Got the I Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I’m Going Somewhere in a Hurry Blues

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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27 Responses

  1. BlaiseP says:

    Yet consider how the great publishing houses arose in the wake of the printing press and how similar it was to the modalities of Internet publishing.

    The sheet press of Gutenberg gave rise to two important publications, the broadsheet newspaper and the book. The newspaper’s impact was immediate: a very popular subject of the early newspapers was Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula. Like blogs, these newspapers sorted out into several varieties: special editions for news of the day, replacing the handwritten merchants’ news, and little vanity squibs. These broadsheet newspapers was read aloud in the new coffee houses of the day and discussions would arise, exactly as blogs operate today.

    The book required much more logistical support and the Book Fair was how you got word out, say, of an impending release of a new book by Erasmus, one of the first tremendously popular authors.

    Two technologies evolved, side by side, the press and the bindery. The first books, believe it or not, were sold in boxes, the binding was not done by the publisher: the buyer would then lug his box of pages over to a separate bindery operation where the pages would be sewn into signatures, the cover attached separately. In those days “never judge a book by its cover” was never so apt.

    The editor arose mostly as a businessman, making a bet on the popularity of a new title, for it was a huge endeavour to produce one and an unpopular book could bankrupt a printer, especially bindery costs, for pages were hand-sewn in those days, terribly labor intensive.

    As you would not cut your own hair, don’t edit your own book. Watch and see, the book editor and the literary agent will always be required, if only on a consulting basis. The electronic book has already diverged from the blog as the newspaper and the book diverged. They served different markets and now, seemingly, have found a happy home on specialized readers.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to BlaiseP says:

      The point I never got around to making directly, I now see, is this: yes, there will always be a need for an editor, and that’s precisely the problem with the indie e-book model as a model. I’m willing to hazard that finding a good editor, with whom you can have a decent if not strong working relationship, is harder to do on one’s own than through a publisher that handles it for you. And let’s not even go into paying an editor out-of-pocket before you’ve even seen a penny of your revenue. Publishing houses lose money on most books — including those of lasting value (as opposed to those that are of-the-moment entertainment). This is part of the problem with publishing today, but the mega-bestseller is how the major, and even some minor, houses can afford to publish, well, most of what they think is worthwhile enough to publish.

      My point about editors was one about the COST of paying an editor. It’s far more expensive for me to pay someone on my own than to accept that I’ll get less in revenue — especially when I’m also taking on a greater risk in terms of the quality of the editor.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        All good points. I wouldn’t worry about editors finding authors any more than a good producer finding new bands. Both tend to seek each other out. The ol’ Record Company model is on hard times just now and they will get harder as digital media is squeezed through the same pasta machine as the book.

        To your point about most books losing money: that wouldn’t be possible without lowered entry costs. Running a book through Quark and shipping off a few dozen copies for the reviewers isn’t as much trouble as it used to be. Getting good press, well, that’s where the literary agent comes into play, and that business model’s horribly warped.Report

        • Josh Jasper in reply to BlaiseP says:

          All good points. I wouldn’t worry about editors finding authors any more than a good producer finding new bands. Both tend to seek each other out.

          An editor is NOT a producer. Producers take risks for a big percentage. Editors just get paid.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Josh Jasper says:

            I come from a long line of editors and musicians. It just doesn’t work that way and never really did.

            Long before a manuscript or recording is ever sent to Big Pubco it’s been worked over obsessively by a platoon of amateurs and important fans: wives and girlfriends and college buddies dragooned into reading digital galleys. A surprising amount of it, complete with markup, is secretly squirreled away in Google Docs these days so many pairs of eyes are looking at the same thing.

            Now that Big Pubco no longer has the advantages of the means of production and the distribution channels, those amateurs are releasing their own work, their results indistinguishable from Big Pubco’s grooming. Final Cut Pro has brought moviemaking within the grasp of the ordinary mortal. Pro Tools cut out the high cost of recording studio time. Eclipse and SVN broke the back of expensive software collaboration tools.

            Sure, you’re always going to need some final arbiter, usually a recognized guru, to handle some aspects of the problem, but producers and the editors and especially the A/R weasels are no longer in the driver’s seat, telling the artist how it’s gonna get released.Report

            • Heidegger in reply to BlaiseP says:

              And I will, Blaise, with great joy and eagerness, accept your commission to compose a “Paranoid Fugue”. I am confident you will be pleased with my efforts, kind sir. And I will certainly, NOT, accept your $100,000 commission for such efforts. Could you make it, $200,000? Many thanks!Report

            • Josh Jasper in reply to BlaiseP says:

              So you’re essentially saying that, in order to get a book looking good enough to release to the public, all you need is a group of professionally trained editors who’ll work for free because they love you? And not even get a take of the books final profits?

              Tools, be they Final Cut, Sound Forge, or PageMill do not make someone good enough to do a professional job. I live with a professional editor. No amount of tools maker her a better editor, they just make her a *faster* editor. If you gave me the same tools, I’d be fast, but nowhere near as good.

