The Psychological Structure of the Publishing Industry: Writers and Authors are the Children, Literary Agents Are the (Good or Bad) Parents and Publishers Call the Shots
Today, we examine the psychological structure of the publishing industry, trying to figure out why we may feel so lousy pursuing a literary career. (Unless you’re one of the anointed few making mega-bucks with your scribblings. I doubt that feels lousy.)
We’re going to take three different points of view, which add up to very similar conclusions. My fellow authors, Ruth Harris & Anne R. Allen, wrote a great blog article about Writers’ Masochism. That refers to writers taking garbage and ill-treatment from their bosses that no one in any other industry would tolerate.
Except maybe in the practice of law, our second point of view on this issue. Here’s a link an article by Will Meyerhofer, an attorney and psychotherapist. If you read Mr. Meyerhofer’s article, I think you’ll agree that the legal profession and publishing industry have much in common. Or at least many people living and working in them feel just as rotten.
After practicing law for a period of time, Meyerhofer discovered that depression is common in attorneys. He became a psychotherapist who treats attorneys. In his article, Meyerhofer presents a psychological model explaining how depression is created and supported within the individual’s mind and by the legal industry. The depression-creating system he presents is one basis of the writer’s masochism post by Ruth Harris & Anne R. Allen. I recommend reading both for an understanding of writer’s masochism. Meyerhofer’s description of how lower level attorneys feel in Biglaw mirrors my own feelings as a fledgling author.
Then there’s the systems approach, widely espoused in many schools of counseling and psychotherapy. Before leaping into the world of writing, I had a broad professional life. I was an economist, negotiation coach, businesswoman, and horse rancher before the need to write knocked on my psyche. I have a couple of master’s degrees, including one in counseling. I earned my counseling degree in a program stressing family structure and systems – how a family’s unspoken rules can work to keep some family members powerless and unhappy and allow others to be fat cats and bullies. This background has served me well.
After a devastating personal experience in 1993, I entered the world of writing. Was I healing myself? Yeah. I jumped into writing groups and spending quality time with editors and spent all day sitting at a word processor. Once I learned to write decently and had enough work on paper to need a publisher, my personal learning ratcheted up.
I became acutely aware of of the psychological structure of the literary/publication world.
At the bottom of the pyramid are hordes of wannabe authors – and they have to be published traditionally, only. Being traditionally published means: a publisher buys your manuscript according to a contract, which the publisher writes and controls. You get money (but dribbled out over time, so it’s not as much as it seems when you sign on the dotted line) and they get to do whatever they want with your work, including not publishing it. If your book does come out, you, the author, get to pay for marketing it and do the work involved. (This is lots of work.) Because of this, being traditionally published is considered by many to be far superior to and more prestigious than publishing your work yourself.
I recall seeing a video of a famous author giving a seminar about writing. Her fans gazed at her with devotion normally reserved for east-Indian gurus. Rapture didn’t come close to the intensity of their focus. They were addicts, of her and of getting their work in print. Lust lived in that room. I’m astonished that no one noticed how bizarre the situation was.
Back to the publishing industry: Above the wannabe authors in the power hierarchy (way above) are the literary agents, gatekeepers to the hallowed realm of the publishers. The literary agents are numerous, but a tiny fraction of the number of wannabe authors.
Above the literary agents are the publishers, a much smaller group which hold the keys to kingdom: the transcendent realm of publication.
In this system, power flows downward: publishers have way more power than agents who have way more power than writers/wannabe authors, who have almost no power. Publishers decide what goes into print, period. That’s power. Agents can funnel authors and writers to the publishers. No agent’s endorsement means no access to publishers. That’s power. Writers without agents learn to write powerful query letters. Imaginative query letters to seduce agents into loving them in three paragraphs. They write a lot of these. This is not power.
The publishers and agents take on the parental and adult roles in the system, doing everything good and bad parents do. Judging, evaluating, rejecting, and generally doing the naughty things described in Ruth’s and Anne’s article. This hierarchical dehumanization is part of the structure of the industry.
