Wednesday, August 6, 2008


The publishing business is exceedingly shallow. Agents only want a few paragraphs about the novel in a query letter. Few agents want to see the book. And they read hundreds of queries every week. Many claim that if the query is no good they can nearly guarantee that they would not like the book anyway.

An experienced author and reviewer, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, agrees that the publishing business is shallow. She says that the title of a book must sell the book to the publishing company. She says it twice. The title. Staggering.

Today I posted to an agent's blog in response to another comment by Ms. Lichtenberg. I said that modern publishing evaluates gemstones with a cursory glance, instead of with a jeweler's loupe. The stone must dazzle at a glance. Keep it going for a query letter and you are in the door. I had wondered why it was so hard to buy good books. Rhinestones with good titles proliferate.

Without question the best titled book I have picked up in years is The Book of Fate. The Book of Fate is also an unmitigated disaster of a read. Maybe extraterrestrials would be blind to the obvious logical errors in the first couple of chapters (as far as I got), but I cannot see Earthlings being able to continue to read, rather than fling the book across the room. But I loved the title and loved the cover. I checked the audiobook out from the library, so I did not give the author a strong incentive to write a sequel.

Ms. Lichtenberg's other comment was reported in Pub Rants. She said that the author should write the blurb for the back cover before writing the book. I agree.

George R. R. Martin's blockbuster fantasy series would never have sold, based on the blurb. Martin's complex characters, subplots, and superlative writing (not to mention his deep knowledge of medieval society) make the series a modern classic. In Martin's story, the old king is murdered and a squabble erupts over the kingdom. Add in the reemergence of magic and the fact that a multi-year winter will bring evil creepies from the north and you have the kind of blurb that you could read on a new book every month.

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game has kid geniuses training and destroying the threat of alien bugs from outer space. Not quite a unique blurb.

But Wicked--The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as told by the Wicked Witch of the West, spawns a great blurb. I have no idea if Wicked is any good, but its blurb is as good as The Book of Fate's title.

I am an economist, so I spend much more time working with the industry as it is than ranting about it on my blog. For this rant, I blame Kristin, of Pub Rants fame.


Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Thank you for mentioning other people mentioning me! I found this blog via google reader, a tool that's turning out invaluable.

I don't think "publishing" is really "shallow" but rather that Marketing has transformed "publishing" into a business where the bottom line is more important than feeding minds.

Or maybe put another way, "publishing" doesn't exist any more. There was a day when books weren't supposed to turn a profit. They were supposed to say something important for other people to hear.

That process -- communicating about issues -- has abandoned "publishing" and gone to "the internet" via blogs, social networks, microblogs like twitter, and a burgeoning number of sites that carry short but pithy fiction.

The fiction delivery system is in the midst of a transfiguration, and I'm tickled to be part of that.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

John Arkwright said...

Thank you so much, Ms. Lichtenberg. I stand corrected.

I can understand your statement that now "the bottom line is more important than feeding minds."

This assertion comes from a world other than the one which I navigate. I take it for granted that the bottom line is the most important thing to a publisher, and am now somwhere between "better educated" and "perplexed" that the business was once something else.

My assertion of shallowness took for granted the profit maximizing outlook. I boggled that books are sold to the publisher based, to a significant extent, on the title, since I find it impossible to believe that the public consistently buys books based on the title.

If my understanding in the preceding paragraph is correct, then the publishing industry's transformation will be far beyond the revolution that I had previously envisioned.