An Industry of Dunces, Part 1

One of my favorite novels of all time is “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. It’s a loud, bawdy, rude, crude, Rabelaisian romp through the New Orleans of the 1960s, featuring maybe the foulest protagonist of all time: a fat, lazy, insensitive, and self-centered slob named Ignatius J. Reilly. The book is hilarious on multiple levels while also sneaking in biting social commentary. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has taken on almost legendary status in certain corners of the publishing world. A work of genius, from where I sit.

And that genius, the author, killed himself in 1969 at the age of 31, a full 11 years before “A Confederacy of Dunces” was finally published. His suicide was at least partly due to depression over not being able to find a publisher for his novel despite repeated attempts.

Toole’s mother, Thelma Toole, was the one who finally got it published, and that was only after hounding author Walker Percy to read the manuscript. Percy figured he would hate the book and dismiss it immediately. That didn’t happen. As he famously wrote about “A Confederacy of Dunces:”

“In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good.”

With Percy’s help, the book was published by Louisiana State University press in 1980 (I actually bought one of the original LSU books at the time, then lent it to a friend in the mid-90s and have not seen that original copy since). “A Confederacy of Dunces” was later picked up by a major publisher and has now sold more than 1.5 million copies in 18 languages.

If John Kennedy Toole hadn’t been born with a persistent and devoted mother, his novel would never have seen the light of day. Sadly, he didn’t live to see it himself. Somewhere deep down he must have thought he just wasn’t worthy – that he wasn’t the great writer he clearly longed to be.

This is what happens when publishers reject your book. They don’t deem it worthy, and by implication they don’t deem you worthy. When publishers reject a book, it’s like the Hand of God comes down to smite it. It’s a kind of death – killing the book you worked so hard to write, and killing your dreams of bringing it to a wider audience.

I’ve known that feeling. Lots of authors have. JK Rowling knew that feeling. So did Stephen King, Agatha Christie, John Le Carre – they all had their first manuscripts rejected multiple times by publishers. So was “The Life of Pi” and “Twilight,” all because publishers thought they knew what the reading public wanted.

In truth, you could fill the oceans with what publishers don’t know. When it comes to selecting books for publication, they’re only guessing, at least when it comes to debut novels by unknown writers. Maybe they are making educated guesses, based on their own standardized formulas, but they’re still just guessing, throwing darts in the air and seeing where they land. I’d love to know their batting average when it comes to hits and misses with debut novels.

Big publishers – and there are less than a handful anymore – might score their fair share of hits, but that’s only because the game is so rigged in their favor that a monkey could do it with some degree of success. Big publishers have the financial clout to market their books in all the right places, ensure that their books are reviewed in all the right publications, get their books placed in all the right bookstore displays, monopolize the bookshelves – and trample all over the smaller publishers, many of which are run by college lit grads who don’t have enough business savvy to run a lemonade stand.

Meanwhile, booksellers and retailers have little choice but to go along. They either do what the big publishers tell them, or they lose the meal tickets that prop up the rest of their business.

I’m not sure how to fix this problem. But I do know this: Not too many industries rely solely on the input of a small cadre of like-minded professionals to decide what is worthy of public consumption and what isn’t.

Other industries take risks, innovate, test-market a product with select consumers or the general public before deciding if it should be launched commercially, whether it’s toys, tools, technology, or appliances. They find everyday folks to give it a whirl, pay them a few bucks, and see what they think.

Some publishers do this with books, hiring readers to vet submissions before deciding whether to publish them. But this is more the exception than the rule, and in many cases the readers are only hired to scan books for potentially offensive material.

The vast majority of manuscript submissions get a quick look from a comparatively small population of publishing staff who decide, right then and there, if they are worth putting on the market. In many cases they are laser-focused on whether a manuscript fits into a particular box – sci-fi, mystery, young adult, fantasy, literary, romance, historical fiction, etc. If the manuscript doesn’t fit into that box, or follow the industry formula, it is cast aside, never to be heard from again.

Now, I know it’s impossible to test-run every single submission, or to publish every book that doesn’t fit into the box. Publishers get thousands of submissions a year. The math doesn’t work, and even if it did, publishers would go broke in a hurry trying to publish everything.

But you’d think that in an industry where a few big publishers earn most of the profits – and the rest are lucky to break even – there would be a serious reassessment of the business model. You’d think somebody would take a chance on disrupting the status quo. Instead, they keep relying on the same old folks to make the same old decisions based on the same old formulas.

Let’s suppose that John Kennedy Toole was born 40 years later, in 1977 instead of 1937. He’s 44 years old now. He can’t find a publisher for “A Confederacy of Dunces.”

