March 12, 2013
Good Prose 3: The Business of Writing
Writers and publishers have always had a love-hate relationship. Mark Twain once offered "the perfect recipe for a modern American publisher" as follows: "Take an idiot from a lunatic asylum and marry him to an idiot woman and the fourth generation of this connection should be a good publisher."*
In Good Prose Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd depart from their routine of providing excellent advice on writing to consider the business of publishing itself.
When writers convene they tend to talk in general ways about the business of writing. Partly this is to avoid telling each other what they really think of each other's work. But they do also seem genuinely unhappy with the institution they depend on, griping to each other about the malfeasance of publishers. No ads. No books sent to reviewers, or books sent to the wrong reviewers. No publicity. Or great publicity but no books in the stores. (pp. 129-30)
Kidder and Todd give a balanced perspective. They are able to see things from both sides. Publishers are not trying to be bad guys (well, most aren't). There are just some hard realities they have to deal with. As they put it:
The book business is changing rapidly and unpredictably. For years it was accused of being old-fashioned, even ossified. Now people who work in publishing say they have no idea what it will look like in even a few years. But one essential truth is likely to endure. About 80 percent of the books that are published lose money. It may be that 80 percent deserve to lose money. Only a fervent believer in the sanctity of the market would imagine that it is the same 80 percent, but it is hard to imagine a future in which financial success will not be the exception.
So publishing seems bound to remain a gambler's business. Publishers, particularly of nonfiction books, are generally buying manuscripts that don't yet exist. They are taking a chance. . . . When a book doesn't sell, support for it in the publishing house tends to wane quickly. Editors cut their losses and turn their attention to other titles. Writers grieve when this happens, and sometimes they howl, sometimes with justice, crying, "If only, if only, they had tried a little harder to promote my book." It is cold comfort, but always worth remembering, that the alternative was for the publisher not to have taken a chance at all. (p. 132)
Even in such a world where self-publishing options abound, many writers still need help from skilled editors, knowledgeable marketers, well-connected rights departments and the lift that the reputation of an established, quality publisher can bring. And yes, what would publishers publish if there were no writers?
Perhaps their blogs.
Next Installment: Good Prose 4: Being Edited
*John Tebbel, Between Covers, p. 138.