Friday, February 25, 2011

Publishing: It's not a System, it's a Market

Free-form Friday

It's both tempting and comforting to think of publishing as a system.

Systems, after all, have rules which, if followed, produce consistent results.

As aspiring authors, we study examples of things that worked, from pitches and queries to hooks and books, driven by the faith that if we can just figure out and follow the rules, we too will be published.

But publishing isn't a system.

First, there's no governing body to agree upon and enforce the rules. [Jane Friedman, a publishing industry veteran, has a blog called, There are No Rules to make this very point.]

Second,  it's not consistent. I've heard people wryly characterize publishing as a high-security facility and would-be authors as infiltrators. If an author breaks into the facility, there's a big celebration, and then the guards seal the breach and add extra security measures to make sure no one else can ever get in that way again. It's a bit cynical, but there's an important element of truth in that story: it's different for everyone.

So, if publishing isn't a system, what is it?

"I know this one," you say. "Publishing is a business."

That's a much better characterization, but it still falls short. "A business," implies organization, perhaps even a degree of centralization. The fact that the big six publishers are all located in in New York certainly looks like centralization. But publishing is more than New York (sorry, Big Apple), and is not well enough organized to call it, "a business."

The best characterization is that publishing is a market--not a commodities market (i.e., you can't replace writing with corn and have the same market), but a market just like the market for goods and services where you live.

Open markets are about the things being traded, but they're also about the relationships among buyers and sellers. Why do you patronize certain stores and not others? Likely because the people at the stores you like have done something for you, like remembering your name or giving you a discount.

In the context of a market, where customers can freely choose among vendors, following "the rules" doesn't guarantee that customers will buy from you. Will, for example, a restaurant that follows all the "rules" of good restaurants always succeed in a market where there are plenty of restaurants to choose from? The "rules" might be necessary for success, but they're not sufficient to ensure success.

Clearly, if you want to participate in the market, you have to offer competitive goods or services. The "rules" of writing help define what it takes to produce a competitive novel. But once you're in the market, the game changes to one of relationships. So stop wondering why no one has recognized the merit of your novel and get out and meet some people.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /


  1. Yes, it's a great point. And I might add as well that the typical and prestigious New York publishing houses aren't always the ones winning the awards at the end of the year. Last year was a joyous example: Paul Harding's beautiful and exquisite novel TINKERS could not find "room at the inn" at any publishing house. It found a home in Bellvue Literary Press, a publisher that usually only prints textbooks but loved the prose and subject matter of a man in the final stages of cancer saying goodbye to his family.


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