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Publishers at the floodgates

What do publishers have to offer readers in a world of digital media? Not much, according to Lev Grossman in an article published in Time last year. Publishers’ primary function, he suggests, has been gatekeeping, excluding manuscripts that don’t fit their personal tastes. Now, though, authors rejected by ‘Old Publishing’ can self-publish electronically and let the market do the rest. Citing self-published books that became bestsellers, Grossman argues that we’re seeing ‘not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one – an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too’.1

There are, however, problems with this argument. The self-published titles Grossman cites are all in well-established popular genres and only became bestsellers after mainstream publishers took them on. Even in the ebook era, it’s virtually impossible to make the bestseller lists unless you can hook up with a publisher who can bankroll the large-scale production and promotion of printed books and their distribution to booksellers on sale-or-return. In this context, self-publishing acts less as an arm of ‘New Publishing’, as Grossman calls it, than as a feeder for the ‘Old Publishing’ he decries.

Still, Grossman’s article is less bilious in tone than many of the views that circulate around the blogosphere. Writers – especially novelists – are unhappy with large publishers, often for good reason. If writers submit unsolicited manuscripts, they rarely receive meaningful responses; long delays, mislaid manuscripts and form rejection letters are the rule. (A friend of mine once plastic-wrapped a second copy of his manuscript and sent it to the publisher with a Post-it note: ‘Copy of MS enclosed. Please place in refrigerator until required.’)

Many publishers refuse to examine unsolicited work in certain genres or only consider submissions sent through literary agents, effectively outsourcing the selection process. In Australia, for example, Hachette Australia and Hardie Grant Books use their websites to announce that they are not accepting submissions except through agents, and HarperCollins says the same in bold red type. Penguin informs would-be authors that it is not accepting any unsolicited work in its Adult Publishing department. Pan Macmillan, Text Publishing and Random House Australia are less dismissive, offering detailed guidelines for submission but excluding certain genres. Random House includes the information that the firm only accepts unsolicited fiction from unpublished writers if they have a literary agent or a positive assessment from a manuscript assessment agency.

One reason for the cagey tone of publishers’ submission guidelines is that so many people are writing. In 2002, the US National Endowment for the Arts’ alarmist report Reading at Risk included the equally alarming information that 7 per cent of the US population had produced creative writing in the previous year, though only 1 per cent had been published.2 In Australia, it seems people aren’t just writing course notes and emails but book-length manuscripts. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2007 study Work in Selected Cultural and Leisure Activities found there were 243 900 people writing books (107 200 non-educational and 136 700 educational), representing just over 1 per cent of the population.3

With all this activity and so few outlets, it’s not surprising that publishers, editors and agents feel besieged by the volume of the unsolicited material they receive. Some blame the universities for encouraging staff and students to write in the genres where the surfeit of manuscripts is greatest and the prospects of success most fragile – notably literary fiction, poetry and scholarly monographs. Responding to a 2008–09 survey of the Australian book industry, several educational publishers complained about the universities’ refusal to offer staff full credit for writing textbooks.4 On the creative front, former Granta editor Ian Jack provoked a furore in Britain when he likened university creative writing teachers to ‘silversmiths in a medieval guild where a bangle is rarely bought though many are crafted, and everyone lives in a previous world’. The ‘woeful secret’, he suggested, is that most writing is now taking place online, where ‘it just doesn’t make any money’.5

Money – or the lack of it – is at the root of the question that is exercising publishers and authors alike. The internet has brought a fundamental shift from relative scarcity to a superabundance of written material, much of it available free. Some commentators welcome the rise of free online content: Ian Jack looks forward to a new ‘age of the gifted amateur’, while former Faber editor Robert McCrum suggests that the ‘explosion of “unmediated” writing, probably missed by the established publishing gatekeepers’ may offer ‘the best guarantee we have of keeping the culture alive’.6 Others are less sanguine. New York literary agent Richard Curtis is sceptical of the expectation that writers should perform for ‘egoboo’ rather than cash; he cites that ‘dean of gatekeepers, Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”’7

Unfortunately for Curtis, many thousands of people are doing exactly that, compelling publishers and agents either to close the floodgates (not a good look) or find new ways of doing things. Some have tried using ‘crowdsourcing’ to winnow the slushpile, creating online sites where would-be authors can upload their manuscripts for comment by other users, most of whom are also would-be writers. The first efforts in this area date back to the late 1990s, when Zoetrope magazine and Del Rey, a science fiction and fantasy imprint of Random House, established online platforms where authors could workshop their manuscripts.8 Similar ventures include Time Warner’s short-lived iPublish and HarperCollins’ Authonomy website, which opened in 2008.

