Culling the Herd, Improving the Breed

marineI’ve been accused of lacking a certain amount of, well, esprit de corps when it comes to the plight of my colleagues in publishing. These are not the best of times for people in the biz: staffs are being cut, longtime employees dismissed, whole divisions lopped off in response to plunging book sales and evaporating profit margins.

But rather than commiserating with the editors and book folk who have been handed their walking papers, my reactions have been cold-blooded, remorseless and decidedly ungenerous. Why?

Try to see it from my point of view: these people have failed. They have failed to excite the reading public, they have failed to choose and promote books that appeal to the tastes of their purported readership. Their gross ineptitude has led to their bosses absorbing big financial losses and, quite understandably, looking to clean house. Honestly, why should we care if they’re called to account for their incompetence, summoned into an office and given ten minutes to collect their name plates and personalized coffee mugs and get the hell out of Dodge?


Is jetissoning them any great loss? Are they irreplaceable? Tireless advocates of excellence in literature and the power and glory of the printed word? Not in my experience.

Don’t forget, I’ve dealt with publishing types for nearly twenty-five years and I have all too frequently found myself on the receiving end of their stupidity and outright dishonesty. When I think of editors and those who serve with them as cogs in the corporate publishing mega-monster, I’m not exactly overwhelmed by warm, fuzzy feelings.

Occasionally, as I read the latest casualty rolls in some industry mouthpiece like MediaBistro’s “Galleycat” site, certain names make me perk up. ____________ and _____________ (names removed for legal reasons) were both editors at major New York publishing houses who were given the boot within a few months of each other.

kidAnd in each case I cheered. Schadenfreude. It’s a bitch.

The two editors treated me abominably, hanging onto my manuscripts for ungodly periods of time, refusing to respond to my communications. In desperation, I finally called one and at first the editor in question seemed genuinely contrite. “Oh, God, yes, I remember liking that one. I’ll get to you next week”. But a week passed and then a month…and when I called a second time, I was given a rude brush-off.

I’ll get to it when I get to it, all right?”

Never heard from her again.

I’ve detailed my many odd and surreal experiences in the world of publishing in my essay “Solace of Fortitude”. Not a word of it is manufactured or exaggerated, I assure you. I only wish that were the case. (Warning: This essay not to be read on a full stomach.)

The truth is that in my quarter century as a professional author I can count the number of intelligent and thoughtful editors I’ve encountered on the fingers of one hand (sans thumb). Ditto for agents.

So why in the name of eternal, infinite God should I give a tinker’s damn if, as a species, editors cease to exist? Should I wear a black armband because the same people who have mistreated me, lied to me and denigrated my work are dangling from every lamp post in lower Manhattan? Fat chance.

old womanTo me, all this downsizing is a golden opportunity to pare away some of the dead wood that the industry has been carrying far too long. Editors and execs who have grown old, fat, stale and comfortable in their corner offices, as secure as tenured professors (and just as paranoid and senile). Insular, self-serving, fickle. Highly resistant to change. Time for some new blood, I say, new ideas and approaches.

Traditional publishing seems to be dead, so to me the obvious question that arises is: WHAT NEXT?

Clearly the corporate approach ain’t the answer. Publishing by committee, collating and analyzing spreadsheets, projected sales figures, flow charts and pie graphs. Slitting open a sheep for good measure and rooting about in its entrails for any insights that might be gleaned there. Always on the look-out for the next blockbuster, something sort of different but mainly the same. But while the big ticket scribblers like Rowling and Dan Brown may plump up the sales numbers for a few quarters, what are editors/publishers doing to grow and sustain a stable, longterm readership? Maintaining a lifetime consumer base that’s literate (something less and less important in these days of text messaging, emoticons and three line e-mails) and devoted to the printed word, unwilling to see books relegated to the status of artifacts and curios.


The way ahead lies with smaller, tightly run publishing concerns, staffed by informed, dedicated, reader-savvy men and women. Independent in spirit, offering a more diverse, iconoclastic selection of titles thanks to the wonders of print-on-demand (POD) publishing and e-book hard/software. Works which are then promoted through podcasts, blog reviews and on-line interviews, “virtual” book tours. Live “web chats”; YouTube readings and short films.

