Mark Terry

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Mythology of Publishing

July 21, 2008
Joe Konrath recently had a post about giving and taking advice and I asked him what thing he believed was true about publishing but which in his experience did not seem to be true. He wrote:

"While I still think it's important to earn out your advance and think of your publisher as a partner rather than as a boss, I'm beginning to figure out that your partner doesn't always feel the same way..."

There sure are a lot of follow-up questions that come to mind there, but as I thought about this, I wondered, what did I once think was true about publishing that I no longer take as gospel and, in fact, might believe is just wrong. So here are a few.

Good writing will win out in the long run.
Well, in the larger world of publishing fiction, I think good writing (if you can define it) will get the short-term attention of an agent or editor, but will not necessarily get you published. In fact, I no longer believe that a "good story well told" will automatically get you published. Isn't that depressing? I think it kind of is. Now, unfortunately, my feeling is that the biggest things editors and publishers look for are: does the book have a commercial hook, does the author have a platform, and frankly, there's just a shortage of big publishers willing to take a chance on anything. (Ever noticed how many The Da Vinci Code clones there are out there?) There apparently are so many strong writers out there--and I partly blame computers and word processing programs for this, which has made it easier for people of modest talent to actually finish a manuscript--that "good" or even "very good" is so common that editors are increasingly looking for "great" or "excellent" which is very hard to come by.

Publishers will give you three to five books to grow an audience.
I wish, but apparently it wasn't the case for me.

The typical first book advance will be something like $20,000.
Hell, I thought $100,000 at one time. My first novel got $0 advance. My second $1500. Those sucked. They still suck. And this was in what, 2005 or 2006? In 1972 Stephen King got $2500 advance for the hardcover of "Carrie" and then $400,000 for the paperback of the same novel. I think the point here is that even back then Stephen King wasn't typical. And in 2005 or 2006, Mark Terry wasn't either... just on the other end of the spectrum. Typical would probably be about $5000 to $10,000 from a major publisher, although there probably is no "typical."

All published novelists are rich.
See above.

All published novelists are poor and living in a garret.
Maybe more true than the previous one, but what has struck me over the last four or five years is the blunt realization that the majority of published novelists are essentially "hobbyists," and that if I were to actually look at the history of the novel, it's probably always been that way. 

Editors want to nurture and grow a writer's career.
Probably what they want is someone who becomes an instant bestseller that they only paid $5000 for. My impression now is that editors are under too much bottom line pressure from their publishers and the accounting department to nurture a writer that doesn't have an instantly upward trend in their sales figures.

Publishers will do everything they can to make a book a success.
No. Uh, hell no. If publishers have a significant investment in a book (read: big advance) then yes, they will do everything they can to earn back that advance. If they have little or nothing invested in a book--which is most of them--then they do little or nothing except cross their fingers. There are tons of books that get published and the sole marketing done by the publisher involves a mention in their catalogue and sending a few advanced reading copies out to the major trade review outlets--Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus. 

How about you? Do you agree with me? Have I just depressed the hell out of you? What are your cherished notions about publishing? Any publishing myths you know about?

Mark Terry


Anonymous Amy Nathan said...

Oh, it takes more than that to depress me! Those myths have been debunked for me...but I keep hope alive that I'll be the exception to the rule. And I'm not even on medication!

6:47 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, as my friend Tobias Buckell says, "We're all going for the brass ring."

6:59 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I've read some brilliant stories that I loved like crazy, that never got published.

I'm trying to write whatever my heart tells me to write. It's clear I have no burning desire to be in Borders (I did the first time, it was great, but it was like an hour of joy, not a huge motivator), and the money for a first-time novelist is so abysmal, that I'm not going to stress out about where I am. When a story grabs me that pseudo can't write, I'll write it. Until then, I'm not going to kill myself over it for the sake of external validation and respect.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--probably a healthier attitude. And yes, nice point. I think most of us think when we get that novel published or short story published it'll be indescribably thriller sort of like your birthday, Christmas, 4th of July and your first multiple orgasm all rolled into one.

Um, well maybe it is for somebody, but for me it was sort of like, "Oh, that's cool!" followed by what could primarily be described as an anticlimax.

The journey may really be more important and enjoyable than the destination.

8:45 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

"like your birthday, Christmas, 4th of July and your first multiple orgasm all rolled into one."

Totally cracking up. That's hilarious! For me, it was great for a couple minutes, but then I kept telling DH not to tell anyone. Sheesh, I'm a freaking nut.

9:07 AM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

10 years ago that would have depressed me. Now it's just the realities of a writer's life.

How to make money writing?--Print it.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

I agree absolutely with everything you're saying. Which is why I think it's important now to give things away and build an audience BEFORE going to a publisher/agent. Start from a position of power, not weakness.

That might be naive of me, and I might fail, but I was steering my own damn ship. Your comments reinforce the beliefs I've had for awhile that have fueled my current decisions on this issue.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

One point I will disagree with you on though is that everybody has to be "great" or "excellent" now because there is so much "good." There are far too many craptacular books still published by major publishing houses for this to be the case.

11:17 PM  

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