The Graveyard Of Elephants

Sorry to be so late posting today, but it’s been another of those “being nibbled by ducks” day, and the post I have in mind requires some thought so as not to appear to be maligning people I’m not in fact maligning. (And in case it isn’t obvious, this post will be about the business model that’s now crumbling, not any of my agents past or present, living … wait, they’re all living as far as I know, so that’s enough.)

In the way these things do, an unrelated comment and a post over the last week have worked themselves into a post in my head. The comment was by Jeff Dwyer, who I understand has for some years been an agent, working mostly in children’s picture books, and who is now to some extent mothballing that part of his business, according to a separate comment.

He said, in part:

One of the benefits of aging is hindsight and one would hope an acquired perspective. As I read this post, I remembered when the slush pile went away and the submissions began to flood into our agency mail box. We’d had dinner one night with a publisher who had just announced that she wasn’t accepting unagented submissions. I complained that she was forcing us to become her non-compensated first readers, and she smiled and said, “Yep. We’re no longer paying first year Radcliffe grads $25K plus benefits to read thousands of submissions that we won’t acquire.” Soon, it was apparent that we’d become gatekeepers for the editors whom aspiring authors wanted to reach. It placed the agent in a position of need in the publishing food chain, and agency world grew. Outsourced legacy publishing editors had a second act when they received the pink slip. They could take their Rolodex with them and sell work to their old friends. With the evolution of indie publishing, the role of the agent will continue to diminish in importance as will the role of legacy publishers.….

I think I came into the business – in the sense that I started to submit and trying to break in – shortly after this. To me, this was “business as it’s done” but may I say that from the very beginning it seemed to me that there was something wrong with this idea. Of course I can perfectly see how, from a publisher’s point of view this made perfect sense. Outsource costs.

Perhaps part of the reason it made me nervous is that while I was a raw beginner in publishing, I had vast experience from the fast-moving, crumbling/building work of computer programming, if at a remove and second hand. It seemed that every time a computer company got in trouble, it fired its entire R & D department and decided it would just be fine and dandy to buy new startups with fresh ideas. The results of this were always the same for all the companies my husband worked for. In fact, this was such a reliable precursor of collapse that my husband would start looking for work the minute they made this move.

When publishing as a business made this move it was different, of course. It was different in the sense that they were the only providers of a form of entertainment that most of us were – let’s face it – hopelessly addicted to. On the other hand, the whole idea put my hackles up.

For a long time, I thought that this was only in the personal sense. When I started trying to be serious about writing and submitting, I was a newly wed. More, I was a newly wed whose qualifications for earning money were completely useless in my adopted homeland. I could not teach – my teaching certificate wasn’t valid. And as for translation, I didn’t even know where to look for work. (Lest we forget this was year 10 bi (before internet) or so.

How broke were we? Well… let me see, printing paper was a major expense, and I routinely typed/printed both sides of a page, numbering them differently, for the drafts to go over. Stamps even for sending out short stories, were a major expense. And yet, it soon became obvious my novels were coming back unread.

The more up to date books on how to break into the business, informed me with a heartbreaking breeziness that of course no one ever got anywhere by just sending stuff over the transom these days, and that the way to break in was to go to a few conventions or workshops, make personal contact with editors/agents, and then from there springboard into publication.

Look, we didn’t even know WHAT conventions were. My husband didn’t grow up in fandom of any sort – he’s a mathematician! – and his parents weren’t involved in writing. Oh, the information was out there, and I gathered it over a few years (before internet, remember?) but then I came up against the hard fact that I either didn’t have the money or I didn’t have the time. Because in those few years I found a job as a multilingual scientific translator BUT then I had (I think) a week of vacation time a year. I had trouble getting time off to attend a friend’s wedding in another state, and the cons attended by editors/agents (usually the bigger ones) took about five days. The workshops took longer, particularly Clarion.

