Monday, July 11, 2011

Who Will Save the Publishers?

As a child, I often used to dream (literally) about lost, forgotten, hidden rooms somewhere in our house. Usually, I would be exploring in the attic or basement and find a connected room that had been blocked off. The room was filled with toys that I loved but had lost, or toys I had never seen before. The dream always left me with a feeling like wonder, of hidden potential in the world. When I got older I still had the same dream, but instead of toys the room was filled with amazing books that couldn't be found in any library. I would handle the books and try to read them, but somehow that was never possible. The dreams made me wish for such a room, to find those books and finally read them.

Only a dream, I always thought. But now I'm not sure. I may have found some of those hidden books.

Stories of famous authors and famous books that have been rejected multiple times are a staple on the internet. (Here is an excellent example.) A few from the list:


Stephen King
J.K. Rowling

Jack Kerouac

A Time to Kill, John Grisham (28)
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, (26)

Watership Down, Richard Adams (26)

The lesson commonly drawn from these rejections is "Don't give up! It might be the next query you send out that is the breakthrough!"

I draw a different lesson.

For every beloved Dune or Gone with the Wind or Harry Potter, there is an equally inspired, entertaining, exciting, charming or enthralling book that never got published. For every Rowling or Grisham who had enough hope left to send out one more letter, there is an unknown author who might have entertained or touched or inspired millions of readers--the shadow of a beloved author that might have been. Somewhere, right now, are the yellowed hand-written manuscripts, or the forgotten floppy disks, or long-disintegrated ashes of your favorite novel ever, except you never got to read it.

Eric Felten, writing in the Wall Street Journal, speaks for the publishing industry in "Cherish the Book Publishers—You'll Miss Them When They're Gone." (The article title promised irony that did not materialize--at least not the way I expected.) Worried about the quality of self-published books, he asks, "…what about those of us in the reading public? Shouldn't we be grateful that it's someone else's job to weed out the inane, the insipid, the incompetent?" He related the experience of a friend whose job it was to look through the slush pile for a New York publishing house, and "…in two years of sifting she found only one marginally plausible submission she could recommend to her bosses." No doubt there were many poorly-written works in that pile over two years. But one has to wonder how many Stephen Kings or Richard Bachs were in that mix.

There is no doubt that easy self-publishing means that the average quality of books available goes down, and the number of books that any one person never wants to read will go up. But the number of exciting, entertaining, original books will also go up. Way up. The number of books fitting my particular niche of interest and your niche of interest will go up. Finding them may be more of a trick now; it isn't enough to browse through the bookstore to find them. We'll have to invent ways to find those books.

And every time that I find another great story written by an unknown author I feel a little like I did when I was young and I dreamed of finding a hidden room full of unknown books. Except now, if I want, I can finally read them.