Monday, September 22, 2008
More Publishing and Perishing
There’s a fascinating article in New York Magazine about the publishing crisis (not in academia this time - just the plain old commercial publishing crisis). It’s fascinating in part because it sounds so awful that I can’t imagine how the whole industry stays on its feet a whole week. (So obviously I’m not quite getting it.) But here’s the thing. Amazon is eating everyone’s lunch and people are really worried about that, and I personally sympathize with nearly everyone who gets quoted in the piece. There’s this theme of braying Jeff Bezos and his Kindle and his suborbital space vehicle (?) driving nails into the coffin of a glorious thing that was:
In its heyday, publishing was a vast array of mom-and-pop shops, in which the pops tended to be independently wealthy. Their competitive advantage was not efficiency or low costs but taste. Maxwell Perkins at Scribner; Bennett Cerf at Random House; Roger Straus and Robert Giroux at Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Barney Rosset at Grove; and Alfred A. Knopf epitomized the gentleman editor as gallerist, snatching up unknown geniuses. One British publisher advised an American at the time: “Take lots and lots of gambles, but small ones.” So they did. They took poor writers drinking, put them up in their homes, and defended them in court. They made handshake deals, spent their personal wealth in lean years, and built backlists out of modernist classics. Discovering Faulkner was like buying Picassos in 1910.
In the early sixties, Knopf sold out to Cerf, who sold Random House to RCA, and the era of consolidation began. Formerly independent publishers shriveled into mere imprints of massive corporations. Knopf became part of Random House; so did Doubleday and Bantam and Ballantine and dozens of still smaller shops now distinguished mostly by their names, like corporatized Broadway theaters bearing the monikers of long-gone cigar-chomping producers.
And now all the corporatized Broadway theaters are all folding. And it’s sad to see this last vestige of those early days disappearing.
Again, I’m sympathetic. But there aren’t any examples in the article of a contemporary publisher (big or little) doing something artistically noble, like ... discovering Faulkner, promoting some talent that would have been neglected without a sheltering agent/editor’s wing. Something that Amazon can’t do, by implication. The article is all about the fantastic incapacity of traditional publishers to provide value at any stage of the process. They can’t discern, they can’t predict, they haven’t a clue how to market, they can barely sell. I guess they can still edit. Obviously they can distribute, but the point of the Amazon thing is that this is getting perilously easy all over, so that can’t be traditional publishing point of distinction. They do stuff in the craziest ways.
I don’t really have any strong opinion about this myself. I just thought it was sort of interesting that the article didn’t even try to argue any claim of the following form: ‘and with the passing of all these New York commercial publishing houses, the following important critical/mediating/distribution function will tragically cease to be performed.’ There’s just no sense of that. The only half-point that is made in that regard is a ‘think small’ wisdom. Publish fewer books. Smaller advances. Less of this collectively suicidal chasing of the big blockbuster - a game that a few can win big in the short run but everyone loses in the long-run (apparently). But if ‘think small’ is the wisdom in publishing, and ‘distribute enormous’ is the wisdom in distribution and selling, then why kick against the pricks?
“Book publishing is still a big-league business, and that’s a hard thing to let go of. “There’s something terrible,” says an editor at a prestigious imprint, “about admitting that you’re not a mass medium.” Is that really so terrible?
UPDATE: Just to be clear. I’m not personally arguing that publishers don’t do anything useful anymore. I’m just noting that the article doesn’t even really attempt to argue that they do.
... and Amazon’s awfully convenient!
Dismissive post from Making Light incoming in 3, 2, 1…
What do publishers do well? I have no real idea, not being in the industry. If I had to guess, it’d be something to do with maintaining a midlist. It may be hard to predict what is going to be a best seller ahead of time, but any process will eventually find books that have the potential to be hugely popular. Publishers seem to keep a steady flow of books that are just on the edge of profitable coming, and therefore help to maintain genre categories that might die out otherwise. They don’t discover Faulkner, but they do assure a steady supply of 6-volume fantasy series.
I suppose I could have been clearer in the post. It’s not that I’m sure that publishers don’t do anything. (What do I know, really?) It’s that the article bemoans their looming demise without making the case that they do anything much that one would be sorry to see left undone. Except maybe get a bit smaller. But that’s not exactly a proper function.
