In yesterday's post I touched briefly on how "publisher-centric" the perspective of many people in publishing is or has recently become. I bemoaned this trend, and I will continue to bemoan it, in large part because this attitude is a big part of what gets us all navel-gazey when we should be sharing, selling, and loving books. But I feel like maybe I should explain this a little further, and why it bothers me so much.
Part of what was on my mind yesterday was this thread at Brevity's blog. Here Brevity discusses the possibility of charging a small submission fee -- two or three bucks, say. Now, while I am categorically against submission fees personally, let a thousand flowers bloom and etc. -- there's nothing obviously immoral about a fee of a couple dollars, however strongly I personally feel about not charging writers for the opportunity to read their work. The post itself is reasonable (though we could talk about the attitude toward "student work"), but this early comment from Dinty Moore has stuck in my craw a little:
Plus, remember that we are volunteers doing the reading. Does the worth of our time factor in here?This left me speechless. I don't know about Brevity, but my position as a publisher is that I only take pieces that I could be more or less comfortable calling a work of genius. Certainly I have to think it's got at least several sparks of real greatness. And the idea that I deserve compensation for my time as a reader-curator, that I should charge them for the time I spend looking at their work, while they are expected to write "on spec," that is, with reasonable confidence that they will never make a dime, seems extremely insulting. These people are writers, so they should know what kind of labor it takes to produce a really great piece of writing. They should know what it's like to create the work that succeeds as well as the failures -- and they should therefore see why being charged for someone to do the infinitely easier task of reading the products of one's labor is regrettable at best.
Seeing the "bad writers" of the slush denigrated, the response of many commenters in the thread was tragic, if utterly predictable. They said things like Yeah, go ahead and charge. It'll thin the herd for the good writers! Maybe you'll take something by me now! The implication being that it was the presence of all these "bad writers" that was screwing everything up -- the strategy being the courtship of the publisher by the writer.
But this isn't about Brevity. It's about what we're getting wrong as publishers. Do you know what we're doing wrong? We're going on the Internet and bitching about our problems, blaming writers, making our product look unappealing to everyone involved. When I and others argue that writers should not be expected to financially prop up publishers through submissions fees and other schemes, many respond that surely writers should have to do something, that they have some obligations in this mess. And on some level I agree with this -- if you're submitting constantly to indie presses without ever buying their books, that is, in some sense, at least a little morally wrong. But you know what doesn't sell books? Scolding. Every time someone tells me to "support the arts," my first instinct is to run the other way screaming. You know why? Great artists, great entertainers, people confident in their product, don't beg or nag for "support." They rock the fuck out. Great bands don't beg me for my support. Great filmmakers don't beg me for my support. They make the product, they promote the product, and then I buy the product. Books are the ones trying to survive on a guilt-based economy, and it just doesn't work. When you guilt writers into buying your stuff, they might buy more in that instance, but they buy less overall, because buying a book becomes an act of charity when it should be simple, joyful commerce.
People will respond to this by saying that bands and movies and so on can get away with this cavalier attitude because people like music and movies and basically everything but books. Two things. 1) These people are not cavalier. They are serious as a heart attack. They just put that energy into making and selling a great product rather than scolding their audience. This makes them look like fun, interesting people, which is the cornerstone of their extremely serious marketing plan (and, for that matter, mine; is it working?). And 2) if you seriously believe this, you don't love writing enough to be in this business. Get out! Give up! If you honestly don't think people want to read, you need to stop trying to sell them books. You probably don't enjoy reading yourself. If you can't enjoy sorting through the slush, you don't love reading enough. I really mean that.
The funny thing about this attitude is the way it writes "genre" publishers out of the community/industry entirely. You know who doesn't worry about this stuff? Genre publishers. Clarkesworld is an online SF/fantasy publication that actually pays its writers. It reads its slush almost instantaneously, and it is unfailingly polite the whole way through, never stopping once to complain. You know why they can do that? Because they know people want to read what they're putting out there. This is where "literary" and "experimental" writers may complain that of course people want to read about robots, robots are awesome. Well, why isn't your story awesome? Why isn't your poem great? The Lifted Brow, probably our biggest model in terms of how we approach this thing, is a big hit. It sold its last issue out, twice! It's expensive, but it's beautiful, and it has great work inside, and they pay their writers. It has a mix of styles and subjects, but not one that would be wholly alien to any hip literary magazine. Editor Ronnie Scott doesn't bitch or whine, he just puts out a great product, and people line up for an opportunity to buy it, in large part I think because they can tell he knows it's great stuff.
The trouble with the publisher-centric culture ultimately isn't a moral problem. It isn't a problem of my not enjoying being guilted. It's not a problem of submission fees. It's that this strategy is a commercial failure. Guilt doesn't sell books. It diminishes the market. It makes us look less attractive to potential buyers and readers. You sell books by 1) having a great product, 2) telling people about the great product, and 3) delivering the great product with a minimum of effort on the customer's part. All the rest is noise. It's a waste of your time. And the more we focus on readers and writers, and the less we focus on the necessity of "supporting publishers," the more money those publishers (and writers) will get.