I recently received spam - sorry, a request - to review a debut novel. The byline read: "A THRILLER SET IN A SCI-FI WORLD FILLED WITH PLOT TWISTS, A FEMALE PROTAGANIST AND SCIENTIFIC ACCURACY." This was not sent by the author, rather their publicist, and so I don't know who to blame for the tragedy. Hard to believe this a real example of book publicity... Has it sunk so low? (For the record, the plot summary which followed was no less refined or enticing.)
We can forgive the misspelling of 'protagonist.' We can ignore the oxymoron "sci-fi world.... scientific accuracy." And we can excuse the insult to intelligence that highlighting "female protaganist" is to would-be readers. It's the sum total which causes the head to drop in shame. For all the advances in publishing, for all the familiarity readers have with the system and its attempts to manipulate for gain, for all the mass of media supporting the book industry, and for all the university courses and online material available how to build your brand, how to market your material, how to properly use social media, blah blah blah, I'm left wondering: that is the "hook" a publicist is throwing my way? I'm not indignant; I'm sad at the reflection.
I know that informed and intelligent agents, publicists, and representatives do exist in the world. For the unaware, their work subtly influences choices, and for the aware, it's possible to appreciate their professionalism even if the title or author being sponsored is not liked. But it seems their pool is being diluted, dragged down by the onslaught of self-publishing and ease of publishing in general. Can they be trusted? is a question I'm asking myself more often. No matter self-published or through one of the myriad small presses appearing on the scene these days, it's easier than ever for anyone on the street to be a "writer" and publish a "book." Wanna see your name on a cover, just keep submitting your manuscript. The number of potential publishers and venues significantly greater than it used to be (likewise due to advances in publishing tech), so too are your chances. Manuscript still not accepted? Then just plop down the cash. And that cash is surprisingly small. Vanity presses are a bit more expensive (a couple thousand dollars), but setups like Amazon's self-publishing portal are an affordable option for people rejected dozens upon dozens of times but still determined to prove they. are. a. writer. For a few hundred dollars, anyone can organize an ISBN and print-on-demand, and thus fulfill the dream of putting the word 'author' in their Facebook profile. Now, to get the word out on the street about that novel... Which brings us back to publicists.
Based on the above review request, it seems the overarching cheapness of publishing extends beyond author and book and into their support structure. While I understand the opposite extreme (too few publishers means less diverse material on the market), the current situation surely brings about an appreciation of the filter role that publishers, agents, and publicists act as. Certainly the lowest common denominator remains a target for many publishers (and the gods know there are readers ready to make that target viable), but by and large their part in keeping the riff-raff out, not to mention ensuring staff professionalism, is to be valued for maintaining a certain overall degree of competence in the field. As it stands, it seems that field is threatening to erode away not only from the bottom, but from the inside, too...