Computer technology also enables readers to connect directly with their favorite authors through personal sites, Facebook, etc., as well as allowing them to join forums devoted to writers or genres of interest. Forming a vast, far-reaching community of book-lovers and devotees, unimpeded by geographic boundaries and undeterred by small details like race, politics, gender.

earthReaders without borders.

The end of corporate publishing is nigh. The signs are all there. The multi-nationals are fed up with the red ink their book divisions keep hemorrhaging. First they went at the fat with scalpels, now they’re using machetes. Desperate tactics enacted by desperate people…and I suspect it won’t make one bit of difference. The die has been cast and nothing the suits do will have the slightest effect on the massive changes technology is bringing about and a paradigm shift that is part cultural, part economic and wholly beyond the control of Wall Street, Fleet Street…or anywhere else.

These are actually great times to be a writer, or, really, anyone who works and creates in the arts. Never before have we, as artists, had access to (potentially) such a vast audience, drawn from every corner of the world. And the good news is that we can acquire this access for a relatively modest investment. No longer do writers (for example) need to kowtow to the traditional gate-keepers of publishing, the editors and agents who are largely to blame for the present moribund state of the industry. Those self-appointed arbiters of taste have been rendered superfluous, shown to be incapable of identifying or developing authors gifted with originality, power and grace—the very qualities that get people excited about reading again.

It’s my personal belief that a good deal more publishing poobahs need to have their tickets punched before authors and the general reading public have any hope of being better-served. And if the end result of these lay-offs and staff reductions is better books, a wider selection and variety of formats for readers to choose from, more authors having their voices heard, I say:




  1. mikecane

    Well, Cliff, that about sums it up, doesn’t it?

    A book this week, another next week — but what about sustaining the entire idea of reading as a part of life?

    They did nothing for that.

    Some people are all excited over The Second Coming of Dan Brown in September.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the biggest bomb in the history of book publishing.

    It’d be vicious justice.

  2. Shannon

    Whee! Sing it, brother. I have no experience from my 9 years as a full-time writer, before I quit in exasperation, that would refute anything you say here.

    I for one am looking forward to the fall of the behemoths and the rise again of the creative, independent, forward-thinking small press.

  3. zoewinters

    I have mixed feelings about it. (surprise surprise lol)

    On one hand, I hear ya. I think corporate publishing is the worst thing that every happened to the written word in some ways. BUT, I also acknowledge that corporate publishing is run by human beings, not gods. It’s insane to expect from them things they never could have delivered.

    And I think a lot of people when ranting about the evils of the publishing industry start holding them to impossible standards NO ONE could live up to.

    I think we agree though that it’s the model that’s the problem. Bringing actual live human beings into the mix, just makes the model even worse, lol.

    I do feel bad though for those who have lost their jobs. While I don’t really mourn the falling of major publishing companies, I do feel bad for the real human beings behind the jobs who have lost their livelihoods. Just as I would feel bad for a plumber or steelworker or social worker who lost a job.

    Hell I’d feel bad for a stripper who lost a job. The job you do, as long as you aren’t killing or maiming people, isn’t necessarily “who you are” and everybody has to eat.

  4. driftlessareareview

    It’s all a matter of perception. When PODs and self-published start to raise the bar on the quality of the product, then mainstream publishing will be dead. Look at how Corman’s charges (Nicholson, Demme, etc.) revolutionized mainstream cinema in the 1960s and 70s. The same can be done with publishing where “indie” actually means something.

    No suits breathing down your neck, more creative freedom, etc. It’s like Olympia Press and New Directions all over again. Huzzah and kudos, Cliff.

    With the Interwebs and small press opportunities out there, I will have more options at my fingertips when I want to get my sci fi thriller published.

  5. Pat Bertram

    There are many problems with the publishing industry, but for me there are two main ones: they do not publish books I want to read, and they did not publish my books. Though, to be honest, I didn’t want them to publish mine. I think they would be horrendous folk to work for/with. Most people who go the alternate publishing route still salivate after a major publishing contract. Why? If even big names like Dean Koontz get cheated out of royalties, what hope is there for the rest of us? I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings.

