It’s Only The End of Rose-Colored Glasses

September 17th, 2008 · 43 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

If you examine it on the whole, the publishing industry is an unsustainable mess. Think about it: bad economic theory, out-of-touch decision making, Peter paying Paul or the piper or someone, deregulated approach to the market. Hmm, sounds like another entity we know, doesn’t it?

The future of publishing is not about technology or widgets or free samples.

It’s no wonder that we endure a never-ending succession of “it’s the end of the world as we know it” articles about the publishing industry. New York Magazine has given us the latest, a gloomy piece chock full of quotes from gloomy industry professionals. It’s only when you take a step back that you realize the article misses a whole bunch of important points.

Noted statistician Philip Roth estimated, fifteen years ago, “…there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade.” If this were even remotely true, then the New York publishing industry would have collapsed ages ago. Lordy, how would they make the rent on those Manhattan offices?

What is really meant by this, and what is really meant by this article is that a certain segment of the publishing industry is in jeopardy: literary (with a capital L) fiction. More specifically, literary fiction from New York publishers. Look at who is doing the hand-wringing, who is doing the worrying. If this is the end (and it’s not), then what, exactly, is ending?

This is where the New York Magazine piece misses the boat. It sees publishing through the eyes of the literary crowd, not the reading, writing, publishing crowd. Out here in the real world, readers decide what they want, and, man, they want a lot of stuff. We’re talking, in a single purchase, a gluten-free dummies book and Bridge of Sighs and The Keepsake. With a Stephenie Meyer title thrown in to see what all the fuss is about.

Get it?

There is much to be done for the publishing business to become a lean, mean, 21st (and beyond) century machine. The industry as a whole is woefully behind when it comes to digitization of books. Never mind that the ebook market is tiny; online motion picture distribution wasn’t a huge business in the late 1990s when the movie studios made a concerted and expensive push to fill their digital warehouses. Now, though certain recalcitrance exists, those entities are prepared for new media models, some with every title in their extensive, decades-old library.

The publishing industry is also woefully unprepared to think beyond the book. Flat, bound, linear. Nice and very useful. Never goes out of style. Except, oh, when book is not the best means to distribute information, content, or story. If publishers don’t move beyond the form, they are in danger of shifting gears from publishing to just printing (thought stolen directly from Kirk Biglione).

And don’t get me started on the money flow. Bob Miller’s HarperStudio, which seems to be the focus of the NYM piece, only to drop off the face of the article, naturally strikes fear in the heart of authors and agents, but if the entity succeeds (and I’m betting on it, frankly), then expect the business to go that way. While the talent side of the equation is understandably fearful, this will mean that publishing houses will have to put up, too. You want your authors to give up something? Then you’ve gotta make it worth their while.

This ain’t your mother’s publishing business.

Resistance to change, I believe, is more firmly entrenched in the New York publishing culture than in the publishing business as whole. If you want to blow your mind, find a listing of all the publishing houses in the United States of America. Stunning. Monoliths necessarily shift very slowly. Look beyond NYC for change, and look beyond New York to understand that this is not the end. Not even close. As Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times’ Jacket Copy notes:

Independents, who aren’t the focus of this piece, have been creative in terms of both business models and marketing, in ways that bigger publishing houses are just now beginning to explore.

I don’t think publishing’s condition is as dire as the New York Magazine article suggests. I think publishing is fundamentally broken, mostly because a business that relies on mega-hits to justify its existence — when those mega-hits are reliant upon capturing the imagination of a broad spectrum of the nation’s citizens — cannot sustain itself as it exists today.

I also think that there’s strong evidence to support a theory that those who are entrenched in the business are too far removed from the readers to understand how to identify potential hits. Let’s ponder the following quote for a moment because I think it illustrates what I see as the fundamental disconnect between publisher and reader:

“What I’ve heard from editors is, ‘My judgment doesn’t count any longer,’?” says Kent Carroll, who left his company, Carroll & Graf, after it was sold to a mini-conglomerate, and who now runs the boutique Europa Editions. “There used to be a reason to get into publishing,” says Carroll. “Whether they know it or not, they all want to be Maxwell Perkins. It’s a kind of secondary immortality. They didn’t flock to publishing because they want to publish Danielle Steel.”

Dude, did you go to BEA in Los Angeles this year? Did you see the line of people waiting to meet Danielle Steel? Not my favorite author (though, full disclosure, as a teenage girl, Danielle was in my library), but man, that line. A room full of free books, books as far as the eye could see and beyond, yet people stood patiently in a long line to meet Danielle Steel. I kept circling back, watching as she kept signing and smiling, and the line never seemed to get shorter. Amazing.

You don’t have to read Danielle Steel, but you have to accept this fact: people buy her books and people read her books. There was never a Golden Age of Publishing where people bought only high-brow fiction that elevated the mind. It’s a figment of your imagination. When it comes to fiction, readers flock to books and authors for varying reasons, one being the deep satisfaction that comes from a story that touches them.

