from a PR flyer-- 12 September 2011
In your opinion what is the effect of established methods of publishing?
The current model of publishing, espoused by all the major publishers, retailers and, unfortunately, most authors is to have an expensive, premier agent in Manhattan approve your book, send it to a large, famous and well-established publisher as well as to his friends at the New York Times, have Ingrams distribute it to Barnes and Noble, and then sit back and wait for the Today show to schedule your TV interviews and the filmmakers to call.
Though a precious few do find success this way, what I call the ‘B&N model’ is inherently flawed in numerous ways. Conspicuously, it gives voice to only a very elite few. If the agent has never heard of you, he will regard your voice as unimportant to the market and unlikely to earn him any money, since if you were any good he would have heard of you. Notice that, besides being circular logic, this attitude cements the agent(s) as the chief arbiter between what gets said by whom to whom, the gatekeeper of free speech in a free market.
And just because something is not out in the market now doesn’t mean it wouldn’t do well in the market if some industrious marketer got off his bottom and set to work. The job of the agent and publishing marketer is to sell what’s not already there. To me, the very fact that it’s not there suggests an opportunity. A marketer should want to be the first and only one to discover new talent and to reap the benefits. But to the average publisher or agent, the fact that it’s not there, for whatever reason, suggests that it has no right to be. He’d rather take an easy 15% from a sure thing.
Notice that this model relies heavily on the author’s either being a name already known to the media world (such as Tina Fey or Anne Coulter, both of whom worked hard in other areas of media to gain their reputations) or knowing someone who can do you a favour and read your otherwise unsolicited manuscript. If you maintain that this is the only or even the most desirable way to get published, answer this: how famous are you already; or how many agents do you regularly golf, bowl, drink craft beer or attend university reunions with?
This model of publishing has existed since at least the 1920s and remains the default which most retailers, publishers, distributors and agents (as well as authors) think is the only sensible way to publish and market books. It’s flawed ethically and economically. I’ve tried for years to figure out why it persists; and I can only imagine that it’s centred in ego or establishmentism, something more having to do with the personalities in question than with logic, common sense or marketing savvy.
A small book-by-book publisher, whether selling through small shops or online, operates by nature and by necessity on a much more efficient scale. The biggest benefit comes from adopting a Print-On-Demand (POD) scheme rather than relying on a huge and expensive inventory. Under POD a stocking distributor has only to carry as many books as will sell before more can be printed. This number can be as low as 1. Compare that to a 25,000-per-title run by the average big publisher’s big printing contractor-- who pretty much dictate to the whole industry as it stands now-- with whom a lower-quantity run actually increases the price per copy. This is a system based on waste.
POD is more space-efficient as well, which results in less real estate needed for inventory, since the reorder point can be so low and the restocking time can be so fast. It’s less shop to heat and cool, less taxes to pay, and more space that can be devoted to a greater variety of books. In fact a ‘virtual’ bookstore, along the lines of an eBay trader, can be set up in anyone’s garage or basement, carrying only a few favourite titles and marketing to a very specific market-- though I always prefer a physical establishment where I can meet people and touch and open books myself; and I suspect most novel readers are of my mind here.
And then, ethically, the POD model is purer and more sensitive. Few, if any, books get returned unsold; so there is no paper waste. I don’t have a problem cutting down trees to promptly produce a really nice copy of a book that has been requested and will be kept and cherished for generations; but I don’t want to chop down whole forests in Idaho and Oregon to produce hundreds of thousands of books when we don’t know if anyone even wants them yet.
Despite these obvious and very real benefits, many people look down on POD titles as something less than being ‘really published’. This is a snobbism that can only be bred of belonging to the ‘B&N model’.
Why aren’t more publishers, even big ones, doing POD? I think you should ask the print shops, who by virtue of their ‘requirements’ that they do only massive runs, thus binding the publishers to an inefficient relationship, rather dictate to the entire industry what may be done with what for whom.
Most of them are not edited well. It’s not the story that makes them seem amateurish, or any triteness about characterisation and dialogue. Any of that can be overlooked when it’s got into an appropriate market. It’s sad but true that most people with a computer word-processing program in front of them don’t have a sufficient grasp of English to be able to write mechanically well. As a literature teacher I used to ask my students to ask of their own compositions, ‘Does this look like what I’ve read in this class?’ Are the conventions of writing dialogue observed? Is the grammar similar? Are there verb-tense or -agreement problems? Did you use whom and who correctly? Did you even check the spelling?
I have come to suspect that one great reason for the inadequacy of amateur writers’ publications is their utter dependence on the functionally inferior MS Word spell-checker and grammar-checker. They are absolutely atrocious and their suggestions should be regarded with scepticism or just completely ignored. Get a real-life hardcover dictionary (I use the Collins, believe it or not, not the OED) and get into the practice of looking up every word before you select one of the spellchecker’s options. You will produce a quality manuscript and learn English better besides. And your attention to the actual mechanics of the language will elevate your story above those of the punters that didn’t bother and will ensure that those who read it can appreciate it on its more literary merits.
It’s like racing a car-- if you think you’re a good driver worth notice, don’t let your car break down on the third lap in. Failing because of mechanical problems is the worst way to go-- and most easily avoided!
* * *