Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why You Shouldn't Trust Traditional Publishing (or Why Kids Should Be in Charge of the Slush Pile)

This isn't one of those posts where I talk about all of the very famous (or merely famous) writers that started out with tons of rejections. No, they weren't really "tons," but any rejection is a heavy load, and, when they start piling up, they certainly seem to weigh tons. If you want one of those posts, there are plenty of them out there, so go find one somewhere else.

This isn't a post that is supposed to make you feel better. Make you want to work a little harder. Make you want to try that one more time. That one more time that will be the time. I'm not really much of a cheerleader, so, if you want that, go look at any of the dozens upon dozens of cheerful blogs that are all about making you feel better about yourself as a writer.

This post might do some of those above mentioned things but not because that's the plan here. It's not what I'm setting out to do. This post is about making you think. If, in making you think, it prompts you to work a little harder or to apply yourself in new ways, well, good, but that's not what I'm trying to do here.

Yeah, I know. I can be kind of a jerk. But, really, I'm just not here to make you feel better about your writing goals. Not that I won't give you advice (if you ask) or tell you what I think about... well, whatever, but I'm not emotional support. I'll help you get the job done, but I'm not going to make you feel good about doing it.

So... here's the thing:
We all know about  the subjectivity of the publishing industry. At least, we think we do. Emotionally, however, we are still invested in the idea that traditional publishing is the Gatekeeper of who is and who isn't a writer. That, somewhere, they have some secret measuring stick that they apply to manuscripts to see  if they measure up. We know this isn't true, but we don't believe it. If we would come to believe that the "professionals" don't know any more about what's good or what will sell than, say, the troll under the bridge down the path from my house, we would ALL abandon traditional publishing forever. But we cling to this... idea... that we can't really be writers unless the publishing industry bestows that title upon us.

And it will... if we just keep at it long enough. As Jim Butcher says about getting published, "You don't have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than the guy next to you." I have to say, though, that getting published doesn't make you a writer. I don't care who's dubbing you "Sir Author." Have you seen some of the crap that's being published these days? And not just these days. Have you seen some of the crap that has always been published? And why is crap published? Because publishers don't know crap from gold. Nor do editors. Nor do agents.

See, I was thinking (and that's the phrase that generally causes my wife to say "uh oh")... Wait a minute, before you think any of this is about me, it's not. You'll kind of have to follow my separate trains of thought to where they collide in a crash almost as spectacular as the one in Super 8.

I had just come home from reading The House on the Corner in my younger son's class (6th graders), and I was out taking the dog for a walk. [Note: I read in some class or other every morning of the week.] They had been upset when it was time for me to stop. They feel like I "always end on a cliffhanger." The thing is, I wasn't reading from one of the "exciting" parts. But, whenever I have to stop, they don't want me to. I'm in the middle of something happening even if it's just exploring. Or a game of hide-and-seek. And there are groans every time.

See, kids have a different way of looking at books than adults do. And I think kids have it right. The publishing industry is really big right now on starting in the middle of the action. Why? Because they say you have to do that to grab a child's interest, but that's just not so. Kids actually have the patience to allow something to unfold in its own time and enjoy it. It's adults that want to just get right into things. Adults who sacrifice story for action. Sacrifice empathy with the characters, knowing the characters, for immediate thrills. It's adults that want to just jump straight into bed and skip the getting to know the other person and the making out. That's not how kids are.

Hold on... I'm going somewhere with this. See! You're all out there thinking, "just get to the point!" Where's the blood? Where are the explosions?

Another thing: kids are pretty honest. This is not to say that they don't lie, but they're not going to come up and tell you they like something that they don't. If you stick a pile of spinach in front of them, they're going to tell you how they feel about it. Even if you are a guest at someone else's house. They don't have the whole lying for the sake of politeness thing down.

Kids like my book. The closest I've had to any of them not liking it is one boy (2nd grade) asking me when I was going to make The House on the Corner into a movie. I asked him why, of course. Didn't he like the book? Oh, yes, he likes it very much, but he likes movies better than books.

