Dispatches | February 05, 2007

Some business analysts tend to see “massification” in publishing as having positive effects on the market.  For example, they view huge companies with varied media properties as being more capable of withstanding slowdowns.  They also view them as encouraging niche and small publishing, presumably because they leave a clearer field for them.  What this means for literary authors is that by abandoning them publishers leave a great opportunity for others — an argument offering limited comfort either to the authors or their buyers.  Also, some analysts view large publishers as the only ones capable of dealing with monopolistic retail chains-which begs the question of how the spectacle of heedless giants duking it out with other giants really benefits anybody. 

 Among writers and not a few editors and agents, attitudes toward monopolistic publishing aren’t so optimistic.  They believe that the culture of reading is deteriorating partly because of the way the business is being run.  They feel that the product has lost meaning to those selling it and the industry has become top-heavy and alienating.  They see a business that has palpably lower prestige than it had as recently as twenty years ago.  They view the “steady increase in the number of titles” that defenders of the industry refer to as a profusion of standardized, mediocre products. Being published by commercial presses has become an ever more burdensome list of do-it-yourself tasks.  First-time as well as mid-list writers are faced with a number of rude surprises, as much of the work of actually publishing books seems to have devolved to them, including such tasks as writing jacket copy, getting blurbs, writing their own bios, getting their cover photo taken, and — many discover — even getting the books into bookstores.  When dealing with book publishers and agents, authors sometimes get the queasy feeling that these are not businesses at all, but places of pretend work for the ineffectual.

Editing is a profession in decline, with few editors now having the incentive and clout either to make decisions on books or to edit them.  Almost every writer has the experience of a book being “lost in the shuffle” when their editor quits or is fired or their imprint suddenly disappears.  Even editors with sterling records of profitably juggling serious and fluff lists are fired for not toeing an absolutist, sales-based corporate line. Such volatility reaches into the highest ranks.

The same thing happens to authors.  Again and again, one hears stories of imprints that abandon successful, award-winning mid-list authors because executives claim they can’t afford to publish non-genre fiction except for a couple of “trademark literary” names.  They aren’t prone to asking tougher questions, such as whether this inability is due to their own lack of resourcefulness at selling such work, or whether their choice to rely on predictable markets may appear safer on today’s balance sheet but holds low prestige and little promise for the future of their imprint.  While they coddle a handful of highly successful repeat-best-selling, mostly genre authors-sometimes to the distaste of everyone involved — they invest minimally in their most important capital, the books and careers of good writers who aren’t yet big sellers but might become so.  Instead of working hard to create distinguished lines, publishers complain and follow trends.   Instead of having the humility to do the many small things that it takes to sell good authors and good books, they point to mistreatment and pressures coming from chains, corporate owners, or to conflicts in corporate culture.  At rending their garments and beating their chests, commercial publishers have become quite accomplished.

One can think of few occupations that are regarded by insiders as having fallen further in esteem.  In a column called “Book Review” a couple of years ago, Michael Wolff of New York Magazine wondered why Ann Godoff wasn’t pleased to be freed from commercial publishing, which he described as having become a “dopey” business producing junk.  “A modern publishing house provides as congenial an atmosphere as an insurance company,” he says, and wonders if almost everybody working in publishing today isn’t a self-selecting “priesthood” of the inept.

Recently I spoke with a novelist whom The Missouri Review first published some twenty years ago, early in his publishing life, and he was filling me in on some of the details of his recent career.  His agent sent a completed novel manuscript to his publisher, and they told him that they could no longer afford to publish his kinds of books.  He had a record of well-respected, highly reviewed mid-selling novels, but the publisher informed him that this record was unfortunately his curse, since anything bearing the novelist’s name would draw only moderate interest from stores.  The new manuscript was rejected by the former publisher and ten others.  In desperation, his agent decided to submit the manuscript under a pseudonym, and the first publisher to read it disencumbered of his real name accepted it.  

Soon after this happened, the author got a call from Oprah, who had chosen one of his previous books for her book club. Suddenly, his former publisher was on the phone asking for more books by him, under his real name.  Anything.  Please.  Just as long as it had his name on it.

While this story ended with a bittersweet victory, the effect of the whole experience has made the novelist even more doubtful than he already was about commercial publishing.  One of the ways he has chosen to deal with it is by helping to run — on a day-to-day basis — a small literary magazine.  In my view this is a very good solution to his doubts.  Instead of merely worrying about the methods and practices of publishing, he is doing what he can.

I believe that the split between “popular” and “artistic” books is a fact of life.  I believe also that changes in publishing are as inevitable as change elsewhere, and that many of them are ascribed to the wrong cause.  The “blockbuster complex” is not only due to consolidation but to a mix of factors including business practices that value the short term over the future.  Quality publishing requires big expenditures of effort on individualized products.  It requires capital investment that includes taking losses on books by authors who in the future may prove profitable. 

One of the categorical superiorities of books over movies and television is the chance to be less driven by the greed to possess huge market segments-a greed manifesting itself in movies today mainly by increasingly frantic computer-generated flim-flam.  Books can afford to be higher in quality, less glib, more detailed, and richer with information.  They can afford to have specialized audiences.  They don’t have to be dumbed down.  When publishers become too “realistic” to see that, and when they turn bookstores into places that are as junky as television, they are limiting their own futures.

Publishers will continue to try to create a brave new world of monopolies feeding a few huge pipelines with mass printings of mostly bad books or they will develop more realistic attitudes toward buyers, higher quality books, and new ways to deliver them without the anvil of unrealistic sales projections tied to them.  Somehow, some way, more of the people who print and give legitimacy to books need to get back to an economic scale that allows them to trust both their readers and themselves.  Until they quit pandering to a sniggering idea of “the crap people want” they won’t find the books and writers that make a difference both to their own careers and to the broader culture.  

I tell my interns at The Missouri Review that they would be crazy to go into publishing unless they intend to change the ways that things are done.   I tell them to either turn their attention to a career that’s more promising — or go out there and save us.

Speer Morgan