Book Editor David L. Ulin of the L.A. Times has a good article on his reaction to reading yet another article on "the crisis in book publishing." Ulin makes the point that many are making about the economy in general: the coming (or current) recession will be/is painful, but maybe it will have some good effects in slowing things down, curbing over-consumption and getting people to live within their means. Rather than just rolling over and dropping dead, maybe, Ulin says, something else in publishing will occur:
What's more likely, I think, is that publishers will scale back some of their higher-end advances, especially in regard to certain risky properties: books blown out of magazine stories, over-hyped first novels, multi-platform "synergies." At least, I hope that's what happens, because one of the worst trends in publishing -- in culture in general -- over the last decade or so has been its air of desperate frenzy, which far more than falling numbers tells you that an industry is in decline.Here's hoping, Ulin!
It's true that this "publishing is DYING!" call has gone out numerous times before. Everyone who works in publishing is told they missed the really *good* times. It's an industry surviving on an end-is-near mentality, where a success is greeted as a delay of the inevitable. And so everyone is out chasing the next big thing, thinking that's all they can count on to make it through another day.
Ulin talks about the problem facing a new novelist, say, who has her first book published to low sales numbers. Then what happens? "According to one agent I know, you almost have to hide your numbers, moving from publishing house to publishing house to stay ahead of the curve." That's partially true, but now with Bookscan so widely available, those numbers are nearly impossible to hide, so the next publishing house, despite agent attempts to maintain the illusion, knows the score.
But Ulin holds out hope:
This, of course, may be the silver lining to our current economic contraction: No more will publishers or writers have time or money for ephemera. During the Great Depression, even popular literature got serious: The 1930s saw the birth of noir. As the money dries up, so too, one hopes, does the gadabout nature of literary culture, the breathless gossip, all the endless hue and cry.Can we keep some of the "breathless gossip" please?
Actually, I'll back this, and I see modest independent houses leading the way - heads up, Soft Skull! You in, Chelsea Green? These are the places that hopefully have not overextended themselves, that have built strong lists with readers who know them and their authors, and these are the folks that can maintain a steady hand and keep publishing quality material that folks who need a break from the bad news around them may turn to.
Keep up the optimism, Ulin. As you know, in publishing, it's in short supply.