Saturday, June 30, 2012

Some thoughts on traditional publishing

I think there's something to be said for good old-fashioned rejection. Nothing builds character or inspires determination in an artist quite so well as the occasional dose of "anti-affirmation;" be it the stinging rebuke of a revered authority figure we are then bound and determined to prove worng; or the faceless form letter from a prestigious publisher summarily rejecting the fruit of our blood, sweat, toil and tears. To a real writer these things are little more than bumps in the road; we dry our tears, dust off our butts and go back to the writing room, hell-bent on "showing them!"

Unfortunately, this sort of rejection is quickly becoming a thing of the past, and that is definitely too bad.

There was a time in my career when I was quite resentful of those I saw as the self-appointed gate-keepers in the publishing industry; the literary agents and editors who seemed to have so much power over the fate of my work. Why, I wondered, should these people, hanging out cliquishly on the east or west coast with their snobbish prep-school predilections and all-too questionable literary tastes, have the ability to keep me from being heard? What gave them the right to judge me? Who the hell did they think they were?

More recently, the relative ease of self-publication in various electronic formats—e-books, websites—has loosened a brick or two from the elite citadel of traditional publishing. Agents and editors no longer wield the absolute power of artistic life-and-death. There are other ways of getting in and breaking out. Amazon’s Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook—to name only two of many platforms—have ushered in a new Renaissance in the once sleepy world of the independent author.

But every innovation comes with its own share of growing pains. The difficulty now, is that the market is choked with reams of un-vetted garbage, amateurishly conceived, poorly written, sloppily edited—if at all—carelessly formatted cyber-vanity publications, the collective effluvium of a vast literary sewer. The best you can say about it is that trees are no longer being sacrificed for pulp, nor warehouses glutted with pallets of forlorn returns.

Holding my nose at all this, I have found a grudging appreciation for the role of the gate-keeper. In sitting down with a new writer, the best agents and editors would always begin by asking, “So, what do you read? Who are your influences?” This seems almost quaint by today’s standards, when more and more self-proclaimed authors boast about not reading—sometimes not reading at all—ignorantly claiming that to be exposed to the work of another writer might “ruin” them through undue subconscious influence, or somehow sap their amazing personal wellspring of originality. This, of course, is absolute and total crap. Good writers read—often voraciously. Good writers know that there is nothing from which they cannot learn; whether it’s good and offers an interesting example of how to, or bad and clearly demonstrated how not to. 

But some issues go much deeper. A skilled editor skimming a manuscript can almost immediately identify an amateur from the poor spelling alone. This morning I was looking at a sample excerpt from an e-book by a young woman who was complaining that nobody wanted to buy her title. In the second paragraph I found, not once, but twice, the bewildering use of the word “passed” which was, in fact, a careless misspelling of “past.” How could anyone miss something so rudimentary? The editor would have stopped reading immediately, circled the error and popped the manuscript back into the mail, probably not even bothering to include a form rejection. And he or she would have been right to do so; this kind of dilettante manure is a waste of everyone’s time, and it doesn’t matter if “the story is good” or not.

A good writer—a real writer—takes pride in her craft, is aware of every detail in the text, like a competent captain knowing his ship from stem to stern. A real writer strives to attain professional standards, even if perfection is theoretically out of reach. Errors like the ones that made me stop reading that young woman’s sample, ought to have kept her awake at night; haunted her, shamed her, embarrassed her until she hired an editor or read a good book on self-editing. That no one was there to discourage her from going ahead and publishing her title in so unready a state is a sad thought indeed.

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