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Come One, Come All: Why Publishing is Drowning in Submissions

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Publishing Drowns in Submissions

Everyone involved with writing and publishing complains about the volume of submissions. Aspiring authors lament the astronomical numbers of competing submissions. Agents and editors constantly talk about how they’re inundated with proposals.

And certainly every aspiring author has inwardly groaned every time Aunt Mildred talks about how she wants to write a book and how Dr. Johnson down the lane says he’s going to write a book and how the pizza delivery boy says he’s got a book idea. Sometimes it feels like everyone wants a book deal. Everyone thinks they can write a book. There’s the old chestnut about the dinner party where the brain surgeon tells the author that he intends to write a book when he retires and the writer retorts that he will conduct surgery when he stops publishing.

And partially, those perceptions exist because of the publishing industry’s incessant outreach to every other professional enterprise. In short, anyone can have a book. But the vice versa isn’t true.

On Tuesday, we posted a reference to the Anonymous book proposal currently making the rounds. There’s an interesting statement in that New York Observer article.

“The proposal is the proposal and I have no idea what I’m doing, I have no experience with the publishing industry,” Gregg Housh is quoted as saying. The article even states that he was laughing as he said it.

Now, God bless Mr. Housh and good luck in his endeavors. He’s not said or done anything wrong in this regard. But his light-hearted comment illustrates that publishing reaches out to people regardless of their writing skill, expertise, or long-term career ambitions. The most obvious and easy illustration of this relates to celebrity books.

–A Super Bowl winning quarterback gets a book. But I don’t get to lead the New Orleans Saints onto the field because I’m a writer.
–A heroic airplane pilot gets a book but I don’t get to flip levers in the cockpit of a 747 because I’m an author.
–A Hollywood starlet gets to publish a book but I don’t get a swag bag at the Emmys because I’m a writer.
–A well-known chef will have a book (in this case, a pretty damn good one) but I’m not going to be invited into a Michelin starred kitchen because of my stellar prose.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I did serve as a ghostwriter for a sort of celebrity memoir. And obviously I’m borderline obsessed by the literary endeavors of hard rock musicians. So I’m a participant in this paradigm.]

But it’s not simply celebrities that get book deals. “Normal” people who have no amount of fame (or writing experience) also publish books after surviving various forms of crisis or achieving certain goals, business bigwigs author instructional and inspirational books, and on and on. While we might be moved to tears or encouraged to new heights by a hiker’s tale of cutting off his own arm, that dude isn’t going to be asked to be the new chief executive officer of HP because of it.

“It’s about stories and entertainment,” a dissenting buddy says. “Of course the hiker won’t be asked to lead a Fortune 500 company or to serve as a paramedic in a roaming ambulance because of his experience. But his story can contribute to the entertainment world.”

“Why isn’t he given a record deal then?” I counter. “If we assume he can write a book because of what he went through, then why can’t we assume that he can belt out a Marvin Gaye tune? Why isn’t he given a film to direct? Why don’t we expect him to paint a portrait, produce a sculpture, or slaughter and piece a steer?”

My pal says that with books and literature, our unskilled writing hero can work with a co-author. He coughs, raises his eyebrow, and points to me. I agree that I’m part of this process.

“But couldn’t a director help him helm that major motion picture? You never see, ‘A film by Joe Schmoe Hero, with Martin Scorsese.’ If the civilian inspiration is mentioned in the credits at all, it’s way down at the bottom, and he’s listed as a technical advisor or something. Certainly with Auto-Tune and studio musicians, the normal guy could be made to sound passable on a recording. So why don’t we see these people showing up with record deals? Why do we only give people top billing when it comes to books?”

There’s no doubt that writing is the most accessible art form with the lowest barrier to entry (especially in the days of epubs). That’s partly why everyone thinks they want to write a book. But when bookstore shelves overflow with titles by so many folks who aren’t devoting their lives to literature, it not hard to understand why there is such a deluge of submissions.