I’m writing a second manuscript while my agent waits on publishers’ responses to my first one. I may not land a publisher for either manuscript, despite my agent’s committed efforts – there are many people who write and only a small number of publishers.
If I find my publishing person, getting from manuscript to book takes a long time. Not only is the process long and rocky, but I find myself defending it to people who ask why I’m even trying to participate in it.
In answer to the many who’ve asked why I’m bothering with the slow, arcane and fraught business of traditional publishing (as opposed to self publishing) when, as my digitally oriented partner says, ‘the model is broken’, I write this…
I could hire a freelance editor. I could hire a freelance designer. I have ready access to people who’d find it easy to turn my manuscript into an ebook. They – and I – know how to get that ebook onto Amazon. I’m blessed to know people who are guns at social media and digital marketing. For them to put a professional version of my manuscript into the public space and then spruik it would take relatively little time. They’d do a good job. I’d probably make the same amount of money.
But despite the fact I create/edit a digital magazine of which I’m protective and proud, I respect the world of traditional book publishing. I care about its history, its evolution, its survival. I believe in both paper and ebooks. I’m not a purist for the form – it’s the process I value. When a book (in any medium) bears a publisher’s imprimatur I know it has come through a process that involves professional judgement, filtering and rigour. As a result, it is part of a larger, significant cultural conversation.
The world is noisy and crowded. As a reader I value people who curate, select and filter because I don’t want to wade through everything ever created by anyone who knows how to type. I already do that enough. I believe in the relevance – the worth – of energetic, educated, informed selection, now more than ever.
Not for a moment do I think things should stay unchanged. My partner is right that the existing publishing model isn’t working — people don’t buy books the same way they used to, they don’t read the same way they used to, and this is a problem for publishers who are in dire financial straits and, as a result, become nervous and conservative and repetitive and confused about their direction and lose faith in the public’s curiosity and scope of interest. That can only be bad.
I know publishers get it wrong. They reject books that go on to be loved by millions, they print books that are appalling. They misjudge and underestimate readers. That happens. I hate to think of the stories I’ve missed out on reading because a publisher didn’t value or understand what the writer was trying to do. But still, given the constraints of budgets, staff and their own taste, they do try to publish the best books they can.
And would it be helpful for the reader and society to have no gatekeepers of any kind? (Bearing in mind that iTunes and Amazon and the other behemoths don’t care a whit for freedom of expression, and that publishers do more than ‘gatekeep’.) If everything were thrown into a pile as if it all had equal value, different only in price — and it would be great it was all equal, but it’s just not. People are all equal, art is not — it would be hard to separate Joan Didion from his-muscles-rippled or Michael Chabon’s stories from my neighbour Simon’s history of Norfolk Island. I’m not suggesting Simon should be silenced or that he won’t find an appreciative audience, but it’s not a terrible thing for his work to be assessed, judged, critiqued by people who work with words, who live for words. Because that’s what happens when grown-ups make art — written or otherwise: it becomes part of our collective history of expression and is commented upon. Were everything accorded the same response, the same unthinking validation, presented on the same flat platter as simply another consumable, then our critical faculty might as well shrivel up and die. Writing is meant to be assessed, dissected, pawed, because that activity of responding to creative work is as important as the creating of the work itself.
My partner looks to music and other ‘middle man’ industries to show how the direct-to-consumer model benefits creators and the public. He has faith in the wisdom of the mass to find what’s interesting and worth their attention. I wish every creator who travels that road the very best. Create with abandon, innovate, offer what you love/mean rather than what you think ‘consumers’ want. I’ve felt the joy of this when writing blog posts and making magazines without an intermediary. I’ve had success with it.
However, for a book, it feels preferable to work with a publisher. Not any publisher — a publisher with a keen interest in the past and passion for the future, one who is adapting to change without compromising their ideals. Because, I believe, there’s something bigger at play. Something complicated and important and alive.
If you’re interested in the state and future of book publishing, you may like to read these articles:
*Our beautiful iPad and iPhone only digital magazine Open Field raises money for CARE. Every stage of crafting and sharing this magazine has been a delight and a success.