For Shakespeare: Why Is Publishing So Hard?

>> Friday, August 14, 2009

Shakespeare asked: Why is publishing one's writing so difficult (i.e. impossible), and what is the best way to improve the publishing industry?

Again, this is not an area where I'm an expert. I know a couple and they might wander in to put in their two cents, but, since you asked me, I'll give you mine.

There are several problems that make it hard for people to get their writing published and, the first problem, and, in my opinion, the worst problem is that most of the people who want to get something published have no business getting published. That probably sounds harsh, but it's a huge factor in how hard it is for quality first-time literature to be published and, ignoring that, doesn't do us any good. The bottom line, many more people think they have something that's worth publishing than actually do.

It is very hard to be objective about one's own work and many people can't do so effectively. Some think personal recollections will appeal to the masses (unlikely, but find out with a blog, why don't you), think they've got a "brand new" idea (which if they'd done their research, they'd see had been done to best or done definitively), think a spellchecker is all the editing necessary (Heaven help us!) or have no real understanding of how their work really comes across. What they write is so personal, so compelling to themselves that they are completely blind to all the things that are wrong with it. Some join writer's groups and that's certainly an advantage over working in a cave for objective opinions, but even they can become so focused on filling out the checklist (No "saidisms"-check) that they're still clueless about what makes a story compelling and successful or what makes a nonfiction book readable or accessible to the general public.

The truth is that a substantial proportion of the work offered to publishers and fielded to agents is pure dreck. It's not called a slush pile for nothing. Sometimes, there may be moments of brilliance, but their buried in so much clumsy dialog and painful description, that an editor, swamped with a pile of incredible proportions of stuff that is likely mostly garbage, is unlikely to sift through the nonsense to see if there's anything worth saving.

The problem for would-be authors who have reviewed and crafted their work, who have painfully excised favorite passages because they just didn't fit, who something original or thoughtful to say is that, unless they are incredibly lucky, they're in the pile with the dreck and, with expectations painfully low, it's hard for it to shine from the muck. The editor expects it to be garbage and it better impress early on or he'll never see it. Add to that the notion that even a fantastic writer can be a terrible marketer, and editors will often see little gems that might be snapped up if they had been sent to an editor that favors that sort of thing.

But it's more than having good writing - it has to be marketable. The editor is in business to sell books. The golden opus of perfection isn't going to make him a red cent if no one wants to read it. They aren't out to do beginning writers a favor; they are out to sell books and they don't want any manuscript, no matter how well it has been crafted, unless they think it will appeal to a market sufficiently to recoup losses. Lack of reknown for a new author makes this a bad bet under the best of circumstances.

And part of the problem also lies with the reading public. While books can appeal to a number of people for a number of different reasons, the truth is there is always a market for certain types of dreck under certain "genres" - romance is particularly prone. Additionally, people often gravitate to something that titillates rather than something with substance (i.e. Paris Hilton's tell-all biography vs. the magnificently written memoirs of a nameless Concentration camp prisoner.) And, of course, people can be fickle. Two books with similar stories or concepts and quality writing, but one will tickle the public's fancy and the other will languish. Some readers can fall in love with characters in a novel and ignore plot holes. Another segment of the reading populace will relish the detailed plotting and shrug at the cardboard characters. Perfection is rare, but finding the right combination is a real art. Predicting what will work and what won't probably gives many a publisher gray hair. But it's more than the quality of the writing.

What can be done to improve this situation? I'm not sure.

Can't change the public - I know people have tried, but we can spread the word on quality work we've encountered. We can try not to be part of the problem.

Can't change the editors here - if they are looking at unpublished authors, they're going to be slogging through the slush and their expectations aren't high.

But we can make sure our work is as good as we can make it. We can read it out loud to ourselves and be ruthless with things that stutter. We can have trusted friends or, even better, people we don't know in the target reading audience look it over critically and tell us what works and what doesn't. We can accept that sending garbage in desperation over and over won't buy us anything and just makes it that much harder for good stuff to get seen. We can resolve to be part of the good stuff. We can do our research to send it to the best possible editors for our work. We can look for agents that know the market better than we do. We can be patient. In fact, we have to be.

It isn't easy. I've never done it myself. But I believe I can do it. I hope I'm part of the good stuff, that I've done my homework, that I've written something that appeals. I'll do my best to learn and improve until it is if it's not.

