The Publishing Industry has Become the Refuge of Cowards

I’m finding myself looking very closely at undertaking a radical shift in how I will be doing business post-2016. The business paradigms of my profession are undergoing an evolution so rapid that it is not entirely inaccurate to call it a “revolution,” and despite the hopefulness of some people participating in it, like all revolutions, it’s going to be messy and there will be a lot of collateral damage, namely, a lot of really bad work that should never be allowed to see the light of day is going to find its way into print, whether dead-tree or live electron, at the same time that a lot of genuinely good work will be irretrievably lost in the sheer mass of noise.

The sad truth of the great problem plaguing the publishing industry is NOT that six Big Companies control 85% of what gets into print. The problem is that those six companies have been taken over, lock, stock, and thesaurus, by bean-counters who are incapable of recognizing good writing and allowing it to be properly processed into good reading. Because bean-counters, by definition, deal in concrete concepts and are incapable of grasping anything as abstract as the creative process (numbers are numbers, period; there is no such thing as “creative bookkeeping,” that is merely a euphemism for bald-faced lying combined with outright theft), they rely on numbers, projections, trends, and formulae, rather than talent to make publication and marketing decisions. The Big Six have, in short, become the slaves of conventional wisdom.

It’s all too readily apparent what are the dominant thinking modes. One is “This sort of thing has sold in the past, so it will sell now.” This results in travesties such as Hillary Clinton’s latest door-stop. Her first book, It Takes a Village (the publisher accidentally left the word Idiot off the end of the title), for which she was paid a massive seven-figure advance, couldn’t be given away two weeks after its release back in 1996, but because she is a “name” it is automatically assumed (because this model has frequently worked in the past) that she will inevitably bring an audience with her whenever a new book under her name is published. The model actually failed the first time around, and yet because the conventional wisdom holds that “a name” equals “an audience,” the model was again followed, and the result was an embarrassment for the entire industry. (Whether Clinton was embarrassed or not – or is even capable of feeling embarrassment – is fodder for another discussion.) Unfortunately for authors, readers, and the industry itself, the massive corporate inertia (read “cowardice”) works against a wide recognition that the “name=an audience” model is irretrievably broken.

The other prevalent model is the constant repetition of formula. Clive Cussler, who happens to be a personal friend, has not written a genuinely original story since 1981, when Night Probe! was published. His Dirk Pitt novels have become the literary equivalent of the James Bond series of movies, at least through Die Another Day: he hit on a formula with Deep Six and Cyclops that worked, that is, it was commercially successful, and has continually rehashed it through another fifteen sequels. Don’t mistake me here, I’m not taking a cheap shot at Clive – he’s good at what he does, and he keeps his readers satisfied with what he produces. The upshot, though, has been a spate of Dirk Pitt-knock offs, clones, and wannabes created by other, less talented writers, most of which should have been strangled at virtual birth. The flood of vampire novels that washed over the fiction market and nearly ruined the urban fantasy genre in the wake of 2005’s publication of Twilight are a corollary to the formula premise, in this case a more-or-less stock character type and more-or-less stock plot situations for said character type are substituted for the specific lead character of a specific series. Twilight, indeed, should have been strangled while still in the conceptual cradle, even before it reached the status of a published novel. The downshot has been that far more people have experienced in one form or another the Twilight series and its consequences and aftereffects than have even heard of Jim Butcher, even though Butcher was first published five years before Stephanie Meyer, and his Harry Dresden series has done more for the urban fantasy genre than anything Meyer could ever have hoped to accomplish. In some ways, it could be argued that, despite the elements of formula in some of the Dresden novels, Butcher almost single-handedly saved urban fantasy from self-destruction at the hands of the horde of glittery, gloomy adolescent blood-suckers unleashed post-Meyer within it.

