The books we read influence our thinking and our opinions—sometimes for generations. Yet as readers and writers, we know so little about those who decide which books we are allowed to see, buy, and read—and which books are killed before they reach the printing press. The entire process of how books are chosen is too secretive considering its societal impact.
Sure, indie publishing has made small-scale printing easier. But printing a book is different from its dissemination. Which books are mass printed, widely distributed, and heavily publicized are still the dominion of a few players, whose selection process remains nebulous. These literary bosses have immense power over readers all over the world. Who are these people exactly? What are their demographics, their goals, their motivations? Do they truly seek diverse voices? Do they care about us readers—or do they just want our dollars? Do they have any guiding human principles, any mission statements, given that we entrust them with feeding the minds of our children?
After a decade interfacing with each facet of this industry, I felt it was time to share with readers and aspiring writers what I learned about the underbelly of the publishing industry.
First of all, it’s all about money. Every book has a profit and loss statement. So, let’s follow the money. It flows from the reader-buyer-customer, whom we all are at some point.
As a reader, how did you come across the last book you purchased? Did you see it displayed conspicuously in your real or virtual bookstore? The publisher paid for that real estate—not because it’s a great book, but simply because it sells. Or did you learn about the book from a book review in a newspaper—or an author interview on the radio? Here’s a well-kept secret: it’s unlikely that the author “earned” that review or that interview. The author paid for it—indirectly. Well-heeled mainstream authors pay a publicist 30-50 thousand dollars for a six-month publicity campaign that starts pre-publication. It is these publicists who cajole journalists into promoting the book in the most well-respected newspapers, radio stations, magazines, and book festivals. Publicists use their personal connections—and sometimes bestow shadowy favors along the way—to extract such lavish media coverage. Most of these publicists only work with authors who are published by the top four publishing conglomerates that own most of the market share. What’s more, the same book reviewers and literary radio hosts will only take book and author interview proposals from publicists—never from authors. That means if they are contacted by an author who cannot afford a publicist, these media gatekeepers will not even respond. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is a funny and sobering movie that exposes the chokehold publicists have over reporters and magazine content.
Publicists will also help an author obtain hundreds of “reader reviews” quickly, and other author blurbs and endorsements that readers use to decide whether to buy a book. Even more disturbing, for an extra fee, publicists will peddle their influence in book award campaigns. This means authors who can fork out 50K have more visibility and clout with book award committees. If this is how we grant awards in science and medicine, we’d all be drinking snake oil.
So fellow readers, don’t limit yourself to the books that are thrust in front of you everywhere you go, in ads, best-seller lists, and placements. Dig deeper for the gems that were a labor of love, written for you—not packaged for the masses.
Let’s turn to how books make their journey—like salmon jumping upstream—from authors’ hard drives to the printing press. It is not even a secret that literary agents will only consider manuscripts “by referral only.” In fact, their websites often explicitly say “no unsolicited manuscripts.” Just imagine if admission to universities, law schools, and medical schools was also by referral only and “no unsolicited applicants” will be accepted. We would have an intellectual aristocracy, as we had before widespread literacy. The same publishing industry that emerged from that great equalizer—the printing press—today finds it totally acceptable that a compelling book will only reach readers if the writer has the right connections.
We love rags-to-riches stories of authors who wrote a novel in the janitor’s closet or on prison toilet paper. But bringing that book to a wide readership is apparently reserved to those who “know so and so,” like the Manhattanite who meets an agent at a fundraiser. How will a self-taught novelist in the Bronx ever land that personal introduction to an agent? And what agent could “solicit” the memoir of an African orphan detailing her upbringing in a brothel? This very first and often insurmountable literary agency bottleneck makes the book industry one of the least merit-based in our modern era.
The agent’s decision whether to confer literary representation is done privately—by scanning incoming author emails. There is no oversight at this level: no online diversity form, no committee or colleagues looking over an agent’s inbox. That means there is very little transparency. An agent could unilaterally ignore all books from women, immigrants, certain ethnic or religious groups, or writers who did not come referred by powerbrokers. Unlike other professions who are compelled to make decisions on the basis of merit (as evidenced by grades, degrees, or experience), literary agents are allowed to decline manuscripts on very subjective grounds. It’s routine for agents to reject a book because they “didn’t connect emotionally” with it, providing no other explanation or feedback.
