One of the funniest Saturday Night Live skits I’ve seen centered around the novelist Stephen King sitting in a darkened room, with just a table and a typewriter. He would look up from time to time, wild-eyed, and scream, “I’m blocked!”
He would then just as quickly blurt out, “No, I’m not!” and proceed to furiously write another page in his latest manuscript. It was a funny takeoff of “writer’s block.”
I was reminded of this the other day when I had lunch with a publisher friend who was musing about the revolutionary changes taking place in book publishing. Among them is the trend toward self-publishing. Technology, as we’ve discussed a lot, is changing so rapidly that it’s putting more power in the hands of individual writers.
No longer are we bound to traditional publishers. That can be good or bad.
One of the good things is what I refer to as “Publishing’s Dirty Little Secret.”
You see, writers have all sorts of approaches to writing. That’s a given. Some write a lot. Some are great, like Steinbeck and Hemingway. This is a personal opinion, but history’s greatest writers were Spartan in their approach to the printed word. In other words, say a lot with a few words.
Others – sometimes I think the majority – blather on and on, attempting to wax eloquent. They should just wax; leave eloquence to British prime ministers facing the Third Reich.
I once worked with a newspaper reporter who was famous in our neck of the woods for writing reams of copy that said very little. Repetitive isn’t the half of it. She considered that she was working very hard and showing how valuable she was. If I’d been the managing editor, I would have fired her.
But I digress. Publishing’s Dirty Little Secret involves word count, page count and retail prices.
Let’s say you actually have something to say that a lot of people need to read. You might be able to say it in 11,000 words.
Yet … hey, buddy, you can’t make a book out of 11,000 words! What is that, a prologue?
So “beefing up” becomes the order of the day. Publishers and editors do this so often, you’d think they had a good reason to do it.
There is such a thing as “perceived value.” What that means in Steinbeckian language is, you’re trying to fool the buyer into thinking his hard-earned money is being spent on a book thick enough to warrant a higher retail price.
(Wait a minute, it took me longer to say that than if I’d just said “perceived value” and left it at that. Oh well, don’t criticize my premise here.)
Until e-books came on the scene, we always just assumed that if you are going to charge $19.99, the book has to be around, say, 192 pages. If you try to pass-off a 63-page book for $19.99, customers will look at you and say, “What is this, a pamphlet? No way I pay 20 bucks for something this small.”
So, the thinking slowly came around, you must “beef up” the interior. That can mean getting creative with formatting in all sorts of ways: wide margins, giant quotes, etc.
In most instances, though – in truth – it’s dishonest. Large publishing houses that have a big overhead must charge top dollar for books, or they can’t stay in business. That’s why you see the retail prices that you encounter in bookstores.
To change this stronghold in traditional publishing would have taken centuries. Yet e-publishing has made it possible to produce smaller books for more reasonable prices, some in the $9.99 range.
In the end, everyone is satisfied. The publisher no longer has to worry about expensive paper, presses, etc. The book buyer no longer has to worry about getting ripped off by a bloated book.
Of course, there are books that require a big word count. I have no problem with them at all. What I’ve had a problem with is that Publishing’s Dirty Little Secret had no solution.
Now it does.