Every couple of weeks, the web seems to blow up with an anti-traditional-publishing piece. This week, it comes courtesy of Penelope Trunk, who writes a very fishy, scarcely-credible screed about how New York publishers are idiots because they don't have her genius for promotion, blah blah. It's a pretty brilliant sales piece masquerading as a blog entry. "Yeah, fight the power!" you can think as you plunk down 6 bucks for a 50-page ebook. That a major publisher agreed to publish. And then let Penelope keep the advance when she pulled it. Three months before publication when there weren't even any galleys printed yet. Riiiight.
A couple of weeks ago, it was the "How Amazon Saved My Life" blog entry, which at least has the ring of being a true story but is peppered with nasty little jabs at those evil New York publishers.
Perhaps because I'm a teacher, which is to say, a member of another group that is routinely vilified by people who think they know more than they do, I feel the need to stick up for traditional publishers. Which is not to suggest that self-publishing ebooks is bad--I'm gearing up to do it myself--but I don't think traditional publishing is as evil as these and other pieces suggest.
Let me start out with something that should be obvious. Pretty much every book you've ever loved that came out over five years ago was bought, edited, and promoted by those idiots in traditional publishing. Just ponder that for a second. So yeah, sometimes they're a little timid. Sometimes they work too hard to chase the next bestselling trend. Sometimes they look at sales records over the actual content of the work. Sometimes they put out books by Snooki. But those hidebound old-media dinosaurs have actually served you pretty well as a reader.
I'd like to address this especially nasty shot from Jessica Park's piece: You’re eating Ramen noodles while they are taking all of December and January off and while they essentially shutdown during the summer to vacation on the Cape? First of all, you've used the noun "shutdown" when you meant the verb phrase "shut down." But also, this: publishing doesn't actually pay very well. The great bulk of the work is done by underpaid assistants who struggle to make ends meet by selling the books they get for free to The Strand. It is ridonkulously expensive to live in New York, and the great majority of people who work in publishing houses are not getting rich doing it. I had an editor--not even an assistant-- at a major house say this to me once: "I had to work from home today because tomorrow is payday and I don't have train fare." Publishing is like teaching in that only idiots go into it for the money.
Let's examine the other big theme in these pieces: these idiots don't understand promotion. They have no idea how to sell books.
Fair enough, but here's a little shocker for you: neither do you. Because nobody does. Books sell mostly through word-of-mouth, and nobody knows what makes some books catch fire and others not. Publishers would be thrilled to make more money. So if they knew how to make every book a bestseller, they would.
Here's a little example from my own experience back in the pre-ebook era. When promoting It Takes a Worried Man, I had an excerpt in Ladies' Home Journal and a piece in Rosie Magazine. (which was a thing at the time). I got a rave review in People Magazine. I was on the Today show. I was on The Rosie O'Donnell Show. I was on All Things Considered. Really, publicity-wise, it could not possibly have gone better unless I'd been on Oprah. And that book sold 5000 copies. Why? Whose fault was that? I have no idea. Was there too much swearing in the book? Was the cover bad? Are people just too scared of cancer to read a non-Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of book about it? Did Dave Eggers' debut sate people's appetite for sarcastic but soft-hearted memoirs by caregivers? I have no idea. Nobody at Random House has any idea either.
If you get a book published by a major house, you probably won't have the success of a Stephen King or a Suzanne Collins. And you'll never know why. If you self-publish, you probably won't have the success of a J.A. Konrath or a-- um, anybody else who's a big self-publishing success. And you won't know why.
I mean, don't get me wrong. I wish you, me, and everybody else all the success in the world in their publishing endeavors. But the people who are wildly successful in either self-publishing or traditional publishing are outliers. And no one can explain their success.
Publishing is in flux right now, and nobody knows what's coming. And yes, probably traditional publishing houses are dragging their feet a little bit in terms of adapting to the new environment. But I just want so say something against what I think is a pernicious idea embedded in all the self-publishing hype: the idea that you can control your own fate.
This is a pretty American kind of idea that's promoted all over the place and skewered brilliantly by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-sided, which I recommend to everybody. The idea is that limitless success is within your grasp if you're only willing to think positively enough and work hard enough. But that's not true. Luck plays a huge part in anyone's success and in many people's failure. You may well find greater satisfaction in taking the reins and guiding your own writing career, and if so, good for you. But just don't torture yourself wondering what you could have done better if the book doesn't catch fire.
It's pretty terrifying to think that we live in a chaotic world that is beyond our control. But I'm always very suspicious of anyone who tells me otherwise.