Disintermediation will not make publishing as we know it go down the tubes [U]

In a recent interview with The Rumpus, Laura Miller of Salon (her work also appears in a lot of other places), was asked what she sees “as the major challenge facing book publishing today.” In response, she laid out a number of concerns and issues, all of which are worthy of more discussion (and it would be cool if she did an essay on this, because I’d love to see her expand her thoughts).

[It should also be said that she says a lot of other stuff that is worth reading—about personality and reviewing, and reading outside of her comfort zone—and totally worth reading, regardless of what you think of her reviewing habits. There being, as one old friend used to put it, no taste accountants. But I love this remark: “trust me, there is no joke so broad that there won’t be someone out there who’ll think you mean it seriously.” Happens every day.]

Each of the following “concerns” are direct quotes from her response in the interview. I’ve put what she likely just rattled off informally into a more formal structure, which means I could be seen as taking her out of context.  So be it.

Concern #1. The whole stratum of expertise embodied by agents and editors and booksellers might be lost in the disintermediation currently going on.

While this is a legitimate concern, to a certain extent, it’s a nonissue. I think Tim O’Reilly has it right when he said that “isn’t necessarily the old economic models that survive, but economies survive, and new players and models arise.” Read his post here.I don’t think that stream of expertise will generally make a mass exodus from publishing. There’s no question that the last several years have been—and perhaps the next several years will be—difficult ones for independent booksellers. In certain respects, however, I think that the disappearance of Borders will come to seem, in the distance of things, as a turning point for the bookselling industry, and not in the way that you might think. It seems to me that, for the reading public, there still exists a hunger for the kinds of things that only bookstores can offer. With a few exceptions, only the independent booksellers have really ever had a business model that was tailored to the localities in which they exist, and which allowed space for what might be called professional booksellers rather than simply clerks, people who are avid readers, passionate about books and ideas, and familiar with the tastes of their clientele. These are people who, historically, have been absolutely indispensable in the making of unlikely bestsellers, because they hand sold them to clients they knew. However, there’s no reason that the old model of hand selling can’t coexist with the developing new model of online hand selling, which Miller herself does.

As to agents and editors, it seems to me that there’s a whole lot of active adaptation going on at the moment, as agents in particular begin to understand the variety of ways in which they can help their clients take advantage of the model of direct publishing. It seems to me also that there are lots of ways that editors can and should adapt, but whether it’s possible, and to what extent, to do so within the structure and business model of a given publishing house remains to be seen.

Concern #2. I know a lot of people who have felt shut out by the publishing industry are spitefully glad about that, but I for one know that my work has been made a lot better by the first two groups and that many, many readers won’t discover books they might love in the absence of the third.

With regard to the second part of this concern, I imagine there is always a certain level of schadenfreude in any human undertaking, but in following the changes that have been taking place within the publishing industry, I haven’t gotten the sense of spite so much as a sense that some within the industry, especially within the Big Six, are not adapting to the current and unavoidable changes particularly well. Like Miller, my work has been made vastly better through the editorial dialogue. But how that has happened has changed dramatically from the old days when I wrote stories on my IBM Selectric three and submitted them, one at a time, by mail. No doubt, it will continue to change, and, no doubt, I will do my best to continue to adapt.

Concern #3. The editors and agents I know care passionately about books and have devoted their careers to finding and nurturing good authors and their work.

Sure, but so what? If it were the case that an editor at one of the Big Six houses could simply care passionately about a book, buy it and publish it, that’d be great. But for the most part, it ain’t the way it happens. I’ve had the experience of finding a very good, well-respected and well-known editor who absolutely wanted to publish a novel of mine, but he could not get the buy-in from his editorial board. Mind you, this is an editor whose taste is pretty amazing, and has had some monster successes. Still, he and most editors don’t have the leash to fall in love with a book and buy it. There are a few who do, but even so, the money they spend, however modest, doesn’t come from their own bank accounts. And I’d guess that there is probably a direct correlation between the size of a publisher and the size of the bureaucracy an editor must go through to publish a book. I’d say that the Sara Gruen model is more likely (except, necessarily, for the bestseller part). Go from house to increasingly smaller house with a minimal (i.e., midlist) sales record until finding the right editor. But then leaving that house and editor because no way can it afford to give her a multimillion dollar advance.

Agents may nurture authors, but the way that nurturing happened, say, with Madison Smartt Bell in his early years, just doesn’t happen that often any more. Some agents do do this, but that means that the part of the job (I’d argue that a whole heck of a lot of the job) of the editor has devolved to the agent. And if that’s the case, if the agent is editing a book before trying to sell it, and is passionate about it and the author’s work, why shouldn’t s/he just publish it? (Which is a whole ‘nother question.)

Concern #4. A really good editor (and that includes many agents these days) has skills that take years to hone, and that’s not going to happen if the book business can’t generate enough profit to support it.

This is absolutely true, but there are many ways for the book business to generate sufficient profit to support good editors sufficiently to make them really good editors. Creative people are coming up with new ways to do that (be profitable), such as contracts with minimal or no advances, but with a larger share of the backend, or significantly limiting the number of titles an imprint publishes. There are many others, but it seems to me that a publisher has to decide what business it’s in. Does it spend zillions of dollars to publish a few sure-thing blockbusters? Or does it spend modest money to develop and nurture authors whose backlist, when the third or fourth novel gets hit out of the park, will become a gold mine? I think that the Big Six have predominantly adopted the sure-thing blockbuster model, which is fine. The rest is spaghetti. Sometimes it sticks, but mostly it just slides down the wall, because all their resources go into ensuring the sure-things are sure-things.

Way back in the late 1980s, when I started working in publishing, a well-known editor I worked with (who’s now also an author) said to me something to the effect that trade publishing, such as the big house where we both worked (which is now part of an even bigger house), had abdicated its job of nurturing authors, and that indie publishers were happily filling that role. This is back in the late 1980s. That’s even more the case now, it seems to me, but also direct publishing has begun to take over there, as well. Authors nurture themselves because they have to, which is a good thing. But in my own case, I don’t know that that would have been possible without the kind and entirely uncompensated, for the most part, help of editors who liked my work, saw promise in me, and helped me even if they did not publish me.

Concern #5. It’s my experience that most of the people who grouse about how useless and out of touch the publishing industry is, how no one edits anymore, how all publishers care about are celebrity bios, and blah, blah, blah don’t in fact know very much about publishing or how it works and the particular challenges it faces.

Miller, here, is completely wrong. Or she’s right, but in a very limited way. Having published under my own name and as a ghostwriter somewhere in the neighborhood of six or seven books, and having worked on both the editorial and agency sides of publishing, and having followed publishing rather avidly since leaving publishing, I know a little bit about it, but perhaps not as much as she does. I’m not grousing. And I know that Miller was answering interview question and not going into great detail about her concerns. I would not say that the publishing industry is useless, but it is out of touch in the sense that because it’s a very big ship incapable of turning on a dime, it is getting its lunch eaten by much nimbler people and organizations—many of whom likely worked in publishing—who are creative as hell and equally as passionate about books and in some cases way more savvy.

Big Six publishing, or legacy publishing, as some have called it, regularly publishes wonderful books. I regularly buy them. But I have also read plenty of novels and nonfiction books that were woefully edited. That could be laid at the feet of the author, but more than once I’ve scratched my head and thought, didn’t anyone edit this?

I don’t see the Big Six going away, exactly, but I do see them becoming marginalized if they can’t do more than just adapt and react.


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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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