Monday, February 8, 2010


The Recalcitrant Scrivener was always planned as a closed-end blog. Which is to say, it isn’t so much a blog as a series of short essays. To all its readers, I would like to thank you for your willingness to investigate the entries. To anyone who is new to the site, I would recommend scrolling down to the initial entry of November 10 and reading forward by date. Otherwise, one should read as one wishes.

The entry of February 2 contains a very brief history of book publishing, with a view to the future. It is my belief that the physical book will continue to exist for a long time, but that electronic books, articles, and pieces of all sort will became the norm, sooner rather than later. Small independent presses will play a central role in keeping the physical book alive as a primary aesthetic object.

My main complaint about traditional corporate publishing is neither the retail price nor the low royalty rates that authors receive, though both are vital issues. Publishers on the whole are afflicted by an endemic philistinism, a deformation professional so intense that their idea of the value of a novel is entirely related to the number of copies it sells. This is to condemn any work of even moderate complexity to the remainder bin or the rejection pile.

There are roughly six major New York book publishing conglomerates, with more consolidation on the way. If they all think more or less along the same lines, that I believe would fit the definition of herd-like behavior. It is a prescription for disaster. Comparisons with the banking industry and Detroit carmakers come readily to mind.

My contention is that the publishing industry exerts a tyranny over the written word in general and over literary fiction in particular that should no longer be allowed to exist. That tyranny will come to an end when it no longer has an economic rationale. It has never had an aesthetic or moral rationale.

Now things will get interesting…

Postscript - February 15
Actually, things have already "gotten interesting." In an article that appeared February 11 in The New York Times, one of the writers interviewed expressed something like amazement that many of his readers were complaining on the Amazon site and sending him e-mail about “greedy authors” who had raised the price of their books on Kindle. Now, it’s very easy to dismiss readers who don’t understand that authors have absolutely no say in how their books are priced. The general public doesn’t realize the extent to which the writer is indeed at the bottom of the food chain in book publishing.

I would suggest to this author that these are in fact his readers.
If you write for the less informed, less sophisticated end of the reading public, maybe you get what you deserve. Nevertheless, these consumers are comparing the price of an e-book with the price of a mass market paperback. They really aren’t going to pay $26 for a hardcover or $14.99 for an e-book. They evidently have better things to do with their money—like pay their electric bills.

Maybe the economics really have turned against conglomerate publishing. We shall see…

1 comment:

  1. Bravo Scrivener. Yes, it really is time for a new model of publishing. Tim O'Reilly is one of the few thinking it through - he talks of the publisher as curators of books (whatever they may be in the future) rather than as gatekeepers. Your historical reflection helps us to keep in mind that the publisher's role has constantly changed.

    As a writer, it's helped me to realize that my primary objective is to engage readers and to make a living from my work. Working backwards from there, I'm not sure that today's agents and publishers can be part of my plan.