Monday, 23 March 2009

Publishing Isn't Broken

Because so few books seem to be taken from the slush pile, and even form rejections can sometimes take months to be dispatched, frustrated writers often claim that publishing is somehow broken. They feel that as publishing is not working for them, it can’t be working at all.

The problem lies not with publishing, but with these writers’ views of it.

Publishing is a business, and publishers have responsibilities to their shareholders to run their businesses as profitably as possible (which is why reputable publishers court their potential readers, while vanity presses court their potential writers—they’re both intent on seducing their primary customers into spending a nice chunk of cash). That means they have to publish books with a good potential for turning a profit: which means the books which aren’t going to need too much work to turn them into decent sellers. And this means that not all writers are going to be good enough to make the grade.

Mainstream publishing isn’t broken: it has its flaws, certainly, but it still works. It still publishes books which show clear commercial potential; works to make those books as good as they can possibly be; and then gets those books into as many sales points as it possibly can. Just because it does that by only publishing the very best books from the very best writers, and consequently rejecting the majority, doesn’t mean that it’s broken: just that far too many writers are not yet good enough at their craft for publishers to risk investing their money in them.


Nicola Morgan said...

Perfectly and brilliantly put. And it SHOULD be hard to get published - it's the very struggling that makes us better. Hear, hear, jane.

Elle Scott said...

If every book I read from a major publisher was brilliant, I would completely agree; however, this is not the case. I've seen writing of the lowest sort coming from top-notch publishers.

While, obviously, the majority of submissions should be not published (I've seen enough slush to know that this is true!), I think it is equally erroneous to think that just because a writer is rejected by an agent or publisher, his work is not any good.

Is the publishing world broken? No, clearly not. But it is corporate driven and many times is forced to appeal to the lowest common denominator of readers.

none said...

One rejection doesn't mean the work isn't any good; once you start pushing twenty or so, that might be an indicator that there's a problem with it :).

Eh, I know my writing isn't good enough. What I don't know is how to make it better. La.

Jane Smith said...

Elle, another thing to consider is what makes a book "good enough"? Rachelle Gardner has put a post up today in which she discusses how agents and editors decide on which work to take on; but it's also worth considering that what's "good enough" for a literary fiction imprint, for example, is going to be horribly wrong for a more genre-orientated list and vice versa.

For example, although The Da Vinci Code has been much-derided, and isn't "good enough" to find a place on a literary imprint's lists, it certainly IS "good enough" for the more commercial list it appeared on, and it did its job beautifully by providing a page-turner which appealled to the masses, and sold lots of copies.

Elle Scott said...

You both make very good points, and you are absolutely right (I read Rachelle Gardner's post this morning, too, and found it very helpful!)

I didn't mean to sound so snarky (I guess I should have had that first cup of coffee sooner!) I just meant that, because most publishers are large corporations, they tend to appeal to a broader market. Like you said, "The DaVinci Code" is a good example."

Most of what I read from the major publishers is very good, and I know that my work in no way compares. However, sometimes, I find books by major publishers that are so terrible, that I have to wonder...

Thanks for helpful comments : )

Marion Gropen said...

It needs to be said, and often, that the ultimate arbiter of whether a work is good enough to be published is the book-buying public. And that publishers are doing their job when they're giving readers what they want to buy.

For that matter, writers are free to write what matters to them, but authors need to consider their readers' desires, too.

Yet, no matter how much I agree with you, I do hope you're wearing asbestos underwear today!

Anonymous said...

I imagine most of the complaints about publishing come from would-be writers rather than readers.

I know several people who started reading fiction again because of the Davinci Code. Not my cup of tea but they enjoyed it and now read a wide range of authors.

I remember Robert McKee saying the only secret to getting a film script bought was to write an excellent story. I think the same applies to fiction publishing. But then I am an optimist by nature!

Jane Smith said...

Buffy, that's the magic question, isn't it? How to make it better... beats me.

Elle, I didn't think you were grumpy at all, just articulate and passionate. So there.

