What Publishing Is

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.

That’s it.

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.

12 Comments on “What Publishing Is”

  1. Or would they just pretend to be at odds, to lull Strunk and White into a false sense of security? The calculus of deception!

  2. Indeed — which is why good editors are important in the publishing process: Aside from producing the expected, they champion the unexpected, and in doing so recalibrate what the definition of “expected” is.

  3. Dave Munger:

    “I still believe these people *can* learn to write, but the hardest part is convincing them there’s something they need to learn, and that they should spend the time to learn it.”

    Well, that’s just it, isn’t it. I have a good friend who works in the genetics field who is often complimented on his clear and readable reports, and the only difference between him and anyone else is that we went to a high school where they drilled grammar into your head.

    Kevin: Definitely a direct relation between reading and writing.

  4. Personally, I think taking a foreign language can provide dramatic improvements in writing capabilities. My primary/secondary school system (Fairborn… not too far from you, John) was very lax in teaching grammar. Grammar was always very hazy for me until I took Latin in high school. ‘Who’ and ‘whom’ went from fuzzily inseparable to clearly and functionally distinct. The rigor necessary to understand how a given word in a foreign language corresponds to a word in one’s natural language will of necessity improve one’s understanding of said natural language.

  5. Dan Blum: Unlike the rest of y’all I can go back and edit my comments. So Ha!

    Dave: I don’t necessarily think the who/whom distinction will disappear. Those who value precision in their writing will continue to use it, while most people will continue to ignore it — as has been the case as long as there has been a who/whom distinction. After all, it’s not like the frontier folks spent a lot of time speaking or writing perfect grammatical English (and indeed, there’s evidence that many grammar rules are of fairly recent invention).

    Brian: I took Latin, too. I failed it (a personality clash with the teacher played a role in that), but apparently it sunk in despite my best efforts to resist it. Of course, I’m happy about that now.

  6. I liked your comment about not being aware of an incompetently written book, that is also good. I have a candidate, although given your narrow definition of competence this might not be quite right.

    My candidate for an incompetently written great book is: The Lord of the Rings.

    It is a great work of literature. If you don’t agree we can do the “pistols at dawn” thing later.

    It also has at least three really bad parts to the writing.

    First, there is the poetry. Every so often in the novel someone breaks into song and this gives Tolkien the ability to gives us some of his poetry. I think the stuff is unreadable. The fact that everyone in middle earth does poetry in Iambic tetrameter is decidedly odd.

    Second there is the dialogue. Try reading some of Aragorn’s lines out loud; they just don’t sound right. The folks at Harvard lampoon paradied this quite well in “the Bored of the Rings”.

    Third, and my favourite, is the narrative structure. He keeps breaking the story up until by book 5 you have at least four story lines going on at once. He can’t keep the four stories going together and he has to tell you what happened to Aragorn after he reaches the Stone of Erech in a scene after the battle of the Pelennor fields. Gimli and Legolas give us a bit of exposition to tell us what they doing during this time; a friend of mine use to call these types of scenes “tell me professor” scenes.

    In spite of these big flaws, the Lord of the Rings is a classic piece of literature.


  7. Just out of curiosity, John, are there any SF books in particular that you would say are great literature? Obviously I guess this is going to be hugely subjective, but I’d be interested in what you, or anyone else for that matter, thinks.

  8. The strengths of LOTR carry it past all the weaknesses, IMO, those strengths being unparalleled imaginary vision and a powerful theme.

    The weakness is Tolkien’s style. The book was fairly obviously written over a long period of time, and chunks were added in and taken out. The style changes as you go along. There are good, taut passages, but there are also long drawn out ones where you just wish that Tolkien would freakin’ get ON with it.

    I suppose it depends what your definition of ‘great’ is. If ‘a book that nearly everybody reads, that the majority of people find engaging and moving, that almost single-handedly defined a genre, and whose literary ripples are still slopping around fifty years later’ doesn’t qualify a book as ‘great’ literature, I don’t know what does.

    Oh, and add ‘a book that was made into one of the best loooooooooooong movies ever made’ to the list.

    Your mileage may vary, of course.

  9. “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.”

    and therein lies the rub. I didn’t learn to write very well in school. And now that i am out of it I can’t get any feedback on what I write. In addition, I don’t have anything to write about. Yes, I can write about my fascination for mac and cheese dinner, but nobody wants to read that.

    In addition, if you want to get recognized as a professional, a degree will go a long way. Otherwise, like anything else in life, it depends on your motivation.

    Actually, I don’t have any point whatsoever. I am trying to get some writing practice.

  10. Dave Munger:
    “Of course, most of these fellows weren’t planning on publishing books. They were going to make much more then I could ever hope to analyzing derivatives or calculating life expectancies for actuarial firms.”

    Maybe, or then maybe not. My MIT grad friend who does complicated math stuff on Wall Street keeps interviewing other MIT grads and not hiring them because they can’t communicate. Math and writing skills aren’t intrinsically incompatible, but if you only get one I’m convinced it’s easier to live without the math.

  11. I used to think the math/language thing was gender based, but now I’m not so sure.

    On the totally-anecdotal front, I’m positive it’s not. Given that both I and my oldest daughter are “math? what’s this math? Give me some grammar to work with”-brained….just like my dad. Whereas Daughter #2 is a math whiz and loves playing with numbers….just like my mom.

    And you’ve just never wanted to claw out your own eyes until you’ve been in a college Creative Writing class, 75% of which was composed of engineering students wanting three credits in Humanities.

  12. “The publishing industry is not at all about publishing competent works; it is about publishing works that sell well.”

    The commercial publishing industry certainly is; other sectors of the publishing industry that are less overtly constrained by the pursuit of bestsellers (including academic and ‘literary’ presses), other criteria are more relevant. What all these criteria have underlying their success, however is that in each case the published text must be competent to achieve the goal. So I’ll stand by my original statement.

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