Sunday, May 25, 2008

Does a Rising Tide Really Lift All Boats?

On Friday, I attended my nephew’s high school graduation.

There were twenty-two valedictorians in the class of 500. Clearly, I am old and curmudgeonly because it seems I can remember only one valedictorian in my high school class, and he or she was the only student to give a speech. Throughout this ceremony, groups of four to six valedictorians would line up at the podium and each contributed small sound bites to the proceedings. When I saw all of the names listed in the program as valedictorians, my reaction was to feel sorry for the one student who was actually #1. There was no way to tell who that might have been. It seems to me that there really isn’t much point in recognizing twenty-two valedictorians. Sure, I suppose they all get to list the moniker on their college applications, but with twenty-two of them, the significance was so watered down that none of them was individually introduced and nothing notable was said.

One side note: If I heard one more kid mention closing one chapter and moving on to a new chapter, (one of many repeated clichés) I would have strangled myself.

The idea of all these valedictorians lost in the shuffle had me thinking about an excellent post that Moonrat did at Editorial Ass the other day. It had me thinking about the sense I have that the publishing world must be nearing a breaking point. Editors are tasked with working on multiple books and can’t possibly dedicate the time and attention to every book that would ensure it’s the best that it can be, or even very good. Editors are motivated to publish as many books as possible. Authors are expected to hire publicists and promote their own books because with the exception of a handful of titles, publishers dedicate few resources to marketing and selling each book. It’s a rare day that I don’t read one or more posts about readers disappointed with the quality of the books they read. As difficult as it is to write a good manuscript, secure representation and sell it, there are only a small number of books, relative to the total that are successful. Very few authors can support themselves through the sale of books alone.

As a reader, I’m overwhelmed by the number of titles released. I’m reminded of that period in the 90’s when I realized there was suddenly more music being released than I had the capacity to keep up with. I want to read the finest books that are available, but the sheer numbers make weeding through what’s out there and finding the books that delight me nearly impossible. The deluge of new titles makes me feel like I’m missing out on a lot, now that I have such a huge choice.

It may seem counter-intuitive for me to say this as a writer, but I wish it would slow down. I wish the publishers would stop releasing so many books, be more selective about the titles they choose and nurture the work and the authors so that the books are as polished as they can be. I wish publishers would give authors the time they need to finish and polish, rather than rushing second and third books out and ensuring they'll be sub-par as a result. I wish each book would be publicized so that authors would be able to focus on writing and not on setting up Facebook accounts, learning how to make YouTube videos, guest blogging, running contests and criss-crossing the country to talk to book clubs. (Exception: If an author LIKES doing these things, that's one thing, but it appears that many don't want to do it, but feel they must).

As a writer, this would make my already tiny chances of publication even more remote. But I don’t think I care.

I read somewhere recently that the average number of copies of a debut novel s0ld is 500, although I have no idea how accurate that figure is.

When I think about the years of hard work and sacrifice it takes to bring a novel to publication, it hardly seems worth it. Becoming a best-selling novelist isn’t a part of my fantasy, but having people read my book is. All writers who seek publication want their words to be read. To work so hard, only to have a ninety day window for a book to be successful and then to see it go out of print makes the whole exercise seem pointless. I believe I'd rather remain unpublished and keep trying, than to become emotionally invested in publishing a book where in the end, I'm only marginally better off -- and maybe worse off -- than if I'd never done it.

Neither eventuality changes my resolve to write, but I’d rather that the industry became more selective and published fewer titles, even if it makes my job harder.

I’d rather be the one valedictorian in the class than to be one face among many of them.

I recommend you read Moonrat’s post , if you haven’t already and think about it.

What do you think?

Would you rather that it was easier to have a book published, even though the odds of your book being successful were lower, or would you rather the industry changed so that each book published had a much higher likelihood of success?


Julie Layne said...

Twenty two valedictorians? That is almost impossible to comprehend. My son graduated last year in a class of about 500, inflated GPAs, AP everything, kids and kids with parents on academic speed, and yet they still managed to pick ONE. That is just too weird!

I want to be one of the few, the proud, the published--with the emphasis on few, too. I agree with what you've said. Let's make art, not crap. (But not in the first draft, of course. ;)

Rob in Denver said...

I'm not sure what's worse: that they couldn't figure out just one or that there just might've been that many kids who were numerically tied for first.

I doubt the latter happened. Just doesn't seem likely. In any case, I think it's ridiculous.

