As there has been recent confusion on the matter, let’s talk about what publishing is. Ready? Here it is:
Publishing is an engine for the production of competent writing.
Now the details:
What is competent writing? Competent writing is writing that efficiently describes ideas and concepts to an audience, using a grammar that the audience can understand.
Why is publishing an engine for the production of competent writing? Because competent writing has a competitive advantage over incompetent writing. The book that competently describes the major battles of World War II, or a sex scene, or how to build and stain a backyard deck, has a distinct informational (and commercial) advantage over books with the same subjects that transmit their ideas poorly.
How does publishing select for competence? By employing competence-enhancing mechanisms at every step of writing production. The submission process exists (among other things) to weed out the grossly incompetent writing. The editing process exists to strengthen the text and to make sure its ideas are more easily assimilated by the reader. The design process aims to provide the text with a visual grammar that assists the goals of the text. The marketing process aims to promote the book’s competence or (in the worst case scenario) minimize its competence failures.
What does this mean for writers? In a broad sense: If you are professionally published by a legitimate publisher, you are probably at the very least a minimally competent writer.
Points to make here:
1. Competent is not the same as good. “Good” is about taste and style; “competent” is about facility with the writing grammar of a language. Moreover, not every bit of competent writing needs to be “good” — you don’t necessarily want a user manual to knock you on your ass with its prose style, you just want it to tell you how to use your damn toaster. With literature and non-fiction, there are any number of competent writers one might subjectively label “bad” writers — for all their ability to construct a sentence, the sentences they construct simply don’t do anything for you.
Although competent is not the same as good, it’s also the case that good books are always competent; at the very least, I’ve never heard of a good book that was also incompetently written (if you have, please enlighten me). Conversely, although it’s possible for a competent book to be stylistically bad, all incompetent books are also bad (again, I’d be pleased to know of exceptions).
1a. Competent is not always, but can sometimes be, the enemy of “good.” Adventurous or challenging writing often skates on the edge of accepted rubrics of competence, as writers try new forms (example: James Joyce’s Ulysses or Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren), and as such runs counter to publishing’s conservative tendencies to publish such work. Commercial publishing in particular wants what sells. However, it’s also possible that competence can aid “good,” if the traditionally competent work it publishes buys a publisher enough commercial and critical headroom to attempt the occasional stab at weirdness (Dhalgren was indeed published by someone, after all). This is where the heavy curtain of monolithic “publishing” is pulled back to reveal editors with personal preferences and a drive to publish important work from time to time, and damn the sales.
2. Published work is a valid general metric for writing competence; however unpublished writing and writers are not necessarily incompetent. Incompetent writers tend to remain unpublished, but writing is often rejected for reasons other than competence: The submissions editor may have too many of that sort of writing in the dock, for example. And since new writers are continually debuting, it’s axiomatic that they would possess writing competence while still in an unpublished state. By the same token, lots of “good” writers and writing struggle to get published (or are not published at all). Published authors should not assume they are better writers than unpublished ones, although they very probably have more insight into the publishing process as a professional endeavor.
3. The competence engine of publishing does not run perfectly (but it runs pretty well). Incompetent writers and writing do get published — not as significant percentage, but not so infrequently as to be entirely unnoticeable. The reasons for this range from incompetent editors (not a frequent occurrence in professional publishing, to be sure) to authors and/or celebrities whose fame is commercially significant enough that they are cut a measure of competence slack that is not available to the average schmoe writer — and even then any publisher worth its salt would try to impose some amount of competence on the work. Be that as it may, if Stephen King or John Grisham really wanted to (and to be clear, I don’t suspect they do), they could probably whip up a book comprised entirely of reviews of their own intestinal emanations (“A Bear in the Woods: 25 Years of Squatlogging, 1979-2004”), and some publisher somewhere would be pleased to publish it. Most writers do not have that luxury, and I think we can all be thankful for that.
Most writers who wish to be published must demonstrate competence every single time they endeavor to be published, or they won’t be published for very long. This is why the occasional grumbling one hears that the publishing industry is really all about who you know doesn’t ring true to people who have been published. Publishing rather ruthlessly excises incompetent writers, and a legitimate publishing company that released incompetent work on a regular basis would find itself out of business pretty quickly.
Through effort and wile and the judicious use of knee pads, an incompetent writer probably could get published by a legitimate publisher — once. But considering all the effort it would take to make that happen, it would probably be simpler to learn how to be a competent writer. Which bring us to our last point:
4. Writing competence is a learnable skill — and therefore most people are capable of being competent writers. Writing competently isn’t rocket science; it requires the knowledge of certain grammatical rules, which are less difficult than, say, calculus, followed by lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of writing practice. Yes, some writers are gifted by God or nature to be great writers and have that great ineffable thing that makes their writing sing without any effort at all. The odds that person is you are slim.
For everyone else, it’s the learnable writing skills that will be the thing that gets you published — and to be clear, it wouldn’t hurt the sky-blue miracle writers to work on the nuts and bolts of the writing process so when and if the muse takes a hike they have something to fall back on. As a practical matter, assume you’ll need the writing training and practice, even if secretly in your heart you know God himself touched your quill. Think of it as a publishing career seat belt.
So that’s what publishing is, and how it gets done.