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  7. Jim Thomsen

    I agree with everything said here. As someone deep in the development of his first book — a sort of upscale literary true-crime tome — I simply can’t see any reason to go the traditional agent-publisher route. They’d have to offer me a hell of a good deal to offset the hard work I’d be putting into self-publishing, where I’d a) control the size, shape and look of my work; and b) reap 100% of the profits. And in this climate, they’re not going to. That’s fine. I know how to get a book ready for publishing, and I know how to promote and distribute the hell out of it once it’s published. I’ve done my homework, and I eagerly look forward to controlling my destiny. And making money, and making a name for myself on my own terms.

    It’ll be incredibly hard work. But everything truly satisfying in life usually is.

    Thanks, Cliff.

  8. David J. Williams

    I think part of the problem these days is that editors are faced with impossible jobs–the average editor has to not only edit, but ride herd on marketing, deal with sales, struggle with the art dept, etc., etc., all within an organization within which they have heaps of responsibility without the requisite authority. To my mind the problems Cliff is citing stem more from larger contradictions in how publishing is organized than the Personal Deficiencies of editors as a group. Which isn’t to say those aren’t a factor in at least some cases—I myself have been very fortunate in who I’ve worked with, but I certainly have heard the horror stories. . . .

  9. robert

    I agree with much of what Cliff has to say, but as a sociologist I am more inclined to attribute the problems to structural issues rather than to individuals. Most editors I’ve encountered are honest, overworked individuals trying to do good within the constraints of corporate dictates — the underlying problem is that corporations inherently view books as product rather than as art.

    Corporations do not care how good a book is, only whether it will make money… which of course is ridiculously hard to predict and often unrelated to quality. I have been very frustrated seeing good books turned down because they failed to fit neatly into predetermined marketing niches — but of course, the most interesting work necessarily pushes boundaries and so won’t fit well into predetermined niches. Cliff is absolutely correct about publishers increasingly playing it safe and therefore failing to provide the reading public with anything new and fresh — but I don’t see this as a failing of the tastes of editors (can they all be that bad? Not one had taste?) but rather the structural problem that publishers have evolved from small presses run by editors (who published what they LIKED in the hopes that you might like it too) into corporations. Corporations stopped thinking about whether a book was deserving, and focused only on whether it would make money. As publishers started acting as corporations, they adopted the corporate competitive strategies of trying to take market share, not by putting out a better product (fresh new books) but by buying up the competition. As small presses were gobbled up by corporations, and those corporations gobbled up my a few monopolistic national publishers, and ultimately, those national publishers by transglobal corporations, each step required the larger (surviving) corporation to take on increasing levels of debt to pay for these ever larger acquisitions. The result is that whereas the original small press could survive and thrive on a 10% return on investment (i.e., selling relatively few copies) now, the transglobal corporation HAS to sell a million of copies of each book, simply to service their debt load — bit like GM, the debt has just gotten out of hand. Consequently, niche publishing, regional publishing, indeed any publishing endeavor where the potential for sales is less than a million copies, is just not economically viable for these publishers. They therefore MUST cater to the lowest common denominator in hopes of making the necessary sales. So in my field, SF, that means ST and SW series books, a dozen reliable series authors who predictably sell hundreds of thousands of copies of their never ending, never changing series. And a few new authors who look enough like those best sellers to make the publishers think they might have another safe seller on their hands.

    In such an environments, who can publish an edgy guy like Cliff Burns? So I can see editors going, ‘yeah, this guy is good!” but still passing over him because he’s going to sell 75,000 copies, not a million. (Well, probably could have sold a million if anyone was paying attention, but again, when your debt load is 65%, who can take risks — the next mistake might well be the end of the company. So I don’t think most Editors are actively evil (there might well be exceptions, as Cliff’s experiences would seem to indicate) I just think they are stuck struggling to preserve a dying business model that cannot be salvaged.

    The Legacy publishers are in collapse — so far advanced that it is now obvious to everyone, though the signs (Cliff not getting a mainstream Stephen King style contract 25 years ago being an early example) have been there had we but paid attention. So people like Cliff have been blazing the trail in demonstrating the new business model for publishing, and POD technologies and similar get better and make it easier everyday….

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