Lisa said...

Julie, Whew! Good thing you added that post script. I've been told I'm entitled to write crap in the first draft :)

Lisa said...

Rob, I was told that they select valedictorian(s) based on GPA, to which I say, "then add some more freakin' criteria then!"

Rob in Denver said...

I totally forgot that I had something to add that's on topic...

Part of the problem is that publishing has a business model that's not very reproducible. A novel of a certain type this year is nothing like one from last year and one from next. (Unless, that is, the name on the front cover includes the words "James" and "Patterson," in that order. No value judgments. Just saying.)

I think because the market is so inconsistent from year to year --- and shrinking --- the industry makes up a lot on volume. Many titles, even on moderate sales, can be quite profitable for the imprint, if not necessarily so for authors.

Of course I could be wrong.

steve said...

My son Jim will be graduating from Memorial High School in Elkhart next Monday--he's not the valedictorian (there's only one)-- but he will be giving the senior class speech. His was chosen in an audition. It's an interesting alternative to multiple valedictorians. I haven't heard the speech yet, except that it includes a metaphor involving white ducks.

I read Moonrat's disturbing article and essentially decided not to worry about the publishing industry until I have a manuscript to send out. If I take what she writes to heart, I'd give up on writing.

But I'm wondering whether she's right. In the early 1960s, Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" was rejected by publisher after publisher. Even in the "good old days," a lot of editors turned down what is now considered a classic. If more books are being published, it's possible that some classics might just slip through amidst the crap.

I fear that fewer books does not necessarily mean better books.

But whatever happens to the publishing industry, it seems unlikely that writers, editors, or agents will be able to change it. That's why I'm going to keep plugging away at my novel. If it gets published and sells only 500 copies, fine. If it gets rejected, I still have the joy of having written it and the memory of the support I received from people like you.

Larramie said...

Ironic, Lisa. Boost high school students' self-concepts by designating a large group of them to be valedictorians and then, if those same students become writers one day, have reality hit!

IMO, there are too many books because there are too many trends. Whatever happened to a good story...period?

Travis Erwin said...

Great, thought provoking post. It would be easy for me to say I want fewere, well done books but what I views as a really good book may not be the same for the next guy so I like the many choices out there. Sure I read the occasional stinker but I won't read another one from that author and ultimately it is their name on the cover so that is who I blame. maybe a great editor with lot of time could have made it better but those days are gone.

Lisa said...

Rob, I think there's some truth to that. Although there's a cost associated with publishing a book and if it's a given that some percentage (and I'm sure each publishing house knows what its own numbers are) that are going to be "loss-leaders", it seems that the two choices a publisher would have would be to print more copies of fewer books and invest more in each, or print fewer copies of many, knowing that most will be losers, but hoping a few will stand out.

Steve, I don't think there's really anything to be too discouraged about. The publishing industry is what it is and no matter what the reality, I know that you and I and most others who write will continue to do what we're doing.

Some of the reality of the current environment that I see when I walk into a bookstore is the huge selection I always find on the clearance/remaindered table. As a consumer, it's nice to be able to go in and snag a book that had a list price of $23.98 a month before and pay $5.98 for it. As a writer, I can't help recognizing that this means the author is likely making less than fifty cents (if anything) on this sale and it means the title is virtually dead.

You are absolutely right that writers, agents and editors have no say over the direction of the industry, but the publishing houses are going to call all the shots and it's a business. If Barnes and Noble decides to carry less titles so they can display then cover out and carry more copies per title, that has an impact on how many titles I can print and ship to them.

I don't think that aspiring pre-published writers should worry about any of this. Our job is and always will be to write the best book that we're capable of and deal with whatever the reality of the industry is when we're ready to go to the next level. But I think it behooves us to never forget that this is a business and to remain aware of what drives it and how that impacts our ability to be part of it.

Larramie, I was thinking the same thing. What I didn't mention was that when the school administration was introduced, there were SIX Vice-Principals! My first thought was that the school is already teaching these students all about resume padding. Titles are one of those things that can be very misleading.

The good news is that I don't think there's a person around who will argue that a good story is and always will be at the heart of a successful book. Of course, some skillful editing and promotion sure help.

