A conference on “Paths to Publishing”. Notes from in the middle of the journey

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Have you heard about the latest statistics regarding the number of published writers in Iceland? According to them, every year one in ten Icelanders “gives birth” to a book. Imagine an editorial paradise. One wakes up and thinks “maybe I should write another novel”. A few intense nights and the manuscript can be ready. Oh, and publication shouldn’t be an issue. One has a button on one’s desk (or, to be up-to-date, an app), one clicks/pushes and… in a few hours the book is on the shelves in bookstores, in the national library and so on. I cannot make any value judgments as I know little about Icelandic literature, but did they also count how many critics there should be to deal with such deluge?

For us mortals publishing takes some more effort. Many probably simply get lost in the lianas of the system, in the ping-pong between agent and editor (if they get to that point), or, worse, in the “slash pile”, this resting place of letters that will “never ever” be answered by the agent (moment of silence). But, publishers, agents and editors are convinced, there is a chance for those who don’t quit. With some knowledge of the system and patience—and a good manuscript to begin with, which seems easy, doesn’t it?—one can awaken the Icelander in oneself. In October I went to a mini-conference entitled “Paths to Publishing”, co-organized by Dialogue Books and The Reader Berlin and held at Kantine ExRotaprint, to find out just that, but then again, also more.

As Sharmaine Lovegrove, Dialogue’s director, made clear in her introduction, things are not just one “system” anymore. A propaedeutic PowerPoint slide was projected which explained that there are two paths (to publishing), at least. On the one hand, there is the traditional path, which involves, from Author to Reader—an agent, a publisher, a distributor and a bookshop. On the other, there is digital publishing, its status stronger on a post-recession background, and possibly strong enough to compete with the traditional. Its structure is different and, they say, equally accessible to people who aim for the Nobel Prize and for those who just want to have their book to give to friends and family. So, on this shorter, digital path, from Author to Reader there are “page tailors” who do editing and design, distributors, retailers, and finally social marketing & PR (the latter being the main difference from the traditional path). Surely this second alternative sounds like paradise, time-wise, money-wise and publicity-wise, but is it still paradise if everyone is admitted? On the troubles brought upon by this über-accessibility a bit later.

But first about agents—these parsons of the old system, these apostles of first deals and following successes. I’m not exaggerating with the epithets. Jenny Hewson, agent at Rogers, Coleridge and White, whose talk opened the conference, referred to agents as to “advocates, guides and champions” representing the writers in their struggle to “get it ‘out there’”. Talking about the process her work involves, Hewson explained that usually people send her some 3 chapters and a synopsis and, if these impress her, she meets the novice and estimates whether she or he has a potential for a long-term career in writing. Then comes the part that probably makes agents so powerful—and that idealists of all ages may ignore—namely networking. The most appropriate editor is chosen. Later, she said, as an agent she still “keeps an eye on” the contract and distribution. When asked about her criteria, she mentioned that her taste is “quite literary” (and she kept emphasizing the word “literary” throughout her talk): that what matters to her is a good story and facility for language. At the same time, it was clear for me that Ms. Hewson is not naively seeking for some mannerist works that are pure, “high” literature (we all know the truism that Joyce wouldn’t be published today). “It’s a balance between art and business”, Hewson concluded.

No note of euphoria, but, overall, Hewson’s description of the process sounded optimistic. It may seem that the system is closed, but no one wants to miss the next big thing, she encouraged us. To be clear, the public consisted, quite naturally, mainly of writers, or so I assume from the kinds of conversations I heard around, e.g. the quality of one’s Moleskine, the divorce of one’s character in one’s novel etc. Indeed, for the few minutes she spoke, I, and probably many others in the room, felt inspired to contact a “champion”, maybe Ms. Hewson herself, after the conference, although, and this is one important point, you are supposed to have, as a writer seeking publication, 10-12 agents on your list… One thing, however, was quite shocking—the reason why someone’s letter might end up in the “slash pile” can be simply sending the letter and manuscript to an agency without mentioning the name of a specific agent with whom to work! Another less optimistic note: the English language market is not quite eager to translate foreign literatures (no news here).

