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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Perhaps traditional book publishing shouldn't be regarded as the holy grail for writers anymore
Posted by Jill | 6:12 AM
Regular readers of this blog are well aware of our good friend jurassicpork's travels through the publishing industry, and of finding doors slammed in his face.

Most of those of us who write have the dream of someday holding the first bound copy of our first book in our hands. When we hear of others achieving that goal, it's hard not to feel at least a twinge of envy. My supervisor at my last job achieved a publishing deal for his memoir about his garden -- a real, honest-to-goodness book deal, with an agent and a contract and a tour and frontage at Barnes and Noble and a review in the Sunday New York Times book review section. His publisher also picked up the option on his second book as well. If you think I didn't do at least a little bit of teeth-gnashing about it, you're attributing a level of sainthood to me that I lack, for all that my Unfinished Novel In Which I Throw Everything But the Kitchen Sink at my protagonist will probably always be unfinished. The closest thing I'll ever get to a published book is when I compile what used to have a working title of The Drapes are Winning: The Best of Brilliant at Breakfast until I found that Oscar Wilde never said that. And so it goes.

There are those who have done reasonably well with self-publishing. My sister's book, Visioncrafting: A Self-Guided Journey, can be purchased on Amazon.com, just as Donald Rumsfeld's can. We mere mortals can probably sell as many books self-promoting as we're likely to get being buried in the racks at Barnes and Noble. And with Borders going out of business, the idea of Seeing Your Book In The Store doesn't have the same thrill it used to, since Barnes and Noble is going to give most of its prime space to celebrity authors.

The other nasty aspect of book publishing these days, and about one's odds of appearing on the New York Times Bestseller list, is bulk sales. Conservative book clubs often buy tens of thousands of copies of books by right-wing authors. Mitt Romney has exchanged bulk sales for speeches. Right-wing groups bought George W. Bush's memoir in bulk. This makes it next to impossible for nonfiction authors who aren't celebrities to ever make it onto that list. For fiction writers it's worse. For every Jodi Picoult, who cranked out a book every nine months for years before becoming a reliable bestseller, or Fup, a book picked off the slush pile with much fanfare by Morgan Entrekin in 1983 (and which subsequently bombed), there are tens of thousands of people who will never, ever get that first break.

But perhaps it's time to stop revering the publishing industry as the ultimate seal of approval. Celebrity book publishing has always been the cash cow of the industry. When I worked at Simon & Schuster in the 1980's, books like the Jane Fonda Workout Book and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Pumping Iron and the novels of Judith Krantz paid the bills so that Erwin Glikes could publish his neocons.

But now all you need do is be a marginal celebrity and you can be a published author, because name recognition is everything. This is how people like Kim Kardashian and Snooki and that woman who's on one of the Real Housewives show get book contracts.

Or for that matter, the barely 20-year-old Bristol Palin:
The daughter of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has signed with William Morrow to publish "Not Afraid of Life," to come out this summer. Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, announced Tuesday that the memoir would provide "an inside look at her life."

"Bristol gives readers an intimate behind-the-scenes look at her life for the first time, from growing up in Alaska to coming of age amid the media and political frenzy surrounding her mother's political rise; from becoming a single mother while still a teenager to coping as her relationship with her baby's father crumbled publicly — not once, but twice," according to Morrow.

A listing for the book briefly appeared last month on Amazon.com and on an online HarperCollins spreadsheet. HarperCollins has published two best-sellers by Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008: "Going Rogue" and "America by Heart."

Bristol Palin, 20, has become a celebrity in her own right, through her broken relationship with her child's father, Levi Johnston, and through her time as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars."

"Bristol talks about the highs and lows of her appearance on ABC-TV's 'Dancing With the Stars,' including the aching hours of practice, the biting criticisms, and the thrill of getting to the show's finals," Morrow announced. "She speaks candidly of her aspirations for the future and the deep religious faith that gives her strength and inspiration.

"Plainspoken and disarmingly down to earth, Bristol offers new insight and understanding of who she is and what she values most."

It's a fait accompli that this tome will end up on the New York Times bestseller list, because conservative groups will make sure it does.

So if this is the company that book publishers are keeping, perhaps it's time for aspiring authors to stop casting pearls before swine?

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Blogger Fixer said...
Self publishing is a good but you have to do all the marketing and publicity yourself. And you're right, the odds of your stuff getting bought from places like Amazon are about equal to having it sit on bookstore shelves. I do okay, but then I don't expect to get rich off it.

Blogger Taylor Wray said...
Yeah, I'd say the feat of having a book published isn't so impressive these days, necessarily.

What's more important is if your book has meaningful, broad impact across many demographics in society, or how deeply it resonates with the particular audience you're writing for. Plus, there's always the simple test of time...

Anonymous Charlie O said...
If Americans spend actual cash on Bristol Palin's book, it's proof that the recession is over.

Blogger Bartender Cabbie said...
I don't know, but it seems that you are calling out jp for being a bit of a whiner. I am probably wrong.

Blogger Jill said...
You wish, BC.

JP is a talented writer. There are tens of thousands of talented writers who simply cannot get a toehold in the traditional publishing industry, which is still (though who knows for how much longer) the Holy Grail for authors.

When I was in my last job, one of my colleagues excitedly came to me to tell me of someone she knew in another department who had just "had a book published" and was going to LA to talk about movie rights. The book was "published" by PublishAmerica, which is essentially self-publishing. For all that I've seen what happens in the publishing industry first-hand, Yes, I did feel that this wasn't "real" book publishing. And of course the "interest in movie rights" consisted of this person shlepping to LA and knocking on doors. I will give her credit for balls, though.

When I worked at Simon & Schuster, I used to read the slush pile. It's one of the dumbass parts of the editorial assistant's job, because the chances of a alush pile book ever being published are virtually nil. 99% of what I read was utter crap -- bad plotting, bad dialogue, bad spelling. But one novel was really, really good -- and nothing every happened to it.

It has always been very difficult to make a living as an author. Especially today, when publishing companies are owned by megaconglomerates instead of literary types, they are loath to put out advances for unproven properties. My former boss who was had two books published by Algonquin Press is still working at his full-time job. That the industry is a Catch-22 where you can't make a reputation until you 've been published and you can't be published until you have a reputation is nothing new.

What IS new is that now you can self-publish, you can make your books available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com and you can promote the hell out of it yourself. You won't get an advance, and you won't make a lot fo money, but you can get read.

Just as conventional journalism's corporate requirements are causing it to fall prey to the kind of independent journalists who blog, so will traditional book publishing fall to the increased democratization of the industry.

Blogger Bartender Cabbie said...
Interesting. With the advent of "blogging" we are all "writers" now. Whether most of us can actually write....anyway as you can tell JP and I don't really mix well but with that being said anyone who can actually get a book published in the traditional manner gets from me a "go for it and good luck."