Travis, Hey! I see you around all the time and I'm so glad you stopped by. I'll have to do the same. Congrats on the success of "My Town Monday", BTW. To your point about the occasional stinker -- I wonder how many of those could have been turned around with some good editorial guidance. Without it, we do blend the author and when it comes down to who's really at blame, I don't really think the poor author should bear the brunt of it. People far more savvy in the industry made the decision to throw that person to the wolves when they should have either decided they weren't ready for prime time or they should have shepherded the writer and the book through so that it was. At least -- that's what I think.

Lana Gramlich said...

I just wish that writers didn't have to be whores. The commercial industry is destroying everything everywhere. <:(

debra said...

Thanks for another post that gives food for thought, Lisa.
In the scheme of things in the Universe, who really cares about the valedictorian? I'd love to see awards for kindness and compassion, for art and music, for service and appreciation of diversity and for individuality. Perhaps not a popular point of view, but it is mine :-)
I am also overwhelmed by the number of books published. It's hard to decide what to read; and finding a book I want to finish is a challenge. The best recommendations come from bloggers, I think

Ello said...

I am definitely overwhelmed by the sheer number of books out there but I don't think it is easier now to have a book published for a new author. I think the industry is pressuring their current authors to write faster so they can publish more books and make more money leading to less quality. I think authors should be allowed to nurture their craft instead of being harried into writing and publishing for the sake of money. I think this is where we see so many bad books come out. So I want the industry to change so that they value quality over quantity but I fear that money will always be the driving force.

Lisa said...

Lana, I'm with you. At the risk of sounding like a great big snob, somehow I can't picture anybody trying to convince Toni Morrison or Saul Bellow that they really need to go out and set up a MySpace Page and make friends to pander to and sell books.

Debra, I couldn't agree more. The most memorable part of the ceremony was when they did give an award for courage to a young lady who had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in the sixth grade. Despite constant headaches and rounds of chemo, this girl volunteers at the hospital and has never asked for or received special treatment. She accepted the award and dedicated it to those cancer patients who were not so lucky and hadn't survived. I was crying like a baby.

Ello, And you are right, of course. It is a business and that isn't going to change. Our culture flocks to mediocrity and crap and businesses have to pander to whatever nets the most revenue and that is almost never going to be excellence in any product. Bella Stander as a post at Reading Under the Covers about promotion and she says that "Writing a book is art, publishing one is business." I suppose that means that unless a writer is an absolute purist and can concentrate on writing a book while on some kind of fellowship and accept that unless they are spectacularly fortunate, they will have to do it for the love of the art -- this is our reality.

pattinase (abbott) said...

One is enough. More than that dilutes the prize.

Charles Gramlich said...

With the advent of print on demand publishing I think the genie is out of the lamp. There'll be no coming back from the precipice. I think there is definitely a problem with too much product being sold, quite a bit of which is subpar. There's no way short of putting yourself out there to get a new book noticed because it's like those old games of "where's Waldo?" Few people are just going to stumble on it because of the huge amount of material available. I'm glad there is a small press, for folks like me, but I do wish the major presses would be a bit more selective and stop pressuring everyone for speed, speed speed.

Lisa said...

Patti, Yes, and I think that's really a shame.

Charles, "Where's Waldo" is the perfect analogy.

Shauna Roberts said...

I agree that the number of books out there is overwhelming, and I see so many that sound interesting that it's hard to choose.

It occurred to me recently that of the books I've read this year, the ones from small presses were better on average than the ones from major presses. Maybe that just confirms that my tastes aren't mainstream, but it could also be a sign that the major publishers are doing a poor job of picking books.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

"One side note: If I heard one more kid mention closing one chapter and moving on to a new chapter, (one of many repeated clichés) I would have strangled myself." I think I would've been moved to projectile vomiting.

The attention to detail is rather awful these days. A good example is the editor(s) at Random House that did a terrible job of tidying up the last two Thomas Harris novels: Hannibal suffered from a plethora of your/you're-there/their/they're typos, and Hannibal Rising read more like an outline than a fleshed-out novel.

In an age when anyone can self-publish, standards shouldn't have to drop at the big publishers. It is through excellence and polish that they will remain renowned. Not to mention profitable.

Sustenance Scout said...

I'm overwhelmed by pretty much everything these days, lol! And I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels out of touch with contemporary music; luckily I have a very hip hubby and a teenage son to keep me in the loop.

Funny that the major newspapers continue to eliminate their book review sections when what's needed is a solid group of reliable experts on what's worth reading and what's not to help us muddle through so many choices. Another reason book lovers love the blogosphere. K.

