Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Publish And Be Craven!

Franz Kafka was not published during his lifetime. Well, that's not entirely true; a few of his short stories did achieve publication but were hardly noticed. Had his literary executor complied with Kafka's wishes, all of Kafka's manuscripts would have been destroyed upon his death and we would never have heard of a man described by the Wikipedia entry as "one of the major German-language novelists and short story writers of the 20th century".

I find that a sobering thought. Perhaps not so much from recognition of how close Kafka came to complete obscurity (his works did survive, after all), but rather from the realization that there may be many more great writers who never become known*. We are so at the mercy of publishers, especially today when they must consider economics above all else. How many important and ground-breaking manuscripts are being passed over because they're not "commercial"? And how many great writers are being overlooked because selling themselves is alien to their character or ideals?

You can say that any writer who cannot sell his books deserves obscurity (and, in a way, all the "How to Get Published" books are saying exactly that) but this merely encourages a culture in which the salesman is published and the writer fades away. Strangely and yet logically too, writers write for the very reason that they are not adept in the spoken word, that they write because it is the most effective way they have found for communicating. Is it any wonder that many of them should be hopeless at persuading publishers to take a chance on them?

And it seems to me that the situation is getting worse (perhaps I've been reading too many of those "How to Get Published" books). There was a time when publishers were prepared to take risks, to publish for quality rather than economic concerns. Consider the book that tops most polls for greatest book of the 20th Century, for instance. Yes, that would be Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. It was originally published in 1954/1955 by Allen & Unwin, a publication house that took many chances and discovered some classics as a result. There was no great hype surrounding the publication and for ten years it sold reasonably well but broke no records. Then, in the sixties, it was "discovered" and really took off, creating a whole new publishing industry as it did so.

I am certain that, were Lord of the Rings submitted to publishers today, remembering that there would be no fantasy genre since it was LOTR that created the market, it would find no takers. Gone are the publishers that would take on something different, a book that set new boundaries and broke all the "rules". Those quirky family concerns that published because they loved literature have all been absorbed into a few giant houses run by bean counters. Even the remaining small publishers have to be ever mindful of a book's chances in terms of market and statistics.

The irony is that modern publishers effectively cut themselves off from the possibility of a gold strike, that one in a thousand that strikes a chord in the psyche of millions and becomes a publishing phenomenon. Instead, they rely on the continuing popularity of formula writers, the Steven Kings and John Grishams, forgetting that once, in the distant past, some editor took a gamble on even these.

What chance does anything new and different stand in the publishing world of today? Where are the modern classics that will still have readerships ten generations from now? Who is writing stuff that will still have relevance a hundred, two hundred years from its time? Just one thing I know: that such works are being created. Every age has its great writers and ours is no exception, I'm sure. The only difference is that no-one is publishing them.

Their day will come, rest assured of that. Fifty years from now those manuscripts will be discovered, printed and change the world. Too late for the poor writer, of course, and that really bites my bum. I have always detested the fact that an artist's work increases in value the moment he dies.

Maybe we are witnessing the death of traditional publishing, grown too fearful and cautious to survive, and we must look to electronic forms to take up the torch of literature. It may even be inevitable, POD being so much more economical than other methods. And, if it means that quality becomes a factor again, I say roll on the day.


*That's right, this is not a sentence as it contains no active verb. According to the rules, it should be tacked on to the preceding sentence by a comma. But I happen to prefer it this way because that is how we would speak it. Rules are made to be broken, after all.

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John (Syntagma)
Clive, you're right, of course. I've spent a lot of my life reading the memoirs of writers I admired. Many of them worked as teachers, in banks, civil servants etc., or were naturally wealthy. Each one of them had to consider how to live and support a family. It's not that they were mercenary, just realistic about the economics of their trade.

I don't believe writers today are any different in essence. There's nothing inherently wrong with POD and self-publication, because most of the greats did it: Jane Austen, GBS, almost all the Victorian poets etc. It's just that nowadays there's so much "content" out there, because people are better educated, that the price of anything less than a blockbuster has fallen to catastrophically low levels.