Don’t insult the readers, man. It’s just bad form, and you really, really need people to buy your books. The person you think isn’t a “serious American reader” will surprise you. Isn’t the person you imagine when you close your eyes. You don’t know what’s going on in the life of a Danielle Steel reader — just found out she has cancer, just developing the habit of reading, just learning English, just wanting to escape into a story because it feels so good — and negative attitudes about the Danielle Steel reader is what will kill New York-attitude publishing.

If you believe people only flock to publishing to enroll at The Maxwell Perkins School of Editing, then I have this really cool unbuilt bridge in Alaska to sell you. We’re talking about, I’m sorry to say, a tiny, eensy segment of publishing. It’s the smaller percentage of fiction, much less the publishing industry as a whole. Real publishing consists of so much more than this. Look at the numbers. Literary fiction is how much of the pie?

Publishing, like the rest of its entertainment brethren (and I understand that even thinking they’re part of entertainment world pains some in the industry. Get. Over. Yourselves. Thanks.), caters to a diverse audience. Those who see the sky falling are those who see their niches not performing. In part because those niches never were as big and profitable as legend suggested.

And that’s the reality publishing needs to face. If you’re a big, commercial house — defined as a publicly traded company or part thereof — then you need to understand that your job is make money for the shareholders. You play the game well, and you get to slide some of those books that don’t contribute to the bottom line onto the list, because you never know what might reach out and grab the larger audience.

If you truly want to be Maxwell Perkins, then do it. Be true to your vision. The world needs you. Truly. I believe we’re going to see a serious re-imagining of major publishers in the near future. There will still be the pet projects, the authors who are loved yet don’t make money. But accept the necessary focus on Books That Make Money (Without Risk!). The stakeholders are not the readers, they’re not the authors, they’re not editors.

They’re the shareholders.

This means that, in a time of contracting budgets and attention over-saturation, the silliness that is overly generous advances and tea leaf reading — oh, the hype — makes one cringe. If you’re working for a mega-corporation, then you’re working for the man. You don’t get to whine about commercialization of the industry and the way things used to be. You’re not working for a business that, deep down inside, loves books above all else. You might, your boss might, and your boss’s boss might, but the people you answer to, they’re not all going to find deep reservoirs of patience for failed ventures.

Everyone answers to someone, there’s always a money man lurking in the shadows. If you want to be a part of the New York publishing machine, this is the pact you make with that devil. Consider it a challenge because this is not the end unless you fail to see the yin and yang of publishing. Stop pretending that some books are more important than others — they’re not. Stop thinking that you’re in an industry that’s something it isn’t.

People get into publishing for a lot of reasons, and if you don’t believe me, visit a bookstore. Look around. Publishing is a business, and businesses, best I can tell, exist to make money (though this is not always a hard and fast rule). Most readers — sit down, take a deep breath, this is going to hurt — read non-fiction and commercial fiction. And so much more.

That’s the publishing industry. The end is only near for those who fail to grasp reality. Everyone else will find a way to make what they love most about this business work, in a way that works for them. The future of publishing is not about technology or widgets or free samples; the future of publishing is about giving readers what they want.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

43 responses so far ↓

  • Carolyn Jewel // Sep 18, 2008 at 7:20 am

    Wonderfully thought-provoking post. Literary fiction has a fairly grand tradition of coming from small presses. Bloomsbury of the early 20th c, for example.

    This really needn’t be an us vs. them (literary vs. genre) and it’s sad that this situation is so often cast in that light. The readers cross over.

  • Kat Goodwin // Sep 18, 2008 at 10:17 am

    You get taught it when you come into the business — there are commercial books that sell and there are literary books that don’t. But there aren’t. “Literary” books — serious non-fiction and novels — are big business and fiction that gets called literary is doing better now than it has in the last two decades. It’s not that readers want only commercial and genre fiction or diet books, and so other works are suddenly tanking. They’ve consistently bought both. Thomas Wolfe and Danielle Steele have been publishing for thirty years and both have been paid big bucks to do it. And the loss of sales venues hurts all types of books, not just the candidates for the National Book Award – the winner of which now automatically becomes a bestseller. If we would drop the Edwardian notion of highbrow and lowbrow publications, whether it’s a big corporate publisher or a small press, book publishing would be a lot better off.

  • Bob Miller // Sep 18, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    I enjoyed your response to the NY magazine article and couldn’t agree more that publishing should celebrate its sheer variety, and not divide the world into “literary” readers and “commercial” readers. It only convinces these readers–many of whom might want a challenging novel one day and a page-turning thriller the next–that the business doesn’t really understand them.

    A note on HarperStudio, though: I don’t understand why any author or agent would need to fear us. We’re simply offering an alternative choice, to take a lower advance in exchange for an equal share of the profits. Most authors won’t make this choice, but we don’t need to publish most authors; we’ll be happy publishing about 24 books per year. Anyway, thanks for betting on our success–

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 18, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Bob — thanks for the comment. I think the fear come from the new and unknown. The current model, warts and all, is familiar. All the players know their steps. Ask them to change, and, well, scary. That advance thing, you know, is a hard mental hurdle to leap. Some can’t quite get there, even with the higher potential payout.

