I would like to declare an official moratorium on all of the following cinematic tropes:
- the eternally patient New York editor talking their genius author through personal problems with the grace befitting the Actress of a Certain Age that’s been cast to play the part
- the fast-talking literary agent negotiating hard with the publishers—this is of course also in New York City because no other place exists—working for his/her client’s best interests at the risk of his/her relationship with the publishers
- the celebrity author, who everyone (in New York City) seems to know, working hard to get that next book in because He’s! On! Deadline! and the publisher is worried!
- the family-owned publishing company with a reputation for quality and publishing “good books”, that’s somehow both big enough to be important and small enough for all the final decisions to be made by the Actor of a Certain Age cast as the editor-in-chief
I could go on (the quirky P.R. lady! the idiosyncratic cover artist!) but I don’t want to lose track of the point, which is that all of these things need to die so I can stop having to explain myself, because I’m tired and don’t want to do it any more.
Here’s the thing: people who are either starting out in publishing, or aren’t and never will be directly involved in publishing, think all of that is real. (Note: it’s not. For so, so many reasons.)
The absorption of this kind of narrative isn’t necessarily something we’re even aware of. I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of people out there in the world who
- know there are places other than New York City that exist and are real, and
- realize most writers can’t pick up the phone and have a long conversation with their editor, played by Faye Dunaway, about how they’re blocked and just need to get away to the cabin for a while, and can she stall her boss?
At the same time…
So here’s a conversation I’ve had more often than I can count. It begins with someone asking what I do, and for the most part I tell them I’m a novelist, and this usually starts things off well because that’s not a particularly common answer. Then they ask what I write (i.e., is it something they’ve heard of) and who my publisher is, and we’re off the rails.
“Oh, I don’t need a publisher,” I say, and I can see the spark of interest in their eyes turn to pity even as I start to explain what the industry of today is actually like. It doesn’t matter, because while I’m talking they’re making a quiet pact with themselves to maybe get out of this conversation sooner than they initially planned.
Already, I have become the guy selling books out of the trunk of his car, ranting about how his genius is gonna change the world, just you wait, and also don’t drink the water because you’re being brainwashed by chlorine, and the government is talking through the electrical outlets and soon we’ll all be able to smell colors.
It doesn’t seem to make a difference how convincing I think I’m being, how much detail I give, or how many numbers I use. To most people, being a successful author means having a (New York) publisher, having an editor and an agent and a team of marketers, and having your books in physical bookstores all over the country. And an ascot, probably.
Here are two things I think are true:
- if you write fiction, you are going to be better off going without an agent or a publisher
- the (New York) publishing industry has an active interest in your continued belief in the tropes I would like to see die
To the second point, it’s entirely possible the same industry that wants you to continue to believe all of that also believe it themselves, which could be why they still don’t quite understand—as a collective whole—what happened to their business model when Amazon opened up ebooks to self-published authors.
But they aren’t really authors.
Because we said so.
Surely, everyone understands this?
Belittling the disruptor is a time-honored response to industry disruption. If I were writing this ten years ago we’d be talking about the newspaper industry vs. independent bloggers, and the trope would be:
- the scurrilous, amoral blogger with poor hygiene releasing unvetted and inaccurate data on a credulous public and getting people killed
Now here we are a decade later and the newspaper industry is telling its journalists to write blogs, and the publishing industry is trying to get its writers to figure out how to emulate the marketing success of self-published authors, while at the same time both legacy industries continue to mock what they’re trying to mimic.
To the first point, the only reason I wanted a publisher was because it wasn’t all that long ago the only way I could have a book read is to have a publisher make my words into a book and sell it for me, because hand-selling from my trunk is fiscally dubious. The only reason I wanted an agent was because the only way to get a publisher was to have an agent.
I can do it myself now. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t anyone?
I know this is a lot to ask, but it would be great if we got some new tropes going. Sure, that’s probably impossible, but given the current state of the publishing industry, the appropriate responses to “I’m a novelist, I have an agent, and my publisher is X” are:
- i’m so sorry
- did you make any money at all?
- will you ever get the rights back?
I’m not even exaggerating. Yes, there are authors who are living the tropes. Probably. I mean, I guess. But most aren’t. Most are stuck in an industry that isn’t all that interested in rewarding the writer at all.
Yes, being a novelist with an agent and a publisher means random partygoers who don’t know any better will continue to be excited to have a conversation with you. Go ahead and have that conversation. While that’s happening, this self-publishing deluded fool who inspires unwarranted pity is in the corner, doing the math to figure out how many more books I need to write before I can quit my day job.
You know what? It’s not that many books.
Like what you’ve read? Join my mailing list!