I’ve been accused of lacking a certain amount of, well, esprit de corps when it comes to the plight of my colleagues in publishing. These are not the best of times for people in the biz: staffs are being cut, longtime employees dismissed, whole divisions lopped off in response to plunging book sales and evaporating profit margins.
But rather than commiserating with the editors and book folk who have been handed their walking papers, my reactions have been cold-blooded, remorseless and decidedly ungenerous. Why?
Try to see it from my point of view: these people have failed. They have failed to excite the reading public, they have failed to choose and promote books that appeal to the tastes of their purported readership. Their gross ineptitude has led to their bosses absorbing big financial losses and, quite understandably, looking to clean house. Honestly, why should we care if they’re called to account for their incompetence, summoned into an office and given ten minutes to collect their name plates and personalized coffee mugs and get the hell out of Dodge?
Is jetissoning them any great loss? Are they irreplaceable? Tireless advocates of excellence in literature and the power and glory of the printed word? Not in my experience.
Don’t forget, I’ve dealt with publishing types for nearly twenty-five years and I have all too frequently found myself on the receiving end of their stupidity and outright dishonesty. When I think of editors and those who serve with them as cogs in the corporate publishing mega-monster, I’m not exactly overwhelmed by warm, fuzzy feelings.
Occasionally, as I read the latest casualty rolls in some industry mouthpiece like MediaBistro’s “Galleycat” site, certain names make me perk up. ____________ and _____________ (names removed for legal reasons) were both editors at major New York publishing houses who were given the boot within a few months of each other.
The two editors treated me abominably, hanging onto my manuscripts for ungodly periods of time, refusing to respond to my communications. In desperation, I finally called one and at first the editor in question seemed genuinely contrite. “Oh, God, yes, I remember liking that one. I’ll get to you next week”. But a week passed and then a month…and when I called a second time, I was given a rude brush-off.
“I’ll get to it when I get to it, all right?”
Never heard from her again.
I’ve detailed my many odd and surreal experiences in the world of publishing in my essay “Solace of Fortitude”. Not a word of it is manufactured or exaggerated, I assure you. I only wish that were the case. (Warning: This essay not to be read on a full stomach.)
The truth is that in my quarter century as a professional author I can count the number of intelligent and thoughtful editors I’ve encountered on the fingers of one hand (sans thumb). Ditto for agents.
So why in the name of eternal, infinite God should I give a tinker’s damn if, as a species, editors cease to exist? Should I wear a black armband because the same people who have mistreated me, lied to me and denigrated my work are dangling from every lamp post in lower Manhattan? Fat chance.
To me, all this downsizing is a golden opportunity to pare away some of the dead wood that the industry has been carrying far too long. Editors and execs who have grown old, fat, stale and comfortable in their corner offices, as secure as tenured professors (and just as paranoid and senile). Insular, self-serving, fickle. Highly resistant to change. Time for some new blood, I say, new ideas and approaches.
Traditional publishing seems to be dead, so to me the obvious question that arises is: WHAT NEXT?
Clearly the corporate approach ain’t the answer. Publishing by committee, collating and analyzing spreadsheets, projected sales figures, flow charts and pie graphs. Slitting open a sheep for good measure and rooting about in its entrails for any insights that might be gleaned there. Always on the look-out for the next blockbuster, something sort of different but mainly the same. But while the big ticket scribblers like Rowling and Dan Brown may plump up the sales numbers for a few quarters, what are editors/publishers doing to grow and sustain a stable, longterm readership? Maintaining a lifetime consumer base that’s literate (something less and less important in these days of text messaging, emoticons and three line e-mails) and devoted to the printed word, unwilling to see books relegated to the status of artifacts and curios.
The way ahead lies with smaller, tightly run publishing concerns, staffed by informed, dedicated, reader-savvy men and women. Independent in spirit, offering a more diverse, iconoclastic selection of titles thanks to the wonders of print-on-demand (POD) publishing and e-book hard/software. Works which are then promoted through podcasts, blog reviews and on-line interviews, “virtual” book tours. Live “web chats”; YouTube readings and short films.
Computer technology also enables readers to connect directly with their favorite authors through personal sites, Facebook, etc., as well as allowing them to join forums devoted to writers or genres of interest. Forming a vast, far-reaching community of book-lovers and devotees, unimpeded by geographic boundaries and undeterred by small details like race, politics, gender.
The end of corporate publishing is nigh. The signs are all there. The multi-nationals are fed up with the red ink their book divisions keep hemorrhaging. First they went at the fat with scalpels, now they’re using machetes. Desperate tactics enacted by desperate people…and I suspect it won’t make one bit of difference. The die has been cast and nothing the suits do will have the slightest effect on the massive changes technology is bringing about and a paradigm shift that is part cultural, part economic and wholly beyond the control of Wall Street, Fleet Street…or anywhere else.
These are actually great times to be a writer, or, really, anyone who works and creates in the arts. Never before have we, as artists, had access to (potentially) such a vast audience, drawn from every corner of the world. And the good news is that we can acquire this access for a relatively modest investment. No longer do writers (for example) need to kowtow to the traditional gate-keepers of publishing, the editors and agents who are largely to blame for the present moribund state of the industry. Those self-appointed arbiters of taste have been rendered superfluous, shown to be incapable of identifying or developing authors gifted with originality, power and grace—the very qualities that get people excited about reading again.
