Publishing Has A New York Problem
by Karintha Parker
(This article originally appeared in The SFWA Bulletin #215.)
Like so many others connected to this [small-yet-all-consuming] publishing industry, books were my first love. Legend has it that a tiny version of me set eyes on my first library and yelped “oh, Mommy, all these books are for me?!”, convinced that somehow the universe had conspired to erect a house of stories on my behalf. Over time, my relationship with books went from assuming they were all made for me, to hoping I could play a role in making them all. But lovely as books are, the publishing machine is flawed, as all things are (as this op-ed likely is). Evidence of this creeps up in the corners of the internet from sources brave enough to give voice to their frustrations, in the private DMs and group chats where authors, publishing professionals, and readers alike sound off to avoid the disaster of blasting their grievances on front street. Not that feeling any of this is a betrayal. It’s entirely possible to love a thing and still criticize it. And as writers of speculative fiction, it sometimes falls to us to imagine better futures before people with the tools can make them realities.
Publishing has received a rather steady stream of criticism regarding its exclusivity. While my experience has been filtered through the lens of race, I’m not simply referring to what seems like gatekeeping for racial or ethnic diversity. This exclusivity extends to anyone that doesn’t fit into the box labelled “I-can-miraculously-afford-living-in-this-wallet-draining-city,” lumping everyone else into an unruly rejection pile. The centralization of publishing in one of the most expensive cities in the world shuts out anyone not privileged enough to be able to live here comfortably, despite their relevant experience or talent. The effect is that potentially great candidates are either never considered for inclusion or end up leaving the industry and its paltry entry-level paychecks altogether. Here’s the one-two punch that keeps so many of the voices we need on the fringes, screaming from the shores while the lucky ones sail off into the fortunate sunset. And while publishing might not be ready to admit it (or who knows, perhaps internally it has), this act of leaving behind certain voices does everyone a massive disservice. Recently, that’s never been more clear.
The past few months have been illuminating for us all, to say the least. There’s no shortage of hot takes on the devastating and transformative effects COVID-19 has had on our society, both currently and for the foreseeable future. But personally, I’ve been fortunate enough to have found a bright spot in all the dread. The juxtaposition of my participation in the Inkluded Academy, a publishing course for typically excluded groups, to publishing’s adjustments in dealing with the pandemic has made it undeniable from where I’m standing—there is a path forward for an inclusive publishing industry. One that values and retains voices, and one that, despite my unshakeable love for the city, doesn’t have to be centered in New York.
This year, in the midst of social distancing, Inkluded Academy made a bold move. The year-old tuition-free publishing course opted to conduct the entirety of its Summer 2020 session remotely. While I don’t have much to compare it to (having done a handful of mostly remote internships), I found it to be an intensely informative, enriching experience that drastically changed the course of my career, from my home. As the brainchild of Writer’s House Michael Mejias, who has placed tons of professionals via the Writer’s House internship program, Inkluded Academy was created to increase the presence of excluded groups within the industry. Over the course of weeks, the other participants and I partook in various stages of the publishing process, from finding a book to getting it into readers’ hands. The experience was invaluable, as not only did it provide insight into the publishing world, but it also proved that such insight could be imparted without geographical constraints.
Publishing as it operates under the cloud of the pandemic has confirmed that, too. The industry has already made significant changes to its operation in response to the challenges presented by the coronavirus. Beginning with the shifting of publication dates at the start of the crisis, professionals attested to adjustments made in collaboration with multiple departments, the author, and the author’s agent. Instead of hanging their hats on delayed release schedules, many publishing houses changed tack. They introduced virtual methods to get the job done as employees transitioned to working from home for their safety. The same way we can read a book from the comfort of our own home, we can (mostly) publish one from there, too. And the adjusted operations to manage the effects of the coronavirus provide the framework.
Firstly, several departments can operate remotely rather easily. It’s been widely accepted that agents don’t have to operate from New York to sign and sell stellar books. Several agents work remotely, and some agencies are established in other cities around the country, such as Los Angeles Denver, and Washington D.C. The same logic applies to several other publishing departments, such as editorial, scouting, contracts, and subsidiary rights. The introduction of meetings applications like Zoom and Google Meet into our everyday lives puts virtual meetings and maintaining connections at the tips of our fingers. I’ll miss the bottomless brunch meetup just as much as the rest of us, but that doesn’t make its virtual counterpart ineffective. Virtual connectivity aside, those who work from their home in these departments can do their jobs effectively. Editors and scouts are often inundated by reading, which can be done everywhere. Further, a significant portion of a scout’s job isn’t chained to a desk at all but rather involves traveling to meet the foreign entities they work for and recommending titles to acquire. And when it comes down to it, contracts and subsidiary rights are words on a page no matter where they are interpreted and are honestly best consumed with sides of solitude and silence in which the legalese can wash over and drown you.