” ...the article didn’t even try to argue any claim of the following form: ‘and with the passing of all these New York commercial publishing houses, the following important critical/mediating/distribution function will tragically cease to be performed.’ “
It’s vaguely implied/assumed, is it not?
The article’s stance is a loose report on the plight of the “traditional” presses, which is deemed newsworthy enough, quality arguments aside. Then there’s also an underlying sense, an assumption, in the article that these longstanding presses naturally perform a vital “critical/mediating” if not distribution function. The article, in a bit of a throwback, calls this normative, intellectual function, “taste.”
But the basic critical, mediating problem goes much deeper and has long since arrived.
I’ve noted, in part, here or elsewhere that until university presses start to publish a substantial number of new books of fiction, the burgeoning MFA programs are going to be forced to hire professors who publish a lot of fluff and worse — as demanded by the commercial publishing industry — or work that directly avoids many of the most vital stories of our time; and the fate, impact, power and overall quality of fiction — and the seriousness with which the wider culture regards it — is going to continue to plateau or decline.
Other hires are made based on winning contests - novels and story collections that too often resemble the literary journals, which publish material within a relatively narrow range. Few of these journals have specific missions. One can’t tell where to turn to send or read what type of fiction. They are virtually all farcically, unhelpfully fixated on soliciting the mythical “best” work. It renders almost the entire scene vanilla and redundant, which even the prize winners rarely rise above. “Themed” issues are of virtually no help either, as even the editors are sometimes not announced and the journals typically have established no track record, no credibility or developed no expertise for any given announced theme or special issue.
Besides, trying to publish the best generic literary fiction can be done on the side, and in any case will happen incidentally to any given focus and development of specific expertise and depth. I would even go so far as to offer as example what we are doing at Liberation Lit, where readers will find a rather tangible, particular sense of what we mean by liberatory lit - and what we do not - (say, the stories by Vltchek, Emersberger, and Abiola) and yet also find stories that while we view them as liberatory, many others will simply see as very fine examples of literary fiction generally (say, the stories by Veramu, Rahman, and Nadiya). http://liblit.wordpress.com/all-art/
For those who think it is difficult to publish serious works of nonfiction — and of course it’s quite competitive — consider how difficult it would be if nearly all university press and most independent press options were taken away and such publication only continued via the commercial market, where in fact a lot of serious nonfiction books are published. Consider what effect that radical change would have on scholarship, on creativity, on vital work. The effect would be devastating. This is the situation faced by the serious novelist today, by serious fiction. The largely generic redundant character of short fiction university publishing is equally inhibiting and devastating.
Sure some good work continues to be done but compared to what might well be achieved otherwise, conditions are badly impoverished. Are universities serious about fiction or not? They crank out MFA grad after MFA grad but then do not provide the field much by way of book publishing opportunity, let alone distribution. And most of the short fiction is horribly forcibly monocropped, in a wide variety of ways.
Until very many — and why not all? — university presses take fiction seriously by publishing numerous new works and series - imprints or “charges” - of original imaginative writing the universities will be shirking a great responsibility. “It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do...” (Chomsky). Such work is too important to leave to institutions driven by a profit motive, or to presses essentially unguided or unmoored by their virtually meaningless generic missions, but such is the abdication of the universities today in the realm of imaginative literature. Few universities publish much or any new book-length fiction at all. The abdication of producing serious imaginative literature is not total. If one can afford it, one can pay to enter contests to have a book considered for publication, and many colleges and universities have a journal that publishes at least some short pieces of imaginative work.
Societies that subsidize things like missile research and not much novel publishing are headed off the deep end. Universities and the public have a duty to encourage, solicit, and produce culturally critical novels and other types of work on matters of war and other sociopolitical issues of gravest concern, not least, as well as on private concerns. One cannot remotely speak of “the full human person” without taking into account the strong public elements with the strong private elements that make up the personal. Fiction presses known by matters of taste may be somewhat archaic, but fiction presses known by topical areas of interest both public and private should be front and center in consciousness for new fiction produced at public expense for public well-being. And they’re not. They should be. The New York Magazine article doesn’t remotely get to this, maybe hints distantly at it, but it all seems to me a vital underlying concern.
