Monday, September 12, 2022

Publishing. It’s strictly business by Gabriel Valjan


There were two pieces of music playing inside my head while I was writing this short essay on what I LOVE and HATE about the publishing industry. 


LOVE and HATE. These two words denote extremes. In my mind, they are the color red. Then because I live in the United States, which has the world’s most boring currency, publishing introduces the color of money, green. Mix red and green and you get brownthe perfect metaphor for turbidity and turpitude.


‘Do what you love, and it won’t feel like work.’ When writing doesn’t pay the bills and you persist at the endeavor, it must be LOVE. The experience feeds you somehow, and that sustenance means something and everything to you. Agented or not, when what you’ve written is published, it’s a milestone. You have arrived. There is nothing like holding your book in your hands. It’s your sweat equity, your child, your everything until you write the next one.


Then comes Reality. I hear the music, the sound of those violins that are the theme song to The Godfather. I hear Michael Corleone say, ‘It’s not personalit’s strictly business.’ Call yourself an author, an auteur, a scribe, or a storyteller, but you are now a professional in the world’s second oldest profession. It’s a business. You are as good as your last book.


The allusion to organized crime is intentional because that’s how I view publishing. It’s a business, and it’s organized (very well, I might add) at deception and coercion. I’m not talking about the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. I’m not talking about the multinational monopoly that is Amazon. What I’m talking about is the lack of transparency from the Big Five.


I’m talking about appearances. You browse a bookstore that proudly proclaims that it supports indie authors and publishers. You leaf through a book that you think is from an indie publisher, only to discover that it’s an imprint of one of the Big 5. Just look at this chart. It’s not Bartles & Jaymes, two old dudes with wine coolers on their porch. It’s the slick sleight of hand from the Mad Men of Marketing whose business strategies and successes in the marketplace would make Don Corleone envious. This is what I HATE.


The rationale I’ve read online is that the Big 5 wanted to meet the market’s appetite for genre. It’s code for two words I loathe: consumers and segmentation. YA is hot, so the mother ship creates a YA imprint. No harm. No foul. Not so fast. When Hyman Roth says in The Godfather, ‘We’re bigger than US Steel,’ he was alluding to the corporatization of criminal behavior. A white-collar version of Luca Brasi kills the competition with a pen, not unlike the traders at the financial firms that sold subprime mortgages. It’s not a crime, they said, when the customer knows the terms.


I daresay that with imprints, the customer does not know. The victimization is subtle but insidious. Small bookstores have to survive, so they’ll stock the imprints. The small presses and their authors are left outside looking at all the shelves where their books will never sit. It’s Capitalism, and survival of the fittest, you say. My response is that the chart on the web I showed you is not unlike the wall chart of the Five Families, except it’s more detailed and dangerous. We know money and morals mix like oil and water, but it’s a rigged game when there’s little choice with whom you do business.


It’s second nature for me to think of the mafia because I write crime fiction. Writers, specifically writers of mysteries, are my tribe. Cue the song from The Romantics: ‘What I Like About You.’ I know of no more supportive group of people than my fellow writers of mysteries. The camaraderie is real and genuine. It’s family, and the numerous conferences we hold throughout the year and all over the country are where we celebrate our successes. I can talk to another author about the problem with my latest Work in Progress and hear her suggestions for a solution. I can attend panels or be on one. It means something when a writer says they like your work. As for business, I can ask for a blurb on my next novel or agree to give one to an up-and-coming writer or an established one. I can ask in confidence about this agent or that publisher.


I’m with two publishers: Winter Goose Publishing and Level Best Books. Because I’m with two small presses, there are tradeoffs. The good kind. I have a say in cover art. The editing process is a two-way street. I’m grateful because I know authors with the Big 5 who have no control over cover art, and editing is as tense as negotiating with Putin.


Yes, I’ve devoted only two paragraphs to what I LOVE about publishing. It’s human nature to see the darkness drown the light. All my writer friends are with all kinds of publishers: Big 5; imprints of Big 5; or non-5, yet none of that diminishes that we are all bound by a fever in the blood to tell a story.


Brenda Chapman said...

Very illuminating, Gabriel. I did not know about the big five's pseudo 'indie publishers'. When there is no real competition, everyone loses in the end.

Catriona McPherson said...

Very, very informative, Gabriel. Cx

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Excellent, honest discussion of the publishing business.

Susan C Shea said...

Calling it like it is, Gabriel! At this point in their history, I think the Big Five or Big Four, the whole collection of publishing's "families" are as responsible for the discouraging state of book publishing as they screamed Amazon was when it began to grow.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Gabriel. And you're right, in the end it's all just about telling a story and getting it out there.

Gregory Stout said...

I'm also with two publishers (LBB and Beacon Publishing Group). The good news is, yes, I have a fair amount of input as to cover design, etc. The bad news is that I'm about 90% on my own with respect to marketing and promotion, and it's all but impossible to get any other than an indie book store to put my book on the shelf.