One of the biggest lies that Traditional Publishers peddle to would-be authors is that things 'have always been this way'. That's historically inaccurate. What we call 'publishing' is a recent invention. It didn't exist before the development of what we now call the novel, long fiction pieces that involve either an omniscient author or a psychologically aware narrator. That happened around the middle of the 1700s, and when the form became very popular with readers, some businessmen saw the possibilities of producing large numbers of these books for a wide audience. They commissioned printers, arranged distribution and worked to find new authors. (Bear in mind that 'distribution' wouldn't have been possible in a place like England before the Toll Roads were built either, around the same time.)
Before this, there were printers and - usually - patrons. Printers sometimes commissioned work, where they saw a money-making opportunity, such as in the popularity of Broadside Ballads, songs and lyrics printed on enormous single sheets of paper, (usually about topical events, such as local crimes and hangings). More normally, printers limited themselves to a small selection of classic and every-popular books like the Bible, and other work where it had been commissioned by a 'patron'. Shakespeare had one, that's why his plays made it into printed form. If he hadn't, he never would have been able to afford it for himself, and there weren't any middle-men at the time who could take a chance and get some copies run off in the hope they would be sold. No, that's a different game. It's called publishing.
These days that's all there is. In plush and extensive offices in all the major capitals of the world sit men (and a few women) in smart clothes, who pore over newly typed manuscripts, looking for gold. The mission they are about, (they would have you believe), these be-suited and well-educated fellows, is to find gems of rattling stories that they can arrange to print and distribute - for a profit. At least, that's what they tell you. When they're feeling disingenuous. 'It's a business', they say, as though that explained everything. If you are an author, and have a work to submit, they want to know that it can be printed, put in bookshops and sold. That last one is the most important. Any book can be put on a shop's shelf. The magic is to see it walking off the shelf to the till, where money changes hands. It's necessary, these transactions, in order to make the world of publishing work. No money, no more books. That's what they tell you.
Unfortunately, publishers have another string to their bow. Whenever they're stuck for a decision, they resort to an earlier ethic. 'This book deserves publishing', they declare. No, that can't be right! That's the cry of the patron. Hundreds of years ago, well-to-do and titled gentlemen would pay the printing bill if they considered that a work was worth sharing with the world. So why, I hear you ask, would modern-day publishers recreate the same philosophy? The answer, in my opinion - too much education! Most people who infest the world of publishing have been massively educated, usually well past Degree level at University. They know too much about literature. They don't look at books like tins of beans, or parcels of hamburgers, (as they claim to do). They still have romantic notions of what makes good reading, probably gained during long years in the classroom. The result? They can't help acting like the patrons of old, committed to putting the best of all current writing in the hands of an un-eager but deserving public.
It confuses matters. If Traditional Publishers really were the business people they claim to be, then we would all know where we stood. We - the writers - would know that money is king, and only books that sell are worth looking at or - to be strictly accurate - worth writing! The bad news, for us, is that publishers aren't anything like as consistent as that. They also harbour strange, esoteric ambitions. They like the idea of discovering a potential Nobel Prize winner. Would the guy sell books? Dammit, it doesn't matter, they say, as long as he wins prizes. This is confusing, to say the least. Who are we dealing with? Hard nosed businessmen or dewy eyed lovers of top 'quality' fiction?
The answer, of course, is both. In these days, the early years of the 21st century, ambitious authors are being faced with the dilemma of trying to launch their wares with people who can't decide if they live in the present day or would rather be the Lords of Ladies of 250 years ago. It doesn't help. That's why I keep advising struggling authors to turn to the internet, where we can all get our books printed, bound and posted off to customers at no expense to ourselves. Then, when we're more certain that we want the life of the commercially rewarded writer, we can turn back to the confusing world of publishing and try to find the ideal publisher for us, out of the squalling morass. At least then we will have been past the thrill of seeing our precious story printed in book form; way past the lure of 'vanity publishing' and the subsidised market; and much more capable of coping with the flatteries of publishers who can't currently decide if they are commercial or not. In fact, whether they are here and now or living in the past, as patrons, in the old sense.
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