The pitch is the publishing Industry’s equivalent of the University Entrance exam, a selection system that perpetuates disenfranchisement, and serves to narrow the pool of available applicants to a point where the literary world becomes nothing more than the chattering classes talking among themselves. As was the case for hundreds of years in our universities, no one has really noticed this until now, because the people the literary industry marginalise had been marginalised from other forms of communication. Worst of all, they have gone unnoticed because they have until now had no expectation or belief that literature is their world.
But as wider and wider portions of society become cultural consumers, so their hunger for stories by and about people like them grows. Television, through initiatives like the BBC’s My Story, is beginning to take notice, but the publishing industry is standing back and does not, it is my firm belief, even realise there is a problem.
This is just another example of an introspection that will in the not too distant future kill the industry off if it doesn’t do something. The fact is the internet is making culture by and for previously unrepresented voices (be they inner city teenagers, battered sex workers, refugees fleeing from, and would-be refugees trapped in, the world’s war zones, or the women of the world’s shanty towns) widely available. And it’s great. Millions of voices are being heard that would never have been heard before – hope that “I am not alone” is being offered to millions more who never heard culture spoken in their own voice before.
It’s a WONDERFUL thing.
And it’s a phenomenon that is going to kill publishing dead. Or rather, pass it by on the road whilst publishing kills itself. Unless the industry does something serious and soon.
There are many thins the publishing industry needs to look at if its isolation from the consumers of the majority world is not to prove fatal, and I’ve got time to talk about them all eventually. But today I want to focus on the flagship ridiculosity: the query.
This is NOT a piece about higher education. I am merely referring, in passing, to an allegation levelled at the entrance exam (because it IS true of publishing, and it’s a good analogy). The problem with the university entrance exam, the argument goes, like the problem with the 11+, is that you do better if you’re coached for it. Which means you do better if your parents have the money AND the inclination to pay for a tutor. Which means two children of equal “ability” will finish with very different marks. Which means, finally, that if selection is based on entrance exam performance alone children whose parents lack either the money or the inclination to pay for coaching will be disadvantaged when it comes to getting a university place. And to add to all this, the privilege this perpetuates means that those from marginalised backgrounds expect not to get places, so they don’t apply, furthering the divide.
That may or may not be true of universities, but I’m sure you get the logic. And if you don’t get where I’m going, then frankly, well, I can’t say in polite company.
At the moment (and especially in the US where you don’t submit ANY script with your query), whether you get an agent depends on the quality of your query, and a huge part of that is the synopsis and, even more, the query letter. There are many wonderful websites and books devoted to polishing your pitch, and I have benefited immensely from them (and still do). But the system reinforces the status quo in a way that is both shocking, and seemingly invisible to the industry.
How are those who do not currently read their voice in books, written by people like them, and who have stories to tell, and a talent for telling them, get published? They must submit a query – for which they have no training – not just because they have no access to the great query sites and books out there (they may well HAVE the internet), but because they are not surrounded by people who know about sites like this. They may not even know what the “application” method is. It is a mystery. So what happens? They don’t send off their stories – “people like them don’t write books”. And the divide is reinforced.
So what? Well one, it’s just wrong that people be denied a voice for their story – and the notion that the vast swathes of people underrepresented in publishing are underrepresented because there is no talent is just nonsense. Systemic barriers are wrong. Full stop.
Two, these are groups of society for whom the internet allows, more and more, instant access to the consumption and production of culture by and about “people like them”. Whole groups are realising that culture is for them. But books aren’t – and THAT is the problem for the publishing industry. A vast swathe of ever more powerful cultural consumer is ignoring books because books are irrelevant to them.
So what does publishing need to do? Well, more than anything else, what it needs to do is what the “Russell Group” of universities (the UK’s “old elite”) sort of tries to pay lip-service to doing. It needs to stop talking to itself. It needs to stop telling would be writers about “show not tell”. It needs to stop focusing on how to write a query letter. Stop focusing, mind, not stop doing – there is, and always will be, a very large, commercially and culturally important group who like books done that way. What publishers need to wake up to is the fact that this is a segment of the population – a segment whose share of wealth, purchasing power, and access to culture, is shrinking.
What the publishing industry needs to do is not try and “help” people on the “outside” to get to the “inside”. People don’t need it. They have other ways of telling their stories. IT needs THEM. And that is something I have NEVER heard someone on the “inside” admit. So what SHOULD the industry do? It needs to find ways to convince the new generation of storytellers that books are a good medium through which to tell those stories. It needs to think like an “outsider”.
Sadly, I really don’t think it can. Which is why more and more of us who would, ten years ago, have been part of the “trying to get inside” crowd, are ignoring it, letting it slowly eat itself to death, whilst we get on and enjoy the exciting future.
Half of me thinks it’s a tragedy. The more so because, like an animal walking to the abattoir, or a patient slipping gently from a coma, I really think most of the industry doesn’t recognise it. But half of me thinks that systems which perpetuate divide and exclusion SHOULD perish, and wonders if we shouldn’t offer a helping hand.