One thing I'd LOVE to be adopted by the publishing business: A checklist rejection letter that would, by checking boxes, help a would-be author figure out what killed that particular offer.

A list that included grammar/syntax/spelling errors, or dull language, or clumsy wording or has potential but needs polishing, etc. All of these things can really make an author look at the aspects he or she hadn't realized were lacking. Or perhaps move on to something he or she is better suited to do. Or just self-publish.


  • Shakespeare

    I am TOTALLY with you on the publishing checklist. How wonderful it would be to have a letter that actually spelled out the problems someone found in one's work!

    I have another question. How does one tie a sari? I've been considering purchasing the fabric for one (for fantastical purposes--but I won't give TMI), but I wouldn't have the first clue how to wrap myself up in it.

    Thanks for your take on things. Now I need to get back to revising!

  • The Mother

    I can't answer for the publishing industry, since I have yet to be published. I can agree that most of what gets fielded to agents and publishers is absolutely awful. I have rebelled over and over about the poor grammar and terrible concepts that are sent out in the name of literature.

    I can, however, answer Shakespeare's Sari question. As a connoisseur and owner of many saris (I spent many years dressing in rectangles, since I never knew what size I would actually be), I found "Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping" incredibly useful. It contains many, many styles of draping anything 5 to 9 yards long. Lots of gorgeous photos. One caveat: real women use safety pins, judiciously. You can get the book here:

  • Jeff King

    i agree 100% with every-thing you said...

    Writing a story i feel is adequate to send to an agent or publisher is the hardest part. if i ever achieve pleasing myself i know i can sell it.
    But that day seem farther off than i first hoped. i find on every rewrite i change pace, syntax, over all plot and conclusion. i redefine my characters and improve my scene description. My rewriting begot more rewrites and that begot more and more, until one day {i hope} i can sit and marvel at my work. And be proud of what i have created.
    Sorry didn't mean to ramble… great insight

  • Patricia Rockwell

    What a rich post, with so many ideas to ponder--and it comes at just the right moment for me. I just heard back (negatively) from a publisher who had requested a revision. I so agree with your idea about the checklist. The first letter I got from the editor contained several suggestions for a revision which I worked diligently to accomplish and then re-submitted. The second letter I just received contained a list of totally different problems (which seemed to contradict the first letter's complaints). If a checklist were included each time, I could compare the two lists and see which areas had improved (if any). Another suggestion I would add to your list is this: if our goal is only to get published, then our efforts probably are for naught. If our goal is to enjoy the process, the fun of creating, polishing, editing, etc., then we at least have a meaningful hobby. That's how I look at it. If I ever get published, it will be icing on the cake. In the mean time, I'm just enjoying the baking.

  • Stephanie B

    Patricia, that is such an excellent point. I've been involved in writer's groups completely devoted to "getting published" and completely missing the point of writing something with merit.

    I NEVER tell anyone not to write. Writing is great and fulfilling in and of itself. I will write, likely until the day I die, whether I ever get published or not because crafting a story is something I love to do.

    By all means, write down your memories or fantasies or dreams. Describe your life's work or philosophy. Put it on paper. Even if no one ever reads it, it did you good. Even if no one appreciates it but your children or their children, it served a purpose.

    Publishing, in my opinion, should be about making good work accessible to those interested. But writing can be about writing whatever suits you, what touches you, what makes you happy or feeds your soul. If you think writing is about making your fortune, you're probably not in the right business - and I think those self-serving manuscripts look like exactly what they are - attempts to get money for nothing.

  • JD at I Do Things

    Thank you! For making the all-important point that not every submission is the next Harry Potter. Too many people fail to look at it from the publisher's point of view. They get a LOT of crap. A lot. Unfortunately, they don't have time to tell everyone their work is crap (tho I do like your checklist idea).

    Excellent post!

  • Stephanie B

    I suspect the availability of computers and word processing programs has vastly increased the amount of dreck publishers receive. I suspect people, who'd never think of doing more than writing things out in their journal or scribbling poems in their spare time feel empowered by a computer that puts their thoughts in "print". Many, I suspect, confuse the spell/grammar checker on their editing software with the kind of polishing one needs to make a finished whole. (And, yes, I still get caught once in a while - Jeff King spotted one yesterday).

    I don't doubt that a few gifted folks who, otherwise, would never have tried writing have been equally empowered, but I suspect that the proportion of quality vs. crappy offerings is even more lopsided for the publisher.

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