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In Coldest Type: Crack Addiction in Book Publishing

This at American Digest is one of those articles that you need to know about in case you might need it later, especially if you do creative work that you might want to publish in print some day. The AD author reminisces about a book he worked on with writer Len Shatzkin, concerning stupid, crazy sales and marketing practices in the book publishing world. Reading it reminded me of a saying I read many years ago: "Before enlightenment, sweep floors. After enlightenment, sweep floors."

If you read Making Light, or the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, you'll have come across gruesome descriptions of what it's like to work through the slush pile. These serve, from the point of view of the wannabe published authors reading them, to explain why holding your breath waiting for a contract, or indeed any response from a publisher, may be damaging to your health. From the point of view of the people writing those descriptions, they serve a different purpose: to let off steam after another harrowing day facing the awfulness that wannabe published authors make them read, day after day after day. The lesson is clear: before publication, failure is the norm.

One lesson from In Cold Type is that after publication, failure is the norm. Another is that this is the fault of the industry itself, which is "centered ... more on personal preening than profits."

Among the 420 pages of Shatzkin's detailed evisceration of trade publishing, he notes: "For every copy of a hardcover book sold at its normal retail price, one book is sold as a remainder-- a book that goes from the publisher to the remainder dealer for less than the cost of producing it and with zero income to the author. No other industry can make this claim."

It looks to me like that ratio is the same at all levels. It certainly worked that way for me when I was selling xeroxed minicomics out of my apartment: one book would be a success, sell out and be reprinted, others would fill my shelves for years on end and still do to these days. At least I had the common sense to take a string of books in the latter catagory as my cue to get out of the small-press game.

I have no concrete plans to return to print on any systematic basis apart from the stuff I do as a freelancer for magazines, but one of these days I would like to see my Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan and other projects on paper. When I get around to working on that, it will be useful to have at the back of my mind articles like the AD one.

(Via Pete Ashton, a former bookseller with an interest in small-press comics)


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