There are a lot of reasons why Publishing is a slow beast. Sparked by Nobby’s comment to this post, here’s some insight as to why. I don’t promise that anything you read here will make you feel any better about waiting eighteen months for a rejection slip, but perhaps it’ll bring understanding, if not sympathy.
We’ll start off with some helpful facts:
- Lots of people want to be published writers. Lots. Hundreds of thousands of people.
- A great many of those hundreds of thousands want to be paid.
- Books don’t sell as well as films or TV programmes.
Next, let’s look at these facts in more detail:
- Hundreds of thousands of people want to be published writers.
There are a million reasons why. Some are seeking a form of immortality, wishing for their name to be known to strangers after they themselves are long gone. Others want the kind of money and fame that J. K. Rowling have come to attain. Still more would like a legacy to leave their families. Plenty just want approval from strangers. Many write because they simply cannot exist without doing so. Lots want to tell stories or relate truths that entertain or educate others. It’s really unnecessary to understand why these hundreds of thousands of people write; merely accept that they do.
- Many of them want to be paid.
Again, there are plenty of reasons for this. Lots of writers want to write professionally, which means getting paid to do the job. Many believe they aren’t writers unless they’ve been given their first advance. Some actually have to put bread on the table. Others honestly think that all writers are as rich as Rowling. What’s important to understand here is that when there are hundreds of thousands of writers who want paying, they will naturally target publishers who pay. Preferably publishers who’ve already made an author ludicrously wealthy.
- Books do not sell well.
That is to say they do not sell as many single units as other entertainment media. A top-seller in the UK is a book that shifts over 400,000 copies, but if only 400,000 people turned out to see a new film the film would be a flop and the studio would likely go bust. That’s just a simple response to modern life: a relatively small percentage of the world is willing to set aside the time it takes to read a book, when a film can tell them a story in ninety minutes. You can find more information about actual book sales figures here, and before you get excited about the millions of pounds, realise that number is distributed between the 115,522 new books published in 2006 and all previous books still in circulation. Notice also here that a very small proportion of newly published books are fiction. Non-fiction and specialist non-fiction carry higher price-tags than fiction due to the narrower circulation. While a nice book with pretty photographs of Tigers might cost you £25, a nice book on the latest cardiac surgery techniques could set you back £200.
So that’s all the good news out of the way. Let’s start assembling it into the bad news. I’ll start small, using the Hub and Pantechnicon slush piles as an example. As previously mentioned, Hub’s sluch pile is quite large. By contrast, Pantechnicon’s is not. Why?
Now I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores. The simple fact is that a paying publisher naturally attracts more submissions than a non-paying one. A hell of a lot more. Pantechnicon puts out a quarterly PDF and never struggles to fill its pages, but I only have to turn away approximately 55% of submissions as unsuitable. The general quality of submissions is high even before editorial input. The slush pile is more of a neatly-kept slush folder with four or five new submissions a month. Perfect, as far as I’m concerned. I have time to read every submission as well as edit the ones I’ve already accepted and lay out the issue that’s about to be released. I have time to keep in touch with contributors, source artwork, look for interviewees, and install new features on the website.
But Hub’s slush pile is a nightmare. We receive approximately twenty submissions a month (and that’s after being closed to regular-length stories and only accepting Flash fiction), with a far lower success rate. We have to turn away over 85% of submissions, either due to poor quality, lack of suitability for Hub (i.e. non-SF/F/H stories) or sheer averageness. That’s time we’re losing. Time we could be spending sourcing interviewees, fixing up the website, seeking a wider audience, making the PDF look prettier and such. And even with three of us, it’s a fight to keep on top of the slush pile.
Now imagine Bloomsbury or Random House. Imagine an agency who happens to have a famous client. Imagine their slush piles. And they’re not receiving Flash fiction or short stories. They’re receiving synopses and sample chapters of novels. They could be receiving 30,000 words per submission.
This is where book sales come into play, because while it’s easy to say “Well, they should hire more people to clear the piles,” they cannot afford to, because sales are not high enough. What’s worse is that because of their love of books, readers and editors are taking their work home with them every day. There is no 9-5 in Publishing. There’s not even a five-day week. These people will take manuscripts home and read them all evening, then wake up in the morning and read them at breakfast. They’ll read them over the weekend, when they should be out with their families having fun. They will slog their guts out, and their slush piles will never get smaller.
When someone finally finds a submission that really grabs them, then request the rest of the book. There’s always the chance that the other 120,000 words just don’t live up to the promise of the first 30,000. That’s more wasted time. And if they do, they have to be picked over laboriously, edited into publishable shape. It may take a customer two days to read a 200,000-word novel, but an editor can’t be so speedy. They’ll have to read it through once to get the feel for it. Then they’ll have to go through word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. This could be a breeze, or it could take a month. And all the while that’s time taken away from the submissions that are piling up.
Then an editor sends the edited manuscript back to the author. They have a breather while they wait for the second draft. Do they spend it on the slush pile? Or on a second draft that came back in? Or on a first draft that they really love that still needs edits? Or meeting with Marketing or Directors to beg for them to accept another novel that they found in the slush pile that they adore and desperately want to get published?
Marketing and Directors are not the evils of the world, either. Ultimately they are in business, and business requires saleable product. If they fail to sell, the whole business is at risk. If the publishing house goes under, they won’t be publishing anything else, ever. So, ultimately, they may be acting in their own interests (keeping a job, paying a mortgage), but they’re acting in the interests of future writers, too, because writers are what keeps the business afloat.
In short one could say that the problem truly afflicting the publishing industry is the lack of avid readers in the world, versus the sheer quantity of writers. Motives aside, it all boils down to numbers.