    Of course, as you note, those aren’t the authors you’re seeking. I see the relationship more as a partnership, with each contributing differently toward success. If my stake in the outcome is greater, then I’m going to make sure the probability of success is greater.

  • Heather S. Ingemar // Sep 19, 2008 at 6:35 am

    Bravo!

    I especially love your point about literary fiction.

    Literary fiction is why I quit reading adult novels, and went back to YA and kid lit. As a reader, I don’t want to sit down and read a novel about how horrible someone’s life is, because at the end, I’ll come to some “great revelation” about life and God and everything else. I don’t want to read that! It’s DEPRESSING!

    When I sit down to read, I want to be ENTERTAINED. Bottom line. I want an adventure.

    As a library-worker, I feel disgusted by the amount of literary type books that are on the buy lists. Because people aren’t reading them. People want to read Stephenie Meyer, or J.K. Rowling. Anne McCaffrey. Stephen King. James Patterson. They don’t want to read the latest literate drivel by some unknown University author “because it will enrich their lives.” Forget it.

    And so, they don’t read.

    As an author, I am excited by the indie publishers who know these things, and are willing to take a risk on commercial, entertainment, GENRE fiction. Because that’s the way to get people reading.

    At this point in my writing career, I almost think indie is the way to go.

    Great post, Ms. Krozser. Great post.

    All the best,
    Heather S. Ingemar
    http://catharsys.wordpress.com/

  • Kat Goodwin // Sep 19, 2008 at 9:51 am

    Well, while we’ve got Mr. Miller dropping in, could I ask a question about HarperStudio? Authors have to wait years for royalty monies, plus longer for part of it due to reserves against returns, which can be anywhere from 10-50 percent. The advance allows them to live until those monies come in and also unfortunately effects how seriously they are taken by booksellers. So are those reduced advances going to be accompanied by more timely payment of proceeds to the authors? Can you get the booksellers to cut down returns? Or are you only going to publish bestsellers who can wait for two years before having a regular income?

    I’m not asking as critique, but because HarperStudio is proposing a new business model for publishing practices. Maybe that’s only to be a boutique business model. A higher split is advantageous for authors, but not if the old publishing practices operate for how they get paid it. So I’m curious to learn how HarperStudio is planning to handle this.

  • deb smith // Sep 19, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Hi
    I’m thrilled to see HarperStudio going the low-royalty and share-the-risk route, because now, every time I offer an author my small press’s teensy advance, I can say, “We’re part of an emerging trend. Even New York is doing it.” But seriously, and I say this as an author as well as a small press publisher (35 novels, major houses, twenty years in the biz) but authors need to get real about the intense competition for readers’ time and money, the complexity of marketing, the low return on the publisher’s investment, and the butt-dragging work involved in making a success of their books. Share the risk, share the rewards. Under that system, there’ll be more room for more authors to write more books. Hurray! I couldn’t agree more about the mistake of overlooking genre fiction in these doom and gloom articles. There is a thriving, excited, book-hungry world out here, filled with readers who are flocking to book blogs to discuss the latest fantasy, romance, mystery novel, etc. And there are many small publishers selling lots of books under the radar of the New York Times list. Add us up. Look at our combined sales. Talk to the readers who are waiting for the next book in our YA series or the next homey hen-lit book that New York ignored but we’re happy to publish. We’re here. We’re reading. We’re not getting rich but we’re doing just fine, thank you. And our readers, by the way, don’t think of themselves as “not serious” about reading just because they don’t read books the literary world considers worthy.

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  • Richard Nash // Sep 19, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    I think though Kassia, that the commercial vs genre vs literary distinction might not survive the new business models. From a career standpoint, I get that the vast majority of mouths in the business are going to be fed through easy projects well-executed by parties who see themselves as licensees of existing brands: HarperStudio’s Emeril Lagasse deal is emblematic in that the deal was done with Martha Stewart Omnimedia who acquired the IP associated with Lagasse. So from a raw numbers standpoint, that’s where one has to guide people.

    But it is also true that Little Brown, in this day and age, would not be publishing Infinite Jest. And DFW had readers who deserve his books as much as Danielle Steele’s reader enjoy hers. The activity of connecting DFW to his readers though, was non-easy, non-obvious, and it is a legitimate activity for publishing reporters to discuss that complexity. (Kassia, I’m sure you’re not denying that—this is addressed to your more passionate commenters!)

    I’m not a big fan of the old model of cross-subsidizing literary with commercial fiction though, as it tends to generate laziness on the part of those tasked with finding the readers for the literary stuff. But it is also true that, on the balance, the best of the literary stuff makes as much of a contribution to a richer culture as does the best of genre, even as it generates far less revenue. It creates the material, the R&D that genre and commercial fiction uses in subsequent generations. And that activity is difficult to privatize, it’s what the economists call a social good.

    So just let’s not, as we make the adjustment to accepting books as a subset of the entertainment business, entirely discard literary stuff as not worth the bother. I know there’s a certain schadenfreude at watching the snobs lose their readers, but you’d actually be surprised at how good a lot of iterary fiction is ;-)

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 19, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    Word.

