Publishing Guilds & the Craftsmen Writer

by Tracy & Laura Hickman

The craftsmen writers are taking over the Publishing Guilds.

I have always admired the idea of craftsmen. A craftsman, in my mind, is an artist who has successfully merged his musings, inspirations and visions with practiced skill and the tools with which to realize those visions. I have little use for those who claim to be an artist only because they lay on the fainting couch, the back of their hand to their forehead and are perpetually moaning as they wait for some muse to slap them with brilliance that will make them immortal. Give me a craftsman who stands up, rolls up their sleeves, grabs every tool they command and forges their art into something meaningful and real. Craftsmen are not content to wait for immortality to find them … they go out looking for it, seize it and own it.

The idea of craftsmen goes back to the foundations of civilization. There were craftsmen known as early as 600 B.C. in India (even earlier in China) and 300 B.C. in Ptolemaic Egypt. These craftsmen held ‘secrets’ of their trade, imparting their artistry as ‘mysteries’ only to those who apprenticed after them. This was a matter largely of remaining employed: if you needed a particular thing done that required the skill of a craftsmen, then you were limited to employing those craftsmen who knew the skill.

The protection of these skills and the tools to bring their arts into reality eventually led to the rise of the guilds which allowed the communal protection of their ‘mysteries’, being a combination of cartels, trade-unions and secret societies. Beyond their mythic origins, Freemasons have their medieval roots in simple rituals associated with the craft guilds of mason stone craftsmen. The value and contribution of such guilds had been hotly debated in terms of Europe: some claimed that the rigid protection of craft secrets stifled innovation while others claimed that the system paired craft masters and produced a higher level of craft development than could be accomplished by individual craftsmen at large.
Until recently, Publishing Houses operated very much like guilds of literature. Publishing houses – like guild houses – protected their own ‘mysteries’ of selection, editorial, production, marketing and distribution. Their ‘pitch’ process became the initiation which had to be passed before one could get published. Above all, Publishing Houses were the guardians of what constituted ‘literature worthy of print.’ Until you became a ‘published author’ – in other words, one of the editorial craftsmen inside the Publishing Guild thought your words worthy of being accepted into the Publishing Guild – then you were outside and your options were largely limited to, at best, smaller, niche press houses or, worse, vanity press. The major publishing houses largely determined what you could purchase and it had to come from their guild. They had the economy of size (large print runs and they owned their own presses) and were part of an established and self-sustaining chain of distribution which ran all the way from the editor you got all those rejection slips from to your local book store whose selection of books sitting at the front of the store largely determined what they thought you should purchase.

Then came Amazon and the ebook … and the Publishing Guilds were under siege.

The benefits of the traditional Publishers to authors have been eroding ever since. Their economy of scale in publishing huge print runs has been compromised by the fall of the Brick-and-mortar Local Bookstore in favor of the quick convenience of online shopping. The result is that the marketing power of the publisher has become severely handicapped because they no longer have as much control over what you see when you first walk into the shop – because you now shop online. Increasingly, publishers expect their authors to provide the audience for their books, because traditional marketing methods in print and through the old methods are increasingly dysfunctional.

Add to this the completely unanticipated rise of the ebook. The Kindle and the Nook – as well as on smart phones tied to the same system – were initially dismissed by the Publishing Guilds as a ‘fad’. No one would want to read a book on a computer screen, they reasoned.

They reasoned wrong. Not too long ago, Kindle download sales exceeded those of paperback books on Amazon.com. Ebooks take up zero shelf space, cost zero to ship, have zero printing costs and are delivered practically instantly.

So, the protected secrets and power of the Publishing Guilds are dwindling and with them the benefits they offer to the upcoming author. They no longer control the distribution and marketing of your book as they have down through history. Their ability to print large numbers of books is challenged by the fact that an ebook essentially has a copy available instantly for every person who wants one. Yes, they can pay advances to authors but those advances are shrinking in the face of decreasing revenues and largely fixed overhead costs. And, of course, anyone with a computer can become ‘published’ (if one were so crass as to make such a ridiculous claim) simply by barfing up their words in a Kindle file through Amazon’s Self Publishing program.

One of the remaining benefits to the Publishing Guilds (i.e. traditional publishing houses) is that they are still the bastions of literary quality. They still provide editorial on their author’s manuscripts, direction and polish … and every craftsman desperately needs that polish. There is not a writer in the world whose prose is as perfect as they believe. I’ve been a professional in this industry for over a quarter of a century and, craftsman that I am, I still love an editor that purchases red ink by the gallon

As we say here at Scribe’s Forge, being an author today is no longer about being published … it’s about being READ. Self publishing in electronic format has become the new gateway into becoming an author but without the ‘quality assurance’ system provided by traditional Publishing – editorial, layout, art direction – many of these books are doomed to failure. William Goldman says that ‘story is structure’ and it takes a craftsman storyteller and writer to provide an ebook that will acquire an audience and establish a career. We teach story craftsmanship in our Scribe’s Forge online writing seminars but that is only part of what you need to hone your craft today … you also need the help of craftsmen who know the part of publishing that publishers do best. You need an editor who will work with you to ‘see the fire through the smoke’ of your words. You need proper art direction and a layout that looks professional to the reader.

You may no longer need the guild … but you certainly need the help of other craftsmen.

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