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Reports of Publishing’s Death Are Exaggerated

Posted on Dec 7, 2012
AP/Michael Probst

“Oh, good, it’s time for the NYTimes to ask if the book business is dead. Again,” tweeted It Girl literary agent Julie Barer recently. Barer’s tweet linked to a New York Times Magazine article about a proposed merger between Random House and Penguin that began this way: “When you see a merger between two giants in a declining industry, it can look like the financial version of a couple having a baby to save a marriage.”

Everyone who works in publishing read the article “How Dead Is the Book Business?” by NPR Planet Money co-founder Adam Davidson. Nobody liked it much, mainly because Davidson dared to compare book publishing to envelope manufacturing. His article was less notable for its brilliant insights into the industry—there weren’t many—than for its unstated assumption: Publishing, once a wood-paneled gentlemen’s club where martinis and lofty literary ideals trumped tawdry financial concerns, is just another business.

Many people think publishing isn’t a business at all. Book publishing is a clubby, insular world where everyone knows one another and started as an eager 22-year-old fresh out of Vassar. Publishing people have not moonlighted as gas station attendants. (There are very few gas stations in Manhattan.) They have not worked in homeless shelters or insane asylums. They have never been anthropologists in Borneo or studied raptors in Bolivia. They have, of course, read about these things, which they believe qualifies them to judge whether books written by people who actually have done them are worthy of publication. They don’t believe that outsiders understand what they do, least of all a crass business reporter.

The culture of book publishing is one reason for its current woes. In the long run, that eccentric nature might be the industry’s salvation. In the short term, though, it’s hard to tell whether vulture capitalism will mend publishing’s problems or make them worse. Barer was right: The book business isn’t dead. But it is changing, and the book companies that emerge will bear as little resemblance to their predecessors as the gangster who has plastic surgery and comes out looking like someone else—because he is, indeed, played by another actor. Whether you think that’s a good thing may come down to whether you own stock in the company.

The one certainty is that there’s no turning back. John Tayman, the founder of Byliner, an online publisher that shares profits with writers, calls it a transition from analog to digital. But it’s more than that. Shopped at Target recently? The landscape of publishing looks like America itself: a few monopolistic corporations duking it out for 80 percent of the profits, small to medium-sized presses where people do it for love but wouldn’t mind a smash hit, and tech innovators determined to prove that doing good while doing well is not an oxymoron (but if it goes belly up, they’ll still have the house in Noe Valley, the BMW and the book contract). Workers, you say? Oh, them. Workers—in this case, writers and, to some extent, editors—face narrowing opportunities, low wages and zero job security.

Industry boosters stave off criticism by pointing out that more books are getting published now than ever before, and trendy literary fiction has a certain amount of zing, thanks to proliferating MFA programs. But there’s no question that corporate consolidation narrows the channel for writers. In some cases, literary agents won’t approach more than one editor at a publishing house, even if there are a number of imprints under the same roof. (An imprint is a unit within a publishing company that has its own staff and identity. According to literary agent Andy Ross, Random House had 56 and Penguin 39 at last count.)

At a recent conference of literary writers in New York, both Barer and veteran literary agent Gail Hochman acknowledged that many good books simply don’t get published. What’s maddening is that these decisions often don’t make sense either artistically or commercially. Even a well-regarded author who violates the industry’s shibboleths may run into trouble, and those shibboleths seem as numerous, and as irrational, as the taboos on an isolated Micronesian island.

Take the case of Chris Beha, one of the writers who appeared at the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses conference held in New York in early November. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine, and he is not anyone’s idea of a mediocre talent. An unassuming genius in the David Foster Wallace mode, Beha studied with Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton. Grove published his first book, a memoir titled “The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else,” to stellar reviews.

But Beha is really a novelist, not a nonfiction writer. His next book was a novel about a struggling young writer living in Greenwich Village and a girl he loved in college who had abandoned her literary calling for Catholicism. “What Happened to Sophie Wilder” examines the difference between living life and writing about it.

Unfortunately for Beha, the novel violated the cargo cult belief among publishers that nobody wants to read about writers. (If you’re a literary type and tempted to mention that Philip Roth didn’t get the memo on that one, you wouldn’t be the first.) When “Sophie Wilder” failed to win a contract from one of the Big Six, Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House Books, jumped at the chance to publish it. The story has a happy ending: Amazon featured the book as a digital download deal of the day and it wound up No. 1 in literary fiction, selling more than a thousand copies in 24 hours. D.G. Myers, a critic for Commentary magazine, called it, flat out, the best book of the year.

Beha’s experience illustrates the real problem with the Bain Capital-inspired changes now taking place in the industry. There’s no guarantee that the corporate strategy of “bigger is better” will solve the book business’ structural problems, or even result in better sales. Economies of scale may help publishers go digital, but it’s interesting to note that the overall failure rate for mergers and acquisitions is roughly the same as the percentage of books that don’t earn out their advances: 70 percent, according to the Harvard Business Review, putting MBAs in roughly the same category as feckless English majors-turned-editors in terms of predicting success.

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