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Waking the Publishing Industry

May 12th, 2009

This is a response to Jonathan Karp’s article, “This Is Your Wake-up Call: 12 Steps to Better Book Publishing” in the 04/20/2009 issue of Publishers Weekly.

Karp’s article on how to improve the state of the publishing industry is witty, informative, and important. I certainly recommend that everyone interested in the way that books are selected, published, and marketed and sold should read it.

So how does Fantasist Enterprises stack up against his list? Well, since we’re still a small organization, a lot of things automatically do not apply, so I’m only going to focus on a few things.

1) End the Kabuki Publishing: mostly, this does not apply to us, since we haven’t reached the point where we are required to attend sales conferences or generate seasonal catalogues. But I was involved in that process a handful of times during my experiences in the publishing industry. I’ve seen what happens when you promote a book that is still in the works, including it in a catalogue before the first draft is even completed—and what happens when the manuscript hits the fan and the book is not delivered in the time it was originally expected. Publishing is an industry full of delays, but it’s a mess when sales agents expect a book and it’s still months away from being completed.

So how do we better judge publication schedules? I’m not entirely sure . . . but I know I do not like having to push a book long before it’s been completed. Sure, mention it in lists of upcoming projects . . . but the catalogue-style complete information could wait until the book is closer to being completed. This is the digital age. Catalogue information can be distributed quickly and easily through electronic means.

2) Prioritize and Specialize: That’s the name of the game with small presses. Do I really need to go into that one?

3) Tell the Truth: Basically, Karp is saying that if a book sucks, don’t try to market it as a masterpiece. Tell the author that it’s bad. If they are unhappy with that, they can go elsewhere.

Now, I’ve not had to face this problem yet. At least not on a large scale like a second or third novel from an author I’ve already published. It’s a tough call especially if an author with a following turns in something that you’d rather use as a doorstop than read. But I hope that my editorial integrity would hold strong in that instance and keep me from going the easy route and publishing it. I’d certainly feel embarrassed if a work of low quality sat on store shelves (or in the hands of readers) with the FE logo on the spine.

I have faced that issue on a smaller scale when selecting short stories for anthologies. I have turned down submissions from authors who have some level of a following if the story did not meet the standards of quality that I look for, or even if the story did not fit the theme or the mood that the book began to take on as I made selections.

4) More Editorial Quality Control: This is at the heart of what I do at FE. I’ve been accused of being a perfectionist, but I do understand that nothing can be perfect, and eventually you have to let a work go out into the wide, cruel world. But I believe in going over manuscripts multiple times, until I’ve reached a point where the critical voice inside my head is either silent, or just quiet enough that it does not jar me out of the story. I am a firm believer that there is such a thing as good style and bad style in writing. There are things that are effective, and things that are not so effective.

It is also possible to be a great storyteller, but a poor writer. I am more apt to pick a story by a good storyteller, who needs help with his or her writing than the other way around . . . but . . . I will not allow weak writing to go straight to publication. I will work with authors in order to help them polish their stories—and hopefully they will learn something along the way, which will improve their future writings.

5) Advertise: Karp says that advertising is essential and necessary, but I’ve long been of a mind that ads really do not add up to additional sales. He points to The Da Vinci Code and The Historian as bestsellers that “were made with significant ad campaigns.” But I have a feeling that the ads in question were in large, national publications . . . publications whose ad space is well above FE’s relatively small advertising budget. If we had the money, I’d definitely spend more on large ad campaigns.

I do like what Karp has to say about how advertising revenue keeps publications in business, which allows them to be around in order to print reviews. It’s a good example of how everything in life is interconnected . . . even (especially?) in the business world. It’s why I feel that it is of utmost importance for authors to help support the publishing houses they wish to work with by buying copies of their publications and spreading the word about those publications to as many people who will listen. The better a publisher is doing, the better they will be able to serve an author by producing a quality product and helping him or her promote their work.