Feb 24, 2009, 10:14AM

When Will the Publishing Industry Get a Clue?

From the looks of it, the big houses are trying to outmode themselves as quickly as possible. Hopefully small presses will seize the opportunity.

The literary blogosphere has been alight with commentary on Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ recent Harper’s essay on the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s primarily an immersion-journalism piece, with doe-eyed Lewis-Kraus navigating the various parties and auctions of the publishing industry’s biggest week, but there are a few money lines, particularly an early description of the way this ridiculous world works:

Publishing used to be a business of leisured gentlemen happy to make a profit of 3 to 5 percent. They came from money and often didn’t need much more of it, especially the sort that might be gained through the sale of things. What they did instead was turn their parents’ financial capital into cultural capital. Then media consolidation arrived, and by the 1990s almost every big publisher was owned by a giant corporation. […]
These giant publicly traded companies were insulted by margins of 5 percent. CEOs pressured editors to buy big bestsellers, which developed into a form of mutual assured destruction that is the book auction, a sales device that leads to insupportable advances and thus to virtually inevitable disappointments, followed by even larger advances and larger disappointments. As publishers are squeezed from one direction by their corporate overseers, they are gouged from the other end by Barnes & Noble and Amazon, whose increasing domination, whose increasing domination of the retail market means they can demand ever deeper wholesale discounts[

Lewis-Kraus ends this introductory history lesson with an anecdote from The New York Times about Pulitzer-winning, bestselling novelist Richard Ford, who, by making only $3 million for a three-book deal, is somehow indicative of the industry’s woes. One last excellent word from Lewis-Kraus:

That is, contemporary late-corporate publishing is a fallen world in which Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada, gets really rich, while Richard Ford […] gets slightly less rich. None of the elegists say: What is coming to an end is the idea that Richard Ford is going to be richer than Lauren Weisberger. None of them say: What is coming to and end is the wishful insistence—for it is, ultimately, a wish, deeply felt, by a lot of people—that Richard Ford is going to be rich at all.

By framing his article with this idea, Kraus of course makes the $10 Rieslings and rumored bacchanalian sexual culture at Frankfurt seem like mere bourgeoisie obliviousness. But the greater message is that Frankfurt, where international publication deals are settled and marketing-department jabber mixes with heartfelt lit-snob talk, represents the apex of excess in an industry that perhaps doesn’t deserve to continue as currently run. As in, this culture of big advances and deep Amazon discounts is insupportable, particularly when the corporate overlords are looking to greenlight only projects with built-in commercial appeal.

Lewis-Kraus’ piece is great fun and well written, but not intended to necessarily weigh in on this industry sea change or offer potentially effective alternatives. Luckily, blogger Ed Champion recently did a run-down of a few surprising recession-era marketing successes: Comic Book Day; the board game industry’s appeal to families who can’t afford expensive travel vacations; Valve software’s half-price deal on a popular downloadable first-person shooter game; and Soft Skull Press’ use of blogs and other non-mainstream media to build a personal relationship with their readership. Like Ed says:

In each case, the individual’s daily realities were respected. There probably isn’t a lot of money to go around in the household, but there was just enough cash for a micropayment. The individual wasn’t asked to invest money she didn’t have in some fancy-schmancy technological doodad before purchasing an affordable form of entertainment. The individual received an affordable long-term option that would keep her entertained or occupied for many hours. The individual did not have to deal with invasive DRM that suggested she was a criminal. The individual was listened to and treated with respect by the retailer. And the retailer never assumed that it would make a sale. But the retailer likewise had opportunities to listen to what the audience wanted and to find out what it may be doing wrong.
So if there is a modicum of money to be made in a limping economy, why aren’t today’s publishers and book retailers accounting for these realities?

Indeed, what the major publishers miss when they embrace something like Amazon’s new Kindle 2 (over 240,000 titles available!) is the fact that many, many people who read in this country would never buy—more accurately, will never be able to buy—that machine. And surely a few thousand people who might even want to use it don’t have $359 to toss around right now. The same goes for $30 hardcovers and $16 paperbacks; at those prices, who but the most financially comfortable reader can afford a new book? Who wouldn’t go to Barnes & Noble or half.com and try to score a 60%-off deal, thus undercutting the staggering corporate advance given to a prestigious, Richard Ford-style author?

With any luck, and as the Soft Skull success story indicates, these could turn out to be relative boom times for independent presses. For one, they offer a smaller but typically more interesting selection of titles, including much more translated literature than your Penguins, Houghton Mifflins, and Simon & Schusters. For another, these presses aren’t afraid of the first edition paperback, which at least allows curious readers the option of picking up a new book for $15 or less in most cases. And additionally, these presses are more willing to try the business practices to which Soft Skull’s Richard Nash recently attributed the house’s successful 2008: "Knowing the audience, working really hard to connect to the audience as intimately and personally as possible […] Immensely hard work by the authors themselves […] Faith in great writing irrespective of previously sucky sales track."

The mainstream publishing houses’ business model simply will not work without, as Lewis-Kraus defines it, “a peculiarly luxuriant middlebrow culture,” i.e., the kinds of people who are well-enough-off to purchase a pricey boomer gadget like the Kindle. If in fact the widespread shuttering of imprints and freezing of manuscript acquisitions continues, the corporate publishing industry has only itself to blame; if it dies, then mainstream publishers will join similar failures like Sam Zell and the Big Three auto industry CEOs in the annals of Greedy Idiots Who Should Have Handled Their Businesses Better. But if smaller imprints, following the same basic guidelines outlined by Nash, are able to fill the vacuum, then that seems good for publishing and literary culture in general.

  • Your point about most people not being able to afford the Kindle 2 is well-taken. But e-book readers like the Kindle aren't merely playthings; they're the industry's attempt, in the face of declining book sales and overall readership, to compete in a very digital world. I don't see anything wrong with that.

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  • No, of course there's nothing wrong with the production of the Kindle (although its appeal escapes this book reader). Just like there's nothing wrong with the production of flat-screen tvs and fancy kitchen appliances. But John Lingan's point, as I see it, is that book publishers are a day late and a dollar short. Also, Lewis-Kraus must not get around much: Barnes & Noble is withering and might not last through the recession. However, my favorite part of this article was the idea of first-run paperbacks, a terrific way--not just for smaller publishers, but larger ones as well, if they're not hard-headed--to restore at least some business. I'd buy more books if I didn't have to pay the hardcover price.

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