Virginia Wolff set up her own printing press on her kitchen table to get work published, and even published T.S. Eliot! It's not so different now. Just easier to get your work out in blog form than any other way. I fancy Virginia would have been a compulsive blogger :-)
Date Added: 03/02/2006

New and different doesn't stand a chance in the traditional publishing industry unless you have powerful connections in that industry. Even then, your book may not get published. I spoke to a former editor of a major publishing house, who complained about the constant mergers ad layoffs. She said that there were too many good books that failed to get published simply because they fell through the cracks. I knew one poor writer whose manuscript sat on a publisher's "To Publish" pile for over two years before he gave up and submitted it elsewhere. To this day, it still hasn't been published. After hearing these stories, I'm wondering if going the traditional route is worth all the hoops you have to jump through. Because in the end, you will have to learn how to market your book. Don't think that your publisher will do it. They've got their marketing budget allocated to the best sellers. I don't think the traditional publishing industry will die off, mainly because the staple of their profits come from non-fiction books, which sell easier than fiction. Thanks to the Internet, fiction writers have a better chance of getting their works published and widely read . . . if they educate themselves on the business aspects of publishing. This comment is getting rather long, and I have so much I want to say on this issue that it really belongs in a post. I haven't decided whether I'll post on WBA or my personal blog, so check both later this evening. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Date Added: 03/02/2006

Gone Away
It's certainly true, John, that many writers who are household names now once had to struggle and resort to sel-publishing in the end. I read their biographies and doubt that I'd have had the perseverance to press on through similar discouragements. And to think of the poor poets, who have it much worse than other writers! So I'm aware that I'm just griping, wishing that the world was a bit fairer. I really must find the time to explore the world of POD...
Date Added: 03/02/2006

Gone Away
Realistic as ever, Deborah, you point me straight to the most glaring fact of all: it's market or die! It's an area I've always been useless at but am steeling myself to learn. I shall watch for your article with great interest! :)
Date Added: 03/02/2006

Benjamin Solah
I totally agree, and in some sense it is a depressing thought. To think liars like James Frey can be become a millionaire overnight for such crap, and yet, like Deb said, great works fall through the cracks. But I do agree that traditional or not, marketing will have to do be done by the writer alone - and this is hard. Writers are not marketers, and we have to get past that. You said ideals are a heard things to get past in marketing, I agree, and this is coming from an anti-capitalist ;) Though, I'm prepared to grit my teeth and do it.
Date Added: 04/02/2006

John (Syntagma)
Benjamin, it must be hard being an anti-capitalist in a market economy like Australia. But writers do have to be businesslike in their work. I've come to the conclusion that placing contextual text ads around all my online writing, rather than asking people for money through donations etc., is by far the least obnoxious way of earning a living online. But you have to learn the SE stuff, like sticking to the niche and building enough indexed content so that search traffic will provide enough clicks.

On one of my sites a single click earns more than a dollar, and an affiliate camera purchase, $20 or more. It mounts up fast, but you need the weight of content before it becomes significant.

The beauty of the system is that it leaves you free to give your "real" work away if need be, or play a long game towards publication.
Date Added: 04/02/2006

As a printer I've seen technology take leaps and bounds towards making vanity or self publishing easier and cheaper for writers. Then comes the real problem of selling it. I imagine more self published books are given away than are sold.

A printed manuscript is still the best means of preserving words (and pictures).

Hard drives crash. Floppies loose their formatting. Read/Write CD's degrade in 2-5 years. Magnetic tape will last perhaps 80 years.

But a book will last for generations.
Date Added: 04/02/2006

Ooohh... I'm going to be the opposite voice here.
The publishing industry has more checks and balances than we give it credit. In order for a (good) book to be passed on and not published, it would have to go through some 50-100 hands at least: First off, a book usually goes to agents, then to the editors in the publishing houses and then published. If it didn't, the author didn't do his/her job, didn't submit enough. And no spoken words are necessary, only written.
Second, there are many different kinds of agents and publishers, those who believe in quality (and that quality will bring sales), and those who only think of financial concerns. To lump them all together is to simplify the issue, IMHO.
In addition, it is usually presumed that a good quality book will be able to at least break even, which is what publishers expect from a first time novelist. Not more. Sometimes even less. For them the author is a long term investment and so the first book is just to get the name out.