This is where I was in my head when my thoughts strayed over to Tolkien. Did you know that The Hobbit and, by extension, The Lord of the Rings only exist (as published works) because of a child? Before I go on, let me state that I've read numerous biographies about Tolkien and C.S. Lewis including one about the two of them together and how their friendship influenced their writings. However, I don't have any of these books available to me at the moment as they are still in boxes in the garage [Yes, only unread books have been unpacked, at the moment. >sad<], so I'm going off of memory here. I'm not remembering exactly why Tolkien was seeking publication for The Hobbit, but it probably had to do with Lewis. Lewis was the impetus for pretty much all of Tolkien's fiction getting published, so it was probably Lewis back there saying, "You need to get this published." However, no one wanted The Hobbit. I don't mean there were a lot of rejections and, finally, someone said, "Yeah, I like it." No one wanted the The Hobbit. It was too different, and no one believed there would be an audience for it. Kind of like with the whole home computer thing.

At any rate, after no one wanted the book, the manuscript was sitting around someone's house. A big someone's house. Like the owner of the publishing company that eventually published The Hobbit. They had already said no to it. But something happened then. Something unexpected. The man's son got a hold of the manuscript, and he read it. He told his dad he should make it into a book. I think there was some discussion involved, but the son was firm in his opinion that The Hobbit be published. So, more to mollify his son than anything else, The Hobbit got published with a small print run of only 1500 copies. That was all. It has never been out of print since.

So here we are at the point. The climax, as it were. Traditional publishers didn't want The Hobbit. At all. It was a child. One boy who believed in a book with a father willing to humor him. The Hobbit is now considered the most influential piece of children's literature of the 20th century, and it almost never was. And this is why you shouldn't trust traditional publishing. The truth is that they don't know what they're doing. They don't know what's good and what's bad. They're not reading the books; they're just comparing aspects of them to what's popular and making judgements on what they think will sell. Any time anything slightly different comes along, they don't know what to do with it, and they tend to just say "no."

Kids should be reading through the slush pile. At least through the piles of things that are age appropriate. Kids don't care about what's popular (they do in that they are attracted to those things, but they don't evaluate new things based on the popularity of other things, not until they're teenagers, generally); they don't care about "how things are done;" they enter each new thing just as it is, a new thing, and they form their opinions based upon their interactions with that thing. It's unfortunate that, as adults, we can't enter into each new experience with those same sets of open eyes. That ability to not pre-categorize everything. That ability to not have made up our minds before an experience as to whether or not we'll like it.

As Yoda says, "Truly wonderful the mind of a child is."

So, really, don't take those rejections the wrong way. Even after the success of The Hobbit, the publisher (the same publisher, mind you) didn't want The Lord of the Rings. The wanted The Hobbit II. Tolkien really tried to give them what they asked for, but he just couldn't do it, and they kind of just published The Lord of the Rings because they knew they weren't going to get anything else, and they demanded severe changes in the text before even that happened. Like dividing it up into 3 volumes, which Tolkien hated and had to do extensive rewrites to accommodate. Of course, The Lord of the Rings is now considered the most significant piece of fiction of the 20th century. So, really, what do traditional publishers know?

It makes me wonder what pieces of literature the world has never seen because there was not a child available to advocate for it. It makes me sad.

[Note: In similar situation, none of the Hollywood studios would support Lucas' new movie Red Tails, which I really wanted to go see last weekend but didn't get to. Several of them completely snubbed the screening and didn't show at all. Lucas said they treated Red Tails the exact same way they treated Star Wars back  in 1976. It's something different. Something that hasn't been done before. Even though it's Lucas, they won't support it. Fox grudgingly agreed to act as the distributor but only if Lucas footed the entire bill. What's the point, at that point? Hopefully, I'll have a review of this one soon, as Lucas says it's going to be his last "blockbuster" movie (other than one more Indiana Jones (if they do it)).]