Authonomy is a good example of how crowdsourcing works or, in this case, doesn’t. The site’s rationale is explained on its FAQ page: ‘We don’t feel that our current, closed “slushpile” system is fair to authors themselves – nor do we believe it is giving us the best chance of finding the brightest new talent.’9 Once users register with Authonomy, they can upload their work and recommend and comment on others’. At the end of each month, HarperCollins editors are emailed the five books that have received the most recommendations, and their comments are posted on the site.

One problem is that users can recommend the posted texts without actually reading them. In March 2009, a participant with a following among computer game enthusiasts distributed a video on YouTube showing how to register at Authonomy and vote for his novel. His fans piled in, taking his manuscript to the top of the charts and eventually crashing the site.10 When it was resurrected a few days later, the editors posted a blog entry that was insipid to say the least: ‘Is the book of better quality than others lower down? We simply aren’t in a position to comment.’ As some of the 103 responses pointed out, that kind of qualitative editorial judgement was exactly what writers were seeking when they posted their work on the site in the first place.11

Authonomy hasn’t yielded the hoped-for explosion of unpublished talent, either. Early on, HarperCollins made a lot of noise about publishing a few genre titles from among the thousands posted on Authonomy, but they weren’t among the ones that received top ratings. Again, the problem is that would-be authors have an online presence beyond the site itself. New arrivals find their inboxes stuffed with emails offering to trade favours: ‘If you recommend my book, I’ll recommend yours’.12 The dynamics are familiar to anyone who’s run a writing workshop. It’s about writers talking to other writers, not necessarily learning to write for readers. If you’re going to offer serious editorial critique, it’s best to have a ticket on the next plane.

Authonomy has, in fact, turned into a place for would-be writers to comment on each other’s material, with minimal involvement by its originators. It runs paid-for writing events and promotes self-publishing, especially through its partner CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon, whose advertisements are all over the site.

Online participation has been more successful for publishers with a clearly defined genre identity, because there’s self-selection in the submissions from the start. Science fiction publisher Baen Books, for example, has for many years run an online site called Baen’s Bar, and the original Zoetrope site is still in business as an umbrella for multiple writing communities. This doesn’t bode well for the classic trade publisher’s mission of publishing ‘the best’ across all categories – but that mission was unachievable anyway.

The other feature of the successful models is that they don’t simply outsource the slushpile to amateur readers, as HarperCollins tried to do. Unless editors from the publishing house are actively reading and commenting on submissions, the site tends to lose purpose and devolve into just another online writing group. Pan Macmillan, for one, has adopted a publisher-driven approach with Macmillan New Writing, which encourages unpublished novelists to email manuscripts directly to them. Only completed works are accepted. There are no author advances, and the royalties paid are 20 per cent of net receipts. The program has produced quite a large number of titles and is garnering some impressive credits on the literary awards circuit.13

In Australia, Allen & Unwin, the largest of the independent publishers, is casting a wider net. Each week, the firm hosts a ‘Friday Pitch’ where authors are encouraged to submit manuscripts by email using the subject line to describe the genre and including a cover note in the body of the message. The emphasis is on providing quick feedback; authors are informed that they will receive an automated acknowledgement of their submission, and if they do not receive a further email within a fortnight, they can assume that the firm is not interested in publishing the work. The publishers will only read the synopsis and one chapter in the first instance. Unsolicited work sent in printed form will be recycled unread.14

Both Macmillan New Writing and the Friday Pitch have the virtue of transparency. Authors who submit their work know what to send in and what to expect. Ultimately, though, it’s the publishers running the show.

Ventures like these may represent a future for trade publishing in a digital environment. They’re certainly better than simply closing the floodgates to new work. When traditional publishers lose connection with writers and readers, they damage their reputations, which are their ultimate stock-in-trade.

