Monday, January 03, 2011

Why "Publishing"...Isn't Actually the Point

When so many of us were newbies in the business of writing fiction, we dreamed of our names on book covers. Admit it. You did, didn't you? I sure did.

Some of us did more than dream of it. At least one writer I know actually took a book cover that had a title identical to one of her works in progress, pasted her name and particulars on the cover in place of the actual author's name, and put the paste-up on her bulletin board where she looked at it every day while she worked.

It did the trick. She sold, and sold, and sold again. She's probably still selling, although I've lost track of her so I couldn't tell you for sure.

But the point is...we all have that book cover in our heads somewhere, at least in our fantasies. Sometimes we can't bring ourselves to be as bold as that author was, but we still dream about it.

What does that book cover say to a newbie?
That they've been published.
That was the dream we grabbed hold of when we took the plunge here. That we were going to become  published authors.

So how's that dream worked out? For some of us, fabulously. For some others of us, not so fabulously. And for a lot of us, not at all...yet.

Veterans in the writing biz have, at times, taken it upon themselves to tell us that some of us will get our hearts broken. Some of us will never sell a book to a publisher. Some of us will never have that book cover. They're trying to let us down gently, because book publishing is such a numbers game. They think they're doing us a service. They're not...because few of us ever think that the one who'll get her heart broken is us !

But more to the point, I think they've failed to tell us the most important part of that message: that  publishing  isn't what the business is about at all. Certainly not in this age of "instant publishing" via the Web--but even before we had such things available to anyone with a keyboard, "publishing" wasn't what this business was about in the first place.

“Publishing,” after all, is nothing more than "making something public." It's putting your words up somewhere public, attributed to an author. In that sense, lots and lots of things can be considered "published," all the way from Letters to the Editor, to this blog, to graffiti on a washroom wall...if you've signed it.

What matters, therefore, is not whether we're published authors. What the term "published" used to mean and convey is what we're after: i.e., the book is out, it's on the bookstore shelves and in the library catalogs, it's available for purchase through an online retailer or in a store...and someone pays us for it regularly.  We have professional recognition. We have credibility. Someone was willing to risk real dollars on us...and we've come through.

In other words... publishing isn't the goal. Being well-published, by a  well-respected house whose name and reputation mean something, is.

That's what gives us the book cover and its book on the shelves: a publisher sinking money into our work because he or she thinks the company will make money off it.

That's what gives us the readership: a publisher spending marketing and distribution money to get copies of the books out to the stores and into the outlets so people can give that money back  to  the publisher...and, ultimately, to us as authors.

That's what gives us the fame and fortune (!), or at least aforementioned credibility...and enables us to live out the real, ultimate, streets-of-gold pipe dream of eventually supporting ourselves through our fiction writing.

Not merely being “published” by a house that does nothing with the book, basically, but print it. Or worse, charges us to do so!
Not merely being able to call ourselves “published” because there's an ISBN out there with our name on it.
Not signing away book after book to places that may as well be black holes, for all the chance any real flesh-and-blood readers are going to have to see the book and enjoy it.

No matter how many bells, horns, and whistles some "publishers" trot out to make us feel "special" the end, feeling "special" isn't what this business is about. Getting read, getting the rewards for hard work, and getting (hopefully) future contracts for more work are what this business is about. Getting our stories in front of lots and lots and lots of eyeballs is the key, and there's no substitute for it.

Big, reputable publishers have the means available to them to go after  those eyeballs. That's what I want from a publishing experience: eyeballs. I'm in this business to be read.  Savored. Absorbed. To take a place on someone's "keeper" shelf.

But that can't happen with many of the so-called "publishing" opportunities that presently exist.  Ever.

There's a stubborn inverse snobbism that's been around in publishing for a long time: the conviction that "big publishing" is somehow out to "get us all," that it really doesn't like "new voices" or "new stories," and that it only wants to make money on pap and keep that pap out there. That it's, therefore, somehow “selling out” to make a work “marketable” to them, when anyone can publish anything, anywhere, now...and not have to mess with all those "judges" and "gatekeepers."

But that's a conviction we embrace and act on at our peril.

Because that conviction, while it may get us “published” in the strict sense of the word, will never, ever  accomplish what we actually dreamed of, all those years ago, when we imagined our name on a book cover.

It's an artificial shortcut. And, like most artificial the end, it puts us further behind than we started out.

If we make the mistake of deciding to pursue our careers within that narrow, spiteful worldview, we might have the "comfort" of our "artistic integrity"--but we'll have nothing else real to show for our work, our investments of time and emotion and blood and sweat and tears. We'll have no readers, we'll have no money, and we'll have absolutely no respect in the business of "real" publishing.

In the end, sometimes, we may even have no joy in the writing anymore.
And in the end, I believe, that approach can break our hearts.

So, from where I sit, I believe we need to be careful about this "publishing" business, and have the guts to hold out to do it right.  We have to have the courage to face the possibility that the big brass-ring dream may  not  ever happen for us...and be brave enough to determine what will become of us if, in the end, we don't "get there."

I think that's what the veterans were all challenging us to ask ourselves. Unfortunately, judging from the plethora of really bad "publishing" that has gone on in recent years--and the beating the industry has taken, at least partially, as a result of all this slapdash shortcut-taking--many of us didn't have the guts to ask or answer that question.

And many of us are still running, scared to answer it.

But fear is never a good basis for any decision. Especially not one with the lasting implications of a publishing decision. Jumping into the wrong "opportunity" at the wrong time can end up being a nightmare...and a trap.

Don't let fear override your dream.
Don't try to short-circuit the trip.
Be willing to invest the time. To pause and consider. To trust. And to wait...a lifetime, if necessary.

The heart you save may be your own. The work you save...will most certainly be worth it.


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