  1. I've read plenty of books that should've never been published and wondered who on earth thought that was good? Writing is art and all art is subjective.
    I know writers who are willing to venture out and do it themselves and those who state that they do need the validation of a traditional publisher. I doubt I would've been brave enough to do it myself, though. Just somehow managed to land a publisher. But if I hadn't, I wouldn't have felt any less of a writer. To me, my whole author career is a bit of a fluke, because I really never planned on all of this. And no, I have no idea if a kid was involved.

  2. Great blog post, and great points.

    I think kids really do make a better sounding board for a lot of creative elements, at least until school and life erases some of the things they know. Kids respond in a primal way to things. So often, adult response is governed by things like, "Is this intelligent enough for me to like? Is it the right type of book for my image? Is it "a guilty pleasure"? A lot of times, those are subconscious.

    Kids like things...because they do. Because they are interesting, beautiful, scary or exciting, and there doesn't need to be a three page dissection of what makes it so.

    My husband is an audiophile who loves a lot of music I don't care for. He likes it for the technical acumen, but to me, it doesn't sound like music. He wants to dissect the song, pull out the various instruments, etc. I want something that sparks an unmeasurable reaction in me. "I love this song," I say. He asks, "What do you like about it? What makes it great." I don't know. I just love it.

    Just like my son just loves certain books, and he doesn't need to back it with a discussion about the writing or characters or plot line.

    Maybe that's part of what's wrong. Books should be published because someone loved the story enough to stand behind it, knowing others will love it too. Not because the characters are vampires or zombies or whatever else is popular at the time.

  3. I love this post, and let us not forget Ms. Rowling! The Sorcerer's Stone was published because of a child, too.

    You bring up excellent points, particularly with children having the patience to get into the story. Never really thought about that, and you're right, "they" always say to start with the action. My favorite books have NO action in the beginning (Pride and Prejudice? Jane Eyre?) and I'm certain that if Lord of the Rings was attempting to be published these days, it would be accused of major info-dump.

    Thanks for this!

  4. I used to think that but now that I signed a publishing contract (even if it's not Big Six) I have to switch teams. Incidentally, we have always been at war with Eurasia...

  5. Every time I say "I've been thinking" my husband says "A dangerous past time."

    I read an article recently written by a prominent agent who said quite clearly that publishers do not do market research, they just make guesses about what will do well. And it shows.

  6. Everything I know about Tolkien I learned from the extras on the LOTR DVD's. What you said sounded vaguely familiar, so I'll assume it was also mentioned there. Really fascinating.

    I agree somewhat with your assessment, although I think the worst of traditionally published stuff is considerably better than the worst of the self published stuff, your point still stands.

    That said. Something about having an editor, especially one from a bigger house, buy your work means that someone that isn't a cheerleader (family, friend, etc) believes in your work so much that they are willing to lay their neck out (if the advance is big enough, they can be gambling their job on your success) just because they believe in what you've written.

    That means something to me. Really. Still, if I get old and grey and no one wants to publish me still - I'll dump everything i have out there and let the world decide whether or not I was worth reading.

  7. You bring up some excellent points. I wonder at what age children lose that perspective and cease to be wonderful readers? Ten? Eleven? Twelve? It's probably different per person.

    As far as Red Tails go...it got horrible reviews. So I'm wondering if it is even worth watching. I haven't heard a lot of buzz from it so I don't see why it deserves the "blockbuster" moniker other than Lucas is very proud of himself. Honestly, much of his body of work outside the Star Wars universe isn't that great. I did like Tucker.

  8. Man, I did not feel whole until I finally got my bookshelves set up and unpacked my books. It took a long time, too.

    I love how willing kids are to give anything a chance. My 9-year old nephew stays with us sometimes, and I was worried he wouldn't like the picture books my two littles were having me read. But he ate them up. Didn't matter how young the book was; he just plain enjoyed being read to. They are so open and receptive to anything. It's truly wonderful.