    Speaking as a pure reader (which I’ve been almost as long as I’ve been a writer), I truly don’t care about labels, though I have found that I trust some more than others. I agree that the best of literary is very good indeed, as is the best of genre. I get annoyed particularly when one side or the other elevates their fiction above others. There is good and bad in all styles of fiction.

    I am lucky and unlucky to have encountered both.

    I am, weirdly, a huge fan of the cross-subsidization model, mostly because I grew up (figuratively speaking) in the motion picture business. I get that you have certain titles that make money, and, better, some that you’re able to finance because of those titles…and they then surprise you. I like the idea of “subsequent generations”, though it does smack of designer fashion feeding the Target shopper.

    You know what I mean.

    I’d like to circle back to something that I said that was little noticed (odd, such a long piece, that something would fly under the radar). When I look at the list of “losers”, as defined by NYM, I see those titles as big money risks pushed on the public with a sense of desperation. My (personal, reader) reaction to each was “huh”. The marketing pushes were equally “huh”?

    It seemed to me then, as it does now, that there was a fundamental disconnect between what publishers thought readers wanted and what readers would buy. I’m not sure if they (publishers) were dazzled by marketing potential or true believers, but these books felt like manufactured hits, only the readers didn’t respond appropriately.

    Would DFW be published by a major house today? I like to think so. I think there’s so much room in big publishing houses for a broad spectrum of books (including those book that don’t fit comfortably into the corporate structure). I also think there’s an unfortunate tendency toward a literary caste system, where we assign attributes based on genre classification rather than more traditional qualities such as storytelling.

    For what it’s worth (and I know Richard knows this!), the best literary fiction I’ve read these past few years has not come from major houses. Maybe it’s because I’m lucky and my influencers tend toward independents (and this would follow my taste in music, particularly), but I’m more likely to devour fiction from smaller houses. I look back at what I’ve tried from major publishers and just don’t recall much in the way of excitement or even specifics (I admit it, I judge a story by how it lingers long after I’ve read it).

    So maybe Richard’s thought about creating laziness on the part of certain individuals holds true. There does seem to be a, pardon my insult, sameness, similarity in voice or feel, with major label works. Which makes one wonder if there’s a “big house” literary versus “independent” literary. Looking back at what I’ve read and enjoyed in this millenium, particularly, I’d say so.

    And maybe that’s the basis of the fear expressed in the article.

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  • Fred Courtright // Sep 19, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Very nice post. I particularly liked the emphasis on publishing as a business, since many in the literary field seem to act as if they are above being part of such a thing. It is helpful to be reminded of the reality of the publishing company as a company.

    Two quibbles, however (and they are just quibbles):

    -Carroll is exactly right that many people go into publishing because they want to make a editorial difference (i.e., become the next Max Perkins). This isn’t disproved by your correctly pointing out that publishing is much larger than the literary area in which Perkins operated. It is like noting that most lawyers get into the law to “make a difference for people” and your response is that most lawyers do schlocky clerical work and are unlikely to do more.

    My response is the same: “So what?” You are answering different questions.

    -I can’t help but note that unironically taking a magazine called New York Magazine to task for concentrating on, um, New York-based publishers or having a clear New York bias lacked a kind of self-awareness I would have expected to see. What’s next: Taking on our hometown papers for clear bias on their sports pages?

    :)

  • Victor J. Banis // Sep 20, 2008 at 4:38 am

    Okay, I’m coming at this from a slightly different on ramp. In a very long career (more than 40 years, more than 150 books) I’ve written in many different genres, but I am mostly known today to glbt readers, writers and publishers for the gay (mostly paperback) fiction that I did in the 60s and early 70s – even though those books are actually only a small percentage of the overall output. In the mid 80s, unhappy with my relations with the NY houses, I simply dropped out of writing – or, more correctly, out of writing for publication. About 6 or 7 years ago, I decided it was time to come back to it – to discover that things had changed greatly. I couldn’t find a publisher or an agent interested in me, despite that track record (and, yes, some of the books were critically praised and sold well for their publishers). The saving grace was that I still had a name with gay publishers, where I am regarded as something of an icon, but even there, the NY houses weren’t interested – the exception being Carroll & Graf, where editor Don Weise was trying valiantly to revive the gay fiction genre – and we all know what happened to him and C & G. Luckily, I have managed to do quite well publishing with small indies, like MLR Press, Regal Crest, and Wildside Press; I write these days primarily for my own satisfaction, so I’m fine with no advances, and I do well enough with the royalties. The reviews are great, and I’m doing what I love, so why complain. I have no aspirations of cracking the NYTimes bestselleer list, and I’m not going to get those million dollar advances. Tant pis.

    But I am asked often what happened to gay publishing? In the sixties, 50,000 to 100,000 sales of a title was not at all unusual; today, 5,000 makes a “best seller.”

