’t go another round.

Without blowing the cover of any secret marketing plan you’ve devised, perhaps you could express, in generalities, how you plan to use the internet to effectively sell your novel. Maybe you’re the great innovator. If so, unleash your dogs of war. Have at it. If your plan works, you and every other frustrated writer will be the beneficiary.

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.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]