So, he looks at other options. Self-publishing. Vanity publishing. Hybrid publishing. E-books. He heads to the internet and does a bunch of searches, looking for various legal, marketing, design, editing and publishing services. Before you know it, he’s spent a few thousand dollars on the off chance he’ll sell a few hundred dollars’ worth of books.

This is no exaggeration. It happens all the time, to all kinds of writers.

Deep down, John Kennedy Toole probably knows it’s a losing proposition, trying to sell his book without a legit publisher behind him. For every story you hear about somebody selling a ton of books self-publishing, you can be pretty sure there are 10,000 others who sell next to nothing.

Deep down, maybe John Kennedy Toole thinks his novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” is simply not that good. Otherwise, a real publisher would have accepted it.

That’s how we as writers are trained to think – your book is either accepted by a legit publisher, or there’s something wrong with it. Except….

Real publishers whiff all the time, on all kinds of great books, by all kinds of writers. How many great books lie unpublished right now, or are buried in self-published anonymity, because real publishers rejected them? How many great authors have moved on to other careers because they couldn’t land a deal?

The problem with book publishers, agents, and other industry insiders is that they think they know more than they actually do. They have convinced themselves that they and they alone are the arbiters of good literature, good stories, good characters and dialogue, good sales potential. They have forgotten how to take risks, check the public pulse, innovate.

This is a lousy business model. It’s no wonder that despite all the billions of book readers in the world, only a few publishers make decent money selling books.

Back in 1987, the late rock music legend Frank Zappa shared some very heavy wisdom about the music business, which is similar to the publishing business in that most of the major decisions are made by a small group of like-minded people.

Zappa was talking about the difference between the way the music industry used to operate, before the self-appointed experts took over. He pointed out that some of the experimental music of the 1960s, when he started his own career, was released by businesspeople who didn’t necessarily know much about popular music but were smart enough to let the public decide what was interesting and what wasn’t. Here is part of his answer, which you can see in full on this YouTube video.

“Now look at the who the executives were in those companies at those times. Not hip young guys. These were cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product and said ‘I don’t know… who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out, if it sells… alright’. We were better off with those guys than we are now with the supposedly hip young executives, who are making the decisions on what people should see and hear in the marketplace. The young guys are more conservative, and more dangerous to the art form than the old guys with the cigars ever were.”

This isn’t the perfect analogy for the publishing industry, but it does get to the core of the problem, which is that too few people have too much power over too much content. They are so insulated in their own world, and so convinced of their own expertise, that they can’t see beyond themselves when deciding whether a book has artistic or commercial merit.

As a writer, I find this bothersome because I end up writing for these people instead of actual readers, or myself. Like many other writers (not all, by any means), my main goal is to get published. I’m just not going to sit at the keyboard all day and type away for my own benefit, knowing it probably won’t get published. So, I try to predict what the publishers want – hell, they all but tell you to give them what they want – instead of writing what’s in my head.

As a reader this is bothersome as well, because I can’t tell you many books I’ve read that follow the same pattern, the same formula, the same rules. I can almost predict where a book is heading before I’m even one-third of the way through it. The characters all look and sound the same.

That’s why I get a thrill whenever I find a character who is truly unique – someone who breaks all the rules, who is offensive and unlikeable, but instantly fascinating – a character like Ignatius J. Reilly, an offensive and self-centered slob who broke so many rules that publishers couldn’t handle him, and rejected the book, which later went on to sell more than a million copies, long after the author died at his own hand.

2 Comments

  1. I listen to a lot of Seth Godin (and sometimes read him too), and his main idea in this regard is to build your smallest viable audience: people who care about your work. Who like your stuff. Focus on delighting them. Serving them. Then they’ll have a genuine relationship or affinity with you and your work. And they’ll spread the word. The network effect – word of mouth – is far more effective than any chances you’ll have for making it with the gatekeepers. Look for the Akimbo podcast and check for episodes around publishing and books. His “This is Marketing” book also neatly encapsulates his philosophy. There’s almost no use trying to please those gatekeepers because as you know, your chances if hitting it big with them are almost zero. So, better to stay true to yourself and build your own tribe, and focus on organic growth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing, Yacoob. I think this strategy is excellent advice for most unknown writers. Not sure it’s a great fit for everyone, though — including me (at least while I am in the UK). I don’t have a lot of connections here, am not that great at networking, and don’t really have a huge desire to sell myself to strangers. My small tribe pretty much have read the book and liked it, and I’m sure they’ve spread the word. And I’ve done some the social media stuff, contacted all the influencers and reviewers, reached out to others in the book and entertainment industries. So we’ll see where it goes. I have a go big or go home mentality about all this — I want to see it go big, and don’t really have much urge to build sales a reader at a time. I just figure either it will get into the right reviewer’s hands, or it won’t. But it’s out there, and I still submit stuff. I’m more or less playing the long game. Hope all is well with your writing!

      Liked by 1 person

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