Which brings all of this the salient question: how do these two models, “This sold in the past, it will sell now” and “If it’s formula, it will work and it will sell,” become the standards of the publishing industry? The answer is cowardice. Cowardice on the part of the bean-counters who have taken over the majority of the industry, itself an act of cowardice, and a manifestation of insecurity. But then, what should be expected of accountants, who are cowardly and insecure by nature (think about it, think about the nature of cowardice and insecurity)? Creativity, and its handmaiden, an individual allowing himself or herself the liberty to recognize creativity, requires courage. Not the clichéd “think outside the box” courage, which, frankly, is so much bovine excrement, but rather the willingness to simply dispense with the concept of a box and recognize ability and talent when it is encountered – and have the courage to sometimes be wrong. Bean counters are raised from the cradle to believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to ever make a mistake, to err in a sum, to miss a decimal point, as if such mistakes are irrevocable and bear the burden of eternal damnation. The unintended consequence of this is that the bean counters’ fear of their own mistakes metastasizes into a pathological fear of any mistakes made by anyone, and so they methodically set about to eradicate anyone in the companies and businesses which employ them who might also make a mistake, and in so committing an error could perhaps create a situation which would reflect badly on said bean counters. As long as the quarterly reports show a profit on the bottom line, all is well in the bean counters’ world, and so they will go to any length to ensure that result.

How this has undermined the publishing industry is simple: the bean-counter culture of near-paranoia leads them to first influence, then take over, hiring decisions – in order to be protected from errors, they must ensure that they are surrounded by co-workers who will not make mistakes of their own. In doing so, they allow intelligent, visionary, and creative acquisition and managing editors to fall by the wayside, and instead stock the editorial departments and boards of the companies they dominate with “editors” who have not the slightest practical knowledge of or experience at actual editing, but who will blindly and blandly obey the rules of formula and what sold in the past. They create nice, safe, error-proof editorial environments where new talent is not recognized and rewarded, because doing so would entail a risk and risks are something NEVER to be taken. They employ “editors” who are the masters and mistresses of MSWord, but who have no sense of style or the meaning of the concept economy of words. The good editors, those who will tell an author “You’re too verbose,” or “You’re too vague,” or “Your logic in this argument is flawed,” or “Your characters are stereotypes” or “You simply aren’t making sense here,” have been driven out of the major publishing houses, for the simple reason that their willingness to engage an author in a way that raises his or her writing out of the bland and predictable up to the level of polished, accomplished, and *gasp* innovative and thought-provoking might cause them to decide to publish and promote a book which may not be as immediately profitable as those nice, safe, vanilla books of formula and predictability. (The folly of this safe, secure, “predictable” business model is more than abundantly demonstrated by the long-term success of two highly dissimilar works – J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and Ken LaFollett’s The Pillars of the Earth.) Good authorship produces good manuscripts, but good editorship produces good books. (I say this with absolute assurance that it is a fundamental truth, given that I have — so far — nine books published through conventional, “mainstream” publishers, and have experienced good editors and bad, and can flatly assert that the books of which I am most proud are those which received the best editorial work.) The great flaw in the “conventional, mainstream” publishing industry today, and in particular within those six Big Companies, is not their determination to tell us as readers what to read and as authors what to write, but in their cowardice, in their craven refusal to risk making mistakes, and in doing so admitting that they have sold the birthright of their industry for a quarterly mess of pottage.

Where will it end? When the large publishing conglomerates sufficiently marginalize themselves, as they are already doing, by abandoning the very people on which not merely their success, but their existence depends: the readers. Revolutions are not usually regarded as “democratic” processes, and yet, a good historian recognizes that all revolutions are truly democratic in nature, as people vote, not with their ballots, or even their bullets, but with their feet. The publishing revolution will be decided by readers voting figuratively with their feet by leaving behind the drivel, the pap, and the vanilla fluff offered by the mainstream industry. Whether or not the industry will recognize the exodus for what it is before it reaches the tipping point where the industry cannot draw back those departing readers remains to be seen. If it doesn’t happen, I’ve already got my trainers on….

And that’s the way it is…

because I’m Daniel Allen Butler, and you’re not….