Marion, I always wear my asbestos underwear: they're invaluable living on the moors as I do, what with all the cold and the wind and the gritstone faces.

Richie, good to see you here again. How's the writing coming along these days?

Lauri said...

Also publishers are dead conservative and in many case scaredy cats. They would publish the hundreth Harry Potter clone before latching themselves to a new voice. Let's be honest here- it is not all about good writing. If that were the case- do we really need another Celine Dion biography?


none said...

Hmm, well, in my capacity as a reader I can sometimes be found complaining about publishing. And bookshops. And many other things!

(why are my favourite authors never on the shelves in Waterstones?)

Sally Zigmond said...

I can assure you that published rubbish (which, nevertheless usually sells in large quantities) is a million times better than most unpublished rubbish.

And I totally agree with Marion. There is a huge gulf between what the great book-buying public--the vast majority of which are not writers--want to see in book shops and what we very tiny bunch of writers want.

'Proper' publishers publish what the book buying public want to buy. If they didn't, they'd soon go out of business. Despite the recession, I have yet to hear of a big publisher ceasing to trade.

Many books are indeed utter rubbish (in a literary sense) but who are we to dictate what people must buy? If given a choice most people would opt for another biography of Celine Dion, where at least they'll know what to expect. than a novel they've never heard of by a a writer they've never heard of.

catdownunder said...

Ah, dear Jane! Hopefully I will pedal my tricyle to your door one day and we can discuss this at length. Until then I will have to go on wondering why some of the books on the shelves at the local library actually get written, let alone get published. Is it really what people want to read, or is it what they are told they want to read?

Daniel Blythe said...

Good points here as usual. Elle is right that there is dross published (my students raise this all the time) but this shouldn't be an excuse for people to aim low. Also Jane is right that "right" can mean so many different things.

I agree with Rachelle Gardner up to a point but I think "platform" is less of an issue for UK writers. I had no "platform" to speak of when I had my first non-fiction book published.

Sally - all I can say is, my heart will go on...

Anonymous said...

Jane - I've just had another great review and it's right now on the front page of Do take a look. May I point out again that I would never have had this recognition if I had not self-published - or vanity published, as you prefer? Hopefully, reader by reader, one is Getting Known . . . Surely you must agree, though, that my book is better off being reviewed in this way than lying in a drawer, or in a post bag, or in a slush pile.
David Milnes at

Mockingbird said...

Catdownunder makes the excellent point that people are being told what they ought to want to read. There is some dreadful junk out there masquerading as books. I recently read a "Regency" romance in which the author had no grasp whatsoever of the conventions of the period. I was horrified that this junk was even considered publishable, but there it was in hideous black and white, with a candy pink cover. Yikes.

There's nothing wrong with it being difficult to get published. But I think you are forgetting the essential truism. The world wide economy is collapsing. Publishing companies are playing safe, they have bottom lines, staff to pay, shareholders to keep happy. So they will stick with what they know sells, rather than take a chance on an unproven author. I genuinely believe that fewer new authors will get into print this year than previously because in the bear market, the sensible company consolidates its position, it does not take chances.

So where does that leave the unpublished. You could have a work of real merit. You could wait around for the market to pick up, or you could start proving to the publishers that there is a market for your work out there. Whether that's self publishing or vanity publishing or whatever you want to call it; why not? If you're prepared to put in the work, and be clever and creative about your marketing, there are opportunities out there for the taking.

David Milnes said...

Mockingbird, sorry to be so long in picking up on your remarks, which I take to be supportive! I hit a personal high of 13,799 on the Amazon listings today, which brought me back here. In case you never saw it, may I say again what I said before on this blog - In the end it doesn't matter when you're published, who publishes you, or even how you're published - through nepotism or the long haul - it only matters What you publish. My reviewers at and www.harmless didn't pay the slightest attention to the credentials or pedigree of my publishing history - they assessed the book, that was all. The rest is snobbery, which, of course, the English still love, bless them. David Milnes at