As artists, we tend to look suspiciously at profit. In fact, most of the complaints about the current state of publishing hinge on the “bean counters” and what they’re doing to our lofty, artistic field.
This complaint is not necessarily wrong, though perhaps a better quibble would be that bean counters are counting the wrong beans. But never mind that.
The truth is that, when it comes to publishing, the lack of money – or at least the lack of the expectation for any money – is often the root of all evil.
I’ve been doing a series on the coming of ebooks on my blog. The post yesterday set up why ebooks are coming – why they’re getting a foothold in the field at all. (Ebooks have been around for decades. They’ve been a small part of the field. The will much less the financing for developing ebook readers couldn’t be mustered for a long time. Perhaps it’s worth looking into why it has been mustered now. And why ebooks are suddenly a force to reckon with.)
Part of the issue is that since I’ve been published in this field, I’ve been hearing that there is no money in publishing; that if you want to make money you should get a day job; that even editors and publishers don’t make much (and this last seems to be true.)
This mind-set is the root of much trouble: first, the expectation that there is no money in this brings in a certain type of aspiring writer. Now, I’m not going to say writers write better when they do it for money, but wishing to please the readers makes writers strive to be better and more intelligible. It also gets us out of our comfort zone which, us being artists, is rooted in many impulses and personality traits so personal as to be unintelligible to anyone else.
At least my experience is that if I’m working for someone else to read I produce prose I myself enjoy more, say, a year later. Writing for myself seems like a waste of time. I can just think the story.
Beyond all that, it makes writers think of themselves not as professionals but as supplicants – as people with a need, for which they must go – on bended knee – before other people, while they themselves have to work to feed this need. If this doesn’t seem absurd to you as a reader, think of it for the big writers: think “Good thing for Stephen King that his publisher allowed him to publish” or think “Boy, J. K. Rowling sure was lucky that her publisher indulged her fancy.” Or put it another way – suppose your carpenter or your plumber loves his job (as we hope everyone does.) He might do it for the pride of a job well done and because he loves it, but would you say “you should get a full time job to support your plumbing habit”?
So, carpentry and plumbing are not technically artistic fields. (Technically. I had relatives in both fields, and trust me, there’s a lot of art in it.) So... Chefs. Cooking at that level is an art. Surely they must have real jobs to support their cooking art. No? Architects, then. No?
Now, imagine if cooking or architecture were run that way. There would be a chef who does nothing, but cabbage dishes. And his restaurant, which of course doesn’t expect to make money because “there is no money in food service” encourages him to do that. After all, the man does amazing things with cabbage leaf-stuffed cabbage leaf. The restaurant does the best it can for him and tries to guilt, shame and otherwise convince people this is what they should be eating.
If they deploy enough cash, it might succeed to an extent. He might develop a following, as might his fellow who works only in humming bird wings and his other colleague, who is a virtuoso with feta cheese stuffed caviar. However, if these are the only restaurants available, surely the percentage of families who eat out will be MUCH smaller. And what about the family who just wants a quick meal out after a hard day? They’ll be reduced to packing sandwiches. In fact, the field will be wide open for a competitor who gives people what they want. Or perhaps for a family who sells sandwiches out of their living room.
Now, I’m not suggesting that publishing houses or writers are that outre. But I am suggesting that the fact no one even aims for a profit – except aforementioned bean counters – has led to the production becoming unhinged from the demand.
Examples of this are things that become inexplicable editorial fiat – not just the sudden promotion of a type of writing, but the sudden pronouncements from above. In my time I’ve heard it pronounced from above that space opera and cozy mysteries were not things worth writing and should be discouraged. Also, every time I shopped for an agent (far more often than I wish I had) I found the prospects fascinated by my more literary writing. Why? Because I can do it. In fact, it’s fairly easy to me – the hard part was learning to write in an accessible way.
I have it on good and sufficient authority that literary spec fic doesn’t sell. Or at least, it sells no more than a particle of more popular endeavors.
So, what could the problem possibly be? Well... people don’t expect to make money from publishing. So they turn to other rewards – like prestige. Which means, of course, the market and the suppliers become yet more divorced from each other.
I said in my post yesterday that the houses don’t care for 90% of the books they publish. This is not PRECISELY true. At least it’s not precisely true of editors and publishers. It might be true of houses insofar as houses (most of them. Baen, for instance, is an exception. Note that the publisher IS the house and is invested in the house, both emotionally and financially) are large conglomerates with their own goals. Most editors and publishers care PASSIONATELY for the books they work with. But they don’t expect those books to sell – not really. So they don’t care whether they sell. They might not hold it against the writer for not selling (though the marketing department, and definitely the bookstores do) but they also don’t aim to sell from the beginning.
Some of the evils of this are: promoting bestsellers only – because bestsellers are viewed as a freakish occurrence, and if they hit once, think how much more money we could make from them; keeping the book in print only long enough to earn back advance – they don’t understand the effects of the long tail. They accomplished their labor of love, getting the book out and of course “there’s no money in publishing”; encouraging writers to write things that have little chance of attracting the public; not realizing that a book is not just the author’s name and the book doesn’t rise and fall by virtue of who wrote it alone, but that to be marketed a book must have an appealing cover and a modicum of distribution (why bother, when there’s no money in publishing?)
We, writers, aren’t exempt from this either. Since “there’s no money in publishing” we spend a lot of time treating our books like homework. This is particularly visible among beginner writers who tend to treat rejection as a grade. “I did the homework just like they wanted me to, and he gave me an F. The system is mean.” If you think of publishing as a business, you might still wish to write books with little or no market (I have written a couple) but you DO NOT think you’re somehow entitled to publication because you “have done it well enough”. Also, things like the requirement to self promote might STILL make you grind your teeth and groan, but you will be more likely to do it, if you think money will come from it.
There are even bigger issues – like a tendency to treat the field as an opportunity to do social work. Recently, in the big kerffufle over why there are no YA s aimed at boys (And there are precious few) the snooty answer was given that boys were sexist for not reading about girls. Okay – deep breath – if you think that’s reasonable, turn it around. In the fifties, everyone was convinced girls just naturally read less. And if you had complained that there were no books aimed at them, you’d be told they could read books about boys. In YA, especially, the “feel” girls and boys like is very different. They’re still learning about themselves and their genders. Forcing them to read stuff aimed at the other gender will annoy them and discourage them. But of course, that’s okay because – there being no money in publishing – the true goal is to strike one for gender equality or perhaps feminine superiority. We’re going to make those kids feel how oppressed we... er... our mothers were back in the fifties, right?
Look, human beings work for many things – money, security, satisfaction. You remove those and what’s left is one thing: power. Perhaps another – self-indulgence, which is often tied to power.
I’m not saying we should all become utter mercenaries, and work for money only. I don’t think that’s possible, when you are in one of the artistic fields. But I do think that part of the reason there is no money in publishing is that very few people are AIMING to make money.
It’s not ebooks that are stealing the market. The market is turning to ebooks because it’s not being served.
Capitalism. We is doing it wrong. Keeping an eye on the main chance might be a good way to start a better foundation for the new system establishing itself. Remember Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, whatever else they were, were aiming to make money. Perhaps that is why they ushered in the golden era of genre fiction.
Or perhaps I’m nuts. Perhaps I’m seeing things that aren’t there. What do you think? Would the field be better off if we all tried concertedly to serve the market? Or would that only worsen everything?
Related post at According To Hoyt