The thing is if you’re going “these obstacles aren’t insurmountable” – of course they weren’t. And eventually a very kind editor who shall remain nameless as I do not wish to embarrass him, to whom I’d been submitting my short stories for a few years wrote to me half in exasperation to say if I wanted to attend Clarion he’d (I don’t remember what he said exactly) help me get in and give me a “scholarship” to pay for it, because how close I was and yet how far away was driving him insane. At the time I was in the beginning of a very complicated pregnancy that eventually resulted in Robert Anson Hoyt, but that was not (I know. The kid looks like my husband) the editor’s fault. So the obstacles were not insurmountable. Not if you were gonzo enough to keep trying to get in despite everything in your way.  (How many people are that crazy-persistent is a matter for another blog.  How many promising writers lacked the insane persistence and had only normal levels is something I can’t even hazard to guess.)

But eventually the system came to annoy me as a reader and not as a writer. Because after five or so years of this, it became obvious to me – I don’t know if to anyone else – as a reader that the perspective and breadth of books was narrowing. I’m not talking politically or even socially. I’m talking about a certain… pov, a feel. All the books – even the ones that purported to be about a quite different sort of person – had that breezy, easy feel of people who thought that “just go to a workshop or a convention” was perfectly reasonable advice.  Or they dwelt lovingly upon poverty-porn — the idea that some great benefit attaches to being dirt poor.  They all (save for a few highly publicized cases) betrayed the perspective of people to whom a couple thousand dollars and/or two weeks off meant nothing. People who by and large were in two narrow ten-year age bands either side of me (the older ones already had agents and access and the younger ones had time for all the conventions and workshops) had all attended the same colleges, gone to the same shows, spoke in the same slang.

Now it might have been more obvious to me because I didn’t grow up in the US, but these books could be incredibly opaque to someone who didn’t know the right labels, hadn’t watched the “right” tv shows and wasn’t listening to the same music. A lot of the characterization seemed to depend on these touchstones, and while I could infer them from the context – of course I could. I was used to reading stories about cultures I didn’t live in or know first hand – it detracted from my “reading for pleasure” feeling.

Was I alone? I don’t think so. I might have felt it earlier. However, I know at one time – say the seventies – a 70 thousand unit laydown was the kiss of death for a book. Nowadays it will put you on the bestseller list and cement your reputation forever.  The number of people buying and reading new books has decreased that much.  (Yes, I know there are many other factors.)

But the only problem of the system wasn’t access. Access is where it began. I can’t blame the agents for not wanting to sift through piles and piles of raw slush and therefore giving preferential treatment to people they saw face to face or people who had already sold and needed the agent only to close the deal. Agents are after all human.

The problem was deeper than that. And I realized it when reading my friend Dave Freer’s parable on this called The Elephant of Surprise. It is nakedly a parable on finding bestsellers, and it covers the same ground I covered here, but in far more disguised and insanely witty manner.

At the beginning (though not in as straightforward a manner as it sounds) he states of editors:

He knows what people want to read, and so he’s a key employee, in case any accountant is thinking of making anyone redundant.

This was, in fact, the claim of editors “we know what people want to read.” (We won’t touch on the ancillary “or should want to read.” That’s a perversion best left to the interpretation of psycho historians.) THAT is an editor’s job.

Presumably when slush was filtered through houses, the slush readers were imbued with the feel of the house, if for no other reason that their job was finding what a particular editor wanted to read. After a year or so, I suspect a slush reader would get very good at it or be fired. This means the editor had a good chance of what landed on his desk being relatively “highly tailored.” Or else it was just everything that was “readable and caught my attention.” From then on, the editor could apply his highly specialized filter. This meant “I have a hunch about this property” was as personal as it could be.