              When I write an article (I write for business journals as a sideline) it goes on to the guy who gets paid for it who makes it real. You can’t cut him out of the loop, because he knows the industry, and knows what the places he’s sending it on to want. I get paid because he gets paid. If he didn’t, and was cut our of the loop, my articles would not be as good, and I wouldn’t be writing for a place that can afford my time.

              The same goes for books. An editor takes his or her valuable time, and puts it into what a writer puts out, and gets paid for that. If they’re not going to get paid, why should they bother? It’s a loss of either productive time, or leisure time to edit. It’s not fun, like coaching little league. It’s solitary, and it’s hard work if you’re doing it right. You can’t base a business on people doing that for free. And if writing is not your business, I don’t want to pay to read what you’re writing, because chances are, it sucks. I’ll happily read it for free, though.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Josh Jasper says:

                In many cases, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Being a “Professional” anything just means you’re getting paid for it and the value of their time is exactly what folks are willing to pay for it. I’ve seen wretched book editing, so have you.

                But there’s a small difference here: now you can get your friends to work with you, and yes, often for free, for the same reason the pro can do it faster. What I’m talking about happens before submission to a journal or magazine or what have you. “Professional” writers submit their work in a professional manner.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Josh Jasper says:

                “When I write an article…it goes on to the guy who gets paid for it who makes it real. You can’t cut him out of the loop, because he knows the industry, and knows what the places he’s sending it on to want. ”

                What if the place I’m sending it to is the readers themselves? What if the people doing my advertising are also my customers? What if there is no middleman?Report

  2. DensityDuck says:

    Do authors need the services that publishing houses currently provide? Sure!

    Are publishing houses the only way to get those services? No.


    Incidentally, at first it was “nobody will ever do e-books”.
    Then it was “nobody will ever seriously do e-books”.
    Then it was “nobody will ever make money from e-books”.
    Then it was “nobody will ever make lots of money from e-books”.
    Now it’s “people are making lots of money from e-books but it won’t last.
    What’s next?Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Well, no, I think that there will always be some small number of people making lots of money from e-books (just as there’s currently a small number of people making lots of money from writing print best-sellers). I just don’t think that the WAY this first handful is making money will last — and I don’t think it’s going to expand the number of writers who make lots of money, while lowering the amount that most others do make.

      As for non-publishing house sources: I think that the major e-book distributors will come to take on more of those roles as traditional publishing continues to flail about. But that will also involve turning into something far more than mere “marketplace.” There’s a revolution, sure, but I doubt it’s pro-author in the way it’s recently been made out to be.Report

    • Josh Jasper in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Some professional writers get editing services paid for out of pocket. But that’s the only other way to get it done. Editors won’t work on spec.

      If that’s the new model, it’s going to *cost* several thousand to get your book professionally edited. That’s before you ever see a penny of sale.Report

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    Ms. Hocking must not be a libertarian, or she’d be thrilled at her ascent from mere composer of fiction to entrepeneur.Report

  4. Pat Cahalan says:

    In many ways, this reminds me of the heyday of pulp science fiction writing. Except now I suspect instead of the authors being paid $0.10 a word for already-written manuscripts and the editor in chief fretting about having to substitute in cheese sandwiches as payment to the copy editor, we’re going to have nothing above the copy editor and lots of copy editors subsisting permanently off of cheese sandwiches, digging through piles of dreck, hoping to find somebody’s stuff that can actually be polished and turned into a $1.99 ebook. Hoping further than they can get 15% of just one home run hitter like Hocking that can get them over the hump and enable them to eat something other than cheese sandwiches.

    The struggling science fiction author is going to become the struggling science fiction editor. Unfortunately, everybody wants to be an author. I’m not sure everyone wants to be an editor.Report

    • Full disclosure admission: The cheese sandwich bit is not original. I stole it.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

      “Unfortunately, everybody wants to be an author. I’m not sure everyone wants to be an editor.”

      I’m not sure that we’ll have the choice anymore, simply due to the march of technology.

      We don’t have draftsmen at our engineering firm. We don’t have special document-handling workers, either. Improved tools make drafting and configuration control simple enough that the engineers now do them by themselves. Does this mean that they spend less than 100% of their time doing engineering? Sure, but the overall savings mean that everyone comes out ahead.

      “Career editor at a big publishing firm” and “author who does nothing but jam handwritten pages into a telex” are jobs that will end up in the same place as things like “switchboard operator”; a job which was very important at a very specific point in time, and now that point in time is over. I hate saying “outdated business model” because it gives me the idea of some snotty teenager explaining why he shouldn’t have to pay for Linkin Park’s latest single, but…well, there it is.Report

      • Josh Jasper in reply to DensityDuck says:

        I’m not sure that we’ll have the choice anymore, simply due to the march of technology.

