What’s Wrong with Publishing? #1

So, as I indicated a little while ago, I’m going to post some blog entries on the publishing biz — where it is, what’s wrong with it, what’s right with it, where it’s going, and where I think it should go.

This endeavor is fraught with peril for me. It’s a touchy subject and people have strong feelings about it; often, those feelings take the form of blog comments and blog responses that say things like, “Barry Lyga is a moron. Does he really believe blah blah blah?”

For this reason, I want to say upfront that these entries are not manifestoes, no matter how strongly I may word something. They’re just…ruminations. They’re me spitballing. Because sometimes we don’t know what we’re really thinking until we type it or say it out loud. This blog is my opportunity to do that.

Please do chime in — I’d love to turn this into a thoughtful, polite discussion. Even if I am a moron. 🙂

I want to start with a story. It’s a story about a book, and I heard it last week at Book Expo America (BEA). In the interests of full disclosure: This is not one of my books. This is not a book published by anyone who publishes me, nor is it written by anyone I know. It’s a story I heard, and it’s true:

The book in question was published by a house that really, truly believed in it, as we like to think all books are. The folks who published it loved the book dearly and wanted to see it succeed. But, sadly, when the book launched, it did not do well. It faded and sank, like so many books do.

The people who published it were displeased by this turn of events. They got together to talk about what they could do and they decided they should re-launch the book to give it another chance. Which they did.

Sadly, the book once again did not take wing and fly.

As you can imagine, everyone at the publishing house was pretty frustrated by now. (Since this story came down to me via an editor, I can’t say how the author felt, though I imagine he/she wasn’t too happy, either…) So, they called another meeting and they all got together and they all realized that they still believed in this book a lot. So they decided to re-launch it yet again. A third launch.

This time, it took. The book went wild. The author ended up on national television. Huzzah!

A happy story. I like happy stories. But this one makes me sad. Why?

Here’s why: Because it makes me think of all the deserving books that never got a second much less a third chance.

In publishing, you generally get one bite at the apple. Your book comes out and everyone holds their breath and crosses their fingers. When the paperback hits (a year or more later, usually), you have a potential second bite at the apple, but honestly, there’s usually very little fanfare for the paperback. Unless you’re already a big shot.

So what about the little guy? The new author with a great book who gets thrown out into the wilds of the bookshelves? That guy gets his one shot and he sinks or he swims, and no one is there with a life preserver.

I don’t want this to sound like a rant against publishing or against the people who work at publishing houses. I personally love publishing and I have yet to meet anyone in the business who is not unfailingly enthusiastic, devoted, and passionate about their authors and their books. This is not about the people in publishing.

It’s about the simple facts of publishing.

The industry is changing, whether we want it to or not. In coming blog posts, I’m going to talk about the ways in which the business is changing and the ways in which I think it should change. But right now I just want to talk about what’s wrong. I’m not trying to be negative, but the first step in any process is diagnosing potential problems.

I think it’s terrible that books get one shot. That you get one bite at the apple. If you’re lucky enough to win an award a year after publication, you get a second chance, but how many awards are there?

I have a friend who — several years ago — wrote a wonderful debut novel. Barnes & Noble wouldn’t touch it. It had very low sales. Then, months after publication, it won a very prestigious award. Suddenly, everyone was talking about it and reading it. B&N changed its mind and threw a lot of support behind it. And now he’s had a great, thriving career, giving some amazing books to the world.

What if he’d never won that award? What if he’d never had that second chance?

Oh, BTW: That book I spoke about before, the one that hit the ball out of the park on the third at-bat? That book was from a very small house that mustered its meager resources three times in order to make that book big. It’s possible. It can happen. It does happen. It needs to happen more often.

I know publishers are overworked, underappreciated, overanxious, underfunded, and just generally exhausted. But I think (and I guess this is where I generate some controversy…) that maybe too many books are being published. We’re throwing scores of books at the market, just to see what catches fire, when what we should be doing is cherrypicking the stuff we love the most and giving it every possible chance to succeed. As the example I cited at the beginning of this piece indicates, it ispossible. Publishers publish a lot of books because they don’t know which ones will succeed, so they have to take a shotgun approach. But the people at the publishing house above didn’t do that. They knew that their book was terrific, that it deserved a huge audience, and moreover that it could have a huge audience. And they plugged away at it until it happened.

I’d like to see more of that. In the coming entries, I’m going to talk about how I think the changing market is an opportunity to make smaller books into bigger books, to give new authors a better shot at the brass ring, and generally to make everyone in publishing — writers, readers, and everyone between — happier.

And then I’ll bring peace to the Middle East. 😉

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)