What’s Wrong with Publishing? #8: What’s Right with Publishing?

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine, a fellow author. I mentioned this little series of blogs about publishing issues and she said, “Aren’t you afraid you might offend someone?”

I explained that I try to avoid that and that — just to be safe — I have a handy disclaimer on each post, but her comment got me thinking. While it’s axiomatic that a series called “What’s Wrong with Publishing?” will focus on the negative, shouldn’t I also give some time to the good stuff about publishing?

Well, duh. Of course.

This entry is by no means intended to be comprehensive. It’s just some things I love about publishing, fired from the hip.

1) Passion. I have yet to meet an author who wants to hack out a book for a quick paycheck. Every editor I’ve ever met wishes every book s/he is editing could be a bestseller and reap rewards not for the editor, but for the author. Selfless! Every publicist I’ve met has wished for a limitless budget to shout the glories of his/her list to the world. The publishing big-wigs — the publishers, executives, etc. — are humble and pleasant, thrilled to speak with their authors. (I’ve never met a “suit” who treated authors as fungible widgets or acted as if authors were to be tolerated.) I have yet to meet an agent who is not unfailingly, unrelentingly upbeat about his or her clients, who would not move heaven, earth, and any other realms to bring success to their clients. This is just a fabulous place to live, this publishing industry.

2) We Create. When was the last time you saw a TV show or a movie that was a remake of something older? When was the last time you heard a song that covered a classic? OK, now that you’ve answered those questions, answer this one: When was the last time you read a book that was a remake of an older one? (And when I say “remake,” I don’t mean “influenced by.” I’m talking about an actual remake.)

3) New Chances. Every single year, new authors are published, fresh-faced debut newbies with new things to say and new ways of saying them. Not all of them survive the cut, but they get the chance. Think about that, the next time you watch a TV show or a movie starring the same old cast. Yes, newbies break out in other media, too, but how many? And how many of them get the opportunities given to new authors? An actor needs to surprise the world with a star turn in a movie or TV show before he or she will be feted and given massive exposure. In publishing, a house can say, “This new guy has promise” and start promoting the new work before anyone knows the new guy’s name.

4) The Words Matter. Your religion, race, age, sexual orientation, favorite Jonas Brother, computer platform of choice, and attitude on the Middle East don’t matter at all. All that matters is the writing. If you want, it’s entirely possible to have books published without anyone knowing what you look like, how old you are, where you’re from, or even what your real name is.

5) Old Chances. Older writers who may have thought their best years are behind them can often find fans at other publishing houses and relaunch themselves. Rare is the publishing professional who will say, “So-and-so is too old for books.” Compare to TV, movies, music.

6) Risk. Publishers take risks. They publish books that may be complicated or weird or off-putting. They try new kinds of storytelling. Since it’s cheaper to publish a book than it is to produce a movie or many other forms of media, they can gamble a little more with an unconventional idea or an out-of-left-field tale. Yes, other media take risks, too, but not on the scale of publishing. Some of the smash hits of publishing were originally books that no one was sure would “take” in the wider audience…but someone took a risk and threw the dice.

7) The Big Support the Small. Now, I don’t necessarily find this an ideal situation and I’d like to see it change, but while the status quo remains, it’s good that the big books earn so much money that publishers can afford to take a chance on smaller books. In a perfect world, each book would be self-supporting and earn its own way, but we don’t live in a perfect world. It would be easy, I imagine, for publishers to say, “Well, we made $10 million on Bigshot McBestseller’s new book. Let’s call it a day and come into the office when the next one’s due.” But that doesn’t seem to be in publishing’s DNA. Instead, someone says, “Let’s carve off a little of that ten million and see what happens with this little book over here that we all love so much.” To those who worry about a “blockbuster” mentality consuming publishing, I point to this as contrary evidence.

There you have it — a baker’s half-dozen of things I love about publishing, things that the industry definitely does right. There are many more, I know, but these are the ones I reflect on often, especially when I write about what the business does wrong. Because even though I want to see things change…I don’t want to see them change to the extent that we lose the many wonderful things publishing gets right.

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