“Writing Is Just The Beginning: The New Publishing Rules”
Anguilla Lit Fest Panel Discussion, Friday, May 25, 2012
Moderator: Stephanie Stokes Oliver (Author/ Editor; USA/Anguilla) Panelists: Malaika Adero (Vice President, Senior Editor, Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, USA), Marva Allen (Hue-Man Bookstore/USA), Marie-Elena John, Author (Antigua/USA), Lasana Sekou (Author, Founder of House of Nehesi Publishers, St. Martin), Mary W. Walters (Writer/Editor, Toronto, Canada)
How do you get three publishers, six writers, five editors, and a bookseller onto a panel when there are only six chairs on the platform?
Well, welcome to the world of writing and publishing – as it always has been, and as it always will be. For centuries, many, many writers have turned their attentions away from what they were creating and contributed at least some of their time to the editing, printing, promotion, marketing, and distribution of books – theirs and others: sometimes because they needed work (although the pay has never been that great), sometimes to get themselves and their friends into print (a lot of fine publishing houses were started this way), but mostly because they cared about books and wanted to make sure that the best found their intended audiences.
Over the past hundred years or so, as the publishing process became more refined and some people began to suffer from the illusion that there could be money in the books business, some publishing houses became larger and larger, and the bigger those companies became, the fewer the number of writers who were involved, especially at the top. This made good business sense. We all know that serious writers are lousy at business. Many would rather read a “good” book than one that sells a million copies overnight. (Do not start in on me again, I am not dissing all the vampire novels or all the romance novels or even all the vampire romance novels: just the poorly written ones. No matter what the genre, there is no excuse for bad writing, and even less excuse for reading bad writing.)
However, as I have maintained all along (even in my very first Militant Writer post, “The Talent Killers,” which really was intended to be partly tongue- in-cheek), those who love great writing have always continued to infiltrate the publishing business. These literature aficionados are especially visible in the smaller presses, but we still find them occasionally at the larger ones as well, particularly in the role of editor.
Finding A Platform
One of the most difficult aspects of the impact of the new technology on the books business, in which the publishing model as we have come to know it is dissolving before our eyes, is how writers and other people who love great writing can continue to talk to one another. There is a tremendous temptation among those of us who have begun to self-publish to be defensive and self-righteous, and a similar impulse among those of us who have not.
There are, however, a number of issues on which we can agree:
1) the manuscripts of self-published authors have not been vetted and preselected by independent, experienced editors before they become books: there is no quality control. As a result, a majority of the books that are self-published are junk;
2) most self-published authors cannot afford to (or choose not to) invest in top-notch substantive and copy editors or book designers and layout artists. Therefore the majority of self-published books are not only junk, they are badly edited and poorly laid-out junk with crappy covers;
3) for many, many years the established publishing system has – despite its inherent flaws – offered the only truly workable system for weeding out the good writing from the crap and getting it to readers;
4) in recent years the traditional publishing system, because it is profit-based, has become unworkable not only commercially but from a literary perspective as well;
5) some truly outstanding writers, with strong track records in the established publishing business, are discovering that self-publishing offers them an opportunity to control their destinies for very little cost, and to increase their profits;
6) the new possibilities offered by technology have created not only self-published authors but also e-books, which have been adopted by readers en masse, and which are taking down independent booksellers one at a heartbreaking time.
So where does that leave a panel of intelligent, dedicated committed writers, readers, publishers, and one of the most well respected independent booksellers in the USA? Well, it is a testimony to the perspective and vision of the participants of the panel discussion that was held at Anguilla’s first LitFest on the morning of May 25, and its moderator, Stephanie Stokes Oliver, that we were able to engage in a lively discussion and find our common ground rather than increasing the size of the fissures that currently threaten to separate us.
The three publishers on the panel were Lasana Sekou, founder of the House of Nehesi, Malaika Adero, vice president and senior editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and Marva Allen, a director of the new independent publishing house Akashic Books. In answer to the opening question, they explained the traditional publishing model: how a manuscript is selected for publication, edited, designed, laid out, released and then promoted. They described the challenges – historical and new – that face publishers: not only the big-picture issues (most notably economic ones) but the day-to-day frustrations.
From them we heard that: senior editors at major houses have to deal with marketing divisions that veto excellent manuscripts because they will not sell; publishers face such avalanches of unsolicited manuscripts that they are unable to even look at unagented material; publishing houses must sometimes turn away promising writers because they are so pig-headed and misguidedly arrogant that they will not allow their work to be edited; the new technologies mean that already overburdened senior editors need to get all of their authors’ books into e-book format – and not only the new releases, but the backlists, too. We learned that they are saddened when good books must be turned away, that they feel a responsibility to ensure that fine stories continue to be told, and that they respect and want to sustain the voices that tell the stories they admire, and the ones that move them.
