It’s Not Like Other Businesses
I get weary of hearing people complain about publishing, comparing it to other industries and saying, “In no other business…” followed by whatever their complaint is. People even go so far as to claim the entire publishing industry is “incompetent” because it doesn’t work like other industries with which they’re familiar.
To me, those complaints are irrelevant and unhelpful. In some cases, you’re trying to compare apples and oranges. In other cases, the complaint is simply untrue because other businesses have the same pitfalls publishing does. In most cases the complaint comes from simply not understanding how publishing works. It’s not like other businesses many people are familiar with, and that frustrates them.
So let’s take a look at a few of the complaints:
In no other business does it take so long to get a response – if you get a response at all.
In any business situation in which there are far more applicants for a position than can ever be hired, it may take a long time to get a response, and many applicants will get no response whatsoever. Have you ever applied for a position, in which the company has advertised they’ll hire one person, and they’ve received 400 applications?
This is the situation when you send a query. You’re applying for the job of “published author.” Nobody owes you anything. Not a job, not a response. You put it out there and hope for the best, just like any job applicant. So in this way, publishing is just like other businesses.
I’m well aware that a writer isn’t applying to be an agent’s employee. But you are applying for the job of published author and the agent is screening applicants for that position. Bottom line, in any business that involves screening a large number of people for a limited number of slots, responses are varied, may take awhile, or may not come at all. (If you are an actor and have ever auditioned for a show, you’re familiar with this scenario. You only get a “call back” if they’re interested in you.)
In no other business does one have to wait so long to get paid.
Well, let’s say you are an artist, you paint a picture, and hang it in a gallery. It may or may not sell. You’ve already done the work, but you may get paid in a week, or a month, or six months, a year, or never. That’s the way it is when you work on spec. You’re doing the work, and you’re well aware that you may never get paid for it, and if you do, it may be a long time in the future. There are other industries that work the same way. What about a builder who puts up homes or offices before they’re sold?
If you don’t like the way it takes awhile to get paid in publishing (and I don’t love it either, believe me), it may help to realize that the publisher also has to wait a long time to get paid. Like any company that develops and manufactures a product, the publisher puts out thousands of dollars ahead of time to produce the product and distribute it. And not only do they have to wait to get paid, in some cases they might not get paid at all. If the bookstore returns your books unsold, the publisher doesn’t get any money – but you’ve already received your advance.
In no other business do things move so slowly.
Really? How many businesses are you familiar with? Do you understand how long it takes to develop a product, perfect it, publicize and promote it, and bring it to market? I can tell you that in any industry where new products are constantly being developed, there is a significant passage of time between the conception of the product (or the contracting with the inventor) and its eventual appearance in the marketplace.
Are you familiar with the film or television industries? It’s not uncommon for a movie or TV show to be “in development” for years before finally either being made or scrapped.
I’ve heard it said recently that there is no other business besides publishing that introduces such a large number of entirely new products every single year. Each one of these products requires a significant investment of time, money and expertise to prepare it for the marketplace. How many companies bring literally hundreds of new products to market each year? Not many – but that’s what the big publishers do.
In many ways, publishing can’t be compared to other businesses. When you look at publishing through the filter of your own experience in another business, you may not see it correctly. You may be tempted to think that because publishing operates differently from other businesses with which you’re familiar, that must mean the publishing business does things “wrong.” But most likely, you’re just not seeing the whole picture.
Publishing is a huge industry that’s in the midst of massive change, so things aren’t perfect. Things are, in fact, difficult. Can we learn from the way other industries do things, especially from how other businesses are responding to technological and sociological changes? Sure. Are there a lot of things that could be improved about publishing? Definitely! We just have to keep in mind the uniqueness of publishing while we’re figuring out how to improve it.
Q4U: What are some other ways publishing is NOT like other businesses? Does it frustrate you when you try to look at publishing the same way you look at other industries with which you’re familiar?
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent