Waving the white flag

I did wonder, right at the very beginning, if blogging was really such a good idea, you know, for me. Not because I cannot spell, or have bad punctuation. No. My biggest worry is that I have opinions.

You remember opinions? Those ideas you feel very strongly about, those firm thoughts you have, the ones you instinctively know are going to cause offence if you so much as poke the mere tip of them out to air.

Yeah, those!

I’ve spent a lot of my life being told that having an opinion is a bad thing. The blander you are, the better camouflage you can find if you hide in a crowd of similarly non-opinionated people.

But what about the times when you simply have to say something? When you feel you would burst if you kept it all locked up inside?

What about the times when you feel your thoughts are so obvious there can’t possibly be anyone left on the planet who hasn’t thought the same thing yet?

The thought bothering me right now, the one I absolutely have to share with you, is about the newly developed dimensions of the publishing industry. Despite the many articles written on the subject so far, there is one very obvious aspect that no one seems to have cottoned on yet: the silly, archaic idea that we can kill a mammoth easier if we work together, as a tribe.

Like a parallel universe a new marketplace has sprouted up and flourished until it completely covered up every far corner of the existing market. It spread its wings like a shadow, oblivious to old rules and standards of etiquette we all took as the only way to do business.

I won’t pretend I know a lot about it. I’m fairly new to publishing, in any form. But what seems obvious to me is a total lack of communication between the two camps. It bothers me when I see people who don’t talk to each other because of their preconception of the other’s status.

Like a war between social classes, traditional publishers don’t want to talk to independently published authors and vice-versa. One is seen as superior, and not just by the opposite camp, and the other is the thorn in the side, the scourges of society who are nothing but a pest, an inconvenience at the best of times.

For a time traditional publishing houses were able to coast, to rely on previous contracts of authors already on their books to make it through the financial year. Slowly, though, the cracks started to show. There are only so many cook books Jamie Oliver can cobble together before things become repetitive, no matter how you doctor the cover and the retail price.

Author lists stagnate and the readership reacts accordingly. Technology advances and all of a sudden readers have a choice.

Meanwhile, authors who had something to say went along and said it. They found a way, because they believed in themselves. They may have been told their work is not up to scratch, or that the market they are aiming for is not sufficiently developed, or that if their book doesn’t fit into a clear genre they have no chance of selling it, or they may not have even received an acknowledgement, something to say their work is being looked at.

The condescending way in which authors are treated when they dare pitch to well-established publishing houses is clear evidence of the upstairs-downstairs class philosophy of the publishing industry.

Authors, like readers, are not stupid. They are not simpletons to be brushed aside with a mere gesture, they can’t be intimidated by class or indifference. The mere detail that they created a complete story should be evidence of the fact that authors are actually thinking human beings.

They know what you are going to ask, they know there is no book like theirs out there but still you stubbornly ask them to supply a list of the closer-fitting titles, they know there isn’t a clear genre for it, but still you ask them to label their product, they know all that before they even send in the query letter – all they ask, if you don’t have time to read the customary three chapters, is that you give them five minutes of your time to let them explain their story.

I’ve recently seen a conversation between two traditional house editors who were asking each other whether they noticed, again, a drop in submissions from new authors. Wow! Traditional houses have been turning authors away for years and the trend has only just become a concern? I guess the lower classes are just quicker at grasping opportunities.

The way I see it, we’re all part of the fabric of life. We all have a role to play, a job to do, a need to fill.

So why don’t we just bury the hatchet?

Traditional publishers are struggling without new blood, their customers are already losing confidence in their ability to fill their need for fresh thinking. And I am pretty sure many self-published authors would be happy to enter into conversation with experienced people, be they editors, cover artists or market strategists.

But none of them will do that when they don’t feel on an equal footing.

It’s time we stopped seeing traditional publishers as stuck-up dinosaurs and a waste of space. And it is high time independent authors are no longer seen as a plague of simpletons crowding up the marketplace.

War is not pretty. Even amongst friends.

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2 Replies to “Waving the white flag”

  1. I don’t know what other indie authors do or what biases they have, but I personally don’t see myself as “at war” with traditional publishing houses (though I grant that blog posts like http://onthebird.blogspot.com/2011/11/whats-with-all-self-pub-hate.html this and http://onthebird.blogspot.com/2011/11/traditional-publishing-house-as-quality.html this might lead some to think otherwise). They’ve brought us many good stories and kept themselves profitable for decades. Good for them, I say. I’ve even said that if a traditional publishing house ever approaches me about one of my stories, I would give serious thought to working with them.

    My only quarrel is with the idea that traditional publishers are somehow a “quality filter,” and that having their imprimatur on your book automatically makes it superior to other books that don’t have that “seal of approval”. I’ve heard more than one reader say that with so many bad indies out there, it’s best to trust the publishing houses to weed out the bad stuff.

    I disagree.

    Let’s be honest, folks — the traditional publishing houses decide what books to accept, not based on what’s “good” or “bad” (whatever those terms mean when we’re talking about something as subjective as literature), but based on what they think will sell, what will turn a profit. And that’s as it should be — like any business, they have a bottom line to think of. But what gets the largest audience isn’t always the best (again, whatever that means). Just because the publisher thinks a lot of people will like it, doesn’t mean you will.

    To put it in terms from my background as a Joss Whedon aficionado, look at Firefly. I think lots of people would agree that it’s far better than other, longer-lasting shows — and yet it was cancelled while those other shows were not.

    So, to sum up after all this rambling, my interest is in bringing indie authors up, not traditional publishers down.

    1. John, I fully agree with your opinion. My post was not about bringing publishers or anyone else down, it was about communication and even (sharp intake of breath) collaboration. The way I see it, both camps have something to gain by working together. A conflict doesn’t have to be obvious to be there. This silent cold war may be well hidden, and we may not want to call it conflict. We’ll call it competition instead. Whichever way, no one seems able to take the first step and that’s just not nice for such an evolved society.

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