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Chapter 116: Essential Lessons in Book Publishing
Shortly after the death in June of the celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times that argued that success for McCarthy, best known for such novels (and later, movies) as All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men, came because he had succeeded in straddling two worlds: publishing as it once was and as it has come to be.
“Mr. McCarthy was twice the beneficiary of the then-dominant industry ethos,” wrote the author, Dan Sinykin, an English professor at Emory. “His early career was sustained by an editor who stuck with him despite commercial struggles. His latter career was buoyed by the surge in marketing power ushered in by the conglomerate era.”
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Then, however, he offered a cautionary note: “A career like Mr. McCarthy’s, with its long gestation before a blockbuster second act, would be nearly impossible to repeat now.”
With all the disruptive changes in the lives of writers, editors and publishers, there is something about a book that endures – not only for those who read it (because, yes, people have never stopped reading books, despite the periodic cries that we are approaching the end of print and that we live in a “post-literary society”) and those who write them – or dream of doing so one day.
Sinykin himself has a new book coming out about publishing – Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature – and at first I was wary that this would be yet another gloomy account of how the consolidation of publishing – raise your hand and count your fingers; you have now identified the number of mainstream American publishing houses – has created a landscape where undiscovered writers are ignored and writers who do not sell are discarded.
To a certain extent, this is true.
But. It is only half the story, as I learned when I got in touch with Sinykin and asked him what writers other than James Patterson, Danielle Steel and Stephen King needed to know about the realities of book publishing, and where opportunities exist.
Let no one tell you that you cannot be an author.
MS: Conventional wisdom has it that with consolidation mainstream publishers have become so risk averse that the prospects of unknown writers being discovered has fast diminished. But your book suggests that we are living in an age when there are all sorts of ways for writers to be discovered -- and perhaps eventually, being picked up by mainstream houses.
DS: That’s true. The kind of publisher you send your work to makes all the difference. So it’s crucial to understand the differences between kinds of publishers. Large conglomerate publishers make up the largest part of the industry. These are the Big Five: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan. A German conglomerate owns Penguin Random House. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp owns HarperCollins. Paramount owns Simon & Schuster. Hachette is a French conglomerate. And another German conglomerate owns Macmillan. Most imprints that you see—Atria; Crown; Ecco; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Little, Brown; Riverhead; Scribner; William Morrow; and on and on—belong to one of these five companies. An unknown writer has virtually no chance when submitting to a Big Five publisher independently; it’s usually explicitly prohibited. You need a literary agent to submit for you and even then your odds are low without some additional distinction such as an MFA from a leading school or a publication in a prominent magazine, or perhaps a personal connection.
Then there are independent for-profit publishers. The largest of these—W. W. Norton and Grove Atlantic—aren’t much easier and require an agent. But there are dozens of small independent for-profit presses, such as Akashic Books and Belt Publishing, that are excellent, well-respected, and in many cases consider unagented submissions.
Finally, there are mission-driven nonprofit publishers. These are subsidized by governments, philanthropists, and universities specifically to allow them some freedom from the bottom line (more on that in the answer to the next question). The most prominent of these—Graywolf—is difficult to enter if you’re unknown. But again there are dozens of wonderful small nonprofits who might be more likely to consider your work if it fits their mission: Arte Público, Deep Vellum, Hub City, Milkweed, Sarabande, Sublunary, Transit, and many more. University presses are a kind of nonprofit press and university press editors are usually enthusiastic about taking meetings, in person or on Zoom, with writers who have a relevant book project in mind.
That’s the structure of the publishing world and a quick-and-dirty gloss on the chances of submitting to them. There are also ways for them to discover you. Editors and literary agents keep an eye on publications that match their taste, whether that be The New Yorker, The Drift, or The Delacorte Review. My book, Big Fiction, started because an editor noticed my writing in a small online publication, Post45 Contemporaries, then found a short description of a prospective book on my personal website. (Maintain a website; give editors and agents a way to communicate with you.) He invited me to a meeting at a conference and we were off.
MS:What do aspiring authors need to understand about the way publishing has evolved, so that they can embark on their careers with wisdom and not naivete?
DS: In your first question, you noted the conventional wisdom that “with consolidation mainstream publishers have become so risk averse that the prospects of unknown writers being discovered has fast diminished.” There is some truth to this, though I would say prospects have diminished slowly rather that fast, and, as described above, the foreclosure of possibilities with conglomerate publishers has opened opportunities elsewhere. It helps writers to understand a bit about how we got here.