The next speaker was Evi Chantzi, representing a platform for independent publishing (Epubli). This was a small conceptual revolution in the discussion—all of a sudden we were talking about independent, self-published authors, entrepreneurs of some sort (royalties are high, up to 60-80%, Chantzi claimed), in a system that virtually allows everyone to publish their oeuvre without the need of a providential agent. In fact, Chantzi herself called independent publishing a “revolution”. It is, she later opined, a liberation of the author, because of the suspension of judgment on content, thus allowing greater freedom of expression, plus/ and financial empowerment. Chantzi described the types of authors that use the platform, from the “Indie guys” to, surprisingly, the “Academics”. Unlike the traditional system, such platforms adapts to the individual needs of the authors. One can use (or not) the help of “pagetailors”, an ”author relations team” and a global distribution system, one can get instruction on topics such as editing or promotion, one can choose whether to publish on paper too or in e-book format only. Chantzi seemed to be suggesting that there is strong rivalry between the two systems. For instance, the “Indie guys” are successful authors courted by publishing houses, and yet they choose the self-publishing path in order to have full control of their activity. At the same time, some kind of exchange system does exist between the two systems. “Top authors”, for instance, come to the platform “via the agents”.

With EJ Van Lanen, founder of Frisch & Co., we dived deeper into the “new system”. Van Lanen’s start-up aims at publishing—in e-book format only—translations of good prose works into English. To begin with, Van Lanen surprised the audience with data that says only around 350 translated books are published in the US every year. Whether this is accurate or not, it did resonate with Hewson’s innuendo that the market is not that interested in translations (unless we are talking of big names, of course). The publisher spoke more broadly about the problems of translation and of the special financial mechanisms that publishers of translations can/have to access (e.g. governmental support in the countries of origin). Despite the “grim picture”, Van Lanen has already published a few quite successful translations of works by authors such as Anna Kim, Carlos Busqued or Andreas Maier.

One big revelation, and one that got Van Lanen “really angry”, has been that reviewers do not seem to take e-books seriously, that they simply do not want to review them, although the works were originally published in traditional media. He is convinced that these reviewers miss one important thing, namely that a change of format does not mean a change of genre or quality and that e-books will soon exceed their status of “niche technology”. Of course, Van Lanen and the other participants’ attitude regarding this problem seems entirely justified, but, I reckon, this may be an effect of the all too permissive quality of the self-publishing platforms and tools. One cannot avoid the projection of the entire system onto the small, indeed niche initiatives. Maybe a new kind of reviewer, i.e. e-book reviewer, is needed altogether?!?

Just as I was starting to feel sympathy for the e-book niche as a victim of the traditional system and of its own medium (and I had been simply skeptical before), the next speaker took the stage. It was—credits to the organizers for the polemic structure of the conference—a representative of the traditional system. And yet Serpents Tail, the publishing house represented by Hannah Westland, is not quite traditionalist. Rather, it has been committed to propagate the works of neglected but promising authors, as well as translations from figures such Houellebecq or Jelinek. Besides relating the tortuous history of the publishing house and its practices, one of Westland’s conclusions was the following: the rewards that one can expect while working in whatever branch of the system, can be financial, but are rarely so (although no one denies the existence of a commercial side and of commercially successful literature).

This is plain and obvious, one could say, but it just has to be restated from time to time. In fact, money issues had been present in the discussion from the very beginning, but no one had addressed them so directly and, at the same time, so calmly. In the financial benefits, or, rather, in the lack thereof, the traditional system and the new system meet. And meet the writer. In other words, no matter what the path, the road is steep. Now that we have acknowledged this, let’s go back to our (future) books.

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