Monday, September 15, 2008

What a depressing day for publishing

Ugh, publishing is doomed, and apparently, it's no longer fun.

First up, we have the hella long article in New York Magazine, which asserts that, basically, we're all screwed. Some choice quotes:
Yet in recent years, more accurate internal sales numbers have confirmed what publishers long suspected: Traditional marketing is useless.

“Media doesn’t matter, reviews don’t matter, blurbs don’t matter,” says one powerful agent. Nobody knows where the readers are, or how to connect with them....

Marketing a book these days is like playing a slot machine;
hitting one 7 won’t get you a dime. “There has to be this constellation of events,” says Daniel Menaker, whose departure was tied in the press to the low sales of Benjamin Kunkel’s much-ballyhooed debut novel, Indecision. “Not only a Times Book Review front cover but Don Imus talking about it and Ellen Pompeo actually reading the book on-camera. And Barack Obama has just bought it.”
Augh, so true! In fact, I think I have mentioned these points before in some of my rants. Not to mention, the book has to be in stores. The book can be reviewed everywhere, but if it's not sitting on a table at B&N, it's probably not going to sell giant numbers. Which brings us to point #2...
This matters because the following response from Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio is only technically true: “We buy every title published—our business is a long-tail business—less than 5 percent is from bestsellers.”

Editors insist that plenty of books get skipped. Richard Nash, head of indie publisher Soft Skull Press, estimates that one in twenty are passed over, though ten to fifteen copies are shipped into their warehouses in case there’s a special order. Many more are getting smaller initial orders than ever. That’s a very long, very skinny tail.
I'm gonna agree with Nash here. Also, sometimes they might buy 500 of a book. But 500 copies for all of the stores? Not helpful. It means that book is either sitting in a carton in the warehouse somewhere, or shoved on a back shelf. Moving on...
It’ll be rough going in the meantime; some publishers will transform, some will muddle through, some will die. And there will, no doubt, be a lot of editors for whom even this diminished era will look like the last great golden age, when some writers were paid in the millions,some of their books produced in the millions, and more than half of those books actually sold. Book publishing is still a big-league business, and that’s a hard thing to let go of. “There’s something terrible,” says an editor at a prestigious imprint, “about admitting that you’re not a mass medium.”
Oh, god. This was the golden age? Not according to Al Silverman. His new book, The Time of Our Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors, defines the golden age as the period between 1946 and the early 1980s, the period "when 'books were most beloved by a reading public.' Soon afterward, the great 'bookmen' stepped aside and the bottom-liners of business took over."

(NY Mag also references the decline when publishing became about conglomerates rather than taste: "In its heyday, publishing was a vast array of mom-and-pop shops, in which the pops tended to be independently wealthy. Their competitive advantage was not efficiency or low costs but taste....By the nineties, five big conglomerates were divvying up the spoils and their lucrative backlists. Many of the smaller companies that had been struggling, like FSG, Ecco, and Crown, were flush with corporate resources. But in exchange, they gave up final say in how they’d publish their books—or even what books they’d publish. And suddenly an industry accustomed to 5 percent margins was being run by media moguls aiming for double digits.")

Crap. I guess I was about 20 years too late. I imagine the old days of publishing were a bit like an episode of Mad Men. As Gawker puts it, "It can be difficult to know you're in a golden age. You might be too busy working. You might be too caught up in the hum of everyday life. You might live in Omaha. But here's a hint: there are usually a lot of white guys in bow ties smoking indoors." Now, that would have been fun.


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