Complaints about conglomeration making publishers risk averse became urgent already in the 1970s. The Authors Guild and PEN held forums and press conferences and sent representatives to testify before the U.S. Senate. Publishers were acquired by multinationals who prioritized shareholder value and the bottom line and began making demands for quarterly growth. Such financial constraints inevitably changed how publishers work: editors spent more time attending meetings and filling out paperwork; marketing, publicity, and sales grew and gained power.
But publishing history is dynamic and literary people fought back. Within conglomerates, editors found ways to make the work they wanted to publish attractive under the new regime by, for example, turning to trade paperbacks instead of more expensive hardcovers and creating alluring designs: that’s the story of Kathryn Court’s Contemporary American Fiction series at Penguin and Gary Fisketjon’s Vintage Contemporaries at Random House. It was in response to the late 1970s moment in conglomeration that spurred the creation of the nonprofit literary movement, opening a path less constrained by the market.
Let’s skip ahead to the twenty-first century. At first, it looked like the 2008 financial crisis would be catastrophic for publishing, especially on the heels of the release of the Amazon Kindle, which some thought would be the end of print books. But actually publishers emerged stronger than before and are thriving in 2023. Ebooks plateaued and became a low-overhead supplement to the bottom line. In the last decade, with the ubiquity of smartphones, audio has become a profitable source of growth for publishers. The Big Five are flourishing. The small press ecosystem is more dynamic and exciting than it’s been in a long time.
The success of publishers is good for writers. That said, I would counsel writers to consider a publisher’s perspective. Publishers face a problem of abundance. The world of writing has only become increasingly rationalized and professionalized since the 1970s, for both publishers and writers. The 1990s saw a boom in creative writing programs. There are now tens of thousands of credentialed writers petitioning publishers, not to mention the countless uncredentialed. Publishers need a way to sort through it all. Unfortunately, this is why often conservative and inequitable systems are in place—MFA hierarchies, interpersonal networks, comparative titles (or comps)—that tend to privilege the already privileged. But we have many small presses working to challenge these mainstream systems.
Bear this history and the present situation in mind as a writer but don’t let it limit you. Learn the genres of the pitch and the query letter and treat them with respect and rigor. Find the writers and editors and publications and publishers you admire and follow their work. Be attentive to differences: a conglomerate imprint has different constraints and demands on its acquisitions than a literary nonprofit, which has different constraints and demands than a university press. Know those constraints and demands. Know where your work fits, where you want it to fit. Position yourself to help the people who you need to help you. Make it easier for them to say yes—while deciding how much you are willing to adapt without losing the integrity of your work.
MS: How has social media, and the availability of data, put writers -- and smaller, upstart publishers -- in a position to identify and connect with particular audiences, as opposed to sending a book out into the world and hoping to catch a wave?
DS: One of the perpetual quandaries in publishing is how to bring a book to its readership. It might sound simple but it’s difficult, and it used to be far more difficult. Some 330 million people live in the United States. Most trade books—fiction, popular nonfiction, the kind of books you find in a typical bookstore, rather than specialized books—sell fewer than 5000 copies. Many sell far fewer than that. (By comparison, the average academic monograph sells around 200-300, mostly to university libraries.) To sell 5000, that is, is a success for most books. How can a publisher find those few thousand people in a sea of hundreds of millions?
In the 1980s and 1990s, despite marketing in book reviews and publicity through author tours (often to crowds in the single digits), a lot came down to luck. The older model of bookselling—how well could the publisher’s sales staff convey enthusiasm to booksellers, and how well could bookseller’s hand sell to their customers?—had given way to mall bookstores first, then the superstores Barnes & Noble and Borders, where staff did less hand selling and customers has to find things on their own.
Against this backdrop, the internet has been transformative for discovery. For all its crimes, and they are not insubstantial, Amazon has reduced the friction in publishers finding readers. Goodreads, owned by Amazon, helps readers find their books and provides data up the chain that explains what readers want. There is, too, a dystopian element of market populism in reading that I don’t have time to go into here. But the utopian aspect is in how the internet has also provided opportunities for small presses to find their readers, leading to what I think is something of a small press golden age in the 2010s and 2020s.
Email lists, Facebook, Instagram, and, most importantly, Twitter, have enabled small presses such as Deep Vellum, Sarabande, and Sublunary to build community around those thousands of people disposed to read the kinds of books they publish. We live in a moment when it’s easier than it’s ever been for publishers, writers, and readers to find the particular weirdos who share their literary habits of mind. Your task, then, as a writer, is to participate in the communities who make the writing you admire: find the magazines and presses you like, read them, follow their writers and editors on social media, reach out to people, connect, and send your writing. These communities make publishing your writing so much more than the atomistic pursuit of individual success; it becomes a collective aesthetic and intellectual endeavor.
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