I Know Why Publishing Is On Life Support

I understand why the publishing industry is in trouble, and why there hasn't been a major work of fiction recently that will be talked about by later generations ... save for the Harry Potter series.

Publishing is running scared, and it has retreated into a bunker mentality as far as fiction. Books are accepted that follow established norms. We have Harry Potter wannabes and Twilight clones. We have established spy stories and established detectives. Where is something the quality of "To Kill A Mockingbird"? Why does someone like Kathryn Stockett have to go begging for more than three years before her "The Help" is allowed to reach the public?

The problem is systemic. I know this is gross generalization, and generalization invites error, but here is the way the system works.

There are thousands of English majors or those with degrees in fiction writing who populate agent and editing jobs. They all have been taught a paint by the numbers approach to novels. A writer must do this, and do this, and do this, and do this, then do this. Any variation is reason for rejection. I will confront three areas of The English Major's Commandments I think lead to problems.

1) A character must be larger than life. What's wrong with a character a reader can relate to because that character is familiar? Think of Scout and Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird" ... larger than life? No. I think readers are thirsting for characters and situations they can wrap their minds and emotions around. The "larger than life" commandment works if a novel must be escapist in nature, and current publishing is filled with escapist novels and characters ... wizards, vampires, spies, etc. But, again, people want a different sort of literary main character. The current publishing industry isn't built to give that. The rules are stacked against it.

2) Don't use backstory too early in a novel. What's up with that? Backstory can give great context to a character or characters. I will go back to one of my blog entries and highlight the work of Ken Kesey. His "Sometimes a Great Notion" begins with a long, long chapter, and almost all of it is backstory. Today's agents and editors would either reject Kesey outright or urge a rewrite of that opening chapter. And can you imagine an agent who wants to see the first four chapters of a novel and Kesey delivers 200 pages of amazingly intricate copy? I can hear the gasps on Fifth Avenue or Wazee Street right now. I can see the email in the Kesey inbox: "Dear Ken, thank you for your submission, but your project does not fit what I am looking for right now ..."

3) Don't use passive voice. Passive voice is not the best, but it can be used well. Any number of stories can bring a reader to tears by emotional appeal or tease their moral outrage while using passive voice. But today's agents and editors see passive voice as something akin to touching the third rail. It has been drilled into them in lecture after lecture. It causes a knee-jerk reaction. I have never encountered a reader who told me, "I stopped reading that novel when I detected passive voice. I find that unacceptable." Readers want to know characters, understand their lives, feel their pain, feel the touch of a lover's skin under their fingertips, etc., etc. They don't care whether it's in passive voice. Only English majors trained to paint by numbers do that. Some of them get quite uppity about the matter.

My next blog? I will talk about John Hart's latest book, "Iron House," which I loved. Its original sales were strong, but I don't see it anywhere on the NYT or USA Today bestsellers lists these days. I think I understand why.


  1. It's funny how much i can relate your comments on the publishing industry to the photography industry... while i know very little about fictional writing my 20 years in photography brings up similar questions and comments.

    i studied photography for several years at UAB and was "taught" this is how you do it. Do this, don't do this, and then you have the "proper" image. Problem is, photography is an art, writing is an art, and art is a "created" thing, not something that is "built" by following the exact steps of a previous work. This created art has to come from something other than someone else's concept of what the end result should be to fit into the best marketing slot.

    While learning the basics was far more valuable to me now than i thought it was at the time, the "rules" of photography have taken me years to kick. It has taken years to learn how to give up the "paint by number" and to learn how to create, art.

    in the mean time, the industry over the last 20 years has turned everyone who has an index finger, $300, and the right connections, into a "photographer", all able to "self publish" and sell images where "average" is pretty much now the norm.

    Many times a publisher will opt for an average image over an outstanding image today based on the 7-11 concept of convenience. How does a publisher sort through millions of images to find the outstanding one today? They don't, they take what best fits in the slot they need at that time.

    I still think there are many passionate and very talented photographers (and writers) who have yet to have their potential discovered. There are still many photographers who, when they pull the trigger, instantly create an image that culminates from an idea expressed in subtle changes in the color of light, framing, and interaction with their subject.

    The end result isn't a snap shot but the capture a moment in time, of light arranged in a unique way that tells a story, engages the viewer, and fulfills an idea the photographer had in their head long before they ever put the camera to their eye.

    maybe i put way to much into a single photograph but i think it parallels the written word in many ways... the first 4 verses of John's account come to mind :)


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