    And the best answer that I can supply is, “literary publishing.” When the NYC publishers took over the genre of gay fiction in the 70s and 80s, they were clearly embarrassed by their more colorful paperback past, and responded to it by publishing increasingly sterile works with ever decreasing sales. Gay males yawned and turned to erotica , where at least they could have some fun, and more recently, thankfully, to books by the indies, who still publish entertainment, while the NY publishers wring their hands and insist (does this sound familiar) that gay publishing is dead. It isn’t. The same points that Ms. Krozser makes above are all too obvious here. I am an avid reader, and I’d have to be convinced to buy a gay novel from any of the NYC houses, except if I were suffering a long, very serious bout of insomnia. I have nothing against literature, but, you know, that doesn’t happen from a committee meeting. A lot of classics started out as “popular literature.” And most of them were written to entertain. Please, Lord, deliver me from writers – and editors – who see themselves as the saviours of literature.

    Victor J. Banis

  • Boris Kachka // Sep 20, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Kassia, I read your post with great interest and agree with many of your points. In fact, this is a complex industry and the goal of my story was to stimulate discussion, which can then branch out into many different directions. I could not follow them all in one article (whose length many readers dwell on, but 6,000 words is, no surprise, not enough to depict an entire industry). I would like to think–correct me if I’m wrong–that you and other reasonable commentators are not “bashing” my article per se. If you disagree with the headline and deck, I take your point, but I was reflecting the point of view of most of the people I spoke to. Sometimes a little (cheeky) alarmism can help make the case for change–just look at Al Gore’s movie. And embedded in the story are many of the “rebuttals” here and elsewhere. I do, in fact, acknowledge that indie presses have pioneered many of these techniques–it’s one of my main points–though my focus in the article, for many reasons, is limited to big publishing in New York. That’s simply the world I was writing about, the world I and my editors thought a NY Magazine reader–the intended audience, more than just publishing insiders–would be most interested in reading about. I take your point that excellent commercial fiction is very, very important–though as you yourself say, it should be acquired and marketed with reasonable expectations, so that excellent, harder-to-sell fiction can be given a fighting chance.
    I’d like to stand up for Kent Carroll, as well, because like anyone else he can only speak from his own experience and that of his colleagues. His indie press, Europa, is doing a great job of bringing European fiction to interested American readers–most of it “literary”, but all of it highly entertaining, often light and funny and, yes, escapist. It’s exactly the kind of stuff that could–should–be selling better. Which is entirely my point about marketing. The Philip Roth statement is one that I immediately say is highly disputed, putting it in the context of the inadequacy of market research–one of the things that makes publishing so hard (as, again, you agree).
    In short, I’m glad to have spurred discussion. It was my intention all along–not to have the last word but to keep the argument going. Thanks for doing that.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 20, 2008 at 9:19 am

    I’d like to follow up on one more thought from the post/Richard’s comment, or maybe it’s address the issue I made in another way. What I really think is missing in comments from editors and other publishing professionals is an appreciation of how readers really read. It’s not about loving Danielle Steel (this week’s convenient example), it’s about understanding that Danielle Steel readers read far and wide.

    In so many ways, publishing is niche upon niche, and very few readers confine themselves to a single space. Appreciating this aspect of readers instead of insulting it, I believe, will do more to encourage experimentation than you’d imagine.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 20, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Victor, I am certainly aware of your career. Small world and all that. In the gay fiction world (broadly), I do think there has been a dramatic shift toward erotica, and, interestingly, an increase in interest from female readers, who are reading this type of book. When it comes to literary fiction, I’m not sure the distinction of gay or straight makes sense the way it once did.

    I could be wrong, this not being my specialty.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 20, 2008 at 9:33 am

    Boris — Thank you for weighing in. You certainly did start a broad conversation. Was it really 6,000 words; I for one will not complain about the length. You can’t begin to start on this business in so short a space. My thoughts were two pieces long, and I barely scratched the surface.

    As you can see, I took particular interest in the role corporate overlords play in this decision-making process. This is the dirty downside to all that consolidation and changing of ownership. We see it in other businesses, heck, we see it bringing papers like the Los Angeles Times to its knees. Shareholders have their own particular self-interest, and that’s going to affect the economics of certain types of books with certain types of publishers.

    This is not the end. I may be a bit of a Pollyanna on this point, but I’m seeing so much reading and writing happening in this world. What publishing does remains a vital part of our world. How publishing remains relevant becomes the broader question. Change is the hardest part.

    Of course, you can count me in among those who think the so-called Golden Age of Publishing was, if it really existed, limited in scope and overly romanticized.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 20, 2008 at 9:38 am

    Final thought before tackling the never-ending garage project. As you can see from comments here and elsewhere (you being all of you), there is a particular frustration on the part of genre fans, readers and writers. I haven’t seen commentary from the non-fiction crowd, but based on past articles I’ve done, they also feel overlooked.

    Articles like Boris’s tend to focus on the literary to the exclusion of other aspects of the industry. He notes that this is a function of his publication’s audience, and that’s a fair approach. But like so many other things in today’s world, audiences are not always who we think they are.

