Who Decides What’s Good?


by Meredith Maslich

UnfitCover-FinalA few months ago, one of our books — “Unfit” by Lara Cleveland Torgesen — appeared on a list of the 20 most-downloaded books from a library in North Dakota. When I clicked on the link to see the entire list, I found books by authors like Nicholas Sparks, Christina Baker Kline, James Patterson, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, and John Green. Almost the entire list was an author or a series (Hunger Games, Divergent) that is hugely popular.

And then there was our little book. It felt a bit surreal. I had that panicked feeling I used to get in grad school when for a second I would think I was in the wrong class. That I was an imposter.

But then the moment passed and I had only one thought: “Hell, yes.”

“Unfit” might be written by an unknown author and published by an independent press with a catalog of less than a dozen books. But that doesn’t mean the book isn’t just as good (maybe even better!) than any of the mass-marketed books by authors who have been turning out best sellers for decades.

Our book absolutely belonged on that list (and so many other “best of” lists!), and the only reason I had that imposter feeling is because I’m clearly vulnerable to the same brainwashing that has been the bane of small presses and self-publishers since the beginning: that anything not published by a “traditional publisher” (read: large and well-known) must simply not be good enough. Otherwise, a traditional publisher would have snapped it up.

Obviously. Right?

Wrong.

That line of thinking has always been flawed but never more so than right now. The odds of an unknown writer with no major social media following selling his or her manuscript to an agent, who then gets it to an editor at one of the big publishers, who then convinces the rest of the team that the talent and beauty of the book exceed the marketing challenges are almost non-existent.

But let’s say all that happens and the publisher buys the rights to the book. It could still be years before our unknown author’s beautiful book sees the light of day, depending on how many big-name authors (read: automatic best sellers) the publisher has lined up ahead of it — including books the publisher buys after but releases before our unknown author’s book.

In other words, most books published by traditional publishers are chosen based on financial considerations rather than literary quality.

As independent presses and self-publishers take more and more of the market share, those traditional publishers get more risk-averse and more likely to focus on the James Pattersons and Suzanne Collinses of the world, which just continues the cycle.

Part of me doesn’t fault them for that behavior. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my short career as a publisher, it’s that it’s hard to make a profit. The big publishers have much higher overhead and so much more at stake in terms of staff and shareholders and pensions, so that they have no choice but to let the bottom line dictate their decisions.

All that means that we need to break the cultural assumption that traditional publishers are the only ones who can decide what’s good.

Traditional publishers are more like Hollywood movie studios than literary critics. Which means that indie publishers are like the indie filmmakers and art house theaters: We might have small marketing and distribution resources, but we’re not constrained by the need to be mass-marketable. As a result, we can find and develop some beautiful, unique, and entertaining books and find the readers who will appreciate them.

Just ask the patrons of the Eddy-New Rockford Library in North Dakota.

Meredith Maslich is president and CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company. She is also on the faculty at SpeakeasyDC, where she has been teaching the art of storytelling for more than six years.

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