Wednesday, September 17, 2008

For whom the bell tolls....

So I have now had a chance to read Boris Kachka's much-discussed New York magazine article on "The End" of publishing as we know it. I want to say upfront that we should not forget the magazine in which this article appeared. Of course it includes a fair bit of gossip - including that disturbing image of Jane Friedman's retirement/not-so-fast party in which everyone wore masks of her face. It's the nature of this particular magazine, right? And because of it, I now know that Sarah Palin spent $2500 bones on a Valentino jacket (zut alors, hockey mom!). It's New York, not the New Yorker... which couches its gossip in more bourgeois stylings.

But I digress. So this publishing article is long and includes gossip and, as the folks at HarperStudio pointed out on their blog, it doesn't have much interesting new information. Anyone who has followed the discussions going on in modern publishing for the last 5 or 10 years will read a mere re-cap rather than a forward-thinking piece. In fact, the blog's conclusion in the above-linked post is a bit more valuable than any conclusion I found in the article. Says the folks at HarperStudio:
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “so it goes.” And goes, and goes, until the once-profitable middle is the worst possible place to be. And we’re left with an industry that can only do two things: gamble bigger and bigger on the next big thing and milk the backlist for all the new formats it might be worth. If this trend continues, we’ll all be the poorer for it, because the middle should be a place where we can take interesting chances without risking the farm, not a place we go to put our careers—and our corporate parents—on the line.

It sounds a bit like one of the presidential candidates crying out for the elusive middle class - which defines no one and everyone all at once - but in fact, these folks are making a good point.

It's useful also to counter the old celebration of publishing's heyday in mid-20th century America with wise(r) words from Soft Skull's Richard Nash. Says Kachka of the good ol' publishing boys:
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.

All well and good, and of course we can all pick out favorite books from this era, but as Nash says in reference to a review of the new books, The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors by Al Silverman,
I'm completely astonished that an era that consisted of white men publishing white men could possibly be described as golden. Frankly, we should be ashamed of ourselves to go along with this hypocritical drivel.


This article does have some useful information about how all these ol' boys formed houses that got gobbled up by bigger corporations, and a brief history of our bizarre advance and royalty system. (The latter is a structure that cannot hold our modern competitive and short-term thinking ways, hence the experiment that is HarperStudio.) It also shows the desperation of editors under the gun, told to hit targets by bosses culled from marketing departments rather than from editorial departments - or worse, not even from publishing houses! I also liked this point in the article:
This would mean far more than just the few book “trailers” you see online. “They’re all the rage right now,” says Bloomsbury’s Peter Miller, “but I would love to see an example of one video that really did generate a lot of sales. There’s a sense of desperation.”
Those trailers have long mystified me. Why would anyone watch them?

I was intrigued by this paragraph, but of course, I also feel used because Kachka is baiting me as the reader:
One indie publisher has been pitching an imprint around town that would go beyond what Miller’s doing—expanding into print-on-demand, online subscriptions, maybe even a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transitional period of print-on-demand, then an era in which most books will be produced electronically for next to nothing, while high-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.” “I think they know it’s right,” the publisher says of the executives he’s wooing, “but they don’t want to disrupt the internal equilibrium. I’m like the guy all the girls want to be friends with but won’t hop into bed with.”

Any hints on who this publisher is? Someone with a pretty serious ego, the way Kachka paints him, but also with some potentially crucial ideas. I thought of McSweenys, given my subscription there to the Book Release Club, only to see it mentioned in the next paragraph. (I better be getting that Out of Exile book with narratives from Sudanese people displaced, to make up for that hideous heavy metal book!)

We do need to think through how to get targeted lists to interested readers in a way that creates profit, at least enough profit to keep publishing. Bob Miller has a plan that makes sense but might, perhaps, as Kachka suggests, require too much sacrifice for a writer who needs money upfront to write a book. Too many publishers are trying hard to find writers who don't need the money, which will result in a big void of voices. But where will the money come from, if not very commercial blockbuster books? Foundations perhaps? I'd like to see that, but how does one navigate that world without having the author's/editorial vision being too beholden to the sources of money?

Lastly, though, let me say what I found truly distasteful in this article: the final section about books that have not earned out massive advances, which includes future books to watch to see if they flop. Seriously lame. To me, publishers who spend money badly are fair game, but authors trying to get by should not be targeted in this adolescent, bullying way. Maybe I'm being delicate here, and I'm not looking to run out and buy a book about "a small-town library cat" admittedly, but I still would recommend backing off, especially with a novelist. That's blood, sweat and tears in there.

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