I don’t whether it’s me, but there seems to be an unusually high amount of ‘missing the deadlines’ being done by science fiction publishers at the moment.
The worst example I can think of is from the Harper Voyager open call of 2012. They promised to have made decisions by mid-January 2013 – well we’re 15 months past their initial self-imposed deadline and still there are some writers waiting. Now I can accept they had an unexpectedly high amount of submissions, but they’ve since missed several self-imposed deadlines when they knew the amount of work that still had to be done. There are still quite a few writers waiting to hear one way or another – stuck in a kind of limbo land, not knowing whether to submit their precious novel elsewhere or not. As this is a professional organisation, all I can say is that I feel their behaviour has been unprofessional.
I have greater sympathy for one-man bands, who can suffer from unforeseen circumstances that delay getting publications out. My experience of these one-man bands is that if they are going to overly late in keeping their promises, they tell you about it and why, and by heck it’s a darned good reason. But here’s the important point – they rarely miss the deadlines!
Then there are the publishers who are working their way into the pro market. They want your work by a given deadline and you work furiously to get it by the said time, because you want to look like someone the publisher can do business with. Then there are some publishers that extend the deadline… and extends it… and extends it… ad nauseum. Cheesed off is but a polite term for what I feel about these situations.
The professionals and wannabe professionals who act like this are giving the industry a bad name. It’s putting people off writing and submitting their work for consideration.
But I think there is another factor at play here. The professional industry in general is what in systems engineering terms called a lean development industry, which means it reacts to customer need or wants. They have streamlined themselves so much in order to stay in profit (or at least break even) that one little thing that goes wrong can throw the business out of kilter. Why? Well the customer / reader wants a novel about subject X. They finally persuade the publisher that this is what they want and that it would be a good investment to publish the novel. The publisher starts looking for subject X novels, only there aren’t any. So they tell their favourite writers what they want. Of course, by the time the writer has written it, the customer wants sometime else.
If the professional industry had the leeway to have a variety of subjects they could publish, then the customer would look along the shelves or in the catalogues and find what they want. The publisher would then make sufficient profit on the one big seller to cover the cost of publishing ten different novels. This was how the publishing industry used to work what feels a long, long time ago. There is no way back to this without increasing the price of the books, something the customer will not tolerate.
This has other consequences. The publisher doesn’t want to risk publishing a novel of unknown subject because they are unsure of getting their profit back. So they tend to stick to tried and tested subjects, which is why I now consider science fiction put out by the professional publishing industry to be, in general, in a rut of its own making.
This of course is why there has been such a strong push by independent authors. A few have indeed been successful. But how out the millions of novels they publish can you pick out a good one?
Well, this is where Amazon and Writers of the Future have got the right answer to a certain extent. They have competitions to identify up and coming writers. Are they working? I’m not sure of the answer to this, but it does depend on the judges. But a good competition takes something like 4 to 6 months to get through the judging process. So we’re back to waiting game in science fiction – only this is very much shorter than many people are experiencing in the traditional professional publishing route.