Imagine for a moment that you can write a story — any length, any genre — and when you are finished you can make it available for the whole world to read. You need a very small amount of money to do this, for computing and technology-related costs. You need some understanding of technology, but nothing prohibitive, and people online will help you learn what you need to learn for nothing other than the satisfaction of doing so.
Hold this idea in your mind and linger on it. You write a story, and the whole world can read it. There is nothing between you and your audience….
Now consider this:
The sheer book-length nature of books combined with the seemingly inexorable reductions in editorial staffs and the number of submissions most editors receive, to say nothing of the welter of non-editorial tasks that most editors have to perform, including holding the hands of intensely self-absorbed and insecure writers, fielding frequently irate calls from agents, attending endless and vapid and ritualistic meetings, having one largely empty ceremonial lunch after another, supplementing publicity efforts, writing or revising flap copy, ditto catalog copy, refereeing jacket-design disputes, and so on — all these conditions taken together make the job of a trade-book acquisitions editor these days fundamentally impossible. The shrift given to actual close and considered editing almost has to be short and is growing shorter, another very old and evergreen publishing story but truer now than ever before.
From the point of view of an author considering doing business with a publishing house, this is the kind of behind-the-scenes look at the book industry that has prevented me, for most of my writing life, from ever really trying to break in. Yes, I’ve made a few attempts, but at some point — and fairly quickly — I’ve realized that the game is so heavily weighted against me that I would be better off buying a lottery ticket.
How many variables are there in that one quoted paragraph that could make the difference between the success or failure of something I wrote? Assuming I can minimally carry a literary tune as a storyteller, how many different variables are there that affect success beyond mere writing competence, and how many do I have any control over?
Now consider that this one paragraph comes from a piece ten times as long, all of it detailing difficulties in the modern publishing world, and you can see why I’m so enamored of the idea that I can simply dispense with it. Yes, it may cost me money or sales. Yes, it may keep me from getting a book deal or an advance. Yes, it may mean I live in relative storytelling obscurity for the rest of my life.
But it also means I don’t have to put my work in the hands of disinterested or distracted individuals who have their own (or worse, conflicting) personal and professional agendas. I don’t have to wonder if everyone is on the same page with me. I don’t have to worry about someone in one department sabotaging someone in another and my writing taking collateral damage. And I don’t have to buy into some fantasy that none of this ever happens, or that it will not happen to me.
Now let’s add another layer. A layer having nothing to do with the quality of my writing, and everything to do with the quality of my networking. Because the publishing business, like Hollywood, is a very, very small town. Which means, not surprisingly, that it very much helps if you know people in that town, and I don’t. I know it’s not the right thing to say, but I don’t want to have to get to know people in New York City in order to have readers read my work in Taos or Portland (either one) or Gent or Berlin. I’m just not interested in politics or pecking orders or anyone’s ego, including my own.
Which is why quotes like this make we want to stay in the hills:
“….and partly because the Internet has fragmented people’s cultural attention.”
I understand the publishing world is grieving about the fact that the internet allows authors to communicate with readers without asking for permission. If I was losing control of a key part of the cultural life of America I’d probably be feeling a little sad, too. But the truth is the publishing world only defined the cultural life of a certain segment of America, and often did so for reasons more related to marketing and sales than for anything having to do with freedom or art.
And that’s okay, because NYC is an industry town in the same way that L.A. is an industry town. But from my point of view as an outsider the internet isn’t fragmenting anyone’s cultural attention, it’s liberating it from a cabal of gatekeepers who exploited their positions for monetary gain. And I can’t really cry buckets about that.
But don’t take my word for it. Read the whole piece and make up your own mind. Maybe someday I’ll do something that will catch a publisher’s attention and it will make sense to talk. But right now, as an outsider, as I’ve said before, it makes no sense to volunteer myself for the sausage machine.
— Mark Barrett
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