In 1875 George Routledge, founder of the British publishing house that bore his name, asked Scottish author Samuel Smiles when he would have the honor of publishing one of his books. Smiles reminded him that he had already rejected publishing Self-Help twenty years prior, a move that prompted him to take publishing into his own hands.
In the first year Smiles’ classic sold 20,000 copies, increasing to a quarter-million before his death. More importantly, his legacy proved lasting: the self-help genre is one of the most widespread, as well as lucrative, today. While the messages are quite different—Smiles was a fan of failure, focusing more on the process than the goal—there is doubting the influence that Smiles’ ideas generated for generations to come.
Last night I emailed a recent Atlantic article on the Amazon-Hachette debate to a close friend and fellow writer, Dax-Devlon Ross. We have both had our ups and downs—when dealing with publishers, mostly downs—and so I wanted to get his take. If you haven’t followed, it deals with Amazon’s market control and tactics initiated (taking Hachette titles off the site; delaying orders for weeks) in forcing the publisher to comply with its policies.
The Atlantic believes the future of ideas is at stake. It’s not a new argument: the less money coming in, the less a publisher doles out in advances, the less we evolve culturally, and so on. The Hachette fight, pitted as the David to Amazon’s Goliath, treats this contractual dispute as an important clash not just between businesses, but in the evolution of ideology.
That’s exactly what you’d expect when people think they’re more important than they are.
Dax’s reply was perfect:
I find myself looking at this conversation as inside baseball. It’s not about me, has nothing to do with me. It’s the business of capitalism. How many writers have been screwed by big publishing and its obsession with celebrity books? Please. Spare me.
Dax’s first book, Beat of a Different Drum, was published by Hyperion a decade ago. The result was, let’s just say, less than pleasant. Three different editors, constantly shifting deadlines, an inability to supply books at events despite advance notice—he simply wasn’t a priority. We invested part of the advance into our own publishing company, and have since released every book we’ve written ourselves.
The war on ideas expressed by the Atlantic’s writer represents a very small fraction of authors. Being signed to a major publisher does not guarantee you’ll be heard. Dax and I, for example, write books outside the scope of what houses look for: he, on social justice, city planning and African-American issues; myself, on ethics in yoga and spirituality and the evolution of international music. Within our respective fields we earn enough to lead fulfilling, creative lives. We are at the long end of the long tail, and don’t sweat whether or not we can download the new J.K. Rowling book the day it’s published.
The publishing industry—at least major players; I realize many smaller houses facilitate the dissemination of new works—is not concerned with ideas, which makes this fight over content (where it’s controlled, how it’s distributed) so ironic. The few times I have worked with agents, I’ve found myself explaining how far my social media reach extends before I discuss the ideas in my book.
Online writing courses follow this trend: don’t write too many words; use lots of anecdotes and quotes; graphics are key; keep it flowing. Don’t bog down the text with critical thinking. The entire spectacle reminds me of the time I worked as a crossword puzzle editor. Each magazine had to be predominantly easy so the reader would keep purchasing the magazine. Publishing today caters to the lowest common denominator. The ‘future of ideas’ is not what’s at stake at all.
Dax offered insight into this aspect:
Liberals fret over the marketplace of ideas being limited by corporate greed. They never consider how limited it already appears to those who aren’t in their circle. As a black male I have always felt the marketplace for ideas was incredibly narrow and shallow, that it has always disrespected (financially and otherwise) me and people who look like me.
If you are not already an established author, your chances of catching the attention of a press like Hachette are twofold: you either have a large social media following or you’ve already sold thousands of books on your own. Then they happily jump in to get a piece of that action. It’s how music worked for years.
Instead of dumping a million dollars into a new band, labels would sign ten bands and give them $100,000 each. The hope was to get one hit in total. Then they could dump the other nine and focus on the band bringing in the dough.
Samuel Smiles knew his worth, which is why he could laugh at George Routledge during dinner. Writing is never easy work. For those authors that think it is, they certainly have a marketplace of readers that do not want to be challenged, and an entire industry ready to sell them such books. Today’s bestsellers mimic the reality television dominating that medium: self-promotional celebrity-focused drivel. Easy to digest, nothing that nourishes. Books as business cards.
As another friend, Neal Pollack, author of Jewball, Stretch and Downward-Facing Death, posted:
I’ve sold 30,000 books in the last two years, including, for the first time, in Brazil and Japan and Australia. All of them on Amazon. So spare me the sobbing about how Amazon is bad for writers.
Imagine if John Steinbeck’s publisher had dropped him after Cup of Gold. It took him until number seven to create Of Mice and Men, two more until The Grapes of Wrath. If the publishing industry today supported writers as craftsmen that need time to grow and excel, this article would never have been written. But that’s not what publishing is today.
I’ll let Dax close this one out.
I refuse to align myself with big publishing. They are the victims of their own largesse, arrogance, incompetence and lack of vision. These are the same cretins who conspired with Apple to fix prices for Christ Sake! These hypocrites got together and tried to set ebook prices that you and I have to pay. Now that Amazon is putting them in their place they want me, the consumer, to sympathize with them. Ha.
Image: Brian A. Jackson/shutterstock.com