The Democratization of Publishing

A View from the Cheap Seats

In most ways, the internet enhances every writers life by making it cheaper and more enjoyable to do what we do. But it complicates life in many hidden ways, especially for writers who have worked for decades to get as good as they are – only to come up against a market that is completely flooded with work by everyone on the planet who thinks they can write – which, in these days of high educational standards and low employment – is most of us in the civilized world.

Things Any Writer Older than 45 Will Probably Remember:

It used to be that sending out queries for a novel, to either agents or publishers, was an extremely time consuming, labour intensive proposition, and potentially a very expensive one. Imagine having to individually type out every copy of every manuscript. Multiply that by the number of copies created.

Spilling a coffee could create several days work, because the last thing you wanted to do with a manuscript was show how many times it had been around the block.

Photocopies weren’t available to anyone until around 1970. They typically cost 25 cents a page, at a time when the average wage in North America was under two dollars an hour. So producing a single copy of a 160 page novella would cost a week’s wages. And the paper was specially treated, so it was extra thick and always trying to curl back into the rolls that it came from. Many, if not most copiers would produce dirty looking or faded pages. And the only place most people could get something photocopied was the public library. Imagine the rage of the people behind you in line if you photocopied your epic! So, as you can imagine, it just wouldn’t happen.

Other technologies, like mimeographs, were quite widely available, but while your writer’s workshop may have been okay with mimeographed copies, publishers almost certainly were not.

Which left most writers armed with their original and probably a single carbon copy. A really good typewriter could get through two layers of paper and two layers of carbon paper to create a readable third copy.

So writers didn’t usually send out more than one copy at a time, not for reasons of etiquette or agent/publisher preference – but because it was simply too expensive.  And it stayed that way for a very long time.

A publishing guidebook from 1996 ( talked about the odds of having a manuscript accepted in those days, giving manuscripts solicited by the publisher a one in three chance, manuscripts submitted after meeting the publishers/editors or getting a recommendation from one of their existing clients had a one in 10 chance. And unsolicited or over the transom submissions had odds of “considerably less than” one in 100.

Remember, this was when bookstores and the traditional publishing industry were flourishing and authors could not easily produce or submit more than a single submittable copy of their manuscript.
When dot matrix technology appeared in the mid-90s, it was a game changer – even though it met considerable resistance in publishing circles. Publishers went from refusing to consider dot-matrix submissions, to grudgingly accepting high quality dot matrix submissions. Almost all significant publishers continued to demand hard-copy submissions, well into the 2000s. So novel writers were still looking a per submission hard-cost of five to 10 dollars for paper; 75 dollars for ink; and a good span of the life of a personal printer; at least 20 dollars for mailing and Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). That’s over a hundred dollars a copy. So even then, as it became commonplace to make simultaneous submissions, it was still an expensive and time consuming process to find an agent and a publisher.

Things Most Writers Younger than 30 Probably Take for Granted:

Now, all it costs to submit a novel to an agent or publisher, is the time and energy required to write and e-mail it. No-one should be doing 100 simultaneous submissions, but there are writers who do. And many of those same writers will never let a manuscript die – revising and sending it back out into the world repeatedly, until they finally get the message that the traditional publishing world doesn’t want their book. 

The combination of ease of submission and proliferation of zombie manuscripts has completely flooded modern publishers. Where an imprint in 1980, may have had time to read 5 per cent of the submissions they received, those days are long gone. Now the average publisher or agent, even with the help of an assistant and an intern, probably has a hard time reading and responding to 100 per cent of the blind query letters they receive. Instead of rejecting manuscripts after reading the first ten pages, they and their staffs are reduced to reading the first ten lines of each query letter (on a good day).

In the pre-computer era, all of the barriers writers had to face – were right up front,  weeding out all the writers who weren’t deadly serious about their craft, very early on in the process. Now, writers don’t face real barriers until the end of the process. But because of the numbers of submissions the mountain seems 100 times as high. And if you self-publish, you face other, equally intimidating challenges.

Things All Working Writers Should Know

One of the prices writers must pay in exchange for the reduction in submission costs and the increased simplicity of the process - is complete democratization of the market. The closer we get to a time when everybody simply self-publishes, the more the market will favour writers with a flair for self-promotion and the financial resources to sell their own titles. The trick is, the best, most dedicated self-promoters are probably not going to be the best writers. The two skill sets will overlap Word of mouth will play more of a role in a writer’s success than any time in history – but may be a slow winnowing process. We may have to measure true success as number of sales over a long period of time.

Agents, editors and publishers pay a different price. Now, instead of alienating 10 or twenty writers a day, they’re faced with alienating hundreds every day. In a single day a good team could make as many as a thousand writers a) go into a fury b) contemplate suicide c) burst into tears d) give up, e) shrug and start work on yet another draft of the unending manuscript. e) all of the above, not necessarily in that order.


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