The Persistently Pernicious Paradox of Publishing

While I have been writing for approximately 20 years, accumulating thousands of pages of written work, I am quite ashamed to say that I have never been published. And it has not been for the lack of trying. I have failed to have a single book published by any of the major publishing companies out of New York, or any of the “middle-size” publishing companies in New York or elsewhere; equally, I have failed to get a single short story accepted by any magazine, big or small. Granted, I am referring primarily to magazines and publishers specializing in science-fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction genres, but the problem seems to exist for everyone in the industry. So I ask myself from time to time, “are my stories simply nothing more than shoddily constructed drivel of meaningless prose, or is there something else going on?”

I recently heard another unpublished writer expressing the same frustration, but he made a startling observation which I had overlooked. It is not that the publishers are rejecting manuscripts–it is simply that they are not even reading the manuscripts in the first place!

But let me begin at the beginning…

Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night of course, anyone could publish virtually anything with very little effort. The fact of the matter was, there simply were not a lot of people writing books, and this continued to be the case until around the mid-20th century. As time progressed, and as mechanized industry and information technologies continued to raise our standard of living, our time for leisure activities increased. That meant more people who wanted to write now had time to actually write. Computers, word processors, online resources, digital encyclopedias, and countless other newfangled technological marvels made writing, researching, and even the creative process itself easier than it had ever been in the decades and centuries before. Where once there had been only a few thousand prospective manuscripts a year, there became hundreds of thousands. Think of it: hundreds of thousands of manuscripts all fighting for publication in any given year. The market simply became saturated.

As a result, slush piles formed in every major publishing house–a room filled with unsolicited manuscripts submitted by thousands of unknown, but very hopeful, authors. The slush pile readers had one charge: dispose of as many manuscripts as possible as quickly as possible. Those rooms of unsolicited manuscripts would be emptied in short order, condemning countless brilliant ideas and wonderful stories to the razor-sharp teeth of the recycling shredders. Perhaps one or two manuscripts might get picked from the slush pile any given year, but the percentages in question are utterly dismal.

After all, publishing companies couldn’t care less if your story has a unique spin on a brilliant plot with engaging characters. The only thing publishing companies care about is what sells. And what sells are names–specifically, the names of already established authors. The rare new author who gets published is either very lucky, or has an uncle/wife/friend in the industry. Out of all books published in a given year by the major publishing houses, only a few are written by previously unpublished authors.

This is the persistently pernicious paradox of publishing: you are unlikely to get published unless you have already been published. So what is a new prospective author to do? Some simply give up and do something else in their spare time. Others take the route of self-publishing (which is a whole other topic for discussion). Still others keep on trying to get picked up by a major publishing house, and may continue trying for decades or even their entire lives without success.

Can a literary agent help? Sometimes. But I have found that securing an agent is just as hard as getting picked up by a major publishing house. Agents (at least the big ones) also have slush piles and numerous readers shoveling those slush pile manuscripts out the window to the dumpster below. The advice generally given to new authors is that agents will only take on new writers who have already secured a publishing deal. While this may also sound paradoxical, it is sound advice. If you do manage to get a publishing house to accept your manuscript, query an agent immediately and tell him or her you have already been accepted. Most agents (unless utterly swamped) will be more than willing to take you on at that point and work out the details of the contract.

But what about self-publishing or print-on-demand publishing? I will only touch on this matter briefly, as I will likely write a much larger post on the subject of self-publishing later on. Having said that, if you really want to publish your book, and don’t mind that it may cost you $500 to $2000, and also don’t mind that it may only be read by a few hundred people (if that), and furthermore that it won’t appear in any retail book stores, bestseller lists, book-of-the-month clubs, most libraries, or will ever be distributed internationally in a dozen translations, then self-publishing will probably work for you. But if you care about any of those things then forget about it. Another problem is that being self-published is often seen as a stigma in the publishing world. Once you’ve been self-published, the major publishing houses won’t touch you with a 10-lightyear pole. Yes, there are rare exceptions to this, as well as cases of self-published writers being “discovered” and picked up by a major publishing house, but such cases are the exception, not the rule.

However, there are also a fair number of small- to mid-sized publishing companies who are not self-publishers or vanity presses. They do not publish a lot of books (maybe 10 to 20 a year), and their print runs tend to be small, but they are true publishing companies in every sense of the word. They do not charge you for their services, they pay a sizable advance, and they also list your book with distributors such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor, which then gets your book into all bookstores, book-of-the-month clubs, libraries, and so forth. Many also do international sales and may even commission translations of your book, just like the Big-Boys in New York do. It may be harder to get accepted by them simply because of their low volume, but there are a lot more of them than the Big-Boys. And do not be afraid to submit outside of the United States: Canada and Great Britain also have a lot of good small to medium size presses.

Of course, a lot of scammers are lurking out there, and so you should learn to be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true. I won’t mention any of these loathesome, scum-of-earth companies by name, but just do a Google search with the words “scam” and “publish”, and perhaps the word “america” thrown in as well, and you shall see what I mean. Such dispicable swine as these seek only to profit by pillaging the hopeful dreams of unknowing writers. Do not fall prey to their shenanigans. Unless you are looking for an honest self-publishing company, which are upfront with their terms and fees, then avoid anyone who claims to be a “traditional” or “mainstream” press and later on asks for a fee to cover some cost or expense. True traditional publishers do not ask for any money, ever.

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1 Response

  1. August 10, 2008

    […] Until then, you may be interested in a few of my older articles, such as my article on Fantasy World Building (should be a good primer at least) and The Persistently Pernicious Paradox of Publishing. […]

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