  • Book Calendar // Sep 20, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Replace the word giving with the word producing and you may have a point. Now, it is the person or persons who can produce quickly what people want quickly. Think about it as a person who writes content anywhere generates interest then packages it as a book (print on demand) or product (podcast in video or audio) which people can use.

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  • David Thayer // Sep 22, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Maybe someday the publishing business will fall under the purview of Treasury Secretary Paulson but only if we grow bigger than we are now, and by bigger, I mean really leveraged where writers are receiving 2 or 3 million in advance of book “ideas”. Of course that means Treasury agents would be free to critique our reading choices and perhaps impose fines.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 22, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    David, while I have great admiration for Henry Paulson, I must express concern about your proposed bailout plan. If the three-page proposal (clean bill, you say?) is the entire plan, then it appears that I will be buying books while paying a premium to cover bad book choices? And Treasury gets final say over what gets published without any oversight?

    That worries me. I hear that Treasury is against books with san serif fonts on the cover.

  • Halima Sortelle // Sep 23, 2008 at 4:36 am

    Absolutely APPALLED to see ‘commercial’ writers of popular fiction ALWAYS putting writers of LITERARY FICTION down!
    The writer of literary fiction is usually a very gifted and highly intellectual as well as creative and imaginative writer.
    GIVE THEM A GO.

  • Halima Sortelle // Sep 23, 2008 at 4:46 am

    Heather S. Ingemar [LIBRARY? WORKER]:
    Your comment really causes me, for one, to ask, ‘How on God’s earth di you get a job as a library worker when you have absolutely NO understanding or respect for LITERARY WORKS?’
    This simply reflects the trashy nature of the average person and the ignorance associated with reading and writing. There are so many trashy books on the market that cagter for the low, uneducated mentality that probably can’t even spell letalone read.
    When I attended a writing workshop, I was disgusted to see and hear the tutor degrading good solid writers of literary fiction. These writers outlast centuries – while trashy garbage is a 7 day wonder.
    As far as JK Rowling goes – Nice to know she plagiarised my work. Very clever but dirt comes out in the wash.
    Nice to know too that genre writers of trashy novels CONDONE plagiarism.

  • Heather S. Ingemar // Sep 23, 2008 at 7:48 am

    Miss Sortelle.

    I have a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from one of the highest ranked colleges in the Pacific Northwest. I have read practically every literary classic under the sun, and even quite a few which aren’t considered classics. I understand the importance of literature. I understand the necessity of the commentary on our society and how it relates to our culture. We need these things.

    But the fact is, most people want entertainment. If we don’t give them what they’re looking for, we lose them as readers. The basic function of a library is to best serve the needs of their patrons.

    It’s also a known fact that if you get people reading — and getting them hooked is the hardest part — they will read. And eventually, they will challenge themselves to harder literature. But. They have to get there FIRST.

    Bottom line: Entertain them. Get them hooked on books, on reading.

    They’ll take it from there.

    You can’t expect a first-grade reader to pick up Jane Eyre and enjoy it. They have to develop as a reader first. Let them.

    You call genre “trashy books that cater to the low, uneducated mentality that probably can’t even spell let alone read.” May I remind you that the number of uneducated people far outweighs the number of educated people? The driving force of our nation is blue-collar. Many have no higher than a high-school diploma/GED.

    May I also remind you that a stunning portion of our literary greats have come from these humble beginnings?

    All the best,
    Heather S. Ingemar

  • Kirk // Sep 23, 2008 at 8:53 am

    Halima:

    You make a PERSUASIVE and LOGICAL case for literary fiction. I can’t understand why you don’t have more friends. Perhaps it’s your APPROACH. Or maybe it’s the COMPANY you keep. You know how TRASHY and LOW-BROW blog readers can be.

    It’s possible the INTERNETS aren’t right for you. Maybe you should find a nice LITERARY book club.

  • Kassia Krozser // Sep 23, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Halima, I’m not entirely sure what you’re saying here. Literary snobbery goes both ways (see: pull quote re: Danielle Steel). Please reread my post. It’s a dangerous thing to judge the genre fiction reader.

    Also, I’d seriously argue that some of the “classics” are truly great, while noting that some of what we consider to be “literary” is soundly rooted in genre fiction. Chacon a son gout, but never assume that what you think is great is truly the epoch of anything.

  • Kaolin Fire (GUD Magazine) // Sep 24, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    @ Kassia – (I admit it, I judge a story by how it lingers long after I’ve read it).

    After clearing some basic negatives, I’d argue there’s not a better to judge them. Though I also think today is a day for me to lose arguments. ;)

    I didn’t see the NY piece as quite so “literary vs commercial” as that, overall, but I don’t know a lot of the names mentioned, so I could have missed a lot in that.

    Still good to see lots of people rallying to the cry of publishing in any form. :)

  • Michael // Sep 25, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    I saw Anna Karenina last night at the bookstore, the edition that, um, Oprah recommended? :-)

  • Kevin Smokler // Sep 25, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Kassia continues to be one of the smartest people in this whole dang bone business. I feel lucky to know her.

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  • Peggy Jo // Sep 27, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Let’s just boil it down to two categories, please: entertaining and NOT entertaining.

    If it’s entertaining, it’s an escape, it’s relaxing, we imagine ourselves in a meadow of flowers, no need for dictionaries, sometimes we giggle. No need to do anything but crank back with a big o’ tub of chocolate ice cream and spoon, stuff and read. It’s just like going to the movie or watching American Idol, where you just stuff your face and stare.

    If it’s NOT entertaining, you read the first two sentences, spot a word you don’t know, don’t own a dictionary and even if you did, you wouldn’t look it up, and you realize you don’t understand a thing that’s going on from the very first paragraph.

    Therefore, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest would NOT be published today, because not only is it FAR too long (Danielle Steel’s books are just right!), but in the second sentence it also has the phrase “consciously congruent.” Oh dear God. If I wanted to read a book like that, I’d have to be forced to read it in school, and even then, I’d just read Cliff’s Notes. Maybe.

    So we just need two sections in the bookstore: ENTERTAINING and NOT ENTERTAINING.

    And then let the market decide, by God! Isn’t this America? Survival of the stupidest!

  • Stacey Kannenberg // Sep 27, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Here is what I have never understood: Why invest in a book if you don’t believe it can live on the shelf for years to come and become a classic? Why write or publish it — if you don’t believe in it? How many times have I been disappointed in a best seller and how many times have I been amazed by some obscure title – it’s all about marketing! So why publish it in the first place if you aren’t going to market it to become a classic?

    What do I know? I am just a small niche publisher having a blast becoming a classic!
    ________________________________________

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  • Kat Goodwin // Sep 28, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    The idea that various modern literary classics would not get published today is one that I find largely useless. There are more “literary” bestsellers hopping on and off the list today than there were twenty years ago when down and dirty authors like Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton dominated the lists. Today, major literary award winners become bestsellers because of their win, which did not happen in past decades. Serious non-fiction titles such as science books have also seen a massive increase in sales and exposure since the 1980’s. A novel like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz would have had a much harder time getting published 15 years ago and certainly would have been unlikely to become a bestseller and award winner.

    Instead of being encouraged by these signs of openness and increased exposure to audiences and trying to capitalize on it, publishers are busy sighing over literary fiction being no longer an exclusive club of upperclass whites. That the writer thinks his magazine’s audience is only interested in literary fiction — and that what’s literary fiction is easy to define — is symbolic of the not very accurate complaint that publishers are the upholders of refined culture, laid waste by the barbarian demands of their corporate owners. Essentially, publishing keeps partying like it’s 1933.

    And it’s time to stop. Readers don’t want just entertainment. But what they define as more than entertainment may not always agree with the outmoded definition.

  • TJ Bennett // Oct 1, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Preach it, sistah!

    Smaller publishers such as Medallion Press have been doing the “share the risk” model from the get go. It is easier to take a chance on new, untried talent that way when it gets right down to it. That’s how I got my first (and soon to be second) books published.

    I also completely agree that readers of nonliterary fiction (and other kinds of books as well) will be the determining factor in the success or failure of the publishing industry, as well as said industry’s ability to “roll with it.” In the past two weeks, I purchased six commercial titles (three romances, a mystery, and two nonfiction “how to” grammar “Dummies” books–just for fun), not to mention the several textbooks I purchased last month. That is not an unusual practice for me. Literary fiction makes up a small piece of my pie, although I do occasionally read it. But for a darn good time away from the high stress of my daily grind, I read books for entertainment and relaxation, or to understand what is going on in the world or what other people are thinking or how to get things done. I read literary fiction when I’m drawn to a compelling tale and have time to wrestle with new ideas–which, let’s be honest, like most Americans, is a lot less time than I’d like to these days. So the percentage of literary fiction I purchase will necessarily be smaller than the total sales. When NY is bewailing the decline in sales, they need to look around and see what is REALLY selling. And boy, I’d love to be able to afford a Kindle for the days I travel and can’t pack all my favorite books in my suitcase because I don’t want to pay the airline’s extra baggage weight charges! :-)

    Anyway, loved your rant, and thought it was spot on.

    TJB

  • LM Chaplin // Oct 1, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    Warning: this is not a in depth answer about the publishing industry, but one as a reader and writer.

    I am one of those Ms Krozser mentioned (I think it was her): I read fairly well across the board. I read classics as a child and still do. I read romance, fantasy, historical fiction and non-fiction, research and literary works, and enjoy them as I find them. I’m a published romance author, and my agent is currently sending my ancient historical literary work to publishers.

    I’m not American. I’m an Aussie living in Switzerland. But I guess I’m pretty representative anyway. I didn’t finish university; I attended a blue collar school in Sydney. I educated myself in that I read Little Women and Heidi and such books from a very young age and my hard working, blue collar parents always bought me a new book when I wanted it, or I walked to the local library. I discovered genre fiction at 15 when I got tired of my English teacher waxing lyrical over Shylock, the Plantagenets and Mr. Darcy. I fell in love with Tolkien first, then stretched out to other kinds of books in genre fiction, but have always returned to the classics.

