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.

30 thoughts on “What Publishing Is

  1. I would say grammar and calculus are about the same. Both have relatively simple rules (no, really, there’s not that many rules. There ARE a lot of shortcuts, but they’re not really rules.) and require lots of practice (for learning the shortcuts).

  2. Great, now I’ll have to spend the rest of the weekend wondering who’d win if you put Leibniz and Newton up against Strunk and White in a cage deathmatch.

  3. No challenge. Strunk and White would work together, whereas Newton and Leibniz would fight each other.

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

  5. Not only did someone publish Dhalgren, but — as Patrick Nielsen Hayden is fond of pointing out — it also has sold extremely well. (I might be wrong, but I think that it has never been out of print since its initial publication.)

  6. 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.

  7. I read somewhere that one of the best ways to improve your writing is to do a lot of reading. I have noticed a coorelation between people who are horrible writers (email, letters, blog entries) and people who read very little.

  8. John, I take it you’ve never worked in a writing center. Back in my grad school days, I would routinely tutor math PhD candidates who had *zero* understanding of grammar.

    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.

    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.

  9. Ah, yes. Leibniz, Newton, Strunk and White – Michael Jackson’s attorneys, right?

    Personally, writing is nice, but calculus is divine…

  10. 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.

  11. I have a good friend who works in the genetics field who is often complicated on his clear and readable reports

    I find it well-nigh irresistible to point out that while grammar is important, so is proper word choice.

  12. ” ‘Who’ and ‘whom’ went from fuzzily inseparable to clearly and functionally distinct.”

    Ah, yes, I remember that happening in Latin class, too. Unfortunately that distinction has become largely obsolete. I expect it will vanish completely within the next generation or two.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    Cheers
    Andrew

  15. Andrew writes:

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

    Actually I don’t think it’s great literature, for many of the reasons you mention. I will stipulate it is good literature, and naturally it’s great fantasy. I don’t know I would call it incompetent (I personally didn’t have a problem with the structure), but I definitely see where you are coming from.

  16. 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.

  17. Jim, let me elevate that comment to a front page post to see if people want to chip and give you an answer.

  18. Andrew: I certainly found that with LotR. I hadn’t read it for a while, and I spent a long bus ride with it. And this being an all-night bus ride (Aberdeen to London; soul-destroying, I tell you), I’d occasionally doze off. And there were moments when I’d snap back awake, and look at the dialogue, and try hard not to laugh. Because some of it, in the context of the rest of the book, just seems so… silly. Stilted, perhaps.

    But then, there is the context of the rest of the book, and it’s got a long way to drag it down before it stops being good.

  19. 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.

  20. Dean said:
    “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.”

    So, does that mean 50 years from now, we’re going to be discussing “The Da Vinci Code” as the finest literary work of the turn of the millenium?

    *sigh* I sure hope not. It was an entertaining read, but written at a middle-school level.

  21. “So, does that mean 50 years from now, we’re going to be discussing ‘The Da Vinci Code’ as the finest literary work of the turn of the millenium?”

    Not necessarily. Below are the best selling books of each year from 1950 through 1959. You can see how many are considered great literature. We’ll probably be safe from the Da Vinci Code.

    1950
    The Cardinal, Henry Morton Robinson

    1951
    From Here to Eternity, James Jones

    1952
    The Silver Chalice, Thomas B. Costain

    1953
    The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas

    1954
    Not as a Stranger, Morton Thompson

    1955
    Marjorie Morningstar, Herman Wouk

    1956
    Don’t Go Near the Water, William Brinkley

    1957
    By Love Possessed, James Gould Cozzens

    1958
    Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak

    1959
    Exodus,Leon Uris

  22. “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.

  23. I used to think the math/language thing was gender based, but now I’m not so sure. However, I do know that dispite similar schooling (although only one of us finished) hubby ‘thinks’ in math while I ‘think’ in words, and neither of us are capable of truly grasping the other.

    I can certainly be trained do math with great facility as long as it is pumped into me almost daily, but it is a rote thing devoid of any real understanding and it goes as quickly as it came when it quits coming. Think: blowing up a balloon with a leak – once you stop pumping it in, it all drains out. Even though I passed College Algebra with an A and even did an honors project involving matrix something-or-others (see what I mean), I can’t remember 99% of it two years later. Hubby, on the other hand, does fairly complex math calculations for fun (although probably not calculus) despite having dropped out in 11th grade.

    OTOH, spelling, writing and reading are like breathing to me. Speak an unfamiliar word in context and I almost instinctively know how to spell it (barring truly off the wall construction), how to parse it for various tenses and uses, and how it is likely to be modified adjectively or adverbially. Writing is fun, rewriting/proofing is more fun and I used to create incredibly convoluted and Faulkneresque sentences just for the sheer pleasure of diagramming them. Hubby, likewise, can’t spell his way out of a grade-school workbook, has trouble with basic sentence structure, shows no ability to make the spelling or construction connections between related words, nor can he pick out even gross errors in written structure, word choice or content (although oddly enough he has a reasonably good and quick ear for errors in spoken language).

    Dunno that I would have any more luck teaching him to write competently than he would teaching me to be able to do basic subtraction without injuring myself. And beleeve me, we’ve tride (as he would write).

    I’m wondering what y’all think about the dichotomy of hardwiring vs schooling in such matters.

  24. I don’t have a lot to add to the discussion except to say thank you for posting this entry, John. The writing is what’s important; I always have to keep that in mind.

    Write. Edit. Beta test. Re-edit. Submit. Get rejected. Re-edit. Resubmit. Repeat.

    My mantra for the year.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

    You don’t need school to learn grammar and spelling and punctuation. I know a published sf author with dyslexia who has taught herself those skills because it’s important to her business. And having a degree is not crucial to becoming a published fiction writer, either. I know people with degrees and people without degrees who have writing careers. Also, none of the people I know with degrees have degrees in English, writing, or something similar.

    If you want a career as a writer, you write until you get good enough to submit. Submit and see if they want that story. Write something else while waiting for the result. Then submit that one. Etc. It’s not easy. But school isn’t going to get you nearly as far as sitting your butt in the chair and writing.

  27. While I normally agree with you, John, this time I have to pipe up with a huge objection: The publishing industry is not at all about publishing competent works; it is about publishing works that sell well. It just so happens that incompetent works don’t sell well, so, barring errors and… er… incompetence, all published work must be competent.

    At first, this may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but there is a huge gap between one and the other, and this gap is the difference between what mathematicians call “necessary” and “sufficient” conditions. (Since we’re dealing with the real world, I’m going to use these terms in a much less rigourous way than they are used in mathematics…)

    The fundamental point is this: competence is a necessary condition for publishing, but it is not sufficient.

    I absolutely agree with the thrust of your article, incompetent writing will be (and should be!) rejected out of hand by a publishing house. However, the statement of your thesis (“Publishing is an engine for the production of competent writing.”) implies that competence a sufficient condition for getting published; that competence is the primary thing that publishers are looking for. I’m sure you would agree that this is not the case.

  28. “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.

  29. My book, Undressing Infidelity, was recently published. If we’re to believe Publisher’s Weekly, it’s a steamy read that offers an insider’s perspective on the phenomena of cheating wives. Everyone that’s read it loves it. I was on the Today Show twice and have been interviewed by many other media outlets. That said, I’ve been tracking sales and see that the numbers are up in areas where I’ve made appearances and down in other parts of the country. It’s a bummer that the publishing industry is so driven by sales, but I’m starting to understand why. Thank you, Diane Shader Smith

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