        I’d trust someone to edit their own books they way I’d trust them to cut their own hair. I know authors who edit. They don’t edit their own work. And I’ve read books by authors who got big in the britches enough to tell a publishing house that they were good enough that they didn’t need editing. Know what? Those books suck.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Josh Jasper says:

          There’s a wonderful little collection of posthumously-issued essays by Robertson Davies called The Merry Heart. I don’t have the book in front of me, but he lays out the case for writing for one person, who he calls the Patient Reader, someone who will point out all the niggling problems in a manuscript. Robertson Davies was a newspaper editor. Dickens was a periodical editor.

          Every writer needs such a person: I know of no writer who doesn’t. Whether it’s a formal editor or a fellow writer, or even an alpha fan, every writer knows he’s creating something: once it’s released, there’s no getting it back, unless you’re Walt Whitman, issuing an interminable number of editions of Leaves of Grass. The hallmark of a sound writer, hell, I can extend this to any artist, is this search for intelligent critique, of the horror of selling a half-baked loaf.Report

          • Josh Jasper in reply to BlaiseP says:

            If you’re not paying your editor, you’re not having it worked on in a professional way. A “friendly reader” has no professional reputation to care about if your book is a flop because of bad editing. You might luck out, but only a fool gambles like that.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Josh Jasper says:

              Don’t put on airs. Book editors are usually some friend of the publisher who used to teach and needed a job. A bad editor can just as easily ruin an author as make one.Report

              • Josh Jasper in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Book editors are usually some friend of the publisher who used to teach and needed a job.

                Ah. Now I know exactly how seriously to take you. Which is to say, not at all. Thanks!Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Josh Jasper says:

                I’m a professional. I get paid for what I do. Everyone thinks he’s so clever because he gets paid for what he does. It doesn’t make him a better anything. George Martin was as much a part of the creative process as the Beatles: thereafter the tables were turned. Once the musicians could buy their own tape machines and desks, they put them in vehicles and off they went. Now it’s even easier.

                But somehow, the book industry thinks it can tell an author a certain book won’t sell and either ravages his manuscript or outright rejects it. They might have had that power, back in the day when they controlled the levers of the printing press but they don’t anymore.

                “Professionals” get paid. That’s it. Their product is often crappier than what the musician or author or artist brings in as raw material and the artist isn’t going to stand for this snooty attitude from a collection of people utterly devoid of the creative instinct.Report

  5. Plinko says:

    I think a comparison here is to Steam is quite instructive, since it has been blowing up the PC retail market in much the same way for years. It shows a very comparable dynamic is better for consumers (lots of games to buy at low prices!) and also the game developers (much bigger cut of sales with the publisher AND retailer cut out).
    The fact is, the difference in royalty income is tremendous between the traditional retail model (developer typically earned 30% of over-the-counter sales minus whatever fees the publisher extracts) and the Steam model (70% of all sales) even at much lower retail price. On top of that the price flexibility that digital self-publishing allows you to find the revenue-maximizing price for your product, not just being stuck with whatever sticker the publisher wants given they get the biggest piece.

    So I would disagree with the conclusions you’re drawing. Amanda Hocking’s example doesn’t tell me anything other than she’s being very successful in a new paradigm. It also sounds to me like she earns enough from her sales now to hire someone to do a lot of that work for her if she felt like she could write more and therefore earn more (not to mention be happier in the process).
    In the old model her books might never have been published at all, or maybe she would have been but never seen that level of income she has now because the publisher didn’t choose to market her in a way that worked out for her books.
    Or she would have sold just as many books but the total royalties she earned would still have been way, way less even though they listed at 10x the price of her current e-books because the lion’s share of revenue are eaten up by the retailers and publishers.Report

  6. Linda Nagata says:

    Publishers are supposed to handle the non-writing roles, but a lot of them are paying lower advances while expecting the writer to take over much of the publicity. And while there are great editors there are others who see the role more as book packager, and don’t do much real editing at all, and still take a year or two to bring a manuscript to market. Publishers do take care of cover, copyediting, review copies, etc. but if they do a bad job of it the writer is helpless to fix anything. It’s a pretty awful feeling to get a first look at your cover and know the book you worked so hard on is doomed. With an indie published book the costs are upfront, but the author has control. Don’t underestimate the value of that. And while initial income will likely be very low, it’s nice to have a potential upside.Report

  7. Mike Wells says:

    One of the other elements that’s involved in this new paradigm that most people don’t seem to catch is that the big publishers have not been operating in an entrepreneurial way. This has really hurt them and the quality of their output. For example, they do no market testing. Committees and supposedly expert editors make decisions about what is published, with virtually no input from the customer. It’s the only segment of the entertainment industry left where this kind of thing goes on–the music industry changed decades ago, and so did the movie industry. E-books and self-publishing allow authors to interact directly with customers from the very beginning, testing out drafts, testing book cover designs, testing jacket copy, etc. It allows much more adjustment of the product (and, yes, a book IS a product, if money is charged for it!) before any large amounts of funds are invested. This process will result in an improvement in writing across all genres, including literary fiction.Report

  8. DensityDuck says:

    Incidentally, Hocking recently signed a deal with a publishing house.

    So, I guess, there we are.Report