  9. You nailed it, brother. The biggest thing publishers (as a whole) are concerned with is turning a profit and staying in business. Which means that instead of having patience not only in searching for a decent story but waiting for one to unfold, they are catering to past sales trends. In my experience, editors expect current "hot genres" to predict future sales, while agents concurrently consistently urge authors not to write to current trends. Basically, nobody has any real idea what's going to be popular two years from now, but the only common advice between these two "gatekeepers" is that they are trying to steer prospective writers to write one way or another, even if it means by telling them what NOT to write.

    I'm rambling. Cheers!

  10. All these comments and nobody mentions the troll near your house. Sounds like a zoning issue to me. Take it up at the local board meeting next month: "No trolls in residential neighborhoods unless they are set back 16 feet from faeries, sylphs, and and knooks."

    Get a big publisher, like Big Shots Alex and Grumpy and Michael Offutt, Sportsblog Hater, have done, and you get some commercial backing and bookstore placement (while bookstores exist, at least, which is until 2013). And the contacts that leads to, including maybe book/tv rights, with the right publisher. As Amanda Hocking said: Someone else does the nonwriting work. I spent upwards of 10 minutes yesterday arranging to "tweet" about my marvelous bestselling book "the After", and with a big publisher, someone else would do that.

    (I'm sure Alex and Michael and Grumpy have personal Tweet assistants.)

    But if it's VALIDATION you're after, then you can get that much more easily simply by putting your stuff out there and asking for reviews and comments.

    If it's MONEY you're after, well: become a blogger. Pays WAY better than books.

  11. Alex: I think of some of what you're saying needs, maybe, a whole blog post. Not that plenty of people don't post continually about getting to call yourself a writer. I think anyone who has written a book can call himself an author, but... I don't know. Do plumbers call themselves plumbers if they only ever plumb their own houses?

    Sarah: Yeah, sometimes it's difficult for me to turn off the analytical part of my brain. I'm able to get around that sometimes by evaluating things through my kids eyes. It really helps.

    Barbara: I didn't know that about Harry Potter; now, I'm going to have to look that up!

    None of my favorite books start out in the middle of the action, either. The closest I can get to that is Watership Down, but, even with that one, it doesn't really bear out since it slows right back down.

    Grumpy: They brainwashed you already?
    What's this about Eurasia?

    Sarah Mc: I think they would do better with dart boards.

    Rusty: Well, that's true. The worst of stuff from a publisher, at least, had some kind of quasi-professional editing done to it. Or had someone else look at it, and it's pretty important to have another set of eyes on your work at some point. But just because it's technically better, doesn't make the stories better.

    Michael: For myself, I think I really started losing the ability to just accept a book for what it was at the end of high school. Certianly by college. I think it really depends on when I kid "gets" reading and dives into it. After that, it depends on what they read. If you all you ever read is candy, candy is all you'll ever like. If you start to challenge yourself with your reading, you'll begin to disenjoy some of the candy books. And, of course, it's in high school where they really start to drill into you what is "good" reading and that can have a subtle effect on readers. Not so much on non-readers.

    Shannon: My kids are the same way. Then, of course, so am I to a certain extent. There are some kid books that I absolutely love.

    ABftS: Oh, keep rambling; that whole thing between publishers and agents is just twisted.

    Briane: That may be because I already talked about the trolls a few posts ago? I don't know. Maybe people don't believe me?

    And, yeah, I really wish I had someone else to do some of the... I'll use your word... nonwriting work. I just want more time to write, which I'm not getting much of, right now. I need a PA!

  12. I could not possibly agree more with this. Very well said! I consider myself a writer. I have never been published self or traditionally but I write.....constantly so therefore I am a writer. I may be Jennifer the tech manager during the day but my true self is a writer and always will be.

  13. Jennifer: And I'm still waiting for your stuff! You should write a novel about that creepy doll!