In this model, the writers/authors are trapped in a PERMANENT state of the powerless child. That’s what Ruth and Anne describe above, in talking about rotten deals and being forced to overwork and accept bad terms. This is a PERMANENT state, unless a writer gets lucky and enters the hallowed realm of the ACTUALLY PUBLISHED and her book sells like crazy. (Or unless the industry topples. It’s been shaken by the Great Recession and the eBook and self-publishing revolutions.)
Everyone in the traditional system is stuck. Literary agents and representatives of publishers are also mired in a PERMANENT state of the ADULT or PARENT. They are perennially superior to and controlling of the child/writers. Who are shoved into permanent INFANCY. This is lousy for the personal/spiritual development of everyone involved.
* * *
Attempting the traditional approach to publication in the beginning, I queried agents a bit and was rejected soundly. When that failed, I hired my editor to write a query letter for me. That was rejected just as fast as the ones I wrote.
The biggest learning came from watching one of my friends query. A very successful attorney, she whacked out a hundred queries for every one I wrote. She was efficient, ruthless, and did everything the books on querying said.
She said that some of the queries came back rejected faster than they would if bounced back at the agent’s mail office. “No one read the letter, much less my writing samples.”
My friend showed me that intensity and focus in the querying process yielded the same results as my dilettantism.
Nathan Bransford, the former literary agent turned author and popular blog writer said said something like this in one of his postings. “I used to receive 15 to 20,000 query letters in a year. I took on two or three new clients.”
That’s a 0.015% chance of acceptance. Getting into Harvard Medical School is many times easier than getting an agent to take you on.
I got all this. Something inside me went, “**** this. I’m not willing to be abused.”
That was the end of my traditionally published career.
* * *
When I was in economics or coaching negotiations at the graduate level, professional life was different. In a “regular” profession, if you write and present a few excellent papers and do your work well, you’re treated like a valuable adult team member. Not so in publishing.
Anne and Ruth present some steps to take to reestablish oneself as a powerful individual in the writing world.
My solution was to create an independent press – a legal entity as valid as any other press.
Some people start foaming at the mouth when anyone talks about indie-presses or self-publishing. They assume that all self-published or indie-published work is garbage. Some of these people are highly focal and even obnoxious about airing their opinions. I would like to suggest that that attitude belongs with the folks who are addicted to being traditionally published, at the cost of themselves.
People talk about the abysmal quality of self-published work. It’s true: A lot of it is junk from one cover to another. But not all of it.
As of this 2015 update, my books have won thirty awards at contests for indie-presses. I have judged one such contest. I’m not allowed to say anything about that contest, but I will say that the best of the indie-produced books far exceeded the quality of books published by the majors.
And of course they do – the majors can’t afford to put the resources into a book that some independently-funded small presses can. Books of amazing quality won in that contest.
What is the point of this diatribe? Everyone needs to create a path which will allow him or her to attain goals, while maintaining one’s soul. Anne’s and Ruth’s article gave some suggestions. Will Meyerhofer’s article gives others.
What do I suggest? Do what works and dump what doesn’t.
I chose to create my own press. I’ve got nine books on the market. Most have won multiple awards.
As an indie-press owner and indie-author, I work harder than even I, the achievement-addicted economist from Silicon Valley, could have predicted. Seven days a week at this point. The market is so flooded with author-produced ebooks and POD books, that making a good book show up above the deluge is difficult.
The bottom line is: Writing/authoring is a tough way to make a living, no matter how you do it. Is what I’m doing easier than going the traditional route? No. It is easier on my gut.
I’m going to take it one day at a time, noting the carpal tunnel creeping into my wrists and the shrieking of the bursitis in my hips that I got from sitting too long, and weighing them against benefits achieved.
That’s all a person can do.
Readers should note that many other ways to make a living exist in addition to writing. In this market, I’d say, “If you’ve got anything to rent, do it. I can rent my vacation home and make more in a week than some poor soul who who busts her butt to get a publishing contract on a book she took two years to write.”
Writing is not the only game in town.
Happy trails and best wishes!