by Keshawn Mashore
The Middle Ages, specifically the end of them, was a time in which the publishing industry produced books more painstakingly than what we are used to presently. Hand copied manuscripts were the primary means of production, with books being far more tedious to make. This meant several things. There were generally fewer books in circulation, even in the realm of academia. Manuscripts were far more expensive, with those able to afford them only owning two or three which would become staples in the family for generations to come. Before the advent of the Gutenberg printing press, the process of publishing was certainly more about quality than it was about quantity, the difficulty of the process ensured that. On quality, what constitutes it and who constitutes it?
Presently, the publishing industry operates in a fashion like the one found in the latter stages of the Middle Ages. Although compared to the Middle Ages contemporary publishing is on a much larger production scale, they have in common the desire to publish only the best. What constitutes “the best” differs depending who you talk to. Publisher Matthew Stadler who helped found the book producing company Publications Studios described his preferences in his essay The Ends of the Book: Reading, Economies, and, Publics. His method of publishing is as follows: If he finds a book he likes, regardless of any commercial potential, he publishes exactly one copy. No more are published until he receives requests for more. He even puts together events to help promote the work of the author. His view is one that in the grand scheme of things may not have a far-reaching impact, but that is still writer-friendly. This is immensely helpful because as he said, “book sales are crucial” (Stadler, 24)
Stadler’s view on publishing is different from others in the industry. For example, literary agent Chris Parris-Lamb has a less sympathetic view on writing. In an interview I read, he said that he would not send a writer’s work to editors and publishers if he himself didn’t like it (Lee, 182) Moreover, Lamb believes that he and other “gatekeepers” are qualified to determine which work is reader-worthy. I think that standards for publication should be in place, but that ultimately, readers know better than anyone else what they enjoy reading. An agent, editor, or publisher’s preferences are just that; preferences. To speak from my own experience, I’m an avid Japanese manga reader. Quick, crash course for those unaware of what manga is. It’s a form of comic book, mostly in black and white print except for the occasional color pages, that reads right-to-left. There exist several manga magazines and publications. Shonen Jump is among the most popular magazines and Shueisha who it is owned by is among the most popular and successful publishers. Because of this, most of the manga I read for a while were the manga that was pushed by the magazine and the company. For a long time, I honestly believed that the only good manga came from these two sources. It wasn’t until I began to read manga licensed and published by smaller entities without a massive marketing machine behind them, that I realized that I simply hadn’t even scratched the surface of great manga. A throwback issue of Shonen Jump from 2003 featuring Dragon Ball Z on the cover, one of their most successful titles to date.
A really good manga I read. It came out in 1998 and I didn’t know about it until 2016. It doesn’t fit the genre that many popular magazines seek to publish.
I learned of several great manga series that had come and go without a fraction of the hype and recognition that they should have garnered. This taught me several things. First, that trends in genres can be very deceiving. I know that in the publishing industry of America, many successful books are released during periods of time where a specific genre is in high demand, or there exist a trend in the market that points to commercial success. However, great works of writing are great independent of things like market trends. Second, I learned that big name publishers tend to gravitate towards certain types of writers or writing styles. This closes the door on writers who have work that doesn’t fit the artistic mold of the companies, but that have excellent work nonetheless. Third, that the industry is set in its ways and that it presents a bigger problem.
Writing is often subjective, but storytelling is more universal than many realize. Literature aims to provide stories about what life is like for those whose lives are different from our own. Literature would be a great deal duller if every work we read resembled our own experiences and concerned topics that we are familiar with. Those great tales of the Holocaust people enjoy reading today? How many know what it’s like to survive a holocaust? None. They are great stories nonetheless and that is why they deserve to be published. The publishing industry tends to misconstrue this sentiment. Some, perhaps the “gatekeepers” Lamb referred to in his interview, are responsible for this. You can be an authority on a matter, but when it comes to a matter as subjective and open to interpretation as writing, your opinion isn’t any more important than the opinion of anyone else who reads it. Stay humble and open.