First off, thank you to everyone for your forbearance yesterday as I attended to work matters. Second, PUBLICATION ALERT for the paperback edition of FEAR, Jeff Abbott’s masterful suspense thriller, which I really enjoyed. If you’re on myspace, you can befriend Jeff here.
And now for today’s post.
Way back when in the early days of the blog, back when the blog was written in paper and then mailed to a distribution list who then called a phone chain where everyone was responsible for telegraphing the message in smoke signals… er, you get the idea… anyway, way back in March I was going to start a semi-regular feature whereby I presented a publishing myth and said Yea or Nay to said publishing myth’s validity. Then I promptly forgot about the feature. That is, until Andrew Sullivan decided to be the shotgun to the publishing industry’s clay pigeon.
So today, back like a phoenix rising from ashes of a, um, semi-frequented blog: Publishing Myths 101. Today’s myth: publishers only care about the bottom line and this is why only crap is published (but what I really mean is publishers only care about the bottom line because no one will publish my 978 page treatise on the human condition and its discontents).
First, let us trace the origins of today’s myth. In the dawn of man, back when we lived in caves, there lived a forward-thinking Neanderthal named Thad. Thad had a fantastic experience with a UFO, was chased by an evil albino, and exposed a secret society. He decided to write this story down, using newly invented devices called words. He tried to sell these words to a his friend Editorus, who carved words into stone and sold them to other Neanderthals. Editorus said no.
Thad was very distressed. First he said, “I hear Editoruses don’t edit anymore, they just carve out whatever crap they’re submitted.” Then he said, “All publishers care about is money.” Thus the myth was born.
So. You’d think a myth that has been around as long as this one would have been dispelled a long time ago. You would think wrong.
Some people probably think I’m stooping too low to even address this question (of course, such people probably don’t usually read this blog). But its persistence amazes me, and you know what, I don’t want to dismiss this out of hand. So here goes.
Publishers are businesses, agencies are businesses, businesses have to make money to put out books. Ever since Thad’s time there has always been a tenuous balance between art and commerce. There are huge massive corporations that sell a whole bunch of copies, a good deal of which is commercial and isn’t intended to be hung in an art gallery. But then again, these massive corporations also produce some of the finest works of literature ever written. And then there are small publishers, many of whom are not-for-profit (take that, myth), who are dedicated to new, innovative, overlooked voices. So which is it?
I think what is at the heart of this oft-repeated myth is the idea that people not only want idiosyncratic works to be published and find an audience, they want them to be HUGE BESTSELLERS. When a small, idiosyncratic work fails to become a HUGE BESTSELLER (or fails to be published at all) people think it is 1) the rank commerciality of publishers who are standing in the way of anonymity and bestsellerdom or 2) the stupidity and venality of the American public who don’t appreciate quality until the author has died of alcoholism and depression provoked by a public who doesn’t appreciate him (that is a topic for another day). But what is most ironic to me about this sentiment is that the same person who will decry publisher’s supposed commerciality is the same person who wants to be published and find a huge audience (and I doubt many of them offer to give the money back). So which is it, HYPOTHETICAL PERSON?
And then there are the Beatles of publishing, those Ian McEwans and Cormac McCarthys and Anne McDermotts and the Jonathans (Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer) of the world who are some of our best living writers AND are bestsellers. They tend to be published by the big publishers who supposedly only care about the bottom line, so these big mean corporations also somehow manage to produce much of our best literature.
But truthfully, at the heart of any myth there is a kernel of truth (well, except maybe this one) and I’ve had my heart broken many times by publishers who had to make a business decision over an artistic one. I don’t think publishers do this because they are evil, but because they are businesses who depend on other businesses (booksellers) who depend on customers who will buy books to keep the publishing machine running. So yes, the bottom line is important, essential even, to most publishers, but that doesn’t mean that gems aren’t published and that doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY thing that matters, particularly not for the independent presses who are dedicated to literary merit. Plus, publishers are highly functioning machines adept at giving readers what they want, and a good portion of the reading public wants quality (they also want something to read at the beach too).
So for this myth I will say: SORTA TRUE, SORTA FALSE, KINDA DEPENDS.
Hope that clears things up.