Sunday, August 4, 2013

Climbing the Steps

By now, most of you know of my antipathy for the traditional publishing world.  I don't think most publishers or agents understand the market any better than you or I do, and they understand it even less than the market in come cases.  I was reminded of this most recently by a CNN article regarding Jerzy Kosinski and his novel, Steps.

Some writers already know this story.  I ran across it years ago and had forgotten.  The novel is a collection of short stories about themes of self control and isolation, and it can be violent at times.  It came out in 1968 through Random House, and it was both a commercial and literary success, winning the 1969 National Book Award.  Sounds like they found a winner, right?

The funny part comes from what a man named Chuck Ross did in 1975 and 1979 in order to prove a point.  First, for all you scolds out there, let me preface this by saying plagiarism is bad and you shouldn't go copying someone else's work and passing it off as your own.  That said, what Ross did was hysterical.

Ross believed, as many do, that it takes an exceptional amount of luck to land with a publisher unless you already have had success - good writing, despite the refrain from agents and publishers, won't get you in the door as an unknown.  Publishers and agents can say that they're hungry for good writing, but what they're really hungry for is a proven name.  Ross typed up 21 pages of excerpts from Kosinki's novel and sent it out to several publishers, all of whom rejected it.  In 1979, he repeated the experiment, except that this time he typed out the entire manuscript.  Not only did every publisher reject it, but 26 agents did so as well.

Keep in mind that these folks are rejecting an award winning novel that had proven a pretty good money maker.  Steps didn't have the fame of many novels, which is what aided in its use, but it was still a proven winner, both with opinion makers and the public - you know...the folks who plop down money to keep this whole publishing thing going.

Embarrassed that they'd been hoodwinked when Ross finally revealed what he'd done, those in the industry screamed about Ross being unethical and how he shouldn't have done it...everything but address his original thesis.  Yes, it was probably wrong if Ross was looking to get published himself with the work, but the biggest thing he did was make many publishers and agents look like asses.  He exposed a fundamental truth about the industry that good writing simply isn't enough.  I've been saying this for a while now.

If only big names with good writing got through, that'd be one thing, but given the slop we've seen on shelves, it calls into question the competence of the entire industry.  Artsy stuff is one thing, but let's not forget that this is a business designed to make money.  When I listen to people bitch about the state of the book market, what I hear is a bunch of blowhards who are wildly off synch with the people who buy the end product.  The disconnect between "publisher good" and "market good" is extreme, and Ross helped expose that in the 1970s.

And in my opinion, it has only gotten worse since then.  That's the benefit of the indie market - we can get our stuff to the public and let them decide what's good and what isn't.  The traditional market has done nothing recently but limit choice, and isn't freedom about choice, whether that choice be good or bad?

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