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.
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.