When the selection went to agents, agents of necessity filtered by the properties that would bring a “bidding war”. I.e. the ones that were more “universal” in nature.  Gone would be the quirky selections that went something like this “I know this is fantasy and Mike likes science fiction, but this novel feels SF, so I’m going to pass it on to his desk. If he isn’t in the mood, he’ll see “fantasy” on the cover letter and put it aside.” It was a much bigger deal for agents to pass on a book an editor wouldn’t be interested in, particularly one that caused the editor to go “What was so and so thinking?” because that could mean less attention to their next submission and eventually could mean the agent’s career. This meant that of course the books passed on would be “safe bets.”

Look, I hate getting presents from people who don’t know me very well. And by very well I mean live with me. Why? Because inevitably they are the sort of generic gift that embarrasses me, like a jar of expensive sauce because they know I like to cook… But isn’t a sauce I’d ever use in anything and/or contains something I or my family are allergic to. (There are exceptions to this, of course. Some people have a gift for giving. However, the vast majority don’t.) Or someone will know I crochet (neurotically – why?) And will give me yarn, while I only do filet crochet. It’s been found I’m not alone. Studies have revealed that gifts are usually something like 80% inefficient in being something the receiver actually likes and can use, much less something they’d choose for themselves.

I suspect books to publish are even more difficult to get “right” than gifts, particularly when “gifting” a wide set of people.  Going through the agents applied that sort of filter – twice.

Yes, I’ve heard all the excuses. “It’s the internet. It killed books.” “It’s TV, it killed boks.” “It’s games, it killed books.” To which I have to say, “It’s bwshwa. Humpty Dumpty didn’t fall – he jumped.” Harry Potter – which got through the filter by being immensely successful in England FIRST should have proven that. Instead, it seems to have given editors and agents the misguided idea “we shall buy YA only.”

As Dave put it, it’s mighty difficult to shoot an elephant through the keyhole of an apartment in NYC. And when the problem is always the elephant’s: “The mailman was impersonating an elephant, yer honor. I’m harmless.” then you never have to face this fact.

The publishing industry thought it could isolate itself from the market and survive. (There are other facets to this isolation, and I’ll take on Impersonating an Elephant tomorrow. But the two layers of semi-clueless semi-informed different-purpose filtering made for a pretty big problem.)

It is grim but true that the market always wins. It’s not a matter of how things should be, but how things are. Economics are no more a philosophy than mineralogy is a philosophy. Either there’s gold in them there hills or there ain’t. Nothing you can think/dream/say will change reality.

As the publishing industry is finding out. Hopefully fast enough to save itself.

20 thoughts on “The Graveyard Of Elephants

  1. A new writer came to our local writing group this week with a partially completed manuscript (1 of 5 in a series) and asked questions about getting it published. One of his questions was “Will it hurt to self-publish on CreateSpace first?” My first reaction was, “yes,” then I thought: “How do I know what conditions will be like in a year or two when that manuscript is ready?”

    As you pointed out, we think the things that are have always been. But, in the historical view, major changes in publishing have occurred on a regular basis since the printing press was invented (even before, I suppose). Now they are happening at a more rapid pace. Change is normal. The trick is to be ahead of it, or at least keep up.

    Unfortunately, my response is often, “Hey guys, wait for me!”

    1. “Will it hurt to self-publish on CreateSpace first?”

      The consensus in 2011 seems to be: Not as long as you make your product as good as can possibly be. (content, grammar, typos, setting, cover, … – every aspect counts)
      Still, the other part of the answer has always been the same and still as true as before: If you sell an obviously defective product you still won’t be able to sell more than a few books in the series and you may even manage to burn your pen name.

      1. yes. Though frankly, it would be good to at least know you controlled every aspect of the crash: cover (oy, the cover stories I could tell!) distro, etc. And of course you SHOULD write as well as you can, which… sigh… changes with every book, hopefully upward. And you should strive not to be shrill and evil to reviewers on line. But that was always so, right? (At least I thought so.)

        1. @Sarah: “But that was always so, right? (At least I thought so.)”

