Happy 2013 everyone! My New Year has started well with the promise of a multi-book contract. With a real publishing company! One that will pay me! The past three years of struggle and shrinkage in the publishing industry started me thinking about books and about the digitizing of everything. We will come out of this, but things will be different.
In the process of writing the proposal for my new series, I needed to refresh my memory of the gas laws, some classic settled science. I first studied them many decades ago and still have my college textbook: Foundations of Modern Physical Science by Gerald Holton and Duane H. D. Roller, copyright 1958. It is a brilliant book that combines history of science with breakthrough laws that define physics and chemistry. You can see that it has been well used. But I’m in today’s mode of at-your-fingertips research, so I Googled “the gas laws” and received a wealth of material, which I browsed through, looking for a clear, succinct treatment. I happened upon an ebook written by a high school chemistry teacher. It was lively, light-hearted and easy to understand. Clearly the author grasped the concepts and knew how to get them across. His words had “voice.” Then I read a sentence that jarred me. He was discussing carbon dioxide and mentioned that yeast produced it. So far, so good. Then he said that yeast was an animal. That’s just plain wrong! I read no further. The talented teacher/author had not had his book vetted, or perhaps even edited. This is not unusual for much of the fare available on the web. Hordes of wannabe authors have embraced the new leveled digital playing field. If you can type on a computer, you can be a published author.
Our culture has traditionally embraced published authors in the same manner it esteems professional athletes. To be a pro means you have survived a rigorous competitive winnowing process. For authors it involves an initial acceptance by editorial gatekeepers only to be admitted into a new, higher-level game where their work is measured publicly by critics and award-bestowing committees. Stories of rejection slips chronicle every writer’s journey to the promised land of seeing words in print. I remember when I received the galleys (old word for “proofs”) for my first to-be-published book after five failures. I must have stared at the words “by Vicki Cobb” in a bold-faced Roman font for hours. It was so professional; so formally different from the Courier typeface of my typewriter. It had a sense of permanence and importance. It was meant to last. (Carved in print?) And best of all, I had earned it!
Back in the day, if you wanted payment as an author, the first hurdle was to get to an editor. It helped to have an agent. So wannabes sent in unsolicited manuscripts to agents and to publishers where they were relegated to something called “the slush pile.” Not a very encouraging title! Many publishers hired “readers,” English majors fresh out of college, to cut their editorial teeth by reading the slush pile. It didn’t take long for them to realize that most unsolicited submissions were not worth even a modicum of the work needed to salvage something the public would buy. But every once in a while someone discovered a diamond-in-the-rough and a best-seller actually emerged from the slush pile, keeping alive the hopes of all the wannabes.
How has the digitization of everything changed the game? Now everyone gets to read the slush pile! Oh, where are the gatekeepers when you need them? Just the other day, I was told the story of a local minister who has just published four story-books for children through Amazon’s self-publishing program. (Why does everyone think they can write a children’s book? Cuz they tell the story to their own kids, who like them?) I politely said, “Good for him! How are sales?” “Well, he just started. He’s learning Facebook.” The game for today’s self-published authors is to develop an online readership, one beyond friends and family, that will make a “real” publisher sit up and take notice.
So take heart, publishers. There is a role yet for you to play. Yes, you need our talent and creativity. But we need your editorial and design support and the rigorous vetting process you put us through, something unknown to all those digital “authors” out there. And together, we need to forge a stronger, more inventive partnership to promote our collaborative efforts so that they bubble quickly to the surface, well above the melting slush.