Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Publishers' Miss Becomes A Hit

Patricia O'Brien's The Dressmaker, a work of historical fiction about a seamstress on the Titanic, was rejected 13 times based on the poor performance of her previous book.

The Dressmaker: A Novel
So she submitted it for publication under the nom de plume "Kate Alcott".

After three days, someone bit. The Dressmaker by "Kate Alcott"? Oh, YES OM NOM NOM D PLOOM. It reportedly received rave reviews, and translation rights for the novel were sold in five countries - a first for O'Brien.

This is not about whether to use a pen name and which pen names would sell, although the subject is worth diving into. O'Brien had to hide behind an alias because the traditional houses who published her before were judging the success of this book based on what can now be considered an invalid benchmark.

Its success is one more reason for writers to bypass the well-known, lumbering old-school institutions.

Publishers be damned?
Then comes Anthony Horowitz's lovely piece on whether authors still need publishers.

For the foreseeable future, they do.

Despite being a best-selling author, one self-publishing phenom turned to a conventional publisher to do her editing, marketing, cover designs, etc so that she could be free to write books. A good publisher she's happy with, one presumes. For the kind of stuff she writes, doesn't she deserve the best kind of editing, packaging and publicity? Not that she needs much of the latter these days....

It seems the bigger the publishing house, the more it'll be hamstrung by its business model, and the socio-political climate of the countries it operates in. Far be it from publishers to challenge the ruling governments on what is fine to publish, however.

Publishers, therefore, can reclaim some of the ground they (think they have) lost by upping the quality of what they make and do. But will they pony up the kind of money for first-class editors, covers and marketing strategies? If they're willing to, will they end up overselling mediocre books, or not do enough to promote the better ones?

Every manuscript they take on is a roll of the dice, but one in which they can influence an outcome, i.e. make a product that's a bit better than the original 'script they got. I chafe at people who say things like, "What's one or two dozen typos in a 600-page book? It's not as if readers keep track of things like that." Or, "Did this country have phone booths with doors in the 1990s? Dunno, but don't lose sleep over it. No one's going to care."

Half a century ago, maybe. With readers now armed with Google and pay-per-view documentary channels, they are now demanding factual accuracy in books, particularly those that feature real-life people and places. If book reviewers can't find anything else to fill the obligatory space, they'll start hunting for nits to pick. And no amount of savvy marketing can hide the awfulness of a book from the multitudes of grassroots reviewers (book bloggers), who will make their displeasure of a crappy book known.

The self-published route may seem bumpy at the moment, what with dozens of badly edited and jacketed books flooding the market. With time, the small guys will improve and things will really start swinging then. The big marquee publishers will no longer be able to count on their history, traditions and the like to remain relevant. With every "meh" book - and the related typos - they produce, their cachet goes down to the point where they can't be distinguished from their small indie counterparts.

Guess who future authors will turn to when that happens.

Crowding out the old
I'm partial to crowdsourced publishing as part of the future. In this country, for instance, the creative pool of talent publishers crave is likely to comprise eccentric, anti-establishment personalities. But they're also the ones who are most likely to come up with concepts and content that surprise. After a job is done, they can choose to stay with the collective or move on to other things.

(Not to say that talent doesn't exist elsewhere.)

With the crucial elements of publishing: editing, layout design and marketing spread all over and connected by the Web, publishers can't claim to be the sole gatekeepers of literary tastes and harbingers of reading trends. Nor do we need critics of a Kakutanian bent to proclaim the best and worst of each book from rarefied heights like at the New York Times, not with the colourful and unrestrained outpourings of the Amazon/Goodreads crowd.

Of course, there's a chance that history will repeat itself; some of the now-monolithic publishers started small. With fame comes expansion, in operations and maybe heads.

The artists who designed a funky cover for a zine or a chapbook could grab the eyeballs of a big-name sponsor. And stories pop up every now and then about unknown writers who are lifted to prominence by discerning, renowned literary agents. Certain expectations would have to be met once they enter the mainstream. What happens when the independent artisan becomes a slave of the market?

That's when hard decisions have to be made. Grow big at the cost of quality and the personal touch, or stay the course and (metaphorically) starve?

The onus is then upon the indie writer/editor/designer/marketeer to lay down the law regarding the services he/she offers. Compromises have to be made to allow the artisan to consistently churning out good work while giving him/her the time to improve and live. It is hoped that the good client will understand.

A shapeless future
No longer will the rigid storied institutions determine how things are or should be. Many will be replaced by amorphous collectives, comprising seemingly disparate groups or skilled individuals, that fill similar socio-economical niches and redefine the rules of the game.

Traditional publishing houses will eventually have to adapt to an equally amorphous future, where an author can "redefine" himself/herself just by changing names. Institutions are much harder to change than individuals (some may disagree), but what's the pain of change when compared to the pain of irrelevance? Or oblivion?

Writing under aliases isn't a new thing. However, even the most flowery noms de plume can't hide the stench of bad writing.


  1. Very astute observations, Alan.

    I believe that a distinction, though, must be made between 'distribution' and 'marketing'.

    Yes, self-published authors now have access to the same distribution pipeline that publishers do. A self-published gets the exact same amount of shelf space on Amazon as a regular book does.

    That said, publishers still have the upper hand in terms of marketing. For example, no one can set up television or radio interview the way they can. And to survive and thrive, publishers have to work twice as hard to capitalise on this ability.

    As you said, they no longer can depend on being the sole gatekeeper of the industry.

  2. Points taken, John. But if publishers can't apply that strength to books that matter, then...?

    My feeling is that publishers, local publishers in particular, don't seem to be eager to do any active marketing work, pulling out the stops - barely - during book fests and trade shows.

    Elsewhere, they're at international book events, sponsoring readings and putting out book video trailers(!)

  3. Yes, and that's always been a source of frustration, especially for authors in the midlist.

    However, to be fair, a publisher has a limited marketing budget, and it has to decide which titles to throw its weight behind. And that decision is anything but a perfect science.

    Obviously, every author thinks their work is a winner and deserves to be supported. But commercial realities dictate that not every title will have a fair and equal chance.


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