Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The State of Publishing (just north of Pennsylvania)

This reply to the question of how publishing works, written by my good friend and former agent Jess Taylor, provides a fine overview for those of you just entering the publishing world on what your expectations might (should?) be. He addresses a number of harsh realities. Published writers, obviously, have a wide range of experiences at the houses, some better than others (at numerous places in my reading, I stopped to be grateful for William Morrow).

Jess is an editorial expert of sorts, though it’s difficult to categorize the unique set of skills that constitute what he does. To hear more from him, check out his website at


As the book agents got fond of saying at the end of the 80s--when the
brand-new, corporate-takeover boom was already showing signs of
weakening, though it had barely begun: editors don't edit and
publishers don't publish.

I thought for a long time (my first several years at Curtis Brown,
Ltd.'s New York office/HQ) that this was a catchy all-purpose kvetch.
But the more experienced I got, the more I realized its literal truth.
Editors are producers responsible for orchestrating the launch of a
production, which is a shame, since the publishers they work for
believe "publish" means "to print and bind" not "to bring before the public.”

40 years ago, when people like GP Putnam, Alfred Knopf, and all the
letters in F, S & G were still alive and running publishing houses, or at least remembered, publishers acquired books and published them not to make money (they had money--that was how they'd been able to go into something as leisurely as book publishing in the first place), but for the satisfaction and prestige this brought them.

They paid out modest advances and got even more modest returns.

20 years ago, when publishing was gobbled up by the entertainment
business, the entertainment conglomerates' blockbuster mentality began
to take over.

It has now done so pretty completely.

The "midlist" is gone. The midlist was the writers who were the
mainstay of a house. Between the 5 or 8 headliners, who got big
prizes, got mentioned for the Nobel and the Pulitzer, and the pikers
who wrote "category" books, often under an assumed name or someone
else's (series Western, or Romance, or Gothic Thriller), the
midlist people put out a book every 12 to 18 months, earned out their
advances, and went on to the next book and next contract. They did not become household names. Their books sold in the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands.
They got invited to speak at the Rotary Club lunch in Kansas City, and

Once Hollywood-centered and international newspaper/magazine/electronic-media empires took over, there was no use for such writers. 100,000 copies?
That's nothing. Nothing to people who were accustomed to knowing
that 30 million viewers tuned in for some movie-of-the-week, or the
gross for a feature topped 100 million, at least when foreign and video were
added to the domestic.

The idea became, as it was pithily put by some higher-up addressing a
group that included a friend of mine at Random House ten years ago:
Either a bestseller or a contender for the National Book Award. If
it's not one or the other, and it's fiction, don't bring it to the meeting.

That is the mentality that prevails today, though of course there are
exceptions: houses, editors, days of the year. Some books still do get published the old-fashioned way, some editors do edit what they acquire, and some houses are able to bring these values consistently to bear.
Be that as it may, the bottom line is indeed the bottom line: your book enhances the prestige of the house (and its titular owner) by getting shortlisted for the Booker, or it tops the charts. If they can't realistically bet on it for one or the other, it's a very hard sell at that Monday-morning editorial meeting. An even harder sell at Sales Conference, because the sales force are the ones who have to go stump B&N and Borders.

So, that's the shift: since WWII, there has been a gradual, and then
precipitate disappearance of the gentlemen-publishers who were in it
for the fun, and the industry has been taken over by a bunch of
essentially misguided media/entertainment conglomerates that think
publishing should be a high-risk, high-return business like movies.
Unfortunately, authors and their agents have been all too happy to collude
with this--one of the reasons I left agenting was the realization that
authors by and large think they should be treated like artists, but
remunerated like Bill Gates. They also fail to realize that the
blockbuster authors generally make the big money BECAUSE they put out formula stuff--but formulaic in a way that the publishers can generate a demand for. And then control the supply. They can’t control the supply altogether, but then neither does OPEC or the MedellĂ­n Cartel.

In a better world, perhaps, authors would all be rich like doctors and New York City decorators; in this world, we have to set our sights elsewhere.

Ultimately, very few books--fiction or non--sell enough copies in hardcover and paper to pay back even a $75,000 advance. (Which, for the record, may be fine—the mere fact that the advance does not earn out does not mean the book lost money for the publisher.)

So, combining the corporatization of publishing and the me-too
attitude of the authors you get this:

Any given house's list has a truncated handful of authors who make
$1M+ per year, and another 25 or 30 who make a) next to nothing or b) literally nothing and have to cobble together a living as adjunct faculty, lecturers on cruise ships (you see them leaving Port Everglades daily). When the million-plus
guy doesn't sell enough to justify that, he gets cut way back, and his
agent scrambles to move him to another house that will, at least for a
book or two, humor the idea that it was the publishing, not the
poorly-executed books.

Naturally, this adds up to a mess. And forces the spiral ever-downward.
And in that mess, editors indeed are hardpressed to edit and publishers have better things to do than publish.

Editors acquire and launch; publishers shove a HUGE publicity effort
behind 5-10% of the output, and just print the rest and stuff it into the
warehouse. This is supported by a group of sales people who would,
were they highly talented in sales, most likely be selling something that would
make them real money, but having some kind of attachment to books sell those. The publicists are similarly hardworking, and similarly motivated more by an affinity for literature than by aptitude.

All this is not really such terrible news.

It just means that when you launch yourself as a writer, you have a
brief period--a few years--in which to become a headliner or get
relegated to the never-rans. That midlist position that near-supported a
lot of writers until the 80s is over.

It also means that your editor will almost surely have too little time, if he or she has the ability, to edit your book, so you and your agent must deliver, by which I mean submit at the outset, camera-ready art. Ready to format and put between covers. [This is good news for me; otherwise no one would need my services.]

It further means that you have to watchdog the whole process to be
sure they get the book out there properly. They will still flub it, but you will have the satisfaction when the bank forecloses and your kids return to public school of knowing you did what you could.

One thing is still the same: the great myth in publishing is the same
as the great myth in Hollywood--that there's just all this fabulous
undiscovered, neglected material out there. Go to the bookstore--if
the market were full of terrific stuff that does not get seen, would
they put so much effort into publishing that much garbage around the few titles they really love and believe in?

Every agent tells every client "publishing is in the worst shape it's
ever been in." One of my smartest clients recently told his agent,
Don't tell me that anymore. Publishing has been in the worst shape
it's ever been in since I got involved 10 years ago, so it's not news.
And of course, publishing was in really rotten shape in 1630 and in 56
BC. The whole idea of "author" or "editor" as a job for an adult is a
modern contrivance. [My own job more a contrivance still.]
Moreover, the public is still buying books in record numbers—especially in foreign territories, where the public is still learning to read.
They're just not buying the kinds of books we ourselves like: fiction and interesting, intelligent non-fiction. Not one of the 5 nominees
for the 2004 National Book Award had, at the time the award was
decided, sold even 2500 copies. Narrative non-fiction, at least, continues to gain strength.

All the above means, to repeat (it can't be overstated) you gotta
deliver the publishers a book they believe they can put into the
bookstores, get publicity for, and then watch sell itself. This is
not because they are lazy--they work hard; it's because no one has yet
figured out how to sell a book. It is a product for which, if the
author or subject is not already amply known, there is exactly zero demand
at the point it hits the market.

Publishers spend all their time trying to solve that unsolveable riddle.
So, you pretty much must provide camera-ready art. Starting with the
submission to the agent. From the point the book leaves our hands,
everyone between it and the eventual bookstore customer is a


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