Wednesday, December 27, 2006

An Open Invitation

There is one major question that everyone in publishing wants an answer to: who can spot the best stuff? Mind you, I’m not just talking about quality material – I’m talking about marketable material, which is far more important. Your latest work could be an artistic masterpiece but if it doesn’t earn out the advance, I wish you good luck in selling the next one.

The answer to the most prevalent question in publication is obvious, even if it is a little disconcerting: the readers. The audience is the only group of people with a perfect track record for picking which books will perform well. No agent, editor, publisher, marketer, publicist, critic or slushpile reader is even close to being that good.

But from the perspective of the industry, it is not the readers that are buying the material. The publishing houses are. Individual editors get to make the decisions about whether a given book is worth gambling on. In a lot of cases, these individuals get it wrong and the gamble does not pay off. There are any number of reasons for this, but the final answer depends on your point of view.

The usual reason that gets bandied about is poor quality work. If I had a nickel for every time someone cited “should have written a better book” as the excuse for why the book didn’t sell, I’d be a rich man. (This begs the question of why an industry professional would bother to publish a bad book – but that question never gets asked, let alone answered.)

Another possible explanation could also be that the industry regards market research as something that happens to other people. Nobody has ever asked me, “what kinds of books do you want to read?” I find this kind of strange, considering how many books are on my shelves at home.

I submit that if a book does not earn out its advance and the author does not ever see any money from the audience, then the publisher should have simply saved a step and released the book in-house. It would have come to the same end.

Even more, I submit that the current attention lottery system that is the slushpile is quaint and outmoded. The only function that it performs effectively is quality control. But weeding out the basic flaws – spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization – are tasks so easy that a computer could do it, which makes the task doubly tragic. On the one hand, some writers actually ignore the tools available to everyone. On the other hand, tens of thousands of people across the planet are employed to perform a task that a computer could do far faster and more efficiently. No matter how you cut it, that’s just plain sad.

So what? Who cares that some anonymous, disgruntled author with barely enough talent to rub two pixels together thinks this system doesn’t work? That means nothing and less than nothing.

Perhaps we should look at the numbers, instead. Readership is decreasing. More and more books are being self-published. More and more authors are not able to earn out their advances. More and more independent bookstores are closing shop because they cannot compete with high-volume superstores. Is this the fault of the slushpile? Maybe it’s just on overwhelming number of bad business decisions, perpetuated by over 80,000 publishers simultaneously. Or maybe there’s just a single bad business practice that they all seem to engage in.

I tend to lean towards the latter. It is idiotic that, in this day and age, that professionals would make a decision about which goods to produce without any form of market research whatsoever. It’s not as if publication is a cheap process. The average advance alone is worth several thousand dollars. Not every book gets a marketing budget, but those budgets that exist are easily in the four- or five-digit range. And then there are the costs associated with books that get returned because the bookstores got tired of trying to sell them to an uninterested public.

Is there a solution to this problem? Certainly. A surface reading of The Wisdom of Crowds suggests that replacing the slushpile would be a really good place to start. Don’t get rid of it – just update it. Stop hiring entry level employees to dig through a mountain of paper to determine whether any given work is worthy of publication. Instead, build a website that anyone can submit to (with a thousand-word limit) and start asking the audience for their opinion. This is somewhere between open source content management and collaborative filtering and if it sounds suspiciously Web 2.0, that’s because it is.

Now, the current thinking in the industry is that the readers shouldn't be forced to wade through the slush pile. In fact, the received wisdom is that the readers don't want to wade through the slush pile. This line of thinking has allowed professionals to crank the melodrama knob up to 11. They suffer for your reading pleasure, you see. You - the reader - do not want to know what was rejected. It's awful, awful stuff and its best if you don't see how the sausage is made. As sympathy ploys go, it's unrealistic enough to get tossed before the reader gets to page 2.

A more realistic alternative might be to admit that the current process isn’t all that old, effective or fair. Even more, inviting the readers to choose which books should be published gives them a stake in the final product. They can even follow the process and build buzz in anticipation of the release. That’s viral marketing in a nutshell and all you have to do is ask the readers for their opinion (this is also known as market research, for those industry professionals unfamiliar with the term). And if you are one of those people protesting that readers shouldn’t be forced to trudge through the slushpile, you might want to take a refresher in what consent actually means.

For the people who feel the need to point out that these kinds of things haven’t worked before, I can only point out that these kinds of things haven’t been tried by a major publisher or agent before. There is a huge difference in category between an unpublished nobody and a brand name publishing house.

In the end, all of business is a gamble. But there is a difference between an educated guess and an experienced guess. To this point, most of the guessing that drives publication is experienced, and we can all see how well that’s been working out. Some will dismiss my opinion out of hand, but the odds are good that someone will see the potential and make a process change before the competition can change their point of view. I know which ones I’d bet on.

Edit: Sean Lindsey has made a rebuttal to this post here. Check it out.