So I’m not Sarah, or Dave, and I don’t have oodles of experience with the industry. What I do have is an outsider’s view. My mainstream credits consist of a handful of short stories in anthologies and semi-regular contributions to the Valdemar anthologies. Big time, there.
Now, while I might get kind of ranty here, I’m not actually bitter. From what I’ve seen from Sarah, Dave and others who deal a lot with the US publishing industry (the UK one is a different beastie with its own issues), I’m actually bloody lucky I never got past the gatekeepers. They wouldn’t know what to do with me.
See, marketing decisions are based on “what book is your book like?” – much the same as movies are being made based on “what movie is your movie like?”. The effect is that the marketing folks wouldn’t know a clue if it bit them when it comes to anything that doesn’t fit any established pattern. You write a Hamilton pastiche, they know exactly where to slot you. You write something like…. oh, the Knights in Tarnished Armor, which isn’t just a bizarre take on the fairytale kingdom theme, it’s one that’s done as an epistolatory piece, at best you’re getting “I loved it but how would I sell it?” More likely the response is going to be more along the lines of “WTF?”
Something like Impaler would – at best – have been tagged onto the sparkly/angsty/non-vampiric vampire bandwagon (It’s about Dracula! Of course it’s a vampire book!). Instead, no-one it went to had the least idea what to do with it.
Part of what I see happening is that – as always happens in a bureaucracy of any size – the accountants and the marketers are running the show. That’s fine if you’re dealing with a commodity model, where one widget of brand X is the same as any other widget of brand X, and there’s a clear distinction in quality and expected use between the different widget types that brand X sells. That kind of model is what the accountancy types and the marketing types are trained in. Many of the poor things have no idea that there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t fit their nice little models.
You see, models make a good thumbnail view of how something works. Sometimes if they’re good enough they’ll let you predict a few things, within certain limits. A model that’s based on, say, car parts, is going to fail badly when it’s applied to books. Or music. Or art work.
Worse, bureaucracies ossify. The longer something’s been around, the more likely things are happening because they’ve always been done this way. Unless an organization constantly reinvents itself, it gets to the point where the only way it can do anything is through the time-worn channels of institutional inertia.
You know where this is going, don’t you?
The mainstream publishers in the US are part of large corporations, most of them have been around under one name or another for a long time, and their accountants and marketing people are mostly commodity-based modelers. Heck, it’s bloody difficult to find anyone who’ll look at a service-based industry and not see the people working there as the commodities (and interchangeable at that). Follow the dots along the path of least resistance and you’ve got the current system where they’re desperately trying to do what they’ve always done only harder and nastier (with precious few exceptions, the authors got screwed all the time. They just didn’t get screwed as badly or as often), and they can’t see why it’s not working because they don’t have the mental equipment to look outside the way it’s always been done. Those that do see the problems are mostly shutting up and holding on because a job is a job and food doesn’t pay for itself. In better times, they’d be jumping ship (not even crazy people jump from a ship into a lake of fire. Well… This crazy person excepted. I’d be figuring there’s water under that lake and if I can hold my breath long enough to get to shore I’m set. Metaphorically speaking, anyway).
And of course, the definition of crazy – one of them, anyway – is repeating the same actions while expecting different results (unless you test software, in which case different results from the same actions are very much on the cards).
So… what does this newbie author do? Well, I’m working with Naked Reader to publish as much of my stuff as they’ll take. They’re small, flexible, and they’re not into eternal slavery contract clauses. I fully expect the mainstream industry to collapse in a messy fashion somewhere in the next 2 years. I also expect that the publishers who emerge on top will be today’s small and indie publishers – so long as they can manage not to be swept away by the Spaceballs Super Sucker of Change (yeah, okay, they called it megamaid or something. It was still a super-sucker).
For those who are invested in the mainstream publishing industry, it’s not really an insult to call them dinosaurs. It’s a fact of large, entrenched corporations. The bigger they are, the longer it takes for the signals of excrement contacting rotating blades to travel from the extremities to the alleged brain (okay, not many CEOs can be considered the “brain”, but they are the decision-making bit). By then, the whole thing has usually been diluted so much it’s gone from “Oh shit” to “There might be some slight inconvenience”, kind of like Chinese Whispers played with a requirement that the message get more polite with each repetition.
Me? If I sell well enough to attract the attention of the mainstream dinosaurs, I’m selling well enough I don’t need their services. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but I have my middle finger ready just in case.