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Arts and Culture

Reports of Publishing’s Death Are Exaggerated

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Posted on Dec 7, 2012
AP/Michael Probst

By Susan Zakin

(Page 5)

The book industry has been consolidating for a long time, but after the settlement the pace increased as publishers reached for the next line of defense. Random House and Penguin announced their merger Oct. 29. Within weeks, industry pundits reported that merger talks were under way between Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, with Harper’s parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., slated to be the controlling owner. Soon rumors surfaced of even more mergers.

Someone once called alcoholism “the writer’s black lung disease.” As the pathway for publication narrows, envy has replaced whiskey as the writer’s cocktail du jour. Nobody did a better job of describing that mind-bending jealousy than British novelist Martin Amis in “The Information,” recounting the reaction of once-promising writer Richard Tull as he glares at the crowded bookshelves of his more famous friend. “What he minded were Gwyn’s books: Gwyn’s books, which multiplied or ramified so crazily now. The lambent horror of Gwyn in Spanish (sashed with quotes and reprint updates) or an American book-club or supermarket paperback or something in Hebrew or Mandarin or cuneiform or pictogram. ...” 

Writers would be better off turning their considerable energy toward sussing out the business of publishing. As recently as 10 years ago, good writers could support themselves from their writing. Now many of them can’t. Until a new ecology of publishing is invented that offers decent wages and opportunity, articles and short stories will not be written, and books that you might have loved will not get published.

What’s a writer to do? Agent Barer’s oft-quoted advice is: “Don’t quit your day job.” For many writers, it might be: “Don’t quit your three jobs: the one you work to make money and get health insurance, the one you work to make contacts and leverage your own writing, and, yeah, the one you do for love: writing.” In other words, raid Lance Armstrong’s medicine cabinet.

More and more writers are hedging their bets, writing for Big Box publishers but laying the groundwork for a career with smart, feisty new media of one sort or another. They’re not the only ones trying to figure out their next move.  The Planet Money guy was right about one thing: when it comes to money, publishing is just another passenger on America’s bumpy ride into 21st century globalization. The good news is that so many of us are returning to the hardscrabble inventiveness that has defined the country’s character since the beginning, according to journalist Jack Hitt. Hitt’s recent book, “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character,” casts the tinkerer in the garage who turns out to be Steve Jobs as a foundational American myth. Amateurism emerges when “the culture around you won’t let you out of where you are or into where you want to go,” writes Hitt. In his estimation: “The cyclical turn to the garage is happening now as Americans sense that some great turn in history has come.”

In “The Long Tail,” Anderson notes that the average book in the U.S. sells 500 copies. For writers and editors hoping to improve those odds, the best strategy may not be Fordism—the mass production embraced by big publishers—but a return to traditional American values; in the words of Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press, “happy, cranky individualism.”

(Disclosure: It would be difficult for a writer to produce a story on publishing without running up against a number of relationships. I am a member of the Authors Guild. I have written for The Rumpus. Before writing this article, I contracted with Byliner to feature the backlist of my articles.)


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