Amazon is doing its bit to exploit traditional publishers’ troubles. It’s offering royalties of up to 70 per cent for self-published ebooks and signing well-known authors for its Kindle store. More corrosively, its Encore program encourages readers to identify books that didn’t realise their market potential so that Amazon can bring them back to life, holding up the mainstream firms’ mistakes for all the world to see.15

It’s easy to make fun of traditional publishers, but I’m not convinced that there’s anything more democratic about a market that mainly consists of self-published ebooks and genre-based imprints vying to improve their sales rankings in the online bookstores. The beneficiaries of that scenario aren’t the self-publishers but the store-owners, who are some of the largest corporations on the planet.

As Amazon, Apple and Google move into the online publishing space, there is a risk that we’ll see an unprecedented concentration of cultural power. Apple’s iBooks store has already refused to stock a graphic version of Ulysses until the authors removed an image of two men kissing, and has thrown out any publications that use the word ‘sperm’.16 For all the accusations levelled at traditional publishers – fustiness, elitism and lack of foresight are just the start – they’ve at least sustained a diversity of cultural tastes and forms. I’m not sure you can say the same about those who want to succeed them.

  1. Lev Grossman, ‘Books Gone Wild’, Time, 21 January 2009, http://www.time.com, viewed 30 March 2010.
  2. National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk, Washington DC, 2002, p. 4, http://www.nea.gov/pub/pubLit.php.
  3. Cited in David Throsby, Creative Australia: The Arts and Culture in Australian Work and Leisure, occasional paper 3/2008, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Canberra, 2008, p. 24, http://www.apo.org.au/research/creative-australia-arts-and-culture-australian-work-and-leisure-0, viewed 2 June 2010.
  4. Jenny Lee, Mark Davis and Leslyn Thompson, Book Publishers 2009, Thorpe-Bowker, Melbourne, 2009, p. 52.
  5. Ian Jack, ‘The Age of the Gifted Amateur has Returned’, Guardian, 2 May 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk, viewed 27 March 2010.
  6. Robert McCrum, ‘The Best and Worst of Times for Publishing’, Guardian, 8 March 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk, viewed 29 March 2010.
  7. Richard Curtis, ‘Gatekeepers’, E-reads, 26 January 2009, http://ereads.com/2009/01/gatekeepers.html, viewed 30 March 2010.
  8. There are interesting retrospectives on these efforts in Victoria Strauss, ‘Authonomy – slushpile killer or new slush?’, Writer Beware! (blog sponsored by US genre writers’ organisations), 5 September 2008, http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2008/09/victoria-strauss-authonomy-slushkiller.html, viewed 1 July 2010. See also site comments, especially those by C C Finlay, an early Del Rey participant.
  9. Authonomy FAQ, http://www.authonomy.com/FAQ.aspx, viewed 30 June 2010.
  10. The video is viewable at http://www.teamliquid.net/forum/viewmessage.php?topic_id=89941 along with numerous comments from the gaming community.
  11. Editors’ blog and discussion at http://blog.authonomy.com/2009/03/fun-and-online-games-at-authonomy.html, viewed 1 July 2010.
  12. See Marion Stein’s ‘Authonomy – crack for the unpublished’, Marion’s Open Salon Blog, http://open.salon.com/blog/marioninnyc/2009/03/04/authonomycrack_for_the_unpublished, viewed 1 July 2010.
  13. Macmillan New Writing at http://www.panmacmillan.com/imprints/Macmillan%20New%20Writing/, viewed 30 June 2010.
  14. Allen & Unwin, ‘Friday Pitch’, http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=462, viewed 30 June 2010.
  15. See Amazon Encore at http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000373401, viewed 1 July 2010.
  16. Nick Spence, ‘Ulysses Seen iPad Webcomic Gets Apple Approval After Cuts’, Macworld, 8 June 2010, http://www.macworld.com; Rob Beshizza, ‘iBooks Naughty Word Filter Doesn’t Let You Say “Sperm”’, Boingboing, 4 April 2010, http://www.boingboing.net, viewed 29 June 2010.

Jenny Lee edited Meanjin from 1987 to 1994, taught editing and publishing at Deakin University and the University of Melbourne from 2000 to 2008, and now works as a freelance writer and editor.
© Jenny Lee
Overland 200-spring 2010, pp. 97–101

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