          In the old days you were able to blame your publisher (who paid the editors, cover artists, …, say half a dozen professions or more) for the failure. 😉 If you were really irked you would insist on more influence in the next contract – Well, as long as you, against all odds, managed to sell enough books to get another shot…

          If you choose to self publish you have to fulfill all those half a dozen or more roles. – Or pay someone else to do the job for you.
          The only thing that has really changed is that the is now the real possibility to make a living as self published author. And since the number of people who manage to do so grow every day the formerly very real stigma of being a self published author fades. – It is hard to argue against the latest scheme of major financial success. 😉

          Would any of the successful “show case” self publishers be in their current position if they (constantly) sold defective products? No way.
          Would they have sold a nice amount of books if they had been published the classic way? Most likely.

          It is much like cooking. It is not necessary to get every step (or ingredient) of the production process absolutely right. You can get away with an awful lot of average and bland ingredients in every good meal, but OTOH you can’t afford to totally fail at even one of the steps.

          I think one of the more important traits of every successful author is the ability to spot things that don’t fit or went wrong in the whole production process. (It’s also fine if your significant other does that for you. 😉 ) For the self published author this is twice as important since there is no publisher who has to fulfill the same role (or goes bankrupt).

          1. Well, it’s like this, to do well the traditional published way, you needed a lot of cooperation from a lot of people. I point people to Josh Lanyon’s Somebody Killed His Editor, if they don’t mind m/m romance with their mystery. It is a part of the mystery that if a publisher chooses NO ONE will buy the book. Or no more than one or two people. Print a thousand and two send out with horrible cover as “low priority placement.” Ignore.

            Yes, I know that to do well indie you need to make sure all of those are right and the responsibility is all yours. But here’s the thing, the control is also all yours. I’ve confessed to being a control freak before, right? Yes, I used to pull my own teeth as a child, and I’ve been known to perform very minor surgery on myself (on the level of cutting and exploring for a sliver of glass that shot deep into my hand — hot jar, cold hands. Not a good idea) I prefer pain — if it has to happen — come at my own hands. And I’d say I’ll get a ton of things wrong to begin with, but hopefully not enough to turn people off. Eh. It’s a balance act, right? I intend to continue doing some trad. published work too, as insurance. But, I suspect the system will have some forgiveness too…

            1. @Sarah:
              Control freak? Dunno, I never had any reason to see that side of yo, if anything you have the obsessive writer pat down. – But then my sig, if I bother to use one, says “Teamwork is, everyone doing what I say.” since well over a decade. So I may be a little bit biased. 😉

              Someone once said “With great responsibility, comes great power.” – Or something to the same affect. 😀 I think we pretty much concur on this as far as self publishing, heck – any successful publishing, is concerned. You have to work to get your stuff as good as it possible can be if you want to be successful, because nobody else will do so unless they have a (large monetary) stake in it.
              That is true for many places, not only writing. =)

      2. You know, a trail of dead names and books no-one ever heard of seems an awfully high price to pay for having someone else to blame for the failure, especially when the traditional publishers are doing less and less of what used to be the service they offered for their 92 – 94% of the take.

        I mean, proof reading is gone, they don’t find potential in the slush pile and nurture it any more, there’s no editing to make the story work that I’ve heard about, and as for marketing? Well, you’ve got to be a bestseller – who doesn’t actually need the marketing – to get any of that.

        Heck, a good chunk of them are re-using covers or using public domain artwork with a bit of photoshoppery for the covers.

        Why give them that much for something you can do – or arrange – yourself for a whole lot less than they’re charging?

        Just saying.

  2. The market is.

    Whenever I am confronted by ignorance of commerce I am minded of the notion that that bit in the Bible about the SIns of the Fathers being Visited Upon the Children, Yea, Even Unto the Seventh Generation NOT being a threat of divine retribution so much as an observation of the facts of life.

    People who operate commerce under the influence of ignorance ALWAYS come acropper of it.

