Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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The House that Jack Built

The saddest development of the business model for publishing is that independent bookstores are now "hand in glove" with conglomerate publishers in harming literature. It is natural for bookstores to look at numbers of past sales before they order.

These numbers are determined by a publisher's "push" or, more commonly, by a lack of push. Lack of push leads to a state where few people know that one has written a book and thus to a modest number of reviews--if they are sterling, it will not make an iota of difference--and then to a modest number of orders. Lack of push and modest orders lead to marketing grumbles and, eventually, to the refusal of books.

A writer can seldom make up for the choices and the deficiencies of his or her publisher. The beauty and strength of a book is no longer of any importance to the marketing department. Editors and agents know this; writers learn it.

These are facts of stone that break many of our writers. Those who endure are also harmed.


A very thoughtful post there, Dan, and to a certain extent, I can't disagree with your overall point--because it's borne of idealism and a higher purpose. The one thing I didn't say in the piece is that it's important to separate the act of writing and the act of getting published and dealing with the vagaries of the business. There are certainly some voices that are left languishing because they don't quite fit a certain mold--they could be "ahead of their time," behind it, just something doesn't fit. Why do certain writers endure for all time, but others get consigned to the remainder bins two seconds after publication? Or why do some previously uncared for writers get recognized after death? There's a lot that's mysterious, and ultimately, anything to do with getting published boils down to attracting the tastes of only a handful of people, i.e., it's one agent's opinion, it's one editor's opinion, it's one bookseller's opinion, and so on and so forth.

But, a lot of writers really do shoot themselves in the proverbial foot and try to make the process of getting published into something that's more mystical and "otherworldly" than it really is. My point of view is directly influenced by the fact that I'm trying to land a permanent job in my chosen field (forensic science) and hence see a lot of parallels between that and say, landing an agent. But the skills in doing either of those tasks aren't necessarily correlated to the skills I have as a forensic scientist or writer, respectively. Still, I'm trying to take a practical approach, being a practically-minded sort. I would love to be idealistic and hope that good writing will win out, but this has to be balanced with what's actually happening.

Depressing? Perhaps, but in the end, it's only my opinion. And the people who say no to someone's work are only expressing theirs. As do the people who ultimately say yes, after a time.

Nick Mamatas

Agents don't have time to sit around and read 50 pages of a manuscript?

They certainly do. However, they do not have the time to sit around and read 50 pages of each of the ten manuscripts they receive every day. Can you read 500 manuscript pages a day atop a 40+ hour a week job?


"If I did that, I know I'd miss a number of actually good books, but if by taking what I can from this assembly line I was only helping to perpetuate it, I'd almost rather do without them."

There was a great article in Feb 20 issue of Science about just this attitude! In addition to speculating on other attitudes that lead to bombing, etc.

"Evolution of the Golden Rule" or something like that. Let me know if that trips your trigger. It was very cool (if you like the kinds of revelations about humanity found in biological and psychological/sociological studies).


Oops. Just realized that could misinterpreted. I don't have a problem with your attitude, which seems properly conflicted.

Kevin Wignall

Dan, as a big fan of Sarah's blog, I didn't agree entirely with her post (which used a comment of mine as a starting point). However, the important underlying point is that bad books are being published because the authors utilize contacts, so why not use the same process to get your (hopefully) good book published? And it doesn't matter how much integrity goes into the work, you still have to treat it as a commodity. This is nothing new - Shakespeare crafted his plays, but once they were written, he had to make sure they were hits.
Finally, I have two of the best agents in London and New York, and they read more in a week than I read in a year.


"the important underlying point is that bad books are being published because the authors utilize contacts,"

No offense Kevin, but I think that statement is pretty much a bubbling pool of steaming crap.

First off, what's a bad book? One that you didn't like? Or one that I didn't like? Because if it's one *I* didn't like, that wipes out roughly 99.745% of all books published, including at least one entire category of books that make publishers crudloads of money.

Second, this smacks of the old 'secret handshake' myth of publishing; the idea that one has to be in some secret club in order to publish. For one thing, it's irresponsible to spread this myth -- think of the children! All those poor young souls that want to become writers when they grow up... they're all going to be destroyed if they think they have to belong to the publishing cult. (OK, that was sort of tongue-in-cheek....)

But the bald fact is that PUBLISHERS BUY BOOKS THEY THINK WILL SELL. Whether that boils down to a question of quality is irrelevant to all of us, because the only books that a publisher will publish are those that have the barest snowball's chance in hell of selling through. So yes, it IS a business. But all the contacts in the world won't get your (collective) absolute shit novel published.