Secondly, while marketing, publicity, and sales are not as simple, there have been great examples of COVID-related functions already that can easily transition over to post-COVID times. In combination with the usual virtual practices of curating social media platforms, hosting online giveaways, and distributing both mailed and digital advance copies to readers and reviewers, publishing houses are finding ways to generate content that promotes books in socially-distanced ways. They are looking to virtual events, from guest appearances to Zoom launch parties (although, based on recent incidents, there’s some major racist kinks to be ironed out there), pre-signed books, and features in book boxes and giveaways in place of attendance at book fairs and tradeshows. In a recent article in Forbes, Brett Cohen, President and Publisher of Quirk Books, outlined what his team is doing to counteract the change in promotion. Among other things, Cohen discussed how Quirk Books, which publishes unconventional books out of Philadelphia, instituted a weekly theme where authors discuss their books and offered resources to entice purchases, including reading guides and downloadable kits. The publisher released the greatly anticipated The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix at the height of the virus in April. Due to these promotional efforts, and likely the author’s platform, the book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and sold television rights to Amazon. Cohen stated in Forbes that he hopes short-term changes can transition into long-term ones. “Whether it’s a shift in what content people want or how we promote books in this new environment or where people shop for books or how we engage with readers, retailers and partners, we are doing valuable and creative work now to meet consumers where they are and it’s laying the groundwork for what future consumer engagement might look like.”
Lastly, while some publishing functions are not as easy to delegate from your living room, those departments that require a little more than a decent wi-fi connection and a sofa can still be performed outside of the office. Departments such as managing editorial, production, and design may require applications that many don’t have readily available on their laptops, but that’s not an insurmountable obstacle. Needing to download programs or find reasonable alternatives doesn’t warrant the status quo. Especially given that some managing editorial and production departments aren’t even based in the city anyway. To that end, while this framework features a completely remote operation, there’s always a middle ground.
A Publishing Compromise
The framework illustrated above works off the necessity for a completely virtual, socially-distanced publishing industry, where most employees could work remotely. But that’s not the only manner in which the industry can leave its “New York or Bust” attitude behind. Setting that model aside, even if that’s not a suitable or sustainable route given particular departments, this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. It seems possible to get us to more voices without razing all physical publishing houses to the ground.
New York can remain at the center of publishing without maintaining a centralized industry. It’s not as if computers and business meetings can only exist between 5th and 6th Avenue. If headquarters remain in the city, satellite offices in other major cities could greatly increase inclusion and benefit the bottom line. Should operations be split between the locales, smaller (and less expensive) commercial space could be leased in Manhattan, which could potentially decrease overhead. Meanwhile, the branches provide access to talent for whom geography had previously been the only barrier. In this model, they can now work in a nearby office where they can contribute to the industry while remaining in a location closer to their roots, family, or community, and that’s not going to require instant ramen dinners. This tree-branch approach can even be combined with the remote work instigated by the pandemic. If entry-level employees are allowed to enter either remotely or via satellite office, it could greatly improve retention. Employees could attend a short orientation or on-boarding in the city and then fulfill their duties outside of it. Not having to shell out the two to three grand monthly for a shoebox apartment makes it a hell of a lot easier to survive on the lower entry-level salary and stay in the industry. Even if this arrangement were seen as a temporary solution and employees were given the opportunity to relocate once their experience warranted a more livable New York salary, it would be a better system than we have now.
The Publishing Scales
Admittedly, this framework is not perfect. For one, it works off the assumption that businesses operate efficiently (which we know is definitely not the case). Secondly, for some, the location is a secondary blockade to the industry, the first being abysmal starting salaries. And frankly, from what I’ve been privy to regarding publishing’s financials, that’s simply not something that can be addressed right now, especially not in the middle of these economically-harrowing times. So if candidates can’t enter or remain in publishing because the pay wouldn’t sustain their life and responsibilities no matter where they live, then this solution fails them. Lastly, decentralizing might also give house-runners incentive to keep employees at a lower pay-grade (and perhaps even dip lower in locations where the cost of living could justify it), which is a topic for an entirely different article altogether.
Even with these acknowledgements, weighing the benefits of a decentralized publishing industry against the pitfalls results in the same outcome. The solution doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s not replacing a perfect system. But one thing that decentralizing does for sure? Something. It doesn’t just rub some dirt on the wound, put it in sunlight, and hope for the best. It takes a flawed situation and at least provides a framework, a springboard from which to leap forward. We aren’t asking for publishing to tear itself down. Rather, we’re hoping it will build itself from the ashes of what the pandemic has left of much of business operations as we’ve known it, and build in a better image that draws inspiration from Inkluded Academy and programs like it, as well as the strides made in the wake of our current circumstances. Because if there’s one thing these two experiences have made abundantly clear to me, it’s that there are so many voices capable of adding value to this industry we all love, and that it’s high time publishing does what it can to show us they’re listening.
Karintha reads, writes, and binge-watches TV shows she’s already seen from her rented, overpriced shoe box in New York. She also has an overpriced law degree, which just means she’ll win every debate on why Lestat de Lioncourt is the best vampire to ever exist. When she’s not reading, writing, or paralegal-ing, she’s barely surviving kitchen disasters of her own making, exploring the Met, or singing the entirety of Phantom of the Opera from memory and off key. She’s also got a scheme for immortality. Hit her up on Twitter @yokarintha if you want in.