Monday, January 05, 2009

Commentary from Crime Writer Dave Zeltserman

Commentary from Crime Writer Dave Zeltserman

Everyone who's been paying attention knows that many, if not all, of the large publishing houses are struggling badly right now. The numbers show that there has been a gradual decline in readers, and the explanation usually given is blaming things like shifts in technology (people spending their reading time surfing the web as instead of reading books) and more entertainment choices; such as video games and more TV and film options.

You can't argue with numbers, but I don't believe these reasons cited is why readership is down. J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books show that readers will flock to compelling books. Instead I'm blaming it on several seismic changes that I've witnessed to the publishing landscape since the early 90s when I started writing, and I believe these events have more to do with the current state of publishing than anything else.

My next few columns here on DaRK PaRTY will be looking at these seismic events and how they affected publishing.

Major seismic event: The Cheap PC.

When I finished my first novel “Fast Lane” in 1992, personal computers (PCs) had been around for a while but they weren't cheap, and most families didn't have them. They were mostly for hobbyists and computer professionals. So back in 1992 when I sent query to editors at many of the major New York publishing houses, most of them responded, with around 10 of them requesting the manuscript.

When I finished my next novel “Bad Thoughts” in 1997, one editor at Warner Books responded to my query letter. The difference: PCs had become cheap, and as a result publishing houses were being flooded with manuscripts and these houses responded by slamming the doors shut and making literary agents the gatekeepers. Writing a book in longhand or pecking away with a typewriter takes work and serious commitment. Using a PC makes it ridiculously easier, and really makes it so that anyone can write 300 pages, and a lot of people were doing exactly that.

Publishers shutting their doors to first-time writers was a big event, as was making literary agents the de-facto gatekeepers. It removes the editors from one step in the process, and puts more emphasis on commercial feasibility as opposed to literary merit and developing talent. But that was only one effect of cheap PCs and the sea of manuscripts, which they had unleashed.

Of course, another obvious one was that it made it a lot easier for serious writers to get lost in this unrelenting tidal wave of manuscripts. If an agency was now getting hundreds of manuscripts sent to them each week instead of tens, less time was going to be spent evaluating any of them, making it harder for these better books to surface.

Then you had new technologies and businesses that needed to be developed to sop up the demand that these new writers had to be published. Publishing on Demand (POD) technology and quick, easy self-publishing businesses came out of this. iUniverse alone has more than 20,000 mystery novels that have been self-published. Let me repeat that. 20,000 mystery novels from just one of these self-publishing outfits.

With POD technology, anyone can become a publisher with little investment. This may make publishing a more democratic endeavor, but it's not a good thing.

But let's go back to maybe the most critical effect this had on the more legitimate publishing houses. As literary agents were wading through manuscripts it was only natural for them to spend less time with any one manuscript and to quicker toss a submission, as well as looking for patterns to spot the more formulaic books that have higher perceived "commercial viability".

But again, this was only one of the major seismic events that have led houses to care more about "relentlessly commercial" writing than the value of the book, and I'll be discussing more of these in future weeks.

(Dave Zeltserman lives and writes in Massachusetts. His crime novel “Small Crimes” was called a “thing of beauty” by the Washington Post and National Public Radio named “Small Crimes” one of its five best mystery novels of 2008. Dave also publishes his own blog, Small Crimes. He publishes the column Thoughts from the Shadows for DaRK PaRTY.)

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