In a former life, I tended bar at a Mexican restaurant. It was a hole-in-the-wall dump of a place, a converted Frisch’s Big Boy with a few colorful blankets and sombreros and piñatas tacked to the walls for “atmosphere.” The food was authentic, though, and we always got good reviews in the newspaper.

I started each shift by cutting dozens of limes into wheels for garnishes, mixing five-gallon tanks of margaritas, and generally prepping the bar for what we called “Fiesta Hour.”

Between 2PM and 7PM, you could buy jumbo margaritas and well drinks for half-price, and you could eat fresh tortilla chips and homemade salsa for free. In theory, the cheap drinks and free snacks were supposed to stimulate customers’ appetites. In theory, they would then order a plate of rellenos or enchiladas or pollo con salsa verde. In practice, however, quite a few patrons regularly came in strictly for the cut-rate tequila buzz and comp munchies.

One of those patrons was a guy named Marco.

Mid-thirties, tall and thin, stringy blond hair, big Adam’s apple, still lived with his parents.

He always ordered multiple margaritas on the rocks (light on the ice; he got more booze that way), multiple baskets of chips, and multiple tubs of hot and mild salsa. He never bought anything off the menu, and he never tipped me a dime.

But those weren't the main reasons I dreaded seeing him.

You see, Marco was a self-proclaimed perfumier. He had a “laboratory” set up in his basement, where he distilled oils and essences, spices and extracts--all sorts of exotic and volatile concoctions designed to titillate the human olfactory nerve. Drop-by-drop, Mad Scientist Marco filled tiny glass vials with these precious potions of his, and then mounted the vials in a briefcase for display. Sometimes he brought the briefcase to the bar with him.

There was only one problem with Marco’s fragrances: they didn’t smell very good. In fact, they stunk.

That’s not just my opinion. Everybody who ever smelled Marco’s products said they stunk. Popping the cork on one of his bottles was like unleashing the hounds of perfume hell. Imagine an elevator full of blue-haired, lipstick-toothed octogenarians, whose senses of smell died sometime during the Carter administration. Add a couple of funeral sprays, some rubbing alcohol, and maybe a dash of Pine Sol. Shake well.

Oh, he occasionally sold one of those vile vials, to a kindly cocktail server or a nearby customer who took pity on him. I even bought a bottle one time, only to pitch it in the dumpster on my way home.

Unfortunately, our patronage only encouraged him. He kept making more of that kerosene cologne, kept trying to hawk it during Fiesta Hour. Eventually, the restaurant owner had a talk with him. Marco didn’t come in very often after that.

Marco’s dream was to be a famous perfume designer. The way I see it, he went about it all wrong.

Shouldn’t you know a little bit about chemistry? Shouldn't you be aware of how various substances might interact with human glandular secretions? Shouldn’t you maybe spend some time in Paris or New York or somewhere studying with masters of the trade? Shouldn’t you analyze popular scents on a molecular level to see just what it is about them that turns people on?

Marco didn’t do any of that. Marco bought some smelly stuff through the mail, pumped it into amateurish-looking containers, tried to sell it from a briefcase at the cantina.

And he wanted to call himself a perfumier.

Sorry, Marco, but you have to earn that title.

Just as, in my opinion, writers have to earn the title of published author.

Anyone who can scratch out words on a page can have those words printed and bound and put up for sale on sites like Amazon. To me, that type of publishing is tantamount to bottling perfume from a basement lab and selling it from a briefcase in a bar.

In other words, it’s very likely that the end product will stink.

I was at a writer’s conference one time, outside smoking a cigarette, when a fellow attendee strolled up and asked for a light.

“What kind of stuff do you write?” he asked.

“Hardboiled. I’m working on a private eye novel.”

“Anything published yet?”

“Not yet. I’m still looking for an agent. How ‘bout you?”

“Yeah, I have a book out.”

“Really? Who’s the publisher?”

He named a certain POD outfit. "Here, let me give you one of my cards...”

He handed me a business card and walked away. He avoided me for the duration of the conference, preferring instead to hang around with other “published authors.” I felt like grabbing him by the collar and shouting you’re not published either, you punk, but of course I didn’t. Anyway, I doubt my harsh words would have penetrated his cloud of arrogance.

There are no shortcuts to becoming a published author. You have to earn the title by landing a contract with a legitimate publisher, and that can take years of hard work.

Some folks would rather throw up a lab in the basement and start hawking product right away (throw up and hawk being the key words there).

That’s their choice, I suppose, but I really don’t see the point.

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I'm willing to assume that literary agents and editors as a group are experts at spotting good writing and that their traditional gatekeeping activities result in the quality of the books they elect to publish being of a higher standard in comparison to self-published books.

I think the odds of that iuniverse published fellow having produced a decent book are quite low, in other words. I think anyone who has ever worked in a literary agency or been responsible for the slush pile at a legitimate publishing house would agree with me.
Sure, the odds are low, but not zero. The question is, are the odds getting better or worse?

Those editors and agents have had volume on their side - so many books get published that way they cover a lot of ground. Most of the writers I really admire got turned down a whole lot - Elmore Leonard, after a successful career writing westerns had his first crime novel turned down 80 times. Good for him to pursue, but also it was a good thing there was an 81st place to send the book.

Also, those editors and agents have been trained and advised to find books that fit into well-known categories - which works fine for most books, but there still needs to be some that aren't expected to be huge sellers, some that are more like jazz music than pop. A lot of people like Harry Potter and a lot of people like Brittney Spears - well, some of us don't like that stuff so much.

