seawasp (seawasp) wrote,

The Problems of Publishing...

Background: "Eric Ammadon" is on the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition and has a rather... bombastic posting style and some unusual views with respect to publishing. He takes the word "submission" very seriously; as in, the publisher is essentially asking you to KNEEL BEFORE ZOD! and believes the publishing industry is arcane, outdated, and humiliating to even attempt to publish a book with. His most recent posts gave rise, however, to my writing a response on whether there IS a better way and laying out some of the issues. So I've included this below.


Eric Ammadon wrote:

> Show me one that has a "no simultaneous submissions" rule.


> It's bullshit, I find it offensive, and I am utterly amazed that human

> beings can be sufficiently oppressed to put up with it.  The

> publishing industry has been a buyer's market for too damn long and

> there has never been a surplus of *good* writing product, only a

> shortage of people competent to identify it quickly and with

> certainty.


    I completely disagree, in that I think there's ALWAYS been more "good" -- as in "I, as a publisher, could make money from this" -- product out there than gets published. Probably a LOT more. Much of it is either not being submitted at all (whether because the person is such a wrongheaded fool as to feel that a business can't set its own terms of operation, and doesn't like the terms, or because -- much more commonly -- the IDEA of actually sending their work for potential rejection scares them), are being submitted to the wrong people, or -- the other common case after "too scared to send the work in" -- is buried in a mountain of slush and gets missed.


    Given that each and every publishing house, even WITH the limitation of No Simultaneous Submissions (which, of course, quite a few people ignore anyway), has such immense slush submitted to it every year that some have simply given up, and now only accept agented manuscripts, and that the ones which still take unsolicited manuscripts take many months to YEARS to get through the slush -- this is a very difficult problem to solve.


    If you eliminated the No Simultaneous submissions rule, then the likely outcome is that, while some authors would continue to follow it anyway (a systematic approach or they feel only certain publishers are a worthwhile market), you would MULTIPLY the slush pile for ALL publishers by a factor of ten, because they would now be getting the submissions they normally get PLUS the ones of their competitors.



> Pretty soon here we're gonna wake up and fix that.


    Describe an actual, practical process for doing that. There are two basic routes of publication; one is some form of self-publishing, be it putting stuff on the Web or going to a vanity press, printing the thing physically, and trying to promo it. The other is to have a regular publisher with established publicity, distribution, and SELECTION AND EDITING capabilities, publish your book. I emphasize SELECTION AND EDITING because it's what you almost NEVER get in the first type, either the Web or print versions.


    The first sub-variant can be seen at and similar sites which take fan-original, or even completely original, fiction and put it up for other people to read. These variants fail on TWO fronts. First, and most importantly, they have no selection filter. A given randomly chosen story, even narrowed down to some particular subgenre, has not been "vetted" by anyone except the author and, maybe, a small circle of friends. (a VERY few authors in the "put it on or otherwise on the Web" category are, in fact, pro authors or have real editing people to help them, but they are down in the noise). So what you have is a fully-posted slushpile. There are gems in there -- yes, even in the fanfic there are stories of brilliance and warmth and ideas and human impact that are fully the equal of any published stories sitting on bookshelves -- but you won't find more than a tiny fraction of them in a lifetime if you have to search "blind", i.e., not knowing that J.Random Author is good or bad.


    The ONLY mechanism for publicity here is generally "word of mouth". Word of mouth is great, if the "word" comes from the right mouth. I.e., if Oprah or the Today Show mention your story, you are now coining money (or, if there's no money involved, getting website hits) hand over fist. But if it starts with you and your friends, experience shows that it usually DIES OUT only a link or two out unless your friends are heavily connected with other heavily connected groups.


    You can try to self-promote, but see below for more on that.


    This sub-variant also has no mechanism generally available for paying the authors, and the few mechanisms available (e.g.,Paypal) are clumsy and not at all suited to the individual author/reader's needs in several ways.


    The "Self-published" variant does at least have the virtue, currently, of having many fewer competitors; even though far more people are going that route these days than ever before, the number is orders of magnitude lower than the number of new fiction pieces posted on the web. (it is not unusual for a particularly popular SINGLE SHOW to generate hundreds of thousands of individual stories from it)


    This is unfortunately completely negated by the fact that it is almost 100% UNAVAILABLE for the would-be browser to find. There isn't an online set of websites that aggregate all the self-published books in easily-located form and give you the ability to page through it to see if it's self-published dreck or brilliance.


    Thus, this required self-promotion. I've been playing around in that area with my own work lately, but the level of effort necessary for a self-published book is vastly greater. You will be spending many, many hours of non-paid work trying to get your book into stores, onto shows, podcasts, mentioned in papers or other websites. You will have to do a lot of traveling. You will have to be willing to expend a lot of your resources to have a CHANCE for your self-published book to sell well -- and there's no guarantee it EVER will, because your self-published book may, well, suck, or you may simply never find the right place and time and people to get the ball rolling.