The editors on the panel were (in addition to Lasana, Malaika and Marva, who were also all editors as well as publishers), Stephanie Stokes Oliver, editor of Unity Books and former editor of Essence magazine) and me, freelance Book Charmer and manuscript editor.
All of us (and all of us as writers as well as editors) agreed that even the best-written manuscripts need strong editors. Writers need substantive editors who will tell them where their manuscripts are working and where they are not, what characters need to be developed more and which ones less, what isn’t clear to readers and what needs to be omitted.
These editors need to be people who can help the writer say what the writer wants to say in the way the writer wants to say it: and who are willing to listen to what the writer says in response to editorial suggestions. The editor lets the writer do all of the necessary edits and revisions. A good editor never does the rewrite.
We all also agreed that books need to be well copy-edited before they are published (and winced at what we’ve seen out there in some self-published books, but also in some books from well established presses.)
I expressed the opinion that I have stated before on The Militant Writer, that the era is coming when some editors’ private imprints will have cachet – independent of publishing houses (as translators have done in the past). If you are self-publishing and have attracted a certain well-respected editor to work with you on your book, you will put his or her name on the cover as your editor, and that will alert readers to its quality. Top editors will be able to hang out their own shingles and make some real money for a change. And they’ll be able to pick and choose the manuscripts they work on. (Some will say they cannot afford to hire editors. If you put aside $5/week for the two years or more when you would be waiting for a publisher to make a decision on your manuscript, put it in the publishing queue, edit it, typeset it, print it, and release it, you will have no trouble saving up enough money to pay an editor – and a book designer.)
To my mind, booksellers, particularly independents, are the innocent victims in the transition to new publishing models. This has less to do with the proliferation of self-publishers than with the growing popularity of e-books. Marva Allen, whose Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem has an international reputation, is recognized for her contributions not only to fine writing in general and the writing of African-Americans in particular (“A SKU for every hue”) but to the building of the reputations of a number of important individual writers.
She told us that the economic reality of bookselling has reached the point where she is not sure if she will renew her lease.
All of us who were on the panel are writers. A couple of us – Marie-Elena John most notably (whose novel, Unburnable, I am eagerly looking forward to reading), but also including Lasana Sekou, Stephanie Stokes Oliver and I – are writers first and foremost, in our self-perception and our lives. Malaika Adero and Marva Allen are writers too, and all of us on the panel shared concerns as writers and lovers of good writing about the traditional publishing industry – its slowness to respond, its inability to change (Malaika compared it to an ocean liner trying to steer its way into a tributary), its poor track record in promoting and distributing the books it does publish, and its increasing tendency to overlook quality fiction in favour of what a friend of mine calls “mental junk food.” (The name of Paris Hilton, “author,” came up in this context several times.)
Publishers used to argue that it was the books by non-writer celebrities that allowed them the financial stability to publish less economically viable literary works. No more: there is no financial stability in the business anywhere. As writers we understand this, and as readers and writers we’re in despair over what we’ve lost – even as new doors open for us.
The New Gatekeepers
As I have also said before, the readers are the new arbiters of what will sell and what will not. In recent months, we have seen a significant example in Fifty Shades of Grey – a book that not only found a kazillion readers for its author, but opened up a whole new genre of writing. Within weeks, imitators were putting out their erotic novels by the hundreds. And it wasn’t only other self-published writers who were proving that when you are trying to make a buck, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: it was the established publishers as well. (Most of the rest of us just stood around turning Fifty Shades of Green.)
To my mind, the ability of a writer to reach directly out to readers – eliminating the middle people – and the ability of readers to respond – by throwing rotten eggs at us or by welcoming what we’ve written and spreading the word to other readers – are some of the most exciting aspects of this evolving, truly democratic world of publishing. But the evolution also has produced so much garbage that it is hard to find the glints of precious metal that are surely in it somewhere.
To find the best books, we are going to continue to need great book reviewers who establish reputations for themselves – often in specific genres. Their stamps of approval will mean as much in future as does a review in the New York Times today. Unfortunately, given what’s happening to newspapers and magazines (which pay almost nothing to reviewers anyway), most of these future king- and queen-makers will consist of unpaid bloggers. (Oh, and Oprah: whose book club, I have heard, is back.)
The publishing panel discussion at the Anguilla LitFest was invigorating, with the love of literature and great writing forming a common bond among panelists and audience members. In addition to our conviction of the importance of continuing to write, find and promote good writing, we were also all in agreement that electronic books and self-publishing are here to stay. We are going to have to learn to live with them – and with one another – in this rapidly changing world.
(Note: Thanks to Gerry Riskin for most of the photos on this page.)