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Is publishing unfair?

In case the title of the post didn’t clue you in (it should have), today I’m going to talk about publishing, specifically some of the ways in which it is unfair. I’ve learned a lot about publishing in the last 2 years of blogging, though I’m by no means an expert. Basically, I feel that, as with most things, it advantages white English speakers who had the good fortune to be born in a MEDC and get a decent education. The more of those boxes you tick, the more easy it is to get published. This doesn’t mean that it is easy to get published, or that published books are all bad (or all good), but, as I’ve learned in AP Statistics, those who get published (and ultimately, those who read published work) are by no means a representative sample of human beings in the world. (note: I am aware that there are publishers who work in other languages, which is great. But English, and the countries who speak English, is dominant throughout the world, and it seems to me that English publishing has the most influence).

publishing-unfair

  • Publishing is all based in the US. This isn’t exactly true. Not all publishing is based in the United States, but all major publishing houses have headquarters in New York. This means that more Americans work in publishing, and it’s easier for Americans to get published (compared to, say, South Africans). For a book to reach the maximum number of people, it needs to be published by a company with a big marketing budget, and that usually means a major publishing house situated in USA.
  • Publishing requires agents. The nature of the agenting system is that many valuable pieces of work will be passed over in the ‘slush pile’—there are just too many submissions. Of course, there are wonderful agents, and they are really helpful, but chances are that your manuscript will be missed. I was talking with someone who has his own tiny publishing house recently, and he was saying that it’s basically impossible to get published by a *major* house without an agent, which means that a lot of great work (as well as a lot of mediocre work) is missed.
  • Publishing requires access. To write a story that you can submit, whether to agents or publishers, you need a laptop and access to the internet. (As far as I know, physical submission is basically not a thing anymore). Without these things, you can’t share your story, and it won’t be published—biasing publishing towards the more well off people. Access to education tends to be important too—if you’re not literate, your magnificent oral story won’t be heard. All that hierarchy of needs stuff says that if you can’t afford to spend time or money writing, you won’t write your story.
  • Within publishing, some stories are marketed and some aren’t. I can usually predict which books are going to be bestsellers, not by their content, but by how much I see marketing materials for them. Dedicated websites, blog posts, ARCs, book trailers—the more there are of these, the more the book will sell. Sadly, just having your book picked up by a publisher doesn’t guarantee success—publishers have their own ways of deciding which books to promote and which books not to promote.
  • Diversity. If you haven’t heard of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, have you been living under a rock or something? Basically, this movement promotes diverse books in every sense of the word. But without more diversity within the publishing industry and among bloggers, it is harder to have diversity in publishing, because diverse voices don’t get heard, for all the reasons of access I listed above.

There are definitely more ways in which publishing is unfair, and this post is more of an opinion than something backed up by hard facts, but I feel like this list is enough for today. I’m not going to stop reading because publishing is unfair. I’m probably still going to mostly read books printed by major presses. One day, I might even try to get published, so this post is not trying to say that many of the books which I love are unworthy because of how they came into being, or that trying to be published is a bad idea. The unfairness in publishing is an inevitable result of a global financial system which systematically discriminates and exploits people—the system of capitalism. It is impossible to change such a big system alone, especially because we exist within it. I guess all I’m asking is that you be aware of it when you buy and read and recommend books. If you’re part of the publishing system, know its flaws, and maybe try to change them.

So I get that this post is controversial… but what do you think? Do you feel that publishing is unfair, and if so, in which ways? Have you read any good indie books recently? Let me know in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “Is publishing unfair?

  1. Yeah, I think publishing can be biased in many ways. I think that’s why a lot of individuals and grassroots organizations like WNDB are trying to make a change in the publishing industry that we see. Still, I have to agree with a lot of other people that I don’t think this makes the publishing industry UNUSUAL, per se. And I’m also not convinced that this can ever be fixed. The publishing industry will always be marketing towards the things that sell, and while we can encourage people to keep buying certain diverse stories, I don’t know if every person’s story can make it through the slush, or even deserves to…

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  2. I haven’t really thought much about this. When I was younger, I wanted to choose the traditional publishing route but now I think I’d prefer to self publish my novel. This is because I now write Christian fiction (though it’s quite hard for me to write because I also want it to be realistic?) and many people aren’t that interested in Christian novels.

    Yeah, it’s true that many authors that speak different languages don’t get noticed as much. I really wanted to find some Spanish YA but I couldn’t really find much :/

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    1. I’m glad you appreciated reading this post! There are traditional Christian publishers, you’d just have to do some more research. I have read some Swedish translated books, and have a couple of other translated books, but mostly translation seems to go the other way.

