The Shift of Publishing Towards the Writer

I was thinking… Well, I was feeling a little bit irritated, really, about the way a few things had turned out. But that’s neither here nor there, except that these musings brought a certain clarity to me about how the publishing industry has shifted the bulk of the work onto authors.

These thoughts came about, as many often do, during a scroll session on Twitter. People tweeting about querying and synopses and paying editors and “coaches” prior to even reaching out to agents. Hopeful writers agonizing over comp titles and the market.

Here’s the thing: not so long ago, writers didn’t need to do or know any of that. They didn’t need to spend money to query, except on the postage.

“All you need to do is write a good book,” we’re told, and that used to be absolutely true. It didn’t have to be a perfect book; it just had to be a diamond in the rough—something an agent could see the potential in. The agent would work with the writer to polish that stone and then shop it to publishers who would cut it into whatever beautiful shape suited that diamond best. Authors might have a sense of their work in comparison to other books “out there.” But they were not asked to position their books in the market or prove anything more than that the book itself had worth and merit, whether the value be in its entertainment, its beauty of craft, and/or the truth and knowledge it imparted.

But now, writing a good book is not enough. In order to sell enough manuscripts to stay solvent, agents and literary agencies must sell more. They can’t do that if they take the time help each author polish their diamond. So now agents demand that authors submit “polished” manuscripts. In fact, many agents don’t want to do any work at all on the manuscripts they accept; they want near perfection, something they can turn around and sell straight away. Let the editors at the publishers get to cutting.

But the publishers, too, don’t want to take too much time getting books out. After all, the longer it takes to publish a book, the longer it takes to make any money off said book. So editing cycles continue to get tighter, faster, and even fewer.

What does this mean? It means that the help an author used to be able to count on and expect from agents and publishers is… less than ever before. It means that, unless an author not only writes a great book, and possibly shells out money for a professional edit even before querying, and somehow also magically knows and understands the ever-changing market at any given moment… they probably won’t be able to find an agent. Authors cannot be diamonds in the rough anymore. They must not only mine themselves for treasure, but also polish that rock so that agents don’t have to look so hard to see the worth.

If I sound bitter, let me assure you I’m not. Systems change, and certainly we’ve become a society of instant gratification and shorter attention spans. Few agents and publishers have time to sink into any one project, the lifespan of which is questionable. Books are more or less immortal, but no one wants to wait to see if theirs becomes a classic in twenty to one hundred years. Publishers—and authors—want to see results and rewards sooner rather than later. They want a return on their investments of time, sweat, and tears. And, of course, money.

Unfortunately, the shift of labor towards the writer—the expectation of polished work prior to consideration—increasingly eliminates would-be authors who cannot afford things like editors. It bars entry to those who have no access to critique partners or other writer-reader resources that would help them hone their works and skills. For people already eking out their manuscripts on time stolen from other obligations, the hurdles and hoops push their dreams—and their stories—ever farther out of reach. If it takes all their energy just to mine the diamond, and they have no tools to polish, what are they to do?

I do think too much is being expected of the creators. I think agencies and publishers need to find other ways to help those creators take the rough-hewn product of their hard labor and turn it into something the world can appreciate. Some agents still call themselves “editorial,” meaning they will help promising authors polish their work, but more and more [in my experiences] agents have simply become salespeople. They love books, but they don’t have the time to help craft them. So maybe agencies need a department of people who can do that if the agents can’t or won’t.

I don’t know what the answer is, but the current system has created a world of independent authors who have decided that, if they have to polish the diamond themselves anyway, they might as well be the ones to cut it into whatever shape they like. If they have to learn to market, then they might as well keep the profits. But that doesn’t help the authors who can’t afford to, and/or don’t have time or resources to self-publish. The industry keeps eating its own tail, narrowing in on itself, leaving no room for others to enter or for itself to expand.

It’s easy to say, “But it’s easier now than ever to get published!” Yes, it’s easier than ever to put out a book. But publishing and getting published are two different things. I won’t say one is better than the other; they are simply different ways to a similar (but not identical) end. And either destination remains too far for those with no reliable form of transportation. Some creators end up at the bottom of the mineshaft, holding a diamond that will never see the light of day because there is no way back to the surface.

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