24 April 2007

Two-Headed Tuesday Tirade

To make up for the absence of a Monday Morning Miscellany this week, I have a two-headed Tuesday Tirade for you.

To begin with, we have the ever-present question in the publishing industry: What does it take to sell a book? Most knowledgeable observers — that is, people who know people who actually buy books and read them — believe that word of mouth is the most important factor. Of course, that begs the question a bit: How does one get word of mouth started? Media companies believe that it's done through advertising and demographic targetting. That media companies have been buying publishers for a quarter of a century now, and yet margins in trade publishing haven't improved, should cause one to question that. Well, what about book reviews? Sure, they can help... when they're done competently. Unfortunately, that's all too rare. There seem to be only three types of reviews being published any longer in the US:

  • Poison-pen reviews — often anonymous, and virtually never honest about any personal animosity between reviewer and author — that do little more than ridicule without comparison and/or "show" that the reviewer is a better writer than, or more clever than, the author of the book in question;
  • Fawning puff-pieces with no critical acumen (remember, "critical" doesn't always mean "negative"); or
  • Essays that start somewhere near a book and end up very far away.

What I find particularly disturbing, given the high proportion of dreck coming into print every year, is the paucity of reasoned negative reviews out there. It's one thing to scream that the emperor has no clothes, particularly when the reviewer is just as naked; it's another thing entirely to explain why that matters. Or, perhaps, Orwell had a point... almost seventy years ago.

Moving westward, though — to where the uneducated believe the money is — we come to the problems created by the film industry's equally silly and self-defeating approach. Part of this comes from the combined culture of secrecy on how unpublished novelists get their novels licensed to publishers, especially in comparison to the looniness (and corresponding lack of credible information) on how filmwriting makes it to screen (sadly, there's even less credible information). All of this comes down to three critical factors: money, ego (in this case, the "bad ego" is not the author), and control (there are no heroes in this story).

And thus, the final point, the rather ugly and contorted fantastical vertebra that joins these two heads onto a single body: There is no rational secret plan to get your fiction published. There are no secret handshakes; even Jackie Collins, during the heyday of Dynasty, escaped only through some great lawyering on her side (and inept lawyering and even more inept administrating on the publisher's), and she only got to keep the money... the book didn't get published. I don't plan on making my next student loan payment based on a lottery ticket for tomorrow night's drawing. That some people actually get to do so doesn't make relying on a lottery win a rational plan. More people in the US get rich in a given year winning the lottery than publishing their first novels (or having their first screenplay produced)... which should really give one pause.