The Truth About Collaboration
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about collaboration and how it relates to our profession. I’m sure some of this is because I’ve just published a collaborative novel and I’m currently collaborating with someone on a non-fiction book. However, the biggest reason I’ve been so focused on this recently is that it has become increasingly clear to me that collaboration is a key ingredient to success in book publishing today.
Until recently, collaboration mattered very little to writers, especially novelists. You wrote the book; your agent sold it; during the editorial phase, there was a certain amount of collaboration (depending on the quality of your editor); the publisher packaged it (maybe asking your opinion, maybe not), sold it to booksellers, and marketed it (or not, sometimes making you part of the process, or not). The work was essentially done in silos, and everyone had his or her function. This was even true within publishing houses, where departments talked to each other but didn’t really work together.
When I started the Spectra science fiction imprint at Bantam, I broke the mold on this somewhat, buying and editing the books, brainstorming with the art director, putting together the marketing plans, traveling with the sales reps, and communicating directly with booksellers. That was possible because Spectra was an anomaly at Bantam, which at the time wasn’t paying much attention to genre fiction. When Spectra started having bestsellers, my role became increasingly editorial, with the “experts” taking over many of the other functions. As I rose up the ladder at Bantam, it blew my mind to realize that key departments didn’t report to the Publisher, who was presumably responsible for everything related to the publication. Even when I was Publisher of Avon, sales and production reported to others. Collaboration was minimal, even internally, let alone with the author.
We’ve spent a great deal of time at NINC over the past few years talking about how authors need to take responsibility for every phase of their publication, either because their publishers aren’t doing it (editors don’t edit, the house does little marketing for them) or because they’ve chosen to publish themselves. While I know this has been frustrating to many–where am I supposed to get those extra eight hours a day?–I think it has been beneficial to writers to learn how to be more intimately involved in the entire process. That said, I don’t believe it is sustainable for two reasons: days haven’t gotten eight hours longer, and there are limits to what most writers can accomplish alone.
We’re at something of an editorial crisis in the marketplace. One of the classic self-destructive tricks that publishers pull is flooding the market with weak imitations of breakout successes. Readers want dystopian fiction? Get me every dystopian novel you can get your hands on! They want erotic romance (okay, we should have known that already, but we were in a meeting)? Put nine of them on the fall list–I don’t care how you get them!
The upshot of this is commonly that publishers kill the market by underwhelming readers with knockoffs. After a while, readers give up because they’ve read 10 bad Knights Templar books in a row. What concerns me now is that we might be doing this with the entire fiction market. How much unedited, self-published crap will readers accept before they say, “You know, I’m just not enjoying this anymore”? This isn’t an antiself-publishing rant; I think you know that I’m hugely supportive of self-publishing done well. But part of doing it well involves working with an editor, a copyeditor, and a proofreader to make sure that your work stands out. That’s a form of collaboration, and if your publisher isn’t a willing collaborator in this area, you might need to find someone to collaborate with you before you bring your manuscript to your publisher.
For one brief moment, marketing was as much about pressing buttons in the new publishing world as it was in the old. There were two or three tricks that worked (in the past it was co-op and aggressive distribution, yesterday it was making an e-book free for a week or so or down-pricing the first book in a series), and if you or your publisher employed them, you were assured a high profile. This isn’t true anymore.