As I was watching all the conference basketball tournaments this week (and getting no work done because… Basketball!!), I was suddenly struck by a similarity between college basketball and publishing.
This revelation occurred when I was watching some of the smaller conference tournaments. You know, the conferences that only get one bid to the NCAA tournament and it goes to the conference tournament winner. Those teams who end up as 15th or 16th seeds and are basically cannon fodder for the teams from the elite conferences. The teams you hope will be the Cinderella stories but who usually settle for the joy of participating.
What does this have to do with publishing?
Now, it’s possible that I was high on nachos when this theory occurred to me, so if it makes no sense to you, don’t blame me. But here it is. Basketball is divided into several tiers of teams. You’ve got the elite schools like UNC, Kansas, Kentucky, and the like. They’re the ones who are expected to win. Big money, big talent, big-name coaches. Then you have the teams like Vanderbilt, Providence, or Seton Hall who usually make the tournament and cause some headaches for the bigger teams, but don’t usually go all the way. And then you have the teams that many people have never heard of, that must win their conference tournaments just to make it to the big dance. They may get creamed in the opening round but heck, they had fun playing and they’re talented kids, regardless.
This setup is not that different from publishing. At the top of the bracket, you have the authors who are household names with the Big 5 publishers. They get the benefit of big money, big talent, and big-name editors/agents. Then you have the authors who are with the middle-tier publishers. Those are the houses that put out well-received books, even if they don’t often upset the bestseller rankings. People have probably heard of the house and/or their authors, so there’s a certain cachet there. And then you have the smaller, independent/indie publishing houses. You may not be able to name their authors or titles, may not have ever even seen them before. But their authors are there, in the game, and they’re playing well. They may not have the money behind them to compete at the highest level, but they have talent.
It’s tempting to look at those little basketball teams and feel pity for them and for their athletes.
“Oh, if only they had enough talent to play on a big team,” some people say.
The same goes for authors published by smaller houses.
“Oh, it’s just a shame you couldn’t get your book signed with a bigger house. Better luck next time.”
But that’s the wrong way to look at it, because it doesn’t really matter whether you’re with a big house or a small one. You’re playing the game! That’s what’s important. Plus, you’re playing the same game as everyone else.
I don’t think basketball players spend a lot of time lamenting that they’re playing for a small team instead of a big one. They probably just get up, go to practice everyday, try to get better, and do the best they can to support and improve the team they’re playing for. It’s the same for writers.
We’re all writers, trying to write the best books we can, to forge a career doing so, and maybe to make a little money out of the deal. That’s what being a published author boils down to, and it’s the same whether you’re with a Big 5 house or the smallest indie.
The game of basketball and the publishing game are similar in a lot of other ways, too.
And there’s no pity required for any of the players or writers because…
- The rules of the game are the same for everyone. Smaller basketball teams don’t play on smaller floors, or with easier rules. Small publishing houses publish books. They don’t take on crappy books or publish “pity” books. A book has to have merit to get published, whether you’re dealing with a big house or a small one.
- Everybody’s living their dream. If your dream was to play college ball and you’re playing on a college team, then you’re living the dream. Same with being published. If being published is the dream, you’re there whether you’re with a small house or a big one.
- Everybody’s having fun. (And if you’re, not, you can move.) Basketball and writing (especially fiction) are both, at their core, things that should be done for fun. They aren’t necessary jobs in the way that heart surgeons are necessary. Ideally, if you’re in the game at all, you should be having fun. And if you’re not, maybe you need to move. There are many authors who’ve moved “down” to an indie or small house because they didn’t like something about the Big 5. And there are plenty who’ve moved “up” when an opportunity arose. Just as there are plenty of basketball players who’ve transferred schools (either up or down the spectrum) because something wasn’t working out where they were.
- There aren’t enough places on the top teams for everyone. It isn’t always (or even often) that a player fails to make a top team because he isn’t talented enough. At the top level of basketball, everyone is talented. It’s just that there aren’t enough spots on a team for everyone who is talented. Fortunately, there are a lot of teams. If a big school hasn’t got room for you, chances are you can find a place at a smaller school. The same goes for publishing. Most authors are talented. It’s just that there isn’t room for everyone at a huge house. The good news is that there are a lot of houses. And that’s even better because…
- Not everyone wants to play on a big team. Plenty of exceptional ball players choose a “second-tier” school. Maybe they like the idea of more playing time and personal attention. Maybe they want to focus on something in addition to basketball like actually getting an education. For whatever reason, they make a conscious choice to seek a smaller team. It’s the same for authors. Many choose the personal attention, the greater “playing time” (many smaller publishers won’t cut you loose quite as quickly if your work fails to catch on in the first week of release), the greater camaraderie among authors who can become friends instead of numbers on a balance sheet, and the lower stress environment. The Big 5 just isn’t a good fit for them, for whatever reason.
- Everyone is learning stuff and improving. Basketball players learn from their coaches and teammates, no matter what level they play at. They learn teamwork, skills, time management, and a host of other things. Writers are the same. Time with a publishing house is educational, whether large or small. You learn about editing, marketing, improving your writing skills, plus the business of publishing. Unless you’re content to sleep through the days, there’s no excuse for not learning from the experience. And that will stand you in good stead on the next step of your journey.
- Not everyone has the same dream. Some basketball players dream of nothing but the NBA (or the Globetrotters). Others might prefer to coach after college. Or play pro in Europe. Some like basketball, but want a job in another field entirely. Just because a talented player choses a team that supports their end goal doesn’t make them any less talented or a second-class basketball citizen. Authors are the same way. Some like their day jobs or want to spend more time with family. They want to write on the side and a smaller house is a better fit for that. Others dream of nothing but Big 5 New York full-time pro author success and do everything they can to achieve that. Others are happy in the middle. Just because someone is with a smaller house doesn’t mean that they’re less talented, less serious, or second-class. They may just have different dreams.
Just as there’s no need to pity basketball players for playing on the smaller teams, there’s no need to pity authors for choosing the smaller publishers. It’s possible that they’re enjoying the game just as much as the Big 5 authors and doing exactly what’s right for them and their writing dreams. And when it comes to playing the game, that’s all that matters.