Publishing is a hierarchical business, just like any other

I recently attended a mammoth book fair that included all shapes and sizes of publishers, writers, and related support workers in an industry that is undergoing a sea change at present. Walking the floor of that massive exhibition hall, I observed the hierarchies in the world of books—all labelled clearly and displayed under one roof.

The Stages: the main stage for international celebrity authors, replete with camera crews; side stages for mid-list authors; and a small one tucked away by the washrooms and aptly named the Soapbox for the selfies (self-published authors) and wannabes (unpublished authors).

The Booths: large ones for the Big 5 (not all of them were in attendance, but the few who were commanded a formidable presence); slightly smaller ones in consolidated areas reserved for groups of affiliated publishers; smaller ones for independents; and tiny tables for the selfies. Oh, and there was a lavish sprinkling of wannabes who had purchased attendance tickets at a fraction of the cost of even the cheapest booth and were peddling their manuscripts to those standing behind the booths!

The Presentations:  see “stages” above. Sometimes, the organizers had got it wrong and those on the main stage did not garner as many attendees as the number of chairs massed around it, while the side stages had more attendees than chairs at times—watch out, hierarchy change ahoy! And the microphone kept going on and off at the Soapbox stage and nobody really gave a damn as the selfies were mostly reading to their friends or to themselves.

The hardest working stiffs were the selfies, in my mind, the working poor. They had to work extra hard to sell their book(s), given there was so much choice around, and they had to make their case each and every time to each and every shell-shocked reader reeling at the sight of so many books as to why they had to purchase that unknown author’s work over everyone else’s. The selfies were the most optimistic and humorous for they knew how tough their battle was and had arrived with a fatalistic approach. They also were the most knowledgeable, for they could talk about every step of the publishing process because they had done most of it themselves. The most elusive were the brand names, the industry aristocracy, who came in from a side door of the main stage and vanished the same way and were never seen walking the floor peddling anything – they had others to do their heavy lifting. The rest of us were of the middle class, who paid our taxes, spent our money, complained under our breath, didn’t rock the boat, and kept the whole show afloat.

This then is a snapshot of our industry, one with a firmly established pecking order that we all have to pay our dues navigating, unless we win a lottery (a.k.a. “bestseller”) and vault to the front of the line. It is no different from any other human or industry hierarchy where “last in, first out” applies, and where those who come late to the party, no matter what their past accomplishments in other arenas, have to take their place in the new line. So, the doctor who has written his first medical thriller, the retired teacher who has written her first memoir, and the consultant who has decided to blow his business formula into a full length “how to” book, are all seen jostling for space at the back of the line with the teenager who has just written the first part of her vampire trilogy – my bet is that the teenager will soon leave her more educated competitors behind as she races up the hierarchy, propelled by popular demand, the fuel of this economy.

See ya’ll at the show next year. Perhaps some orders may have changed in the hierarchy in the interim. I’d really like to see one of those selfies up on the main stage next year…just saying!

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