I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth writing about it again, especially as I am even more sure of it now, having viewed many more submissions from writers across the world.
There is a common misconception amongst the writing community that has been fostered over a couple of centuries now because of the way traditional publishing works, and that is that the world is full of untalented writers and that only the highly expert editors who work for big publishing houses have the necessary skills to be able to select out the few nuggets of talent from the vast quantities of stuff which they are sent.
This is a myth, but it’s an understandable one: there have been few publishing houses in relation to a vast number of writers, and it is the nature of a huge organisation like a publishing house to deal with only a narrow stream of submissions very slowly. So the perception that gets out into the writing community is that talent is rare in comparison to the amount of material submitted. We’ve all heard the stories of ‘slush piles’ and thousands of rejection slips.
That’s a wrong picture.
It’s a perception - that’s all. It’s not the truth. If there were thousands more publishing houses and if they worked faster, the resource of talented writers would not be used up more quickly. Rather, the publishers would find that more and more resources could be found. In other words, there’s a lot more talent out there than the existing ‘publishing system’ has led the writing community to believe.
An analogy: imagine that the world’s oil resources were estimated based on the production of one large, slow-moving oil company in one country. Looking at the output of that company, an outside observer might conclude that the entire oil resources of the planet were dangerously low, and that it was only the expertise of the few oil geniuses in that company that enabled any oil to reach us at all.
Or imagine fish resources being worked out based on the production of a single trawler with one net; or the amount of good music available being figured out on the number of DVDs made by one recording company. You get the idea.
Into those false equations and conclusions, enter in the data that nine times out of ten the oil company or the fishing trawler or the record company - or, escaping from the analogies, the publishing firms - spurn resources that then go on to find other outlets. We have all read of bestselling authors who were rejected multiple times by prior companies only to go on to global success later. So traditional publishing companies are slow, narrow, unreliable and generate the myth that writing talent is scarce. Their greatest strength has been that, once they select a work and publish it, they have the resources to reach out into the marketplace and contact many more people than an individual writer might be able to do on his or her own.
At the other end of this spectrum is the vast wave of self-publishing which has been made possible by the internet. Now a writer need not consult with anyone, even a proofreader, before getting his or her work out to the public in potentially vast quantities. Unfortunately, a glance at the results of this extravagance is that the marketplace has been flooded with terrible writing. This leads the writing community to the same conclusion: that the vast bulk of writing out there is awful and that traditional publishers were somehow right to filter out the bulk of it, even if they did so slowly and cumbersomely.
The interesting truth lies somewhere in the middle (as truths often do).
If the number of publishers could be increased so that writers didn’t have to choose either the traditional publishing route or the self-publishing route, what we see is enlightening: there is a vast field of legitimately good writing out there which was just looking for an outlet.
To further our analogies above, this would be as though a series of small oil companies opened and found oil everywhere; or a group of fishing trawlers explored the ocean and located far more fish than one trawler ever could; or more recording companies discovered many more talented musicians, and so on.
That’s why I think this is the Golden Age of Independent Publishing: small publishers can reap the benefits of a marketplace brimming, overflowing, spilling over with talent. They can help open the doors for many more talented writers. And when I say ‘many more’ I mean ‘many, many more’. Almost every submission I have been receiving for the anthologies I have been producing as an independent publisher over the last few months has contained quality - and I have looked at hundreds of submissions.
So there’s a scale, as in the diagram: we have huge, slow traditional publishers being highly selective and often getting it wrong in terms of the authors they reject and the ones they get around to publishing, but having the marketing ‘clout’ to reach a great many people; then we have the small, independent publisher, able to tap into the field of talent that is there and, because of its size, able to move swiftly and effectively into the public market but to less depth; and finally we have the self-publisher, able to generate work that is both good and risibly bad, but without much marketing impingement.
Writers are in a prime position right now. Using independent publishers, they can increase their marketing success and at a much faster speed than ever before, thanks to the wonders of technology. But one of the things they need to do is shake off the lie that talent is scarce or that the ability to spot it lies in the hands of only a few elite editors.
By far the majority of people trying to be writers have talent, in my experience. What they have lacked is opportunity. And now that is changing.