MIKE ON: Quality control in publishing

Article published on May 11, 2016.

In a world in which you can make your novel available to millions at the mere tap of a trackpad, it can be easy to view traditional publishers as the gatekeepers; those stuffy, office types sitting there numbing the pain of their own imminent obsolescence by thwarting the dreams of aspiring writers. Is that a fair assessment?

Unfashionable as it might be, I say ‘no.’ As a struggling would-be novelist myself, I’ve had my fair share of rejections, lack of responses, and “thanks, but I don’t feel I can sell this.” The solution is not to get disheartened, and certainly not to grow jaded about the motives of publishing professionals. The solution, as an artist, is to go away, hone your craft and come back with something stronger next time. Like Scarborough FC’s club motto says, “No battle, no victory.” Novelists deal in escapism, but this is one reality they must deal with.

Writers though, it must be remembered, are not who the publishing industry exists to serve – that’s readers. So are readers well served by publishing houses setting a high bar for what they’ll publish? You bet. What customer isn’t interested in the product they buy being subject to rigorous quality control? A good friend of mine (whose identity I will protect here) once told me “I can spot a self-published novel in the postman’s bag.” He meant that, try as they might, they are certain standards it is extremely hard for a lone novelist to meet. The skill set of a novelist doesn’t naturally include cover design, marketing, spell-checking, proof-reading, fact-checking or legal advice. All of these add value to the product that is a finished book. Yes, as a writer, it makes my heart hurt to discuss something as magical as books in such dreary professional terms, but it’s not a barrel of laughs reading a book in which the above are conspicuous by their absence, either.

The caveat here is obvious, but I will repeat it – there are many examples of self-published writers who have proved quality can be delivered without the apparatus of tradition. Still, only perhaps twice in the last five years have I picked up a traditionally published novel and been genuinely confused as to how it landed a book deal. As I’ve read hundreds of books in that time, I don’t think that’s a bad return.

I’ve no doubt that that comfort in quality is bought at a high price, and that many superb books remain languishing on the hard drives of disappointed authors all over the world. Make no mistake – every excellent book that doesn’t make the shelves is a tragedy, the death of a dream. Still, what’s the alternative? Readers having to wade through oceans of mediocrity before buying something good? Readers spending more time reading online reviews than actual books? Publishers going to the wall because of a sincere commitment to make as many writerly dreams come true as possible? These are unthinkable, and must be avoided. So to publishers I say “thanks for all the quality,” and to my fellow struggling writers, I would say again, “take heart and remember – no battle, no victory.”

Mike Stafford
May 2016

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