Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is Book Publishing Dead Yet?

People in publishing are running scared. Many have lost their jobs, and those who haven’t are afraid they will, or that their imprints will close down entirely. This despite the worldwide success of Dan Brown’s books, of J.K. Rowling, and of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Such fear does not bode well for an unknown writer with a fiction manuscript, or for anyone else. The higher up one inquires in the corporate structure, the more pronounced the fear.

Publishers and editors know they work in a dying industry. They are fearful of and obsessed with Amazon’s Kindle. Their main complaint is that Amazon is selling electronic copies of titles at a loss, thus insidiously inducing millions (well, okay, thousands) of unsuspecting consumers to lay out several hundred dollars each for an electronic reader. The power of the technology is disconcerting, and the sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos is far more astute than anyone in New York and has a better business plan is a bitter thought indeed.

They are all missing the point. Book publishing is dying because it does not adequately serve the needs and desires of either readers or writers. It is a sclerotic industry that stifles innovation and is collapsing under the weight of its own pompous self-regard. For public purposes, book publishers speak as if ideas mattered to them, when in fact they nearly all privately admit that they exist solely to publish crap. A publisher would reply that he is merely giving readers what they want. This is similar to replying that only fast food should be available in restaurants, since it is what the vast majority of people prefer to eat.

There is a further problem. Publishers are addicted to chasing cultural trends, specifically, pop cultural trends. Never—absolutely never—do they set trends. Although this is more a problem for nonfiction titles than for fiction, it is a pattern of behavior that is endemic to the industry as a whole. Chasing trends can be extremely profitable. More often, it leads to being stuck with a warehouse full of leisure suits the day everyone decides to dress punk.

Then there is the environment. How many trees are slaughtered to publish the Sunday New York Times? Is this more or less than the number of trees required to manufacture the hardcover edition of the latest Dan Brown novel? I don’t think we will see these figures anytime soon in Publishers Weekly or The New York Times, but they should give one pause. Is the printed book, whether hardcover or paperback, an economically viable entity when it has to be manufactured from wood pulp, printed, and then transported to stores?

Which is more important then, the physical object or the text? Who is more essential to the creation of a work of literature, the publisher or the writer?

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