Monday, December 7, 2009

The Great Term Shift

People in the publishing industry are a bunch of liars. I was reading a literary agent’s blog the other day and she made a comment about a perfectly good book that she didn’t feel she could represent because perfectly good books don’t sell, only great books sell. Anyone who has ever picked up a book, read some number of pages and finally decided to put it down because it was just too boring, knows that isn’t the case and would be glad to have some perfectly good books out there on the market to replace some of those not so great books.

The problem is one of terminology. Imagine you are a literary agent and you have a book you are trying to sell. You can’t go to a publisher and say, “This is an okay book that I think you should consider. It probably won’t make you much money, but I don’t figure you’ll lose money on it either.” Instead, you have to go to the publisher and say, “This is a great book! This book is going to help you make up the money you lost on those other books you’ve been publishing!” The problem is that publishers don’t make money on most books. They do good to break even and they rely on the hugely successful books to make up the difference. Because publishers only want books that will make money, agents lie, or stretch the truth a bit by shifting the terms. A good book becomes a great book. An ordinary book becomes a good book.

I’m not sure if there is a solution to this problem. We would like to think that it would be better if people were honest. But as long as the publishing industry functions the way it does, who would dare try to sell a publisher an average book and yet somebody has to sell all those average books and somebody has to sell the absolutely worst traditionally published books out there. Is there a literary agent who wants to brag about having done that?

On the bright side, that means that I can claim my books are great. Who am I kidding? My books are better than great. They are excellent!

Question: So, what do you think? Does shifting the terminology cause any real problems? Am I completely off base? Do you care?


Swapna Raghu Sanand said...

I found it shocking that a literary agent said that because 1) it does not seem professional 2) it seems like a half-hearted attempt that rings untrue.

I am too shocked to state anything more but I think if this syndrome does exist in the publishing world, it is more than just a matter of shift in terminology, it is crippling for the growth and future of good writers.

arlee bird said...

Just chalk it all up to marketing I guess. If you're trying to sell something you want to build it up so someone will buy it. And greatness is subjective--my great may not be as great in someone elses eyes. Then there's politics, buddies, sentimentality, bias, etc. When I watch award shows or look at "best of" lists, I often think to myself "What?" I guess people have all sorts of reasons for validating crap and totally overlooking great, good, and ordinary.

Timothy Fish said...

arlee bird,

It isn't always easy to determine how much the things you mentioned influence the final decision, but it does seem to happen. A friend of mine who is involved in another industry with its own awards once mentioned that you could tell which group would win by knowing which group had a member with cancer that year.