I was chatting with a fellow writer yesterday morning about his first book, due out next Tuesday. I wished him well on his launch and asked how he was feeling about it.
He said he was reservedly hopeful: he didn’t have a big platform, so his expectations were modest.
And with that brief exchange, he tapped into the heart of what critics say is wrong with publishing these days: it’s all about the money. Publishing has become mercenary; platform conquers all.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.
The arguments of the cynics—those who say publishing as we knew it is over—are many, and valid. They claim Chief among them:
- Publishers are signing authors to write books they believe will sell, whether or not they’re any good. This often looks like celebrity memoirs, heavily padded nonfiction, and more recently, blogger-to-book deals.
- Authors are required to do more and more of their own marketing.
- Too many books are being published these days.
- The overall quality of books on the market has sharply declined.
These complaints have an element of truth to them. Book publishing is and will continue to be a business: publishers need to put out books that will sell. Authors are doing more of their own marketing. The number of titles being published in the U.S. has exploded in the last ten years. As for quality, let’s just say that with so many books being published, so quickly, it would be hard for the opposite to happen.
It’s true that too often, I’ll finish (or abandon) a book and wonder Why was this even published?
Great books continue to be published every year, based on little but the author’s talent, and the belief that readers want to read great books and will seek them out.
I’ve been in contact this year with a wide range of authors, editors, publicists, readers.
And while it’s true that numbers matter, the people I’ve crossed paths with would never be described as mercenary. They want to sell books (they want to keep their jobs) but publishing isn’t a business you enter for the money. Their chief concern is to put great work into the world.
Sometimes that great work comes from a big name novelist, or a seasoned blogger who already has an audience.
But there are agents, publishers, and booksellers who take genuine delight in finding the needle in the haystack—who glean satisfaction from uncovering good writing, and whose job it is to make that work the best it can be and get it on the shelves.
When I was in Raleigh, I shared an airport shuttle with a Virginia author about my dad’s age. His publisher had sent him down for the night; this was his first publicity event for his first book, due out from Viking this April.
He spent ten years researching a bit of local history that fascinated him. At some point, he realized it would make a great book, and began querying agents on the internet. He had no built-in audience, no platform; when I used the word in conversation he stared at me blankly.
But he found an agent, who sold his book to a big 5 publisher, and his labor of love is slated to be one of his houses big spring releases. (He didn’t tell me this; I’m reading between the lines of what he told me about his publisher’s publicity plans. Very few authors get that kind of treatment these days.)
Here’s what I love about that story: even in 2015, a guy wrote a great book and a publisher pounced on it, and is pouring resources—including cash—into getting it into the hands of readers.
It’s not a perfect industry; publishing is not a perfect world. But for these and other reasons, I remain, like my writer friend, reservedly hopeful about the state of publishing.
I choose to believe that the cream rises to the top. Good content will out.
And I believe as readers, we have a part to play.
- Book lovers—keep reading. Buy, borrow, whatever—just keep reading.
- Share your favorites with your friends, and not just on social media. Good books get shared. Tell your friends over coffee, tell your local librarian, put your favorites physically into the hands of your fellow readers.
Publishing has changed, yes—but that doesn’t mean this is a bad time to be a reader.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments.