Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Publishing Industry Still Mostly Going to Hell

I've mostly been prepping courses over the last few weeks, although I wouldn't say that that was always where my mind was. But I don't think anyone really wants to hear more about course prep right now. (I'm not wrong about that, am I?) So instead I'd like to post portions of an interesting blog post on the publishing industry, which may not surprise or shock some of the writers of my acquaintance, but might disturb the rest of you.
Martin Shepard of Permanent Press, who blogs about books and publishing at The Cockeyed Pessimist, opens with some background from AndrĂ© Schiffrin’s The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, which was published in 2000--ten years ago, which is to say that the events and trends Schiffrin described ought to be old news but unfortunately are not. As Shepard summarizes,
publishing changed, from the mid fifties when a plethora of small but prestigious houses that valued ideas and content as much as profit were transformed into five behemoths that by 2000 wound up sharing 80% of the market. The early acquisitions started innocently enough when the founders aged, fell ill, or died, as when Bennett Cerf at Random House acquired Alfred A. Knopf in 1960 because of Knopf’s deteriorating health. With that merger, Random House did not even control 1% of the market. Nor was it very different when, a year later, Cerf acquired Pantheon, after Andre’s father—a co-founder of Pantheon—passed away and the other partners fell into disagreements. By then AndrĂ© was asked to join this growing conglomerate and, for the next 30 years, as a corporate insider, witnessed the changes.

In other words, the publishing world that people my age and older grew up with began to change in the 1960s, but few observers would have noticed that this was a trend until the 1970s or even the early 1980s.
More amalgamations followed which were then swallowed by even larger media corporations. Random House, taken over by RCA in 1965, was later sold to Si Newhouse, who demanded an increase in sales and circulation by appealing to a wider, more common audience. Newhouse arranged for Random House to pay Nancy Reagan a three million dollar advance for her memoir.

Why anyone in their right mind would want to read a ghost-written memoir by Nancy Reagan is beyond me, but this sort of celebrity book became more and more common, losing publishers millions of dollars since many of these books never earned enough to pay for their huge advances. Many authors, meanwhile, were getting advances in the low thousands (not millions) if they got advances at all. But people like Newhouse figured that the answer was to get even more celebrity titles, while (contradictorily) insisting that every book published should earn back its advance. (Here I could discourse on some of the ways bookstore chains and the Thor Power Tools court decision about warehousing inventory ensured that books would have trouble earning back advances, but that's another, though related, story.)
Random House was not, of course, the only house in pursuit of celebrities.

By 2000 Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation, having purchased HarperCollins in 1987, went the same route. Commercial books were linked to Murdoch’s entertainment holdings and his conservative political beliefs. Harpers changed when the new non fiction lists, written by the likes of Oliver North, Newt Gingrich, and other figures who shared Murdoch’s conservative political beliefs, made their appearance.

Simon & Schuster, meanwhile, grew increasingly entertainment-industry driven when it was acquired by Viacom, owned by Paramount pictures. As Shepard observes,
By then the publishing world had largely rid itself of literary people from its golden age and replaced them with business men. Mass culture replaced literature and profit was paramount. Now every title was expected to make a significant contribution to both corporate overhead, profit, and growth leading everyone to seek the same “successful titles.”

Schiffrin said that by 2000, these corporate publishers had pretty much decided that if they couldn’t see themselves selling a base of 20,000 copies, it did not pay for them to take on a book. As he pointed out, when Pantheon introduced Franz Kafka to American audiences, it had a first printing of only 800 copies. As for Bertolt Brecht’s first work, only 600 copies were sold. In today’s market place, neither of these renowned writers would ever have seen the light of day in America.

Let's keep in mind that last time I was keeping close track of the industry, which was some years ago, first print runs for many books were in the 2000-5000 copy range. 600-800 was not usually regarded as cost-effective; 20,000 was pretty close to best-seller status.
Shepard notes that by 2009, publishers were not just acquiring celebrity books but had begun to devote entire imprints to popular culture, and quotes a HarperCollins press release:
HarperCollinsPublishers, one of the largest English-language publishers in the world, today announced the launch of It Books, a new popular culture imprint dedicated to entertainment, music, fashion, design, and sports. [...] "It Books will be a new way for us to reach readers like us--people with an endless appetite for pop culture, who live for music and film and art and fashion and the Internet," said Carrie Kania. "An It book should be fun. It should be interesting. It should be cool. It should look great."

Now, I'm not personally opposed to coverage of popular culture. I think it has its place, and moreover that interesting and intelligent things can be said about it. But I don't think it ought to take over the publishing world. Furthermore, I find the title of the HarperCollins imprint pretty funny. "So-and-So is an It," we used to say scathingly when I was in sixth grade. This was not so much intended as a gender comment as a suggestion that the person wasn't even animate. It's true that back in the 1920s, "It" referred to sex appeal, and Clara Bow was the "It" Girl, but I doubt many people will make that connection.
Well, Janet Maslin's first review of an It Book has prompted Martin Shepard to create The Donkey Awards, to be given critics for the “Best Abuse of Space for the Least Deserving Book,” and the call is out for nominations (Maslin's review is the first nominee).
Novels of any sort are reviewed less and less often (we knew that, didn't we?), and especially literary novels, and most especially those from small presses that don't have the money to advertise in The New York Times. Shepard points out that you can spend $45,000 for a full-page color ad there--assuming, of course, that you have that kind of money to throw around, which most publishers focusing on literature (rather than pop culture and journalistic nonfiction) don't.
I like Shepard's comparison of the book reviews in The New York Times with the same paper's restaurant reviews. He says that while Culture Desk editor Jon Landman asserts they seek a balance between "popular" and more serious books,
so far this has not been in evidence. In their restaurant reviews, the Times covers the good ones—large as well as small. When it comes to cooking as an art form, their reviewers appreciate good taste. If they decided it was more important to cover the most popular eateries in this country, good taste would go out the window and they would be writing about Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Jack in the Box and IHOP.

You can read Shepard's full post at The Donkey Awards.


  1. This is a post I agree with. I can't believe the mediocre books being published because the author has a "platform."

    In the last five years I have read several wonderful first novels that appear in paperback and then regrettably seem to disappear. I have written two prose novels that I am told are "too poetic" and not mainstream enough. It seems as though the odds of someone writing an academic or literary sort of book and getting it published is very slim. However, we must not give up hope altogether...

    I like this incarnation of your blog.

    Take care,

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Princess Haiku... it's about time I stopped by your place as well!

    Funny how all of a sudden every writer has to have a "platform." Now that I'm returning my gaze to the literary/publishing world, that's the term that keeps popping up. I suppose every decade has its ridiculous publishing fad, but... faugh.

    More and more authors are exploring alternative means of publishing, whether that means self-publishing in print format or doing online publishing in PDF (for example at or in audio books (as at These alternatives won't work for everyone, but at least they work for some authors (perhaps yourself?).