Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Mysterious Publishing Biz

If you're interested in learning more about the ins-and-outs of publishing, read this illuminating, candid, and no holds barred article by M.J. Rose. Here are a couple of excerpts:
"Self esteem is at the bottom of the way we let ourselves be treated by those who earn their money from us. 'I often wonder if we writers spend so many years learning to live with rejection, that we accept shoddy treatment as our due, just grateful to have any attention...'"
"'Often, [writers are] absolutely right to be feeling that a publisher could be doing a better job of it, paying closer attention, offering more meaningful consultation. That said, I've had many of those same conversations end with the client BEGGING me not to repeat any of it to the editor. God forbid the squeaky wheel might get replaced instead of oiled.'

That fear is part of why we crawl away convincing ourselves we should be grateful instead of acting on our anger. If we get anything -- one ad in a major newspaper, a four city tour, three weeks of decent coop in the chain -- we consider ourselves blessed. We've heard of too many cases where books are dropped or just die from lack of a publisher interest despite a big advance.

So like abused children, we're thankful for every small favor."
Wow, right?

In the article, author Amy Bloom is quoted as saying, "One can be appreciative without being subservient. Objectively this is a business, and publishers are not our parents [or] our friends. We sell them our goods and they pay for them. We all need to concentrate on doing business in a positive and supportive way. In a way that does not cause pain."

This "appreciative without being subservient" theme has often been used in reference to PoC addressing systemic racism, as well. Again, we're looking at power dynamics. All abuses of power share a similar pattern and infrastructure, so re-creating a balance has to happen on both ends of the power spectrum.

One of the most interesting parts of the essay for me was toward the end, when the author reveals how hard it was for her to find authors, agents, and editors who were willing to go on record about the issues:
"I have never written an article and had so few authors and publishing people willing to go on the record or be interviewed. Over 50 agents, editors and authors, all refused.

We are in the business of communicating and so this silence is alarming. Widespread hesitancy to speak about [the] issue is almost as interesting as the issue itself."
Yet again, we have similarities to racism, sexism, domestic abuse, etc.--all situations where there is abuse of power. PoC are often afraid to speak out for fear of retribution, as are abused women and children, employees who are sexually harassed, rape victims, and so on.

The article ends with a whole list of things "they" don't tell you. Keeping the process a mystery from the author disempowers the author in the same way that women who have no knowledge of the family/couple's finances disempowers her; in the same way that PoC who have no information about systems, laws, rules, and regulations that directly affect their lives disempowers them.

What I want to know, though, is when did things change? At one point, women weren't really given access to publishing. Women published under male pseudonyms, or used initials to get their work published. Based on everything I've read from writers' accounts and author autobiographies, the relationship between author and publisher seemed far closer and more transparent then, than it is today. Yet, in today's world there are far more women published than ever before--particularly in children's books. And the distance between publisher and author is vast in comparison. So, too, is the distribution of power. Is that a result of the economy? The outdated structures publishing has put in place? Or is it a flaw within the publishing model, itself--a sort of myopia?

In any case, the article is fascinating, and definitely worth the read if you're interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the mysterious world of publishing.

Stay tuned as I explore some of these issues further in upcoming posts.


Zetta said...

Provocative as always, Neesha--thanks for sharing this. My only critique is that there's nothing said about transforming the system--it's mostly about how to make the existing dysfunctional system work for you. Would have been great to hear a call for collective bargaining or something truly long as each writer is out for herself, change will be slow to come...

Neesha Meminger said...

That's true, Zetta. Her main piece of advice toward the end is to find an agent you can trust, who is a strong advocate for your work. Strange, given everything the rest of the essay has to say. She really does seem to be heading toward proposing/suggesting a new system, but seems to stop just short.

Laura Atkins said...

Wow, thanks for the link (and to Zetta to pointing me towards all this). I think the problem you talk about at the end has to do with how the industry has shifted over the last 20 or so years. Publishers used to generally be independent, and run by small groups of people who were passionate about books. Yes, it could often be an old boy's club and exclusive, but real, long-term relationships were developed between editors and authors, and acquisitions weren't so driven by sales and marketing concerns. Now that most of the publishers are owned by multi-national conglomerates who are interested only in the bottom line, the interest in quality and long-term relationships has declined. Editors also have less time to spend with, and help to develop, new authors. I do think the big publishing model isn't working very well, and that the independents have a crucial role to play, as will self-publishing. So then the big question is - how hard do you try to work to change the existing industry, and how much do you turn your efforts towards a new model? Tricky - and thanks again for the (as-always) fascinating discussion!
Laura Atkins

Neesha Meminger said...

Laura, thanks for your comment. I agree that the question now is "how hard do you try to work to change the existing industry, and how much do you turn your efforts towards a new model?"

I think if we were to see more and more people self-publishing quality books, like Zetta's, and finding a market for them, finding creative ways to market and get the word out, more of the masses would be inclined to see that as a viable option to the existing model. In many ways, that would be the most empowering model for authors. No waiting for someone to decide whether your book is valuable or marketable or worthwhile, no relying on someone else to decide how many dollars to put toward publicity, and no worry about the book going out of print.

The marketing and publicity would be completely in the author's hands, as is the case anyway these days with most authors. And it would cut out the middle person--the agent. The author would keep much more of her earnings.

I have read all the posts and articles about how difficult self-publishing is, and how much of a stigma there is attached to it, and how hard it is to get distribution, etc. And those are very real obstacles. But, honestly, the obstacles don't seem to be lesser with the current system.

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