It’s my personal belief that a good deal more publishing poobahs need to have their tickets punched before authors and the general reading public have any hope of being better-served. And if the end result of these lay-offs and staff reductions is better books, a wider selection and variety of formats for readers to choose from, more authors having their voices heard, I say:
HASTA LA VISTA, YOU WHITE COLLAR, SELF-REGARDING, MARTINI-GUZZLING, TOFU-EATING, FAKE-MEMOIR-SOPHIE KINSELLA-PIMPING IDJITS! AND GOOD RIDDANCE, TOO…
My wife Sherron has thrown down the gauntlet.
The other night she told me: “Listen, you’ve had your fun insulting editors and publishers, belittling their intelligence, always going after them. Now, how about something constructive? You’ve got ideas on how to improve things and make the system run better so let’s hear them, wise guy.”
Right. Here goes.
First of all, it must be acknowledged that, by any standards, the corporate book publishing model has been a complete failure. Publishers are losing money, cutting staff, consolidating…and book sales have taken a big dip (according to one stat I saw on Mediabistro, down a whopping 13% in November, 2008 from the previous year).
And this notion that there are editors out there with the wisdom and far-sightedness of Solomon, who are somehow able to identify and manufacture the next monster bestseller is a complete fallacy. Moronic, in fact. Has no basis in reality whatsoever. Look at what happened to Andrew Davidson (author of Gargoyle; Random House); guy gets a hefty advance, the book is promoted up the yin-yang…and it barely makes a ripple. Certainly no threat to becoming the next Da Vinci Code, right?
You can’t pie chart a bestseller, you can’t graph which book is going to break through big time–and which ones are going to flounder and sink like the Lusitania. Please recall that the enormous, worldwide success of J.K. Rowling resulted, largely, from strong word of mouth, parents passing along copies and recommendations of The Philosopher’s Stone until a genuine groundswell was created.
You can’t consistently create a bestseller but what you can do is use the new technologies out there so that, as a publisher, all your eggs aren’t crammed into one basket. Changing the metaphor, why settle for the equivalent of a single shot, old style flintlock, when POD offers you the opportunity to wield a state of the art shotgun?
Print-on-demand (POD) gives you that capability. Unlike the old, offset press method of publishing, POD is flexible, far less time-consuming and energy intensive and cheap to boot. You can print as many copies of a particular title as you want, from 1…to ten million.
Instead of throwing big dough at a title/author that is, by no means, a sure thing, why not spread that loot around a little? Rather than sign up five authors at a million plus each, why not give 100 writers a chance, paying them smaller upfront fees but rewarding them with a higher royalty rate. That payment regimen has worked with small and indie presses for years–and, believe me, you’ll be astonished at how little an author will accept in their desperation to get a book in print. It’s depressing, really. Pathetic.
Ah…sorry. Wandered off topic. Where was I?
Okay, now you’ve got 100 different authors with a hundred different books, 95 more opportunities to find the next Steve King than you had under your stupid corporate model. And you don’t give your 100 hopefuls ridiculous print runs, you start modestly. That way you won’t be stuck with massive returns, which then have to be remaindered, warehoused and pulped, more money down the drain.
You can print as few as 500 or 1,000 copies per author and then emulate what the movie companies do when they offer films as limited releases, to gauge audience reactions and get some idea as to a project’s potential appeal.
Thinking along the same lines, publishers could send out review copies to newspapers, magazines and bloggers and, simultaneously, “test market” books in selected stores (or by offering them as downloads through e-Readers like Kindle et all). Let the readers and the book-lovers determine which authors have wider appeal and then do another, larger printing to meet the demand (the author happily cashing in at the higher royalty rate).
Some might opine that under a royalty-based system the publisher would be tempted to cheat, since they’re the ones controlling the books. I would argue that Bookscan and related technologies, as well as computerized inventories and the publishers’ selfish desire for authors to score a hit and sell a gazillion books makes the possibility of fraud quite remote.
What I like about this system is that it allows a wider array of authors to develop a following, while not feeling the pressure of a big money contract hanging over them. The risks are shared between the writer and the publisher…and as far as I can tell the whole thing seems like a win-win scenario.
Corporate publishers have been slow out of the blocks when it comes to new technologies, especially POD. Instead of utilizing POD as I have suggested, some in the industry have chosen a more short-sighted and morally questionable approach. In my view, they’re misusing POD by going after relatively small peanuts, offering print-on-demand services to aspiring and amateur scribblers who have yet to make the grade, encouraging them to sign up and print their own books. Oh, and, let us not forget, that means said scribblers have to sell and distribute their own books. The big boys deigning to offer no other assistance, content to serve as a glorified copy shop for dingbats desperate for a for-real-and-true book to wave in front of their friends (“See? See? Told ya I was a writer!”).
But I have my doubts these tactics will work. Writers, as a rule, tend not be be made of money so you can only milk that teat so long. Besides, iUniverse and Lulu have been around a lot longer and have seized a sizable slice of the market share. But it’s an enticing proposition, turning the old regime on its ear: writers paying publishers, rather than vice versa. Zowie! And if there are enough stupid, starry-eyed authors out there, who knows? Those rotten bastards could stand to rake in a nice stipend.
But those same publishers could make a helluva lot more if they abandoned their home run/big book mentality and settled for hitting singles and doubles for awhile…especially in these precipitous economic times.
I’m not saying my business strategy is completely original or perfect and if you have any thoughts on its weaknesses, how it could be improved, drop a line or two in the “Comments” box below.
Let’s see if we can put our heads together as bibliophiles and devotees of the printed word and save publishing from the worst aspects of itself.
If it means a wider, more diverse cross-section of authors make it into print, having more books out there, more choices for readers, our efforts will be worth it.
Hey, you suits in New York and Toronto! Are you listening?
What do you say?