So, When You Say “Press”…?
Okay, I have an announcement. As of today (technically, as of Wednesday), Threat Quality Press is, technically, an IMPRINT. This means that you will now be able to purchase books, written by your two favorite internet diarists (I like “diarist” better than “blogger” because it sounds about a million times classier). The first book, my novel The Translated Man, is now available for purchase on our second new page “The Press.” For obvious reasons, you should buy it. But let’s also take a minute and talk about self-publishing, because I have a feeling that this is going to be a significant thing in a few years.
Now. No one, at all, takes you seriously if you are a self-published novelist. Saying “I am a self-published novelist” is basically the same thing as saying, “I wish I were a real novelist,” and probably rightly so. The whole point of having publishing houses, back in the Olde Days, was so that the quality books could be sorted out from the shit books, and that way people would be able to read good stuff. It worked for a while, and worked especially well when books were still the preferred tool for mass communication, though it (weirdly) also produced a lot of crap.
Why is that? Well, when I was trying to get my novel published, I read a lot about what other people did in order to get THEIR novels published. I figured, “Hey, why reinvent the wheel,” you know? What I learned from them is that there’s nothing to learn from them. Writing a query to a literary agent is like pulling the handle on a slot machine. Sometimes you get cherries, mostly you get a handsome row of delicious rejection slips. Some writers lucked out, because they were friends with literary agents. Some became friends with literary agents so that they could get their shit published. Jim Butcher says that he went around to Science Fiction & Fantasy conventions around the country, and hung out with literary agents until one, deciding that she liked him as a person, figured she could represent him.
Discerning reader that you are, you’ve probably noticed two serious problems. First of all, who the hell has time to do that? I have a job. I have bills to pay. If I spend a hundred bucks on a trip to Colorado (assuming I could get to Colorado for a hundred bucks) to go to a con, that means I can’t pay my damn electric bill this month. Ostensibly, I could give up my house and just start living in my car as a kind of convention gypsy, constantly harrassing agents until they either a) decided to represent me, or b) filed a restraining order. Of course, this whole plan hinges on the likability of the author. I’m sure Jim Butcher is a very pleasant person to be around. I am not. I’d end up headbutting someone for saying something retarded, and getting officially banned from every convention, of every kind, everywhere.
The second problem is this: what the fuck? Really? You didn’t want to represent his books because you didn’t know him, but now you do? Your job is to find good books to represent, to help good books get published, and your qualifying criteria is whether or not you’re friends with the author? Oh, sure, you lucked out with Butcher, but how many other dipshit writers are getting published because they bought someone a drink, instead of because they wrote good books? There is only ONE RELEVANT CHARACTERISTIC of an author, and that is: can the person write?
The answers to the raft of questions posited in the above paragraph are, respectively (not counting “what the fuck? Really?”): yes, yes, and most of them. That’s why the bookshelves are filled with crappy books.
Bear with me, I’m getting to my point.
The point is this: publishing houses served a purpose. They were superior to self-publishing, because they were making books available in large numbers when they weren’t before, because they provided advances to authors to live on so they could write more, and because they ostensibly sorted out the good stuff from the drivel.
But. Now with self-publishing tools, Random House’s ability to print huge numbers of books is actually a liability, because it means they can’t help but print more than they need. Now that runs for books are smaller (especially genre books) advances are smaller, and writers can’t live on that shit, anyway. And, apparently, the process for selecting books to publish is more to do with connections than it is to quality. The three things that made a big publishing house worthwhile as a tool for producing books are obviated.
I don’t want you to think that this is a question of sour grapes. Like, maybe I’m mad because no one likes my book, and so I’m just resentful of the industry or some shit like that. Maybe you think I must be some kind of jackass–if two hundred agents aren’t interested in my book, it must be pretty shitty, right? I’ve got a whole pile of rejection slips at home that ought to be ample evidence that I should rethink my career choice.
Here’s the deal: no one’s rejected my book, because no one’s actually read it. My innumerable rejection slips just prove that I can’t write fucking query letters. And I promise you right now, whatever else The Translated Man is, it is definitely not a book full of query letters. Neither of us would enjoy that. So, no one actually doesn’t like the book, they just don’t think they can represent it right now (I assume; they’re all clearly form letters–maybe the real reason is that I’m not buying enough people drinks?).
The big industries still have huge advantages. They can print volumes for cheap (believe me when I say that most of the price of my book is printing costs; if I could sell you the thing for five dollars then I would). They have media outlets that they can send their work to and are, bizarrely, still trusted as arbiters of quality. They’ve got the inertia of…I guess something like two centuries of business behind them. Two hundred years is a long time to have a habit, and it’s not going to completely break down any time soon.
But the big industries are also firing people. They aren’t making the money that they used to. They’re closing imprints (Bantam. Fucking RH folded up Bantam). Thousands of small presses are cropping up and churning out more books. More and more people are turning to self-publishing, which means self-publishing is going to become cheaper and easier.
I’m waiting, actually, for a self-publisher to dedicate itself to producing cheap cheap paperbacks. Like, dirt cheap, that you can get for four dollars. What’s this trade paperback crap, anyway? Nevermind, that’s a different argument.
Anyway, here’s my prediction for the future: the publishing houses are going to either fold or transmute. Everyone’s going to be able to publish anything they want, and the system is going to switch from a material issue to a communicative issue: that is, Random House, if it doesn’t fold, is going to change its focus from deciding which books deserve to be printed to deciding which books deserve to be read. The industry of reviewers and recommenders will move into prominence. And how will those guys decide which books will go on their “must read” list? Probably by who they’re friends with, in which case I’ll still be fucked.
I am making plans to be a janitor in my retirement.