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  3. Publishing is definitely hard *raises her hand as someone who is attempting the process* and I don’t think it’s easy for anyone honestly. There are a few lucky people who seem to get AMAZING deals and it all moves quickly…but actually, strangely enough the books I’ve heard that happening to are always diverse books? like Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, I believe, had an agent and publishing house within 3 weeks! And The Hate U Give about #BlackLivesMatter got like one of the biggest debut book deals (7 figures, wasn’t it?) I’ve ever heard of. And I follow along with this stuff pretty closely! So I DO absolutely agree that publishing can be unfair and biased — as can anything in the world, honestly. People starve in some countries. People throw out really good food in others. It’s sad all round and I don’t think the world is ever going to fully fix this. 😕 Although I do believe people are trying! It’s really sad that there will always be people with stories who won’t get heard for all the wrong reasons when they truly deserve to.😖
    I loved the post! Very thought provoking! And I hope what I said made sense and wasn’t random rabbit trails.🙈🙊

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    1. Publishing is WAY hard and I have so much respect for the people attempting to be involved in it. I do vaguely know of those books stories… but I guess that for all the widely publiscised sensational ones there are oh so many rejected diverse and not diverse books. Publishing is just one cog of this generally unjust, unfair system, and change can only be system change which is REALLY HARD to do. Meritocracy is a lie–or at least my cynical side says that it is. Thanks for contributing, Cait!

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  4. Well, I mean, yes. Publishing is really just about the luck of the draw. Statistically, white authors are in the majority so it’s logical there’s more of them, but the good news is that a lot of publishers are moving toward diversity (The Wrath and the Dawn, Six of Crows, Ember in the Ashes, etc.).

    But I’m really not a fan of placing your fate in the hands of a publisher anyway. Keep in mind, each publisher and imprint has hundreds, if not thousands, of books coming out every year. They put their money behind the ones they think will do well (almost always the established bestsellers) because they have to make safe decisions as a business.

    I know three authors whom I met when they were traditionally published (agents and everything). One was even with a highly successful Big Six epic fantasy imprint. Over the past few years, all three of them have severed ties with their publishers because the publishers wouldn’t support them.These people could all write and write incredibly well, but because they weren’t Mary Angelou, George RR Martin, Amy Tan, or JK Rowling, they weren’t getting the resources.

    Like I said, yes. Publishing is all about the luck of the draw. Publishers might be leery of certain subject matter focused on representations, but they usually make the publishing decisions without knowing one’s ethnicity/gender/orientation/nationality. Publishing is absolutely broken though and I look forward to the industry’s revolution. *waving pen like Enjorlas at the barricade*

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    1. But really, if you think on a global scale, white authors are only the majority in the US, most of Europe, Australia and New zealand. Population wise, that’s not much of the world! The way the publishing system (and the education system and the political system and the justice system and the health system) is biased towards white people in English-speaking developed countries. And the publishing houses in those places have the biggest reach. The business system which the publishers must operate within does promote unequal treatment. That’s really interesting about the authors you know–because in some ways, traditional publishing is safe, and stopping it can be finacially dangerous. *Joins you in revolting*

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  5. I think there are some fair points made here, but I’m not sure publishing is any more unfair than a lot of other things or a lot of other industries in the world. Education, money, access to the ‘right’ people, the luck of where you are born, your native language etc, are all factors throughout life not just publishing.

    • Surely the point about the US being dominant applies to a lot of industries? (Although China publishes more books per year by the way). When it comes to the English language, it’s a valid point but Don Quixote and the Alchemist are two of the best-selling books ever and they weren’t originally published in English. Nor was the Bible or the Works of Mao Tse-Tung.
    • With regards to agents, I’ve had lots of books published and never used an agent. They might help but they are not the only route to being published.
    • Fair point about access as I’m sure there are some great oral stories out there that haven’t been heard. But isn’t that again, just the way the world works in general? A publishing house in New York is more likely to come across a story from a banker in Wall Street than they are a tale from a man who lives in a remote part of Mexico. I’m sure there are some great inventions and recipes out there too.
    • Most writers complain about marketing, publishers do in general push the tried and tested writers and genres more. But then who can blame them, it is a business after all.
    • You’re spot on about diversity. There’s nothing better than discovering not only places that you haven’t heard about but also discovering different points of view from other people. But, again, when it comes to investment, a likely success by a New York writer is always going to win over searching out a new novelist in Sumatra.

    As I’ve said, and you point out at the end of your piece, it’s the way the world works more than publishing itself being particular ‘unfair’.

    The joy, however, in this techno age, is that there is nothing to stop anyone (with a bit of cash granted) from publishing his/her own book. It’s unlikely to challenge a big publishing house but then I doubt if Honda would be too threatened if you built your own car.

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    1. Yeah, I agree with your point about publishing not being unique among industries–that’s what I was trying to say with my point at the end about capitalism. There are definitely exceptions to all of these rules, just like there are writer who can be published from Wattpad or artists who can be discovered on youtube. Well, my understanding of the YA major publishing houses is that you mostly need an agent, but of course it is possible to get published without an agent. What I meant about the oral stories was that if you want stories to access a broader medium, they have to be physical and digital, and yes, it is currently the nature of the world to advantage New Yorkers and disadvantage those from Jakartans. From the point of view of a reader, in terms of marketing, it seems a bit random who gets their books marketed (if they haven’t had previous successes) and who doesn’t. In the current economical system, yes, it does make most sense to do a lot of things in publishing the way they already are. I would say that it’s just important to be aware of that, and to think about that when you choose traditionally published over independently published, or American writer over Ghanan writer and so on. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

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