A writer has to be able to write. Plain as that. A writer doesn't need to be a networking lovecat to get 'in the door'. If anything, a writer needs to possess the ability to deliver manuscripts in a professional, timely manner -- and to deliver those manuscripts on a regular basis if they want to keep being published.

Now I admit I'm making gross oversimplifications here. But I've talked to a LOT of publishers, even MORE editors, and more writers than I can even count... and none of them 'made it' by utilizing contacts or shopping their novels the way they'd shop their resumes. They did it by working hard and WRITING.

Having all the contacts in the world won't help you write.

Kevin Wignall

Gabe, you have a colourful turn of phrase but I think you also have a slightly innocent and simplistic view of the publishing world. Yes, publishers buy books that they think will sell, but that often means buying a marketable author rather than a marketable book. I can think of one debut last year that was published because of the author's contacts and marketability. He may well become a fine writer but it was a disservice to him to have a piece of juvenalia published. I know of another author in the UK this year who was paid a very high advance for a book that required "a lot of work", again, because she was market-friendly. And another very famous bestselling author with good connections is renowned in the industry for turning in books which have to be heavily edited by both agent and publisher to make them viable. As you point out, a book's value is subjective, but Sarah Weinman is right to suggest you utilize everything at your disposal to get your book published, because sometimes hard work and quality are not enough. Finally, full disclosure, I secured one of the best agents in the business not through contacts, but through a simple submission, and many authors do get published in the same way, but publishing is still far from being a level playing field.


I just want to clarify one thing further. My whole "getting in the door/getting a job" post assumed that a writer has something that's worthy of being published, i.e. that he or she spent the time and effort to make the book as best as it can possibly be. All the contacts in the world aren't going to change that, as Gabe says correctly. But if there's merit (of any sort) in the manuscript, but someone is stuck, then the whole contacts game can kick in.

In other words, I wasn't talking about talent or ability or skill. That has to be there already. Personal example: no way in hell I'm sending anything out until I am absolutely close to 100% positive I think it will find a home somewhere. But it's about making use of the people I know and trust, weighing their opinions and help versus my instincts, and landing the right "team" (if you will) that will do right by my work. If my work is shit, then it'll be shit regardless of whether I have 100 people in my corner or no one.

But ultimately, nobody has "no one."


As you yourself note, writers like Chandler, Cain, and Thompson only got to publish because their publishers needed a great deal of product of the sort they learned how to provide. It was a seller's market, but the sales price was very, very low.

Today's publishing industry values photogenicity, a suave way with interviewers, and series potential more than earlier editions did, and has much less tolerance for the simmering mid-list or for "quality for the sake of being a quality house," but I doubt that your ideal publisher and agent ever existed. (And if they had, they would've gone out of business.) The idolized scribblers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had as little chance at a decent living as most of my writing friends do now. Certainly, mutual back-scratching and -stabbing have always been part of the deal, particularly in less profitable parts of the industry.

The persistent conflict is between writers' hope to do the kind of work they respect themselves as readers, and their ahistoric expectation that such work will somehow be rewarded. Rewarding our personal self-respect is not among a publisher's priorities. To make a (scanty) living through publication, one has to sacrifice time, energy, and dignity (ever had an essay retitled by a newspaper editor?) to those priorities. Successful or not, it'll remain a sacrifice, now and forever.

Although most of what I read is not "off the assembly line," that's not because I expect to sabotage the assembly line through my defection but because the writing qualities I value aren't likely to be found coming off the assembly line. Why should those of us who *don't* share the priorities of the publishing industry feel obliged to tag along behind them?


(Not that I let any of that interfere with my pleasure in the success of Karen Joy Fowler's latest!)


Maybe I'm naive, but I fail to see how 'photogenicity' helps sell a book to an editor. But then, perhaps that's where I'm going wrong; I really ought to send out some head shots with my manuscripts! I think I was foolish to base my assumptions on the fact that most of the writers I know are god-awfully ugly. (No offense to them!)

But keeping everyone's knickers in place, I will point out that I've been a champion for the independent press for a long time now. I find the indies to be *the* place of interest within publishing... and in many ways, Sarah's point on utilizing contacts resonates quite well when applied to the independent press. Contacts there will absolutely help you along, if only to give an editor/publisher something to cling to while digging through submissions.

Kevin, I don't disagree that there are plenty of authors out there that should be hawking used cars instead of novels. There's one SFF author that I know for certain that is so heavily re-written by her spectacular editor that the books are less hers than his. Yet, does this invalidate the books? They still sell just fine, fulfilling the needs of the publisher in question. So cheers to them!

Still, this is NOT a widespread problem. A couple of bad apples haven't poisoned the barrel yet.

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