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February 4th, 2012:

Indies and Gatekeepers

Janet Perlman put me on to this article about why indie publishers (a category that may or may not include self publishers, depending on whom you talk to) get no respect. The whole piece might be summed up this way:

  • Quality is hard work.
  • Quality is expensive.
  • Quantity is no substitute for quality.

I agree, as far as it goes. But that’s not the whole story. You can break a sweat and write a superb novel at considerable expense of time and energy. You can pay an editor to look at it and perhaps fix certain things. You can pay an artist for a great cover. You can pay somebody to do a great page layout, generate print images, ebook files, and so on. Having shelled out all that expense in time, money, and personal energy, you are not likely to sell many books or become especially well-known. Publishing is an unfair business in a lot of ways.

Perhaps the most unfair thing about publishing as we know it now is that it cares not a whit about quality. Sure, the publishers will tell you otherwise. So will the agents, and so will the retailers, assuming you can find any these days. Alas, it’s not true. Publishers, agents, and retailers are indeed our gatekeepers, and the gates are tightly kept. The gates do not open for quality, alas. The gates open in the hope of making money.

This is true not only in quirky markets like fiction (more on which in a moment) but in technical publishing as well. I’ve received and rejected beautifully written books that were well-organized and basically error-free, for a simple reason: The Radish programming language (I just made that up) is used by 117 people world-wide, which means the total worldwide market for a book about Radish is 116. (The author already has a copy.) On the flipside, the best possible book on Windows XP won’t be accepted at any traditional publishing house, because all the books on XP that the universe needs were written a long time ago.

The reverse is also true, to some extent. If a publisher thinks your book will make money, the book will probably be published. Being well-written doesn’t change this equation much. Back in the Coriolis era I spent a lot of money on developmental editors to make a manuscript readable in those cases where I suspected (after market analysis) that the book met a hitherto unmet need. I wasn’t always right, of course, but the point is that I didn’t accept or reject books based on any judgment of quality. What I was looking for was market demand.

This is true of fiction as well, in spades. I picked up Cherie Priest’s steampunk entry Dreadnought last year, and had to force myself to finish it. Two other people in my circle, who live 1,000 miles apart and don’t know one another, both described the book in a single word: Unreadable. (Another said the same of her earlier book, Boneshaker.) Dreadnought was dull, slow, short on ideas, over-descriptive in some places and far too sparse in others. Yet Cherie’s got a following and is evidently doing very well. Somebody at Tor thought her books would make money and took a chance. They were right. That doesn’t make them well-written. (I did like the covers, and covers do matter–if you can get them in front of the readers somehow.)

I don’t want to be seen as picking on Cherie, who will doubtless chew me out if she reads this. It’s a pretty common thing. Nor is it a new thing. Decades ago I read a lot of abominable novels, from Sacred Locomotive Flies to Garbage World. They got into the stores. They probably made their authors at least a little money. (They got mine, after all.) They were crap.

If Dreadnought made money, why would a book that was better written not make money? It’s a long list. The author may not have been able to get a hearing from the gatekeepers in the first place. Luck is needed here, as well as brute persistence, not that persistence is any guarantee. The topic may be considered out of style, or just worked out and already done to death. It may be too long. (I ran into this trouble with The Cunning Blood. Unit manufacturing cost matters.) The book may have been judged to push buttons in the public mind that the publisher would prefer not to push. (Back when I was in high school I read a purely textual porn comedy novel that was brilliantly written and hilarious. Would I publish it? Not on your life.) Books that demean women or minorities a little too much, or focus on cruelty to animals (or probably a number of other things) won’t be picked up as easily, and it has nothing to do with quality. It’s tough to make money in publishing, and publishers are trolling for as broad a market as possible.

This is why I think the article on HuffPo cited above is misleading. Quality is a problem, but not as much of a problem as the author thinks, and not in the same ways. Worse, solving the quality problem won’t make an indie publisher’s books any more likely to get into B&N, and suggesting to indie publishers that they will is just dishonest.

So what’s the answer? Don’t know. There may not be one. The publishing industry is in the process of changing state, and nobody knows what we’ll inherit in five or ten years. Losing B&N (or waking up one day to find that B&N is a tenth the size it was yesterday) could work to indie publishing’s advantage, at least if independent bookstores fill the subsequent vacuum. The more gates to the retail channel there are, the more likely it is that one will open when you buzz. Self-published ebooks have worked for people like Amanda Hocking with Herculean energy who write for twelve hours and then promote themselves the other twelve. Tonnage can get you noticed, even if it’s bad tonnage.

For the rest of us, again, I don’t know. Quality in all writing (fiction especially) is not the choke point. It’s an unfair and beneath it all a mysterious business. Submit good work if you can, but be prepared to have the gates shut in your face a lot. That’s just what gates do.