A lot of the comments (and some of my posts) relating to the changes in publishing here have been a sort of astonished shock at how slow publishers are at “getting” it. I don’t know if it was here in comments that someone mentioned the tactics designed to “herd the consumer back into hard covers,” starting with delay in publishing ebook, moving on to some really badly formated ebooks, passing through the fact that they’re priced at hard cover price. These moves actually only seem to hurt both hardcover and ebook sales.
The image in my mind is of Lord Cornwallis surrendering to George Washington, and the song, weaving through the air “The World Turned Upside Down.”
Yes I know, there’s a good chance that never happened. But these folklore moments persist because they capture something profound and revelatory. And at the time, if not now, it would be understood that to Cornwallis this was far more than a simple military defeat. It was the upending of what he had always known about the world and his place in it.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Men are social creatures, but the specific kind of social creatures we are is hierarchical creatures.
Those people who posit – or have faith in! – an equalitarian human past, before civilization corrupted us have never read about the social organization of chimps or baboons; or they’ve been mainlining Jean Jacques Rosseau without knowing it; or they cling atavistically to the idea of Eden even though most of them are not religious.
Humans, like all apes were designed to live in a band where social organization had very fine grades. As such, we have finely tuned hierarchicy-sensing devices and certain set ways of responding to certain types of social organization.
What started the idea for this post going was the Passive Voice’s article entitled Your Agent Is Not Your Mommy. He’s talking about how many authors post about “my agent right or wrong.” (He’d probably be really shocked about how some authors talk about their publisher/editor.)
His reaction is this:
To PG, these kinds of reactions seem weird and a little icky, but mostly adolescent, maybe even babyish.
They’re sound like a shy sophomore who has a giant crush on the high school quarterback and slips anonymous love notes into his locker. Bobby can do no wrong because he’s just so cute and wonderful and she knows he likes her because he said hi one time in the hall between classes.
Or (rolling away from sexism), they’re like Napoleon Dynamite after someone agreed to go to the dance with him.
This is a business relationship, not a girls and boys club. The class of trust that speaks to PG in quotes like these is a mommy trust or a clingy best friend trust, a deeply codependent and needy trust. If the agent terminates representation, it will feel like a breakup instead of like switching to a new doctor.
Here I must make a full confession. I never felt this way about Lucienne, because she was my fourth agent. Until we’d worked together for about five years I didn’t believe it was even semi-permanent as an arrangement. And besides, until we worked together about two years I didn’t unbend even to the level that most people do in business relationships (you know, the occasional joke, etc.)
BUT when I sold my first book, and learned the editor has heart trouble, I remember feeling incredibly afraid she would die. Because – see – after thirteen years trying to break in, I had this foot in the door, and if it accidentally closed, I might never be published again.
Was I icky to my editor? I was never particularly demonstrative one way or another in public with any of them, but I know I spent many years in a state of cold fury at one of my editors without daring to be anything other than very cordial in person. (This, btw, is not good for the soul.)
I think I was icky to my agent before Lucienne, agent #3 – perhaps not in public, but in my head. Look, she never sold anything for me. Regardless of the fact I sent her little – she should have asked for proposals, when I was in a strange mood where I thought I should write a book out – what I sent her rarely made it out of her office and what did got rejected so fast it probably caught fire on re-entry. It doesn’t in any way justify the fact that I had a near breakdown when she dropped me. But again, I thought I would be locked out of publishing forever.
And it wasn’t only authors who were icky. The editor who gave me ulcers referred to agent #3 – a very junior, starting out agent – as “the incomparable X.”
I’d been listening to a Heinlein short story when walking before I read that Passive Voice post. And the story I’d been listening to (talking about slavery) said something like “when an economic system is like this, then slavery is inevitable.”
Perhaps that was why I cast about for political/economic equivalents to all the fawning you used to see towards agents and editors. And found them. The one that came immediately to mind was North Korea, where Dear Leader is always referred to as Dear Leader, even though his people are starving, and is acclaimed as a poet, a fashion icon, a dietician, a…. You get my point.
I’m not suggesting any editors or agents are the equivalent of Kim Jon Il, of course, (Oh, please, when is the last time your agent or editor could slam you in jail! I’m not that stupid.)
What I’m suggesting is that publishing as it existed had certain similarities to a totalitarian regime. We knew, or learned very quickly, that if you made the wrong move, you could be shut out of publishing forever no matter how talented. More importantly, we knew that how well we did in the marketplace had less to do with what we put between the covers of the book than how the book was packaged, marketed and pushed, all things over which the writer had no control whatsoever and all things over which their editor (and after the change in model to have the agent be the only way to access the editor, the agent – which makes me wonder for those who are older in the field than I am, if the way agents were treated changed) had power. It became a matter of “upset the agent and your book might never sell to an editorial house or might sell for a low advance and as ‘disposable’ which is, of course, how the editor will regard it too.” Or “upset the editor, and your book will print a thousand copies and be instantly remaindered.” Even worse “Don’t make yourself special to the agent/editor and your book will languish uncared for.”
So… is it any surprise that editors and agents alike got the “dear leader” and the “brilliant aesthetician” “masterful business person” treatment? Hell, most writers I know didn’t say anything else, even to themselves in the quiet of their own heads because they didn’t want to admit to any discrepancy.
This is called Preference Falsification and it explains why once a revolution tips over into “likely to succeed” things change so fast and people will seem to become turncoats wholesale. Because most of them had been lying in public and private and often in their own heads about what they would prefer.
I’d say the epublishing revolution has JUST entered that phase. Even a year ago, I sat on a panel next to a writer heartily defending his poor publisher, who couldn’t survive on $5 an ebook, because it cost far more than that to produce and who would be, against their will, forced to fire him if his hardcover sales didn’t pick up, even though he was selling a lot of ebooks. He was begging people not to buy ebooks. He was full of empathy and defenses of his publisher, and at the time, since I already knew a) how much it costs to produce an ebook b) that more than likely his publisher was making a lot of money off his e-sales, this nauseated me a little and like the Passive Guy I thought “is this Stockholm syndrome? Why?”
Well, because we’re hierarchical by nature and when the hierarchy is not based in meritocracy but on fawning and submission to the leader, regardless of what the leader does, this system results.
So why would the publishing hierarchy react rationally to what’s happening? For years they’ve been making huge errors and were still called brilliant and wonderful. For years, they cut themselves off from the feedback of the market but had authors (and at conventions “fans” who were wanna be authors) tell them how exquisitely correct they were in holding back or pushing the books they did. And now suddenly people are telling them they were wrong? They made mistakes? Suddenly, the levers of power and money they used don’t work? HOW can that be possible?
They’re frozen in error, behind the wheel which just came off in their hands, with the brake pedal and gas dead and the gear shift not responding. Of course they are reacting badly and making bad decisions. People in shock often do.
Meanwhile writers are jumping out the windows (and some from the trunk) to save themselves and not a few are finding more efficient conveyance.
Just like the sick fawning should have told us there was something wrong with the system, the bizarre, lurching decisions of the hierarchy of publishing should tell us they’re in shock and not reacting rationally.
“If ponies rode men and grass ate the cows” “If writers fired their editors and published themselves”
Just What Tune was in the Air when
The World Turned Upside Down?