Monday, October 09, 2006

The Selection Process

One of the most notorious things about publishing is how difficult it is to get published. There may be over 150,000 titles published every year, but there are easily ten times that number of prospective authors who are clamoring to get in the door. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is an industry where the primary content providers are regarded with some small derision until they manage to cross the threshold, at which point the attitude towards them morphs into something approaching cautious adoration.

To be fair, it’s an easy set of attitudes to take. A lot of people want to be published – so much so that an unpublished author nothing but an anonymous face in the crowd. Not by choice, but by necessity. There are simply not enough publishing slots available to publish every manuscript that comes along. Supply overwhelms demand and demand gets to call the shots. This is basic economic theory at work.

However, the mechanism that has evolved from this basic premise is now past the point of efficiency. There is a famous aphorism that any writer who can use spellcheck and show a basic grasp of grammar and punctuation is automatically better off than 90% of all submitted manuscripts. Basic math tells us, however, that if there are 2 million distinct manuscripts submitted every year, something like 200,000 of those are potentially usable (note: this number is probably appallingly low). With only 150,000 slots available (note: this number is probably appallingly high), someone has to make a decision about selection criteria.

Enter the agent. The agent sells prospective authors to publishers. In theory, they are the bird-dogs that seek new talent. In reality, agents have the same luxury of sitting on the correct side of a demand economy that publishers do. One of the most common questions that writers are asked is how they got in touch with their agents. An extraordinary number of them point out that they acquired their agent through some permutation of networking and luck. For those that do not have this exact combination of factors working in their favor, they are stuck submitting their manuscripts to agents along with everyone else.

The broad term for this pile of blind manuscripts (in both the offices of independent agents and publishing houses) is the slush pile. To most of them, this is regarded as junk mail. In fact, the slush pile is such an onerous part of being in the business that publishers and agents hold an annual burning of the slush pile, which has turned into quite a party. The message to authors is clear: "Don’t call us, we’ll call you. No, seriously. But buy our books, please."

The slush pile has a mystical significance to young authors with no hope of contacting an agent. After all, famous books have been rescued from the slush pile – The Diary of Anne Frank, for example. Frank Herbert’s Dune is also held up as example to young authors as why they should not give up. I don’t see the fact that Dune was rejected by twenty different publishers before finally being picked up as a success, story, though. To any rational person, it is obvious that Dune is a serious failure of a system that turns out false negatives on a regular basis without apology or regret.

Consider this fact: most writing websites emphasize the fact that the first page of any submitted manuscript has to be polished to a high degree. The reason? Because most people who read any kind of submission (solicited or not) rarely read past the first page. Not because they don’t want to, but because they have so many submissions to get through – it’s a time thing.

And that’s how a book gets selected for publication: either the author networks his way next to an agent at a party or he writes the best opening page in the history of literature and hope that the person reading it isn’t waiting for a phone call or otherwise distracted. Most of all, that author hopes that the reader can recognize where and when a book is marketable – the catch-phrase for “this book might sell as many books as these others in the same general category.”

The irony, of course, is that marketing decisions in the publishing industry are based on guesses. Educated guesses, to be sure, but still guesses. Thumbnail approximations and comparisons are made, but solid numbers for first-time authors are non-existent. After all, these authors have no prior sales experience. There is no way to know for certain how many of their books are going to sell and which marketing tactics might work best for which works. These kinds of blind spots are endemic to an industry that keeps the gateways to distribution locked down.

Somewhere between four and five paragraphs ago, the cynicism meter of most industry professionals kicked in and helped them leap to the obvious conclusion that I was venting my personal sour grapes. After all, I am a disenfranchised writer and my opinions are questionable at best. However, any accountant will tell you that solid numbers are better than fuzzy numbers. It just so happens that solid sales numbers are now obtainable for young authors. How? Self-publishing, of course.

Self-publishing is a booming business, mostly because there are so many disenfranchised writers out there. The overwhelming amount of original content feeds the self-publishing (print on demand, usually) companies just as fast as it feeds the mainstream publishing houses. Faster, even. Sturgeon’s Law has not magically faded away, but yet these self-published authors no longer feel entirely disenfranchised; after all, they have been granted their own, personal supply of special crack: they have their name on a book.

It does not take a lot to translate this teeming mass of former slush-pile residents into ready profit for the major publishers, either. All that is required is the same strong stomach for reading through books until something jumps out. A quick check of the sales records later and a decision can be made with ease and a clean conscience.

Professional sports franchises refer to these arrangements as a farm team and the publishing industry would do well to pay attention to this model. After all, implementation is two easy steps away.

1. Abolish the slush pile. Accept no unsolicited manuscripts. They are regarded as junk mail anyway, so this should not be that difficult a directive to follow through on. Unless publishers actually believe that the slush pile actually contains real treasure…?

2. Publish no author that does not have a prior sales record. Right now, the industry would prefer an author who does not believe enough in the strength of his material to self-publish despite overwhelming pressure to the contrary. This is counter-intuitive. The most effective authors that the industry can recruit are those that have proven themselves able to formulate an effective marketing strategy without a publicist, a marketing budget or co-op on his side.

Neither of these steps take any additional effort on the part of the publishing industry. In fact, both of these steps strengthen the industry significantly. They address the fuzzy math that dead-ends in the remainders policy, they address the diffuse marketing issues that surround the industry and they eliminate disenfranchised writers (who might actually become more enthusiastic customers than they are now – you never know). Most importantly, a farm team provides an environment where writers are encouraged to experiment – not just in text, but in business as well.

Of course, this is just pie-in-the-sky thinking. It suits the industry professionals to have young authors act like ravenous dogs, ready to bite at the first offer that comes there way. Without that instinctive reaction to the “better act now” scenario, authors may actually try to shop around and get a better deal. And that would be disastrous.