    Note that "SELECTION and EDITING" are key here as well. I can't find which of the thousands of self-published books are drek ("Van Gogh in SPACE!!!" actually was available as a self-pub on Amazon, and until "Night Travels of the Elven Vampire" (also self-pub) I'd never encountered anything that bad) and which are works of genius. Moreover, even ones that *MIGHT* have been works of genius, but needed an editor to help them GET there, never ENCOUNTER an editor, and end up much weaker than they might have otherwise.


    The second approach -- the standard publishing one -- has its limitations, but at least it does have an excellent track record for finding and publishing readable books, and sometimes brilliant ones. Even the most sneered-at "real publishers" have an output that is vastly better in quality and usually production values than any vanity press ever will.


    Moreover, any established publisher has connections to distributors (which will put the books into Amazon and into bookstores country or even worldwide), publicists (who do do SOME work on even the titles for first-time unknown authors), other publishers, printers, etc., with established relationships with these other businesses that give them excellent rates on these services, permitting production and distribution of the book at a lower cost than a typical vanity press.


    But you have the problems such as...


    Slush. This is the biggie. For separating literally MILLIONS of manuscripts into literary gems, serviceable literary lumber, steel, and stone, and the vast tailings of failure of one sort or another; preferably, sort out the tailings into the small percentage that show promise enough to give a personal response, and those which are good for OTHER markets but not yours, and those which are, well, not showing promise and just get the form letter.


    This is a process which requires reading comprehension and an understanding of what works in writing. For the low-level separation you can use fairly low-paid people, but not minimum wagers by a long shot, if you want them to have a pretty high probability of not discarding a good manuscript just because it doesn't meet with their personal preferences.


    Currently, therefore, this process cannot be automated except for the most egregiously bad submissions. You can junk those who don't fit your submission guidelines -- didn't include a SASE for return if you require it, didn't format the document in a proper manner, etc. -- as a quick pass, but this won't kill off the majority.


    So automation is out until you get not only AI, but LITERARY AI. That is, an artificial intelligence that not only actually understands human language, but understands human STORIES.


    This leaves you with needing human beings to sort through millions of manuscripts -- and dealing with the limitations of human beings in reading speed, attention span, and boredom/"green light syndrome", in which they get so habituated to the Suckitude that they miss a gem going by.


    What's your response goal? If I send in a story to 10 publishers (having done away with the no simultaneous submissions), how long do you want it to be before the publisher has read and responded to the submission? If you, as you imply, get rid of "no simultaneous submissions", you are currently implying a response time from submission to acceptance or rejection of something like TEN YEARS.


    If you want something reasonable -- say a year (and some authors think THAT is too long, and I'd agree at least in the No Simultaneous situation, but that's the way it currently is) -- you need TEN TIMES as many slush readers, and secondary readers/editors to take the sorted stuff from the first group and go over it more carefully to see if it's still not really good enough, or really worth the effort to publish or at least see if it can be fixed up.


    Ten times as many employees JUST TO GET THE SAME NUMBER OF MANUSCRIPTS FOR PUBLICATION, mind you. If you want to assume that somehow more gems are being missed, or more would be submitted, under the different system, so that there would end up being more published overall, then you need to increase employees all the way up the chain. Either way, you've just added a **HUGE** overhead onto the process that wasn't there before. $50-$100 dollar hardbacks, baby! And that's for FICTION books; once fiction goes that way, double or triple the price of all those speciality books that already cost in the hundreds.


    And THEN you have the legal issues. Publisher A AND Publisher B have both been submitted Novel C, and both want novel C. This is nice for the author but a pain for the publishers to negotiate. Yes, sometimes there are "bids", but those are done usually by agents with agented manuscripts.


    The combination is a reason why all publishers use agents, and some (and especially producers of media stuff) use ONLY agents to get material. The agent performs the function of slush reader, but does so only to find enough authors worth being represented that he or she feels   they can represent efficiently. Once they've reached what they think is their limit, they don't slog through the dross any more (until some of their clients leave or die). But an established agent is someone who's demonstrated that they understand what the publishers want -- and different publishers want different things. An agented manuscript is a guarantee that the work in question is at, or sufficiently near, professional level that it deserves very serious consideration by the top-level editors. This saves everyone a lot of time and effort.

    The editing itself is another crucial step -- as I tried to emphasize earlier. Editors are very very very important people. Many of them are, at best, mediocre WRITERS themselves (while some are extremely good writers), but a good editor is good at seeing what works in SOMEONE ELSE'S writing. I have so far been fortunate in my editors. My next novel, Grand Central Arena, will be about TWICE as good as it would have been otherwise because Toni Weisskopf gave me some very succinct, pointed, and DEAD ON ACCURATE advice about what I needed to do to fix some weaknesses in the novel that *I WOULD NEVER HAVE SEEN* if she hadn't pointed them out. This is true of most, if not all, authors; they have trouble seeing certain issues in their writing from the inside. The self-published route doesn't offer this mechanism.



    Now, there may be some ways to change the process, but I don't see any that actually IMPROVE the overall situation much. There are a huge number of legal and practical hurdles to overcome in the business no matter what you do.


    But if you have an actual practical method for so doing, by all means go ahead.



 So concludes today's posted babbling.


                     Sea Wasp



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