Publishers read bottom lines, not books.

Thomas Wolfe had a great editor. Do you?
Thomas Wolfe had a great editor. Do you?

These things were obvious.

Traditional New York publishers had good authors.

But there are a lot of really good indie authors.

Traditional publishers produced good books.’

But there are a lot of indie authors producing really good books.

But traditional had one distinct advantage.

They had great editors.

And great editors, through the years, have often made the difference between good books and great books.  For example, when Thomas Wolfe died, his editor, Edward Aswell, began looking through the voluminous manuscript. A few chapters had been completed. Many of the sections were merely handwritten in Wolfe’s typical scrawl, and Aswell had to guess at some of the penciled words.

He discovered that the leading character in the book had at least six different names. Some chapters were written in first person, some in third person. In part of the book, the protagonist had several brothers and sisters. In other sections, he was an only child.

There were stories. There were fragment of stories. There were fragments of sentences. In addition, Aswell was concerned because the manuscript contained at least ten times more pages than the traditional novel. Since there was no one left or around to debate him, Aswell turned the manuscript into two novels: The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again. Both would be remembered as part of Thomas Wolfe’s lasting legacy.

That’s what editors did. But editors have become an endangered species.

Doug Grad
Doug Grad

Last year, I heard a presentation by Doug Grad, who worked for years as a senior editor for several major New York publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, Ballentine, Penguin, and HarperCollins.  He worked as the editor on several New York Times Best Sellers.

He’s now a literary agent, and, every day, he watches the publishing landscape change a little. It’s hardly ever for the better.

Once, Doug said, Publishing companies were run by strong-minded individuals who had one passion, and that was to produce outstanding books.

Now it’s all about the money.

To hell with the story.

As he said, publishing companies are merging, big publishing companies are buying small companies, and small publishing companies are dying miserable deaths and going out of business.

The man behind the desk no longer cares about books. He cares about money.

He doesn’t read novels. He reads only the bottom line.

Where can he cut costs? That is his only concern.

Who can be replaced? That’s the only question he asks.

He counts heads. He comes up with too many editors.

And New York is becoming more crowded each day with editors out of work and on the streets.

New York publishing houses, in their collective wisdom, are throwing away the one distinction that made them the best in the world. They are discarding their staff of editors, sometimes one at a time, sometimes whole departments by quitting time.

The bottom line may not suffer. The books will.

As Grad points out, “Publishers are telling agents to bring them books that are already perfect. They are certainly not going to spend any money working on them to make sure they’re perfect. So if today’s writers have their books edited, they have to pay for the editing service themselves. Publishers, as whole, are no longer providing it.”

So what’s the difference between traditional publishing and indie publishing?

Historically, big publishers could get books in bookstores.

Bookstores are going out of business.

Historically, big publishers were responsible for editing.

Now authors pay for editing.

Historically, big publishers handled all of the marketing.

Now the authors have to be in charge of their own marketing.

Big Publishers still pay eight to twelve percent royalties.

Indie authors earn 70 percent royalties after Amazon or Barnes & Noble takes a cut.

So if the advantages are gone, why is anyone running around frantically sending out query letters, interviewing agents at writer’s conferences, and searching for a big publishing deal?

As Doug Grad says, there’s only one way to get a big deal in New York.

Go out and sell 25,000 books on your own, and then publishers will find you.

Don’t go looking for them.

They’re out to lunch.

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  • Roger Summers

    Sounds like newspapers.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Same kinds of people in charge.

  • Caleb,
    It’s a very simple business model for the trad publishers. Find an author who has already built a brand and established a track record of sales and sign her. The big question for indie authors is why would anyone go the traditional route when she had made it as an Indie? The only reason would be because of a big ol’ honkin’ bonus and there aren’t many of those in the marketplace these days. The book business on the big boys’ side is just risk management that has nothing to do with content. Find a sure thing.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Traditional publishers are still caught in the mental web of what used to work but doesn’t anymore, not for new authors anyway. For the most part, they will remain with their big name authors, living and dead, and wait for an indie to sell enough books to break into midstream. But I’m like you. Why would any successful author want to give up what he has in order to cast his lot with the big boys? I guess the bet case scenario is to keep the ePublishing rights and see if New York can sell some hardbacks in the dwindling number of bookstores.

  • Darlene Jones – Author

    Traditional publishers missed the boat. They should have jumped on the digital wave right at the beginning. They could have taken advantage of the talent we indie authors have and producted ebooks for us. But they were too set in their ways. I’ve heard that some publishing companies are putting out books by authors who have died just to have the big name and thus cling to some of their market.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Robert Ludlum and Robert Parker are two authors who are still pouring out books after death. At least the books have their names big on them.

      • Darlene Jones – Author

        Sick and immoral and a whole lot of other words.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          As Deep Throat said in “Watergate:” Follow the money.”

          • Darlene Jones – Author

            That says it all.

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