Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Clearly, our crisis is an artifact of the profit motive, even though so many writers do what they do as a labor of love. On the corporate level, where the high priests and priestesses decide what we get to read, there’s nothing as important as what kind of money any given title will bring in. Even when an editor “falls in love” with a book — as they all claim they have to in order to sell it successfully — the promotion and sales staff determine what kind of push the title will get in the marketplace, and if there’s any doubt they’ll cut their losses and abandon it. Maybe you’ve heard, as I have, that it takes seven mentions of a book in the media, whether in print ads, radio, television, or reviews, to trigger the average reader to buy. That’s a lot of exposure, and most books don’t get it. The books that do are the ones that already have the highest chance of succeeding, either because their authors are well-known or the publishers have committed hefty promotional resources to it. Obviously, getting noticed is an almost impossible goal for a first novelist who doesn’t already have a marketing support system in place.
It used to be the case, or so I was told by my agent years ago, that publishers didn’t expect new writers to achieve robust sales until their fourth or fifth books. They had the philosophy that it was their job to build up a writer, patiently, laying the groundwork with the early books for the ones that would hit the bestseller lists later. After all, writers are evolving creatures, always developing, always learning, so it stands to reason that they will become better writers as they mature. Now, instead of that pretty reasonable (and apparently old-fashioned) approach, publishers demand that writers hit home runs in their first at-bat.
Not very many pull it off.
If the profit motive continues to dominate — or maybe I should say the short-term profit motive — we can expect publishing to resemble a huge, smoke-belching factory that takes writers in the front hopper, chews them up, and spits them out the back end into a smoldering heap. Soylent Green is writers!
And one reason this is feasible for them is that there is an enormous pool of talent out there. Probably more than ever before in the history of letters, a large segment of the population consider themselves writers, and plenty of them have enough talent to succeed. If one novelist won’t play the game the right way, there are thousands in line behind her to step up and take a shot. No doubt, agents and editors don’t see it quite this way, since it seems to them that everything in the slush pile is substandard. Most of what they “love” comes from referrals and so-called discoveries who are really insiders, or relatives of insiders. Nepotism is a natural impulse. It’s just easier that way.
(New York is overrepresented too. Brooklyn, anyway. Even if a writer grew up in Omaha, you can bet that the jacket copy shouts out that he now lives in Brooklyn. There are probably enough talented novelists in Brooklyn alone to sustain the book business for the next twenty years, if the execs are cynical enough to try pulling it off.)
© 2016 by Kevin Brennan