The Trouble With Publishing

John B. Thompson’s recent account of the publishing industry, Merchants of Culture begins with a fantastic anecdote about the $6.75 million advance paid to a not very well known professor of computer science, Randy Pausch. He had been invited to take part in ‘The Last Lecture’ series at Carnegie Mellon, only his lecture had a particular poignancy as he was suffering, at 46, from a fatal illness. A journalist from the Wall Street Journal heard about the lecture on the grapevine and attended it. A short piece on the lecture accompanied by a video clip was picked up by a breakfast TV show, and then by Oprah, and before you could say ruthless sentimentality, publishers were bidding for book rights and a war ensued. Is this behaviour irrational or not, Thompson asks? Could a short 180 page book whose buzz was based on a dying author ever prove to be worth so much money? This tale illustrates the strange and perplexing situation in a troubled industry that begs the question of what’s got into publishing these days and how can it justify its decisions?

Thompson, a Cambridge academic, spent 2005-2009 conducting 280 interviews in the UK and the USA with industry professionals from every sector of the trade book world. His book offers a comprehensive account of commercial publishing as it currently exists, with a few chapters towards the end on the possible future it may have. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but it is all so interesting and provocative that I have to share some of the material with you. What I appreciate about this book is that it has been written by someone outside the industry, which is to say, someone without a vested interest or a series of self-justifications to make. It quickly becomes clear how useful such a perspective may be as the trade publishing world is split into a number of different fields, all of whom cooperate and compete over the value of the written word.

Part of the trouble with publishing is how complex its chain of organisation has become, from the author to the agent to the publisher to the printer to the distributor, the wholesaler and eventually the sales outlet, each stage of a book’s journey becomes a station of the cross where value can be added, but also friction, obstacles and complications. Not that Thompson puts it this way – he is being rigorously fair. But he does point out that at the heart of this sprawling industry, and what draws it all together, is a ‘web of collective belief’. In other words, for a book to make it onto the shelves of a library of a bookstore, all those disparate individuals involved in the process have to believe that it has inherent worth. Fine, except of course that no one understands why some books sell and others don’t, and so that all-important belief system can produce the emperor’s new clothes as easily as it can produce a genuine bestseller. A book never reaches publication on its own; instead it requires a dream that gets dreamed collectively, an alchemical mix of aspiration, hope, luck and cunning that far transcends its banal verbal incarnation.

One myth that Thompson quickly debunks is that publishing has been a dying industry for many years. In fact, it seems that we have been in a golden age despite the relentless carping of the media. Thompson begins his story with the rise of the retail chains, describing how book selling moved from small, amateur independents to the huge professional bookselling chains of Barnes & Noble, Borders and Waterstones, as well as the FMCG world of the supermarkets. Much was lost in terms of customer service when the independents were broken by the big stores, but much was gained in terms of units shifted. The chains provided hundreds of bookstores across the country, each able to hold a huge stock, and the result was lots and lots of book buying. One thing I didn’t realise was how important the hardback book became again. Savvy marketing techniques and discount pricing meant that hardbacks suddenly became popular once more:

‘In the 1970s, a book that sold 500,000 copies in hardcover would have been a huge success, practically unheard of in the industry. Thirty years later, an equivalent success would be in the region of 8-10 million copies – that is, around 20 times greater. In the early 2000s, hardcover sales in excess of a million copies were not unusual, and new books by brand name authors often sold more than this. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, first published in 2003, had sold more than 18 million copies in hardcover in the US alone by 2006 – albeit exceptional, hardcover sales figures of this magnitude were simply unimaginable in earlier decades.’

There were several consequences of this – on the one hand, publishers embarked joyfully on vertical integration; no longer would there be separate hardback and paperback publishers, and this led to the huge publishing conglomerates of the contemporary book world. On the other hand, the power of mass marketing techniques became apparent and revered. So, such factors tend toward a small number of publishers, trying to figure out which handful of books will sell in the millions, and donating the majority of their marketing clout towards them. At the same time those bookstores with their promotions and dumpbins began to sell increasingly along the lines of other entertainment products – music in particular – where what was new was placed in prominent position, and the backlist was suitably reduced.  Once again the consequence is that hundreds of books are published every year, thousands are theoretically available, but consumers end up with the same old titles being thrust before their eyes wherever they go.

You can hardly blame editors and agents for wanting somewhat desperately to reproduce the success of books like The Da Vinci Code, when there is clearly so much money to be made from them (although the number of Dan Brown-alikes I saw in the supermarket this afternoon is not really forgiveable). But it does all make for a homongenization of the book world, where the same, or the related, looks a better bet than the new and eccentric.

The other chapter I read today was about the ever increasing power of the agent, who is the real decisive force, I think, in the marketplace. One of the problems with publishing is that it is the publishing house that takes all the risk, but reader loyalty lies with the author, not the publisher. I don’t wonder what the new Random House titles are, I wonder whether one of my favourite writers has a new book out. Unsurprisingly, then, it became clear as the book market expanded that authors needed someone on their side when it came to dealing with publishers. Plus, after all those publishing mergers, the editors who remained in their jobs