"It’s vaguely implied/assumed, is it not?”
Well, yes. But curiously unstated, let alone argued.
I think it comes from a mindset that takes it for granted. The most at risk people in the article I assume take it for granted, so then the reporter does, or already did before researching the piece. At least that was my impression, my sense of the mindset behind the piece. I think it’s a strongly held belief. So why mention it? You sort of emphasize it more by not mentioning it at all. It’s supposed to be too obvious to mention. ...or maybe the journalist just was given the topical assignment about well-connected literary people to complete by deadline.
Mainstream massmarket and its attendant starsystem isn’t the only game in town, nor unipresses the only alternative. On who’s filling the gap, see for example an ongoing listing of litpubbers (focus on translation). The narrowing distribution channels are of more concern.
(Gee, where else have I heard recently about a NYC business model not working anymore?)
To follow on nnyhav’s point, I trust the fine people at Small Beer Press more than Bennett Cerf, even.
Tony, I agree it is probably assumed. But it is so central to the question of the article: the question of how publishers can survive is so obviously connected to the fact that it’s not clear what service they can provide in this day and age, what value they can add. By contrast, it’s made quite clear what Amazon can do well, and why it might be valuable.
As to nnhav’s concern about narrowing distribution: I do know about Amazon being merciless in demanding painful discounts from small publishers, so it’s hard for them to make any money on Amazon sales. That’s a reason for small publishers not to love Amazon. They are ruthless and cut-throat. But surely Amazon won’t be cut-its-own-throat ruthless. (Or at least give-itself-a-paper-cut ruthless.) That is, Amazon has no interest in replacing all the little boutique lit publishers, so it can’t be interested in squeezing them all to death and thereby only depriving itself of an admittedly miniscule revenue trickle. That’s not part of Bezos’ bold vertical model. Amazon has to be happy, at the end of the day, with all the little litpubbers pottering around for the love of it in their little shops. And that means basically letting them make enough profit to live, right? So if all the big publishers died, there would still be little publishers, and Amazon will eventually have to settle on arrangements that let them live, right? Admittedly, no one but Jeff Bezos will be getting rich. But there will still be good books.
I think that your analysis of Amazon isn’t very convincing, John. They have to compete on price more and more. I, for one, hardly ever buy from Amazon—I stopped years ago, when they decided that customer data was their asset and refused my request that they delete mine—instead finding my books using a central book-searching site that searches all the other book sites (bookfinder.com). Used books are almost always cheaper than Amazon’s, even Amazon’s used books. New books are often cheaper than Amazon’s. I don’t see why people still use them.
Amazon is more useful for me, personally, Rich, because of my geographical location. Buying single used books is fine, but I’ve also got to pay for shipping. Amazon has extremely reasonable international shipping rates, so I buy a big pile all at once and get them shipped together. But I also buy a lot of used books piecemeal as well.
I could be wrong about this, but I think that bookfinder is owned by abebooks, and that Amazon is buying abebooks.
Personally, I find Amazon incredibly useful and competitive and have Amazon Prime so that one day shipping is free after a one off annual payment. I don’t have time to browse bookstores (much as I’d like to) or even comparison shop on the web and I regularly buy books from small bookshops via Amazon for as little as 1p. Also, being a wheelchair user, I enjoy the experience of being able to enter a large bookstore with worrying about access - often difficult in the small stores.
I don’t think that Amazon will ever wipe out the small sellers any more than the giant supermarkets will wipe out the little stores; each has its own niche. We should also consider the fact that Amazon gives more readers access to more books and that’s got to be a good thing. (No, I do not work for Amazon!)
Oh, great. Now I just have to wait for them to buy the LibraryThing guy’s majority stake in that, and their hellish dominion will be complete
John, I can see that being in Singapore would involve special inducements, but for the majority of people, I think that Amazon is surviving on inertia. They have to compete with the publishers directly shipping books to people, more or less, and with oither sites that do the same thing but with less overhead. I think there’s a good chance this will drive them to demand such steep discounts that the tiny publishers won’t be able to go through them.
’... for the majority of people, I think that Amazon is surviving on inertia’
Please don’t make that assumption, Rich, many of us (how do we define ‘majority?’) have to rely on places like Amazon for reasons other than ‘inertia’, I assure you.