Normalizing book publishing

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has another insightful blog post on the immensity of the changes in publishing. She notes that publishing used to be taking place in an environment of scarcity--only X amount of self space existed, meaning that you had to guess which books among the gazillions of unpublished books out there would sell the most if it were allowed to take up one of those precious spaces.

Now publishing is in an environment of abundance: Shelf space is infinite, so you can publish everything and see what flies!

In abundance, you can toss anything into the mix, quantify its sales, and pick winners based on sheer numbers. In scarcity, you have to go with the best of what’s available, and hoping (praying) that you don’t lose too much money on everything else.

She thinks that the change is just amazing. I think the change explains why traditional publishing is so much more like playing the lottery than self-publishing.

The other night, I was explaining my history of trying to get my books traditionally published to some people, and I realized that I was still upset about it. Being the analytical sort, I was trying to sort out why, after all this time (and after it not really mattering anyway), it still bothered me so.

And I think part of it is that the whole "You're great! Nuts to you!" thing just didn't jibe with my experience working in publishing. Publishing in New York City (not anywhere else, I know) is, or at least was, a normal sort of industry.

People from out of town would ask me, "How did you ever get a job in publishing!?! Did you know someone? Who were your connections? The Rockefellers? The Forbes?" I realize that I went to Harvard, and I had a fairly comfortable childhood--out in the fricking sticks, at terrible schools. Harvard was a serious adjustment for me.

Trust me, when I graduated, I didn't know a freaking soul in publishing. I had noooooo connections. I had no clue about careers--no clue. I went into publishing because one day when I was almost finished with my senior year (and hadn't gotten into the Ph.D. programs I'd applied to in a desperate attempt to stay in college forever) I realized that I enjoyed reading magazines and that somebody must make them.

And yet, I had a perfectly respectable career. I got jobs in publishing (and journalism) by answering "help wanted" ads, just like everyone else does in every other normal industry. Like job applicants in every other normal industry, if I was qualified and enthusiastic, I usually got hired.

People say things like, "You're not entitled to have a book published." And on one level, that's true. You're not entitled to perform brain surgery--unless you go through the training and pass the boards and get the license, at which point you are, in fact, entitled to perform brain surgery.

The problem--and I guess the source of the frustration for me--with traditional publishing is that, because of this environment of scarcity, you never reach the point where you are entitled to be published, even if you've won stuff and been published before and worked really hard on something that everyone (including the people who reject it) thinks should be published. Nowadays everyone who wants to be published is entitled to be published. Fine, you're not entitled to have a monster best-seller, but I think that if you work at it, you can indeed find an audience to appreciate and support your work. And that is a real revolution.