    Some in all genres are wonderful. Some – well, Kafka’s life as a cockroach didn’t appeal (I preferred the Monty Python approach)…and I don’t like sheikh books either. It’s just personal taste and what that makes me is neither one of the great unwashed lowbrows or a literary snob.

    It makes me human.

    To me, it seems simple: the facts are there for us all to see. The industry will be squeezed like everything else with the current financial crisis; it’s been going on for a while. There are less pieces of the pie, and all the indignation, abuse and/or snobbery in the world won’t change it.

    So why attack literary or genre fiction, and their readers? If people want to escape their lives for a few hours by reading something that takes them away to exotic destinations or alien worlds, rather than one that might conceivably change their world (or bore them to tears if it’s not to their taste), it’s their right. Just as much as it is for some to choose Brick Lane or The Kite Runner instead of genre fiction because that bores them. And publishers, bless their New York mentality hearts, know that well. They might be living in 1933 in some ways and want to be a reincarnation of famous editors, but then has human nature changed that much? Only in that some are more open about what they want to read.

    I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code; I’ve never read one Harry Potter and don’t intend to; I’ve never read a Danielle Steel at all. Does that make these bad books? No. The last 12 books I purchased were non-fic for research, or literary works – I’m in that phase. And I’m enjoying it. But at a recent conference I received a few free Victoria Alexander historical romances. I loved one but not the other. Will I buy more of her books? I’d think about it, definitely. I also read and write category romance. Does this negate me as a person? Why should it? I like category fiction if it is well written (and many are, though their shelf life is short and they won’t become classics) and touches my heart. Just as books like The Year of Wonders touched my heart.

    Everyone has the right to choose – and those of us who write for a living know that all the rants in the world against our competition won’t change the truth. And won’t stop publishers releasing books that they love and believe others will love too. Sometimes they get it wrong. As do we all.

    And authors, no matter where in publishing we write, have to write better, write faster, write stronger. The romantic days of starving in a garret as we squeeze drops of sweat over every word are gone. The times are what they are, with all their convenience and their inconvenience.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this article, and the responses…it’s taught me a lot. Big thanks to those who’ve enlightened me, such as Ms Krozser, Mr Nash et al. Your thoughtful insights about the industry are greatly appreciated.

  • Maria // Oct 3, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Wow! This was a great conversation. Thank you Kassia for starting it all.

    After reading everyone’s comments, my two cents are, “The times they are a changing.” In the end it is all about change and accepting that change. You can decide to buy a car or you can keep your horse and carriage, but whatever you decide to do, the change will happen.

    The bottom line for any kind of book is that it needs to be “good” and “entertaining” which does not mean “easy” or “trashy” or “amusing” to the exclusion of “thought provoking” or “challenging” or “lyrical”. “Good” and “entertaining” for me include all of these and more which is why I read across all genres, categories, and boundaries.

    Thank you again, Kassia, for this thought provoking commentary.

  • Megan Hustad // Oct 4, 2008 at 5:18 am

    I know disdain for the Danielle Steel reader exists among some publishing minions, but genre snobbery is really not the problem. When Jonathan Franzen mumbled something about Oprah’s audience not being the kind of readers he’d dreamed of, I wanted to spit. But such sentiments are not held by those in publishing’s corner offices. Even Sonny Mehta at Knopf knows how and when to get down with Anne Rice (or, say, Jessica Lynch’s memoir).

    From what I’ve seen, too many promising literary manuscripts get published when they’re…still just promising manuscripts. THIS is a problem. Just O.K. literary (and midlist) fiction gets pimped out as if it rivaled Middlemarch. The bean counters have little appreciation for the value added by editing, and so a whole lot of half-baked books get placed on store shelves when they’re not ready for primetime. It’s hoped the audience won’t know the difference (not if they dress the book up right, hence the ever longer, ever more ecstatic jacket copy we’re seeing these days — a sure sign of nerves, in my opinion). This — among other numbskulled business practices, but that’s a story for another day — is what is bleeding big publishers dry. Those Maxwell Perkins wannabes who end up shepherding manuscripts through production have to meet acquisition quotas. They apportion editing time on a triage basis. And sometimes they don’t even know how to edit — there’s no time to teach them, after all. (It’s assumed the craft will be picked up by osmosis. I know this because I was one of those minions.) Suffice it to say the current situation has me very, very excited about the opportunities for new small presses.

  • Ted // Oct 13, 2008 at 10:59 am

    The New York Publishers, literary or otherwise, is a club. They don’t want to give up their status and their perks. Eventually, all books will be POD and possibly published by the authors with their own publishing companies. Online marketing is not dependent on the NY groups. There will be a different paradigm for publishing, editing, marketing and reviewing,—which involves too much explanation to go into at this time. The old publishing industry and the commercial houses and the people at them are dinosaurs and Mustache Petes. The branch they’ve been hanging onto has been sawed off, but they haven’t realized it yet. Literary work will be published by the Independents and certainly literay presses, such as Pudding House for poetry chapbooks.

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