Demographics don’t help matters, as agents are often white, young, mostly women, with literary majors from expensive universities. It’s a perfect recipe for a diversity crisis in the voices we the readers are allowed to hear. Because the book industry has been suffering financially, agent assistants, and junior agents and editors are relatively underpaid compared to other white collar fields like finance and tech. Despite the low salaries, agents are often required to live in Manhattan or London or Los Angeles, where rents are high. So often these literary professionals rely on their families or spouses to finance at least in part their fledgling careers in publishing. How would any of them even “connect emotionally” with a destitute refugee who wrote a sci-fi novel set on a sinking ship?
It is no wonder then that what agents allow through the literary gates are often weak stories that appeal at an emotional level to white, young, privileged, upwardly mobile intellectuals. Wonder why there are so many American romances in Paris? Or stories about cut-throat jobs in New York? Or middle-class malaise in London? Or single, professional women struggling with successful, commitment-phobic boyfriends?
Writers have to be doubly lucky, and not just land an agent, but one who has connections further up the echelons of literary power. Editors will rarely look at submissions from agents with whom they haven’t schmoozed. In the privacy of their inbox, editors can reject any submissions they want, and only need committee approval for books they have already decided to champion.
It all comes back down to money. The agents ask, “Can I sell this book to a publisher?” The editors ask, “Can I sell this book to the marketing guys?” The publishers ask, “Why back a midlist book, when I can bet only on books that might appeal to hundreds of thousands of readers?” No matter how beautifully written, how engaging the story, or how valuable to society, if the book is seen as unlikely to turn a big profit, it is dumped into the book cemetery. Harry Potter came very close to being one such casualty. Were it not for one daring agent, this series that launched a million young readers would have never been seen by a single child.
It is the marketing crew in the publishing house that gives the book a hypothetical P&L, loosely cobbled together from “comps”—or books that are comparable in genre and storyline. If the comps did not sell enough copies, the book’s prospects are dire. So what happens if an original literary work has no comps, because it has no precedent, or it sits in between genres? If they don’t know where it goes in the bookstore (even though most are now virtual) or if they can’t figure out how to market it to the masses, that manuscript will remain unseen, erased from humanity’s consciousness.
This desperate focus on profit over merit leads to some strange winners. Guess who is guaranteed a book deal? Got any dirt on a sitting president? Not long ago, people like Bob Woodward brought their nuggets to the press before the news got stale. Now they get a book deal and sit on key information for six months. Celebrity gossip used to only sell to tabloids or TV shows like Insider Edition for some serious cash. Now, if you illegally recorded a juicy conversation with a celebrity, you are the one getting precious book advances, even if you can’t write to save your life. Meanwhile, writers who spend years learning the mysteries of plot, character, and suspense are left to their own devices.
Enter Amazon. It’s hard to like a capitalist great white shark like Jeff Bezos. But the guy did manage to empower the small people—and make billions for himself at the same time. I still remember a graduation dinner back in 1993, where everybody was bragging about their upcoming doctoral program or new job at Lehman Brothers. One young man was almost embarrassed that he’d be working for this small company that sells books online. We all laughed and asked, “Why would anybody buy books on the Internet, instead of going to the neighborhood bookstore?” As one of the earliest employees, that gentleman most certainly got the last laugh.
Amazon not only revolutionized how books are sold, but it reduced their price, squeezing both publishers and authors. But Amazon was a boon for readers, who now could buy cheap books, used books, instant e-books and affordable audiobooks—and review them for each other. Amazon also made it possible for writers to become their own publishers and publicists, as long as Amazon makes money on all of these steps, from the printing and royalty-sharing, to the ads and placement in its virtual bookstore. If you want to play with Amazon, be prepared to share at least half your profits—and subsidize readers’ low prices too.
As much as the industry needs writers, it ultimately has very little respect for them. There are too many writers, and too few memorable books. High supply means everybody is treated like cattle—unless they sell a lot. Violence sells a lot. So do badly written romances. So do copycat plots that invariably trail bestsellers.
When you add it all up, writers make less than minimum wage. It takes years to write a funny or moving novel, a page-turner, or well-researched nonfiction—yet we expect it to cost less than a cappuccino. The average advance from a traditional publisher is comparable to the annual salary of a Starbucks barista, i.e., close to the poverty line. The agent takes 15% of that, and many writers give it all to a publicist, if they want their book to reach thousands. Authors who don’t bring in more than their advance won’t see a second book deal.
Writing courses and even published authors don’t inform new writers about these harsh realities. They focus on every sentence and paragraph, as though any rejection is only attributable to quality. But rejection abounds despite merit. After a publisher scorned him, John Kennedy Toole killed himself—then won the Pulitzer posthumously. Before you dedicate years learning the tricky art of storytelling, know this: the many literary gatekeepers reject on merit, but also on profit and whim. So, don’t take it personally. And if you proceed, write for love more than money.