I guess all I'm saying is we need to be open-minded these days because the publishing industry as we know it is changing and we have no idea how it's going to shake out. Authors are expected to do a lot more of their own PR these days, run their own websites, arrange their own readings, network - soon they may be required to do a lot more with the actual production of the books. Anything's possible.
How do you know the iUniverse guy would have been turned down by a traditional publisher? Maybe he never even submitted it. If he had, maybe it would have been snatched up instantly. Christopher Paolini self-published Eragon before it was picked up by a major publisher.

And what makes an editor or agent an expert in quality? Is there a set of skills and standards these people have to go through and learn to become an agent or an editor? Or are they just regular people who have a special title on their business cards?
As to the iuniverse guy he wasn't vetted by the experts; he's a self-appointed published author. It comes down to odds. Sure there's a slim chance he produced a great book, but the odds are much better for authors who have found an agent and convinced a publishing house that their work is worthy.

As to what makes an editor or agent an expert in their field, they spend far more time than others exposed to literature and attempting to assess its quality. Maybe you should read the new Malcolm Gladwell John mentioned.
Sorry to hear about the drop from Harcourt, John. Good luck getting picked up elsewhere.

As to the future of publishing, I'm not sure anyone has the vaguest idea yet, how it will really be. Different is the only sure bet, I think.

But it's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that one day there won't be any expert gatekeepers in the industry (no agents, no important publishing houses). If that day somehow happened, I can imagine, from the perspective of a reader, paying for a service of some kind that would tell me: "These books over here, at least, don't suck too bad." Because I'm not going to enjoy going through some million-book database myself in search of a good read.
You know, I have this vague idea of a kind of United Artists for books - a grouping of editors, writers, booksellers and reviewers (bloggers at the moment).

I picture a time when I can go to Peter Rozovsky's blog, read about a great book and buy the e-book directly from his blog. He'll get some money for pointing me to it, the writer will get some, the editor and the person who handles the software that does the actual money transaction.

I'm not sure how they'll be grouped together or how the 'gatekeeping' will work, but maybe organizations like the Mystery Writers of America will evolve into more hands-on groups, with apprenticeship programs and stuff, like guilds.
Keep thinking like this and as thoughts develop share them with us. The United Artists reference is something that has been running through what's left of my brain for weeks now.
I think Marco and Eric are both very old school and a little uninformed of the current business practices in publishing. I appreciate (Eric) your enthusiasm for publishing but I would encourage you to get to know an author who has made it in the past 3 years from nothing to something. Chances are good that most of those authors self-published somehow. Major publishers simply do not have the cash flow they used to have that would afford them the luxury of reading thousands of books and paying unknown authors based simply on their writing ability.

I'm skewed a little, as an employee of iUniverse... a low level employee (this is no official management response), I appreciate the things that a good self publisher can bring to the table to help an author. I have seen MANY authors send query letters for years without a single positive response. I have seen these same authors work with professional editors, designers, and marketers with iUniverse and have a book contract with a major publisher within weeks of publishing.

A good way to think of the publishing industry nowadays is to parallel it with the music industry. You wouldn't expect a band to write one song, send that song to record companies, and immediately get a record deal. A band has to prove that they have a fan base, they have to have a track record (enjoy the pun if you wish), and it has to make financial sense to the label to pick them up. Self publishing is a way for authors to get their names out their, promote their 'brand', and develop a platform that a major publisher would pay to associate with.
Old school, usually, but I'd be surprised if I were actually uniformed. Sure, I've heard of some successes who began via self-publishing. Perhaps M.J. Rose was the first. In any glass, the cream doth rise to the top. But to suggest that most authors who've achieved success in the last three years took the self-publishing route is, I think, misleading.

FYI, M.J. Rose doesn't recommend self-publishing fiction today.
First of all, let me just say I have nothing against iUniverse per se. It just happened to be the publisher the guy I talked to went through. It could just as easily have been Lulu or Publish America or any number of similar outfits.

A good way to think of the publishing industry nowadays is to parallel it with the music industry.

No, that's a bad way to think of it, because it's like comparing apples to oranges. Professional musicians and songwriters use CDs (the best they can afford to produce) as their demo format; professional writers use manuscripts (not paperback books). Try having a paperback printed up and then sending a couple hundred copies to a couple hundred reputable agents. A couple hundred copies will soon find their way to a couple hundred shredders. I don't know where you're getting your information, Marc, but I don't know of any agents or publishers who'll even look at a self-published title. It's a mark against a writer, if anything. Of course, a writer might generate some interest from majors if they manage to sell a few thousand copies, but those cases are extremely rare. From what I understand, most self-published titles end up selling around a hundred copies, mostly to family and friends. Nothing wrong with that, but it should in no way be confused with being a "published author."
Yes, I agree, the music industry is not a good comparison for publishing. unless we're talking, like I said before, about Brittney Spears and Harry Potter - past those few, the vast majority of what goes on in pusic and publishing are,as you say, jude, apples and oranges.

But I think the distinction between "self-published" and "small press" is what's changing. Insome ways the small press is now seen a little as the farm teams of big publishers. My own first two novels were published by a small press in Canada and then picked up by Harcourt. I don't know if this is what helped sink fiction at Harcourt, but most of the books they bought had already been published - Declan Burke's The Big O was a 50-50 partnership between him and the publisher so it was almost self-published. I'm pretty much 100% certain that as a manuscript mine would have been rejected. But as a published book with some good reviews, well that's different.

So, like I said before, I don't think the idea of iUniverse or self-publishing is a good idea for fiction (sorry Marc ;), there's still some room between that and "Major New York publishing company," of which there are fewer every day.


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