    And: oh, well, oh well, oh well, oh well… (That’s another one of those inside-baseball pop-culture allusions that you hadda been there to get.)

    M

  3. It’s articles like this, and Dave’s, and everything written by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith that is pulling me out of the writing doldrums (doldra?) The wear and tear of being turned down by the gatekeepers again and again made writing a more masochistic act than ever.

    Reading all these essays about how an industry kills itself allowed me to throw my pride in the hopper about a week ago and decide to self-publish.

    The result has been a huge sense of liberation. I no longer have to pass two increasingly narrow filters to get before the public. Writing has become fun again. Or as fun as writing ever gets–can obsession ever be called fun?

    Even if I don’t sell any copies, it will be worth it.

    Thank you.

  4. Mark,
    I’m FOREVER stunned by people’s belief that if they just believe economics is something it is not — an instrument for social justice! a machine that can be tuned! a way to remake mankind! — it will become so. I don’t know what the fascinating and hard science of economics has done to deserve this. It has equations and everything! No one would go around saying Pi is an instrument for social justice! (Or if someone would, don’t tell me. I don’t have many illusions and I like to cherish and pet the ones I still have and pet them and clean their litter boxes — oh, wait, those might be cats) BUT almost every government in the world believes that economics is not a science but a sort of geni lamp to rub this way or that and make wishes upon. And that’s without getting into what most individual people believe which ranges from the mind bogglingly dumb to the “uh? Did you just say it’s raining fish?” And yet we all buy and sell and most of us understand “value for value” and even the concept of value. Why is it at a more abstract level it all becomes “justice” “love” and “tasty codfish” instead of money and value?

    1. But… but pi is an instrument of social justice. You just have to bake enough of them…

  5. It’s somewhat like the people who curse Adam Smith’s name as though he invented the free market (yes, i have an online friend who does this. We only talk about writing and dogs).

    Someday I want to point out to him that cursing Adam Smith for tomatoes being tasteless is like cursing Newton because one fell on his head.

    1. Let’s just go all the way back and curse Ugh the caveman who offered to trade his extra mammoth skin for some of Ogg the caveman’s extra pointy sticks.

      Of course, we’d still be hunter-gatherers in small tribes leaving offerings to the gods that lurk in the darkness, dead in our thirties of disease, childbirth, accident, angry mammoth or whatever. But we’d have social justice dammit!

  6. Sarah, YES! No, you were NOT alone in that “feel” of the books that were coming out starting around twenty years ago or so.

    I grew up … well, not poverty-porn-poor, but far enough down to have first-hand knowledge of the damage that can be caused by the misguided attentiontions of “assistance” programs. So, *buying* books was a rare,special event. (The “Complete Tales of Robin Hood” that I got for my tenth Christmas was one of the greatest presents I have ever received. As evidenced by the fact that I remember that particular Christmas present nearly forty years later …) Our village library only permitted me to check out ten books at a time. So, I was forced to make two trips to the library each week to feed my addiction. And when I met Tolkein (at age 9) and C. S. Lewis (at age 10), my fate was sealed.

    But then, after I reached legal age (I won’t claim to be an “adult”. Ever.) and started having money of my own to exchange for books … the people “on the other side of the shelves” changed. The old masters I recognized (Niven, Pournell, Heinlein, etc.) remained reliable. But the new stuff? I stopped buying books, for about ten years. Part of it was probably the fact that I was living on a submarine, being utterly incommunicado with pop culture for more than half of every year, I ended up with that same isolation-from-what-they’re talking-about that you described.

    1. Yes, I too stopped buying books between about 38 and thirty eight and sf for longer than that. For a while there SF was “nasty future” and “poverty chic.” Like you, I was never destitute, but let’s say I know what it’s like to wear clothes two sizes too small to school. It does not have any glammour for me, as it seemed to have to a lot of these people who never experienced it. Between that and the “branding” it was al bleah.

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