How Publishing Is Rigged You thought it was a meritocracy??

8Sep/11

Four Kinds Of Stories

booksThe crappy stories coming out today can basically be broken into a few key types, each with particular identifying characteristics. Stories might feature slightly different topics and subject matters, but once you start to analyze the fiction that's most eagerly pushed by those in power, you can easily assign one or more of the following labels to each story. (There can also be a fair amount of overlap, as you'll soon see.) As I expose some of the truly awful literature that’s out today, I'll use these categories to describe the stuff I'm picking apart.

Modern literature would be in a much healthier place if instead of being able to lump contemporary fiction into the above categories, we were unable to assign labels to the work we read. I’d much rather discover that a story is new, fresh, different, and defies categorization. But what I've found again and again is that everything that I read can be labeled with at least one of the above four categories.

At magazines big and small, editors are all looking for the same attributes for the work that they publish: Be boring. Be lifeless. Be humorless. And the result is that all of these stories are fundamentally the same. And the editors at the publishing houses are no better than editors at the magazines. They also stick to the established formula and publish things that are safe: “We published Safe Novel X last year. Safe Novel Y looks just like Safe Novel X so let’s publish that one too.”

Never mind that nobody bought Safe Novel X. And never mind that nobody will buy Safe Novel Y, publishing editors continue to make decisions based upon this faulty “We did it that way before, we'll do it that way again” logic. Is it any wonder that readers have largely abandoned fiction and turned their attention to nonfiction books? Why would anyone spend their money or time on a dull lifeless work of fiction when the real-life stories contained in a nonfiction book are infinitely more interesting?

Publishing people love to fret about the future of publishing. They focus on the internet, Amazon, reality television and e-book readers as enemies of literature. But what they don’t see is the real problem: the poor quality of the work. The problem is not diminished interest in reading or in books. People want to read, but they want to read good stuff and it’s harder and harder to locate the good stuff out there in today’s world. It's not the internet that's killing the modern publishing industry. All anyone has to do is ask: what’s really going wrong? Why have readers stopped spending their precious entertainment time and hard-earned money on fiction? The answer is simple: the stuff that's being published today is just plain bad.

In any other industry, this mass movement away from a specific product (or a type of product) would prompt the trend-watchers to examine their product for flaws. Not in publishing. Publishing-world trend-watchers and gatekeepers blame reality television and the internet for the decline in reading and nobody thinks to look at the quality of the work produced, or even change the formula for how works get selected for publication. Steadfastly stuck in their ways, editors are immune to the effects of consumers who choose to get their entertainment from television and the internet instead of from books. In their refusal to acknowledge that they have a problem with their product, publishers churn out the same garbage in everything they print.

In other words, if quality work was being published and sold today, people would be buying and reading fiction in growing numbers, even with the presence of reality television and the rise of the internet. But nobody in publishing sees it this way. The gatekeepers don't seem to realize that the problem is with what they're selling, not in how their product is packaged. They think their stuff is great, and the same elements (lifelessness and humorlessness) that make stories appealing to them—this tiny group of rich, uptight people—are the very characteristics that turn readers away from their product in droves.

For books that are produced and marketed within the traditional system, this small group of gatekeepers gets to completely control what consumers are exposed to. Regular readers who visit a bookstore will find all of the editors' favorites on the tables at the front of the store, since those are the books that have the biggest budgets to support and market them. A regular reader might bring one of these books home, read it and think to themselves, “That sucked, but I guess I don't really know what I'm talking about, after all, I don't have a literature degree.” Readers are not to be blamed for having that kind of reaction—they think that the literature business runs like other business, where the best stuff truly rises to the top. Unfortunately, in the publishing world, this logic doesn't stand. Modern publishing is a self-perpetuating, insular system designed to keep the same bad stuff in and keep the new and good stuff out. In the modern publishing business, quality has nothing to do with how many copies of a book are published, or how much is spent to market the book and pull in more readers.