Denis said...


Lisa said...

Shauna, Now that you mention it, I've noticed that a little bit too.

Electric Orchid Hunter, It's amazing that huge titles like those didn't get closer line edits. Unfortunately, I suspect that like anything else, the industry will keep dishing out whatever we'll buy and we keep buying.

Karen, I was totally in the loop when my step-son still lived at home. I mark his departure as the beginning of the end of that. I work at home and can't play the radio while I work and since I don't drive anywhere often I don't listen to the radio much. I'm a total dork now!

Denis, Thanks for stopping in! *Waving like a goof* :)

Therese said...

Crap, Blogger ate my comment from earlier this afternoon!

Well, most of what I wrote was in what I posted at my blog today anyway (though much briefer!). :)

I did also respond to the comment about "terrible tidying" on the Harris novel: it isn't solely a lack of line editing or general inattention by editors that causes these problems. Many glitches are literally produced in the typesetting process. Others that pre-date typesetting are supposed to be caught and corrected by the copyeditor and proofreader(s).

Why aren't they always? Lots of reasons. It's worth noting, however, that my book got a very careful proofing and came out virtually glitch free...

As for content problems, that's a whole other can of worms! I say, though, that we should hold the authors as responsible--or more responsible in some cases--than the editors.

Jennifer said...

Another feast for thought, Lisa.

My graduating class had three valedictorians, and they based this solely on GPA. It does seem a bit silly to have nearly two dozen! Graduation speeches can be so painful, can't they? The only one I can recall enjoying, and which wasn't crammed full of the typical cliche, was given by Ben Carson.

I would rather have one published work that I can be proud of, that stays in print, and resonates with readers, than twenty best sellers that embarrass me on some level and are tossed aside as soon as the next moneymaker comes 'round the bend. Which is why I've come to a place where I'm fine with not making a living out of writing fiction. If it happens, brilliant, but if not, I've got other skills to fall back on. And the writing will continue at the pace it needs to.

I'm a true believer in the idea that you can have both quality AND quantity, but that doesn't mean that I see the industry going that route any time soon (or ever). So if I had to choose, I'd take quality.

I have the strange compulsion to finish reading whatever I start, so I want to make sure that I'm reading good stuff. Which, of course, is difficult, as there's such a glut of books out there, and what's wonderful to one set of readers might inspire nausea and boredom in another.

It's dizzying, navigating the stacks.

Lisa said...

Therese, Excellent post at your place today and it does address much of what we're discussing today. I don't know. For some reason I am less inclined to blame an author for a crappy book than I am the agent, editor and publishing house that let it go to press. I sort of feel like the author (especially if it's a debut novelist, for example), has only his or her own experience to draw from and in some cases may not recognize that his literary fly is open. Those people charged with bringing his book to the public should know better. I kind of liken it to prosecuting the nimrod young soldiers at Abu Ghraib, while the management failed to take responsibility for not properly supervising what was going on. There was plenty of blame to go around and they were all wrong. Ultimately, I agree with you that a savvy writer ought to assume that he or she is ultimately responsible for what goes out with her name on the cover, but I'm afraid there are a lot of less than savvy first-timers navigating these waters...

Jennifer, Three, I can live with! Wow, when did you have the opportunity to hear Ben Carson speak?

I'm an idealist and it sounds like you are too. I don't have any illusions that I can make a living at this, so I can afford to be I suppose. I've also got that obsession with finishing books I start. Every now and then I can't do it, although usually it's not a real reflection on the writing necessarily. When it's happened, I'm trying to read something that's just not my thing and I can't get into it no matter how good it is within its own genre.

Great book recommendations from like minded souls -- that may be the #1 thing I love about blogging.

Therese said...

I agree Lisa--and should have specified that I meant we should hold experienced authors as accountable. (I had the electric orchid hunter's Harris example in mind.)

God forbid newbies be held as accountable!--for exactly the reasons you state.

Jennifer said...

I got a laugh out of your "literary open fly" reference. And then I winced. ;) I wonder how many novels a writer must finish before she feels she understands the process? I often feel like I'm wading through marshland with blinders on.

To answer your question, Carson spoke at my sister's high school graduation. His story inspired me, but his attitude and warmth really made an impact.

I'm definitely an idealist. It helps in some areas, and hinders others, but I've accepted that it's part of my personality, and I've come to appreciate it, even.

Paul said...


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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf