"... The chief qualification of ninety-nine per cent of all editors is failure. They have failed as writers. Don't think they prefer the drudgery of the desk and the slavery to their circulation and to the business manager to the joy of writing. They have tried to write, and they have failed. And right there is the cursed paradox of it. Every portal to success in literature is guarded by those watch-dogs, the failures of literature. The editors, the sub-editors, associate editors, most of them, and the manuscript readers for the magazines and book-publishers, most of them, nearly all of them, are men who wanted to write and failed. And yet they, of all creatures under the sun the most unfit, are the very creatures who decide what shall and what shall not find its way into print–they, who have proved themselves not original, who have demonstrated that they lack the divine fire, sit in judgment upon originality and genius. And after them comes the reviewers, just so many more failures. Don't tell me that they have not dreamed the dream and attempted to write poetry and fiction; for they have, and they have failed. Why, the average review is more nauseating than cod-liver oil...."
-- Jack London, "Martin Eden"
All of us who learned in our youth a love of reading have likewise developed a love of books and those who introduced books to us. Somewhere above us, we imagined, way upon high, were those who decided what was and was not worthy to be set into print, given a lovely cover, and permitted on the shelves of that greatest of all stores, the bookstore. There was a certain magic to the process and there was a saintliness bestowed upon all who were involved in the process.
Most likely, too, we first acquired the love of reading from a teacher, a parent, or some other authority figure. Books were sacred mysteries passed down from the elders to the youth, an initiation of sorts, necessary before we could enter into this new world that only books could lead us to.
The same thing goes with young people who get their first taste and desire to become writers. Somewhere in their past they were given an assignment by a teacher to write, at which point they discovered they liked the process of creating something from nothing. Maybe they even felt as if they were talented at it and, maybe, a teacher or older person had taken interest in the writing they had done and complimented them on it. Perhaps they even encouraged them to pursue their interest in writing. Maybe they even went as far as sharing it with the class or submitting it to a publication or a competition.
We writers are always looking for our work to be recognized, acknowledged, appreciated. It is natural, after all, for those who spend so much time creating in solitude to want to know that other people can relate to what we have done. If we didn’t get positive feedback of some sort, it would be reasonable that we should question our relatedness to the outside world, even our sanity.
Which is why it has always been the case that the writer has sought the recognition and acceptance of those who are the gatekeepers of what does and does not get published. Of course, in the past, that was the only option for a writer to get read, to win the favor of those who stand between the writer and an audience. If you could not win favor with the publishing houses or the media, few people would ever get the chance to read your work.
Such is not the case anymore. Granted, it is still easier to appeal to those systems and institutions that know how to smooth the way for a writer that fits their mold, but it is not the only way. The potential is now there to bypass the gatekeepers and thereby bypass the demands they place upon you. You no longer have to conform your writing to their tastes, no longer have to alter and mangle your work to fit into their conception of what a given audience wants.
Let us put aside all notions that publishing is anything other than a business, that publishers are interested in bringing your thoughts to readers rather than bringing the reader’s cash into their pockets. Don’t get me wrong, the art of writing can still be sacred and pure, as can the act of reading, but to get from writer to reader it must pass through the meatgrinder that is the market, where art and integrity are at best talking points.
And while publishing has been little more than a business for quite some time, probably dating back to Gutenberg, the machinery and industry that controls the process has only become more focused on the bottom line since then. The big publishers are getting bigger and the smaller ones are getting gobbled up or are fading away. The market for booksellers is increasingly coming into the hands of a few players such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The bigger the institutions making the decisions the greater the distance between the decision makers and those who have concerns other than profit.
Thus, the person in charge of reading manuscripts is no longer acting under his or her own discretion but instead looking for something that fits the template given to them by the corporate office.
Today, focus groups and spreadsheets have made it amazingly possible to remove from publishing decisions any thought of art, ideas, or beauty. As always, publishers have heaps of manuscripts awaiting attention, but today they are able to immediately access whatever is trending. Algorithms and corporate mindsets are shrinking the role that individual humans play. Nobody is asking what new work might speak to the troubles and concerns of the world as it is today but rather what is currently selling with the 14-18 year old market.
So on one hand we have a constriction of the gatekeeper’s concerns into a small gap of moneymaking banality and on the other we have an unprecedented alternative to traditional publishing in the form of self-publishing. Indeed, some people who have found success in self-publishing have seen the big publishers come knocking on their doors. What would keep people from taking the easier, less restrictive way that offers complete freedom and a vastly larger slice of the rewards?
But of course, that’s not the way we have been trained. Many of us are still looking for the approval—not from the ultimate audience, the readers—but from the anonymous sources at publishing houses, magazines, and newspapers. We are still looking for that nod from the teacher telling us we have made the grade.
There is some merit to that approach. It is important to get all the instruction we can from those who have the appropriate experience and knowledge. If we want to produce quality writers it is important that aspiring ones serve some sort of apprenticeship and learn their craft from acknowledged masters. Self-publishing in some ways has turned on a sewer pipe that’s been dumping a flow of sludge into the marketplace, but at the same time it is a conduit that permits those who don’t fit the mold or aren’t willing to conform to it to find an audience. And if you think the publishing industry has been elevating the art of literature, I ask you to take a look at the bestseller’s lists, where Bill O’Reilly and James Patterson never seem to leave the list. And the authors who are given the largest advances—celebrities and newsmakers who have never written anything more complex than a Tweet—are those who will be given a ghostwriter to do their work for them,
Which brings us back to the Jack London quote I began this essay with. Those who serve as the gatekeepers are not the best qualified to judge what good writing is. If that was true in London’s time it is doubly true today. They are neither successful writers themselves nor do they seek to advance the craft. Inexperienced authors may sometimes view them as benevolent fairies who will waive their magic wand upon them and pronounce them as the chosen one, but in truth it’s a business and business and art have never mixed well.
I am not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with choosing the traditional method of publishing, nor do I wish to say that publishers think about money to the exclusion of all else. But there is an alternative now, the likes of which has never existed until recently. Jack London went on to be the most successful and best paid author of his day. Much more than that, though, he was in my mind the greatest writer the United States has ever produced. But the rejection he received before breaking through the barrier the gatekeepers maintain is a tale of epic struggle, leading to countless moments where a less determined or less desperate person would have quit. I am quite certain he would have welcomed the opportunity self-publishing offers, and equally as certain he would have succeeded at it.
I have chosen the route of self-publishing, though I have yet to find success. Once it began to look like I would soon have a finished novel, I began to think about what to do with it next. While I had always assumed I would go the traditional route, Jack London’s warning had always been in the back of my thoughts. And when I got to know authors who were independently publishing I just seemed to fall in with the community. It seemed the logical approach for me, perhaps because I fell outside of the norm, never considered myself trendy. The additional work is no doubt something I would like to fob off on others: the self-promotion, the search for editors, proofreaders, and cover artists. But it is worth it to be in charge of one’s writing and one’s destiny. Too often one believes that the publisher cares for your book as much as you do and that is just not true. In the end, the writer is alone in his desire to nourish his work.
I do not rule out signing a contract with a publish someday. But when I do it will be as someone who has already achieved a degree of success and has attained a degree of knowledge of the industry. I realize it is a hard road to take, but I do not see an easier one. The world—the publishing industry included—is utterly indifferent to what you are writing and it is up to you to change that situation. While those who initially encouraged our writing had our best interests at heart, those in the publishing business have their own interests. I don’t blame them, they have a job to do. Those who are unable to write must still bring home a paycheck, and I’m sure they offer a degree of assistance to those who do. Still, should I ever wish to go into business with them, I’d like to do it on my own terms and with the sleep wiped from my eyes.