Everything You Dislike about Traditional Publishers Is Only Going to Get Worse

Reading elsewhere about a fellow writer, one whose writing I admire, pulling a requested submission from an editor at one of the traditional publishing houses, after the manuscript had sat untouched on the editor’s desk (or more likely, in his office closet) for a year and a half, painfully reminded me of my own experiences dealing with editors and publishers. The bad news is that this kind of la-di-da dilatoriness is as close as possible to being considered normal in the publishing industry (though 18 months is pushing the envelope a bit), as experienced by midlist and below writers; the worse news is… it’s only going to get worse.

I’m perfectly willing to accept that there’s no malice involved in these kinds of editorial delays, and that the cause is the sheer amount of stuff piled on editors’ desks. And one would expect manuscripts to crawl out of the unagented, unrequested slush pile at a glacial pace. But we’re talking here about manuscripts that came in from respected agents and/or the editors actually requested to be sent to them for consideration. And before, under the circumstances that used to prevail in the publishing industry, the editors and publishers derived no benefit from generating a lot of angrily seething writers, wondering what the hell was going on with their manuscript. It was all more of a “Shit happens” (or doesn’t) thing back then, and if manuscript yellowed and became covered with cobwebs while sitting on a publisher’s desk, there was neither any evil intent or benefit derived for anyone, including the seemingly lackadaisical editor involved.

It’s different now, and will increasingly be so, given the epublishing opportunities opening up to writers. Now editors and traditional publishers do derive at least a marginal benefit from sidelining writers’ manuscripts, and the more of them that they delay from ever seeing the light of day, the more those marginal benefits stack up. If readers are spending a non-elastic X amount of dollars on books, then every book that is delayed or otherwise prevented from being made available to the reading audience, as it would be made available if the writer were to epub it on his or her own, is one less little bit of competition for a piece of that X amount of dollars.

Before the advent of these new epubbing opportunities, there wasn’t much a writer could do about his or her manuscript getting effectively sidelined at an editor’s office. It was for the most part the trad pubs’ way or no way, so there wasn’t much a writer could do except put up with the irritatingly long or even never-ending delay in getting through the editorial consideration process. You could publish it yourself and wind up with a garage or basement full of cartons of your own book, and not many ways of marketing them, and that was about it.

The epubbing thing obviously changes that, for the benefit of the writer, but at the same time it has a negative effect on writers’ relationships with editors and publishers. Where there had been little or no benefit to an editor in sidelining a writer’s manuscript — it just happened back then — now there is at least a slight marginal benefit in keeping it in limbo. As long as that manuscript sits there untouched on the editor’s desk, that’s how long it’s not competing with the other books that are being brought out by the editor’s publishing house. Multiply that admittedly tiny marginal benefit to the trad pub by a lot of other sidelined manuscripts that might otherwise show up as self-pubbed ebooks on Amazon.com, and you’re looking at a substantial motivation for editors to not only keep on doing that, but to do it even more. Slow-boat editors are not only going to be considered as normal as they were before, they’re going to be even slower and represent even more of what’s considered normal in the traditional publishing industry.