Thursday, October 05, 2006

An Open Letter to Publish America

Dear PublishAmerica –

You don’t know me, but I published my first book through your company in April of 2005. I ignored the advice of a lot of people who make their living through the publishing industry (and quite a few who wish they did) in doing so, but it was my choice and I made it after a lot of careful thought and deliberation. My reasons for doing so are my own and they are not the point of this letter.

One of the things I discovered when my book was published was exactly how ubiquitous the cultural stereotype of book publishing as a path to fame and fortune actually was. Personally, I believe that your company is unfairly singled out for this particular bit of hyperbole. All publishers use this mashed up carrot to solicit new content – deliberately or accidentally, consciously or unconsciously, overtly or implicit. After all, without new content, a publisher has nothing to publish. However, there is such a surfeit of available content that all publishers, great and small, can afford to treat their content providers however they wish. In this respect, PublishAmerica deserves the same level of contempt as the rest of the industry.

I’m going to pause to introduce my brother here and, by the end of this paragraph, you will understand why. My brother is mildly retarded, with petit mal epilepsy and a severe learning disability; in clinical terminology, he is referred to as “high functioning,” with occasional psychotic episodes. The list of medications that he has been prescribed over the years reads like the roadmap of an Eastern European town. Still, he has been able to hold the same job for longer than either of my marriages. And, like everyone else, my brother feels the need to express himself from time to time; somewhere in the past half-dozen years, he wrote a novel.

Over the years, I have developed a discriminating taste for the precise bullshit to truth ratio inherent in advertising copy. This skillset allows me to parse out the hyperbole and focus on what a particular company can actually sell me (which is, as we all know, very different from what they say they can sell me). However, my brother has consistently proven that he is not capable of making this determination on his own, which is probably why he wanted to become a novelist in the first place (instead of something his artistic talents are more suited to, like painting).

Whereas I have come to terms with the fact that I have a better chance of winning the lottery than of actually earning a living from my writing, I do not know if my brother has that same understanding. I comprehend that a large part of the publishing process is dealing with disappointment. At the same time, I feel that my brother has had more than his fair share of disappointment in life and does not need to seek it out.

To be absolutely honest, my issue with you, PublishAmerica, is not financial. My issue is that you would have gladly published my brother’s novel had he submitted it. To a large extent, this is a hypocritical stance for me to take – after all, I believe that all first-time authors should self-publish, if only because a farm team system works in baseball and should work in publishing as well. But while I feel that every author should have the opportunity to publish, I do not believe that every author necessarily should publish.

And that is really the crux of the issue. Given the opportunity, my brother would publish his novel with absolutely no hesitation. And he would be held up for ridicule by those individuals who like to point out that companies like PublishAmerica have no content filter. It would not be fair and it would not be pretty, but that’s part of life.

I don’t know that there is an easy solution to this dilemma. Perhaps you might like to introduce the concept of “managing expectations” into your book selection process. Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to act like a respectable company and treat your authors like something other than a commodity – it would certainly set you apart from other publishers.

Or maybe you could just do exactly what you’re doing now and let the market forces crush the spirits of your authors, while blaming the publishing industry for the fact that you have created a bad reputation that taints every book you produce. It certainly wouldn’t require a lot of effort on your part. And that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?

An author