Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Nature of the Beast

The most important thing to remember about the publishing industry is that it exists to make money. There are artistic concerns involved at some point as well, but when those concerns conflict with the profit margin, business will more often than not win out over art. Having said that, it is also important to remember that the publishing industry is an institution and the primary point of an institution is to resist change unless it is absolutely necessary. As we have already established that this institution is financial in nature, it is safe to say that unless there is an overwhelming economic reason to do so, the industry as a whole will probably not see the point of change for the sake of change.

While that is the nature of the industry, it is also important to determine whether every aspect of it makes sense from a process standpoint. The modern business aspects of publishing has grown and evolved over the course of the last century into something that is more or less profitable. From the viewpoint of that end-goal, it works – but is it efficient in reaching that goal?

In short, no. The industry is hampered by an outmoded distribution system that relies on consignment sales and a returns process that was developed during the Depression as an incentive to keep bookstores in business. The marketing process is hampered by the scattershot diversification of mainstream avenues for direct advertisement of new materials. And the selection process has devolved into an exercise in luck, networking and fine-tuning the first page of the manuscript into the perfect hook – none of which truly reflect the quality (or marketability) of the work in question.

Somewhat more ominously, the industry is no longer able to pay a living wage to the majority of its authors – the primary content providers that the rest of the process runs on. Somewhere between 2% and 4% of all published authors are able to make a full-time living on their work. Turned around, that means that the vast majority of published authors probably have a day job in addition to the monies coming in from their writing contracts.

Contrast that figure with the vast numbers of industry professionals – editors, publicists, proofreaders, agents, publishers, printers, etc – who are able to make a comfortable full-time living on other people’s work. Granted, even the best authors cannot produce more than one or two novels per year; but either the publishing business model needs to be fine-tuned or someone needs to mount a major publicity campaign to combat the societal archetype of authors immediately launching to fame and fortune upon publication. Perhaps if the perception of a solid economic incentive was removed from the equation, the only authors writing (and submitting) manuscripts will be those who have no other choice but to write.

Even more importantly, the publishing industry would be wise to work towards erasing the reputation that published authors are somehow better – more talented, even – than unpublished authors. In truth, there is nothing special that a lot of these gods-who-walk-as-men have really done except manage to gain the attention of someone who was in a position to publish them – there is a reason why these kinds of events are called “lucky breaks,” after all.