Guest Column: The New Give-to-Get Publishing Economy: Edith D. Wilson, R.I.P.
Two decades ago, as an entry-level editorial assistant, I was asked to sign form rejection letters with the name “Edith D. Wilson.” Edith was a fictional creation whose name my then-employer used exclusively to reject manuscripts. When “rejected” writers sent angry mail, phoned or worse—visited the publisher’s office—the use of Edith’s name at the reception desk would alert all to draw the shades or reach for the security buzzer. The message was clear: Editors, and the publishers they work for, need to be as hard to get to as possible. Publishing authority and position demanded “reclusivity.” Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Fast-forward two decades and we are in a vastly different book publishing landscape, one that is being impacted by a convergence of both long-predicted and recent “Black Swan” events. Search engines have, for some, displaced book retailers as the starting place for book selection. Self-publishing has moved from the margins to the mainstream; what were once considered vanity houses are now powerful content creation and distribution platforms. Social networks and no-cost marketing platforms like Facebook and Twitter have exploded, empowering consumers as buyers and opinion leaders in new ways.
This is occurring while traditional vehicles for driving book awareness—print-based book reviews and ads—are declining. The list of things that are different now than they were in Edith’s day is pages long. Most importantly, however, in this marketplace, anyone choosing reclusivity or anonymity over engagement chooses irrelevance.
So, how do book publishers add visible value for their authors and consumers in new ways? What needs to change, and perhaps more importantly, what needs to stay the same? As both a publishing “insider” and a frequent reader of publishing’s critics, I am often struck by how the public discussion of these questions is fundamentally different than private ones, how the focus of those inside publishing houses is different from those in the blogosphere. Beyond publishers’ walls, the tremendous value editors and their publishing colleagues provide in helping an author create a publishable work is often unknown. Yet, the vast majority of publishing time and energy go into just this activity—the core of what publishers do.