I don't think I explained myself too well, but oh well. Final point - why should anyone "lose" money just for the sake of someone being published? Why shouldn't that author self publish and take the financial burden upon himself/herself?
Sure, it is important to promote the arts, but who is the one to do the promoting, the gov't? And who should they promote?
In Canada, the gov't offers grants to artists to promote Canadian artistic content, but it's never enough.
Okay, but it's enough for me :) I'm going now.
Date Added: 04/02/2006

Gone Away
Well, I guess it's the world as it is, Benjamin, and we have to live in it. At least we can have the occasional rant, however. ;)
Date Added: 04/02/2006

Gone Away
You're right, John, the computer and the internet have expanded the possibilities for the writer almost beyond belief. I guess I've had my rant now and can get back to the hard work. ;)
Date Added: 04/02/2006

Gone Away
True on both counts, Paul. I know of a few people who self-published and now have garages full of unsold books. Marketing is inevitably where we have to go (but I'll whinge all the way there :D).

And I'm with you on the printed book point as well. I'd far rather have a book in my hands than have to read something onscreen. But they're working on that and may eventually produce a hand-held doohicky that is as convenient as a book. The shelf life of electronic media I don't see as a problem. Just back everything up to the internet and it's there forever. In theory, anyway...
Date Added: 04/02/2006

Gone Away
You're quite right, Melly; I have overstated my case. There are good agents and publishers out there and I should have given them more credit. One tiny objection however: if the publishing world is every bit as noble and discerning as that, how come so many frankly awful books get published? And I'm not talking about those that sell in spite of their poor literary standards; go into any bookshop and I'll show you hundreds of books that are obvious tripe and that never sell more than a few hundred copies. How on earth do they slip through the net and get published in the first place? It baffles me and I can only presume that, as well as the discerning publishers that you mention, there are also some out there with execrable taste. ;)
Date Added: 04/02/2006

Hopeless optimist that I am, I have to believe that truly great works of literature WILL find their way to the public.

I also agree that with the internet and publish on demand becoming more mainstream (not viewed as strictly "vanity press" anymore) the opportunities for writers are expanding. No longer does it require a minimum order...many of the POD services allow single-order printing, so no one gets stuck with a garage full of books.

Best wishes to all who seek publishment (is that a word? LOL)
Date Added: 04/02/2006

Gone Away
Well, I'm with you there, Marti - I certainly hope that good literature manages to break through somehow. And, from general consensus, it appears we're all going to have to get into online publishing and marketing. I think we're very lucky to have Deborah amongst us to show the way.
Date Added: 04/02/2006

Clive, Interesting post, with much to reflect on. With writing we have the choice of being entirely private with our thoughts without any expectation of anyone ever reading what we may have written. But most of us who do choose to write, do so to share with others, be it information, experience or ideas. When it comes to writing, you have to believe in yourself, but more than that, you have to persevere. What you say in your article is all true, however, the reality is is that if you are going to be a successful writer, you're going to have work long and hard in getting published. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. Rejections tend to make me work harder, study more, and reach deeper inside to discover what really matters that may be worth sharing with others.
Date Added: 05/02/2006

Gone Away
You're right, Scot - perseverance is the key. Let's take this post as my brief moan before getting back to work. ;)
Date Added: 05/02/2006

Umm is this rant my fault? The book was meant to help you know... :p
Date Added: 06/02/2006

Gone Away
Not your fault, Mad - just a whinge at the world. ;)
Date Added: 06/02/2006

The hardest part for me is finishing the drafts, I am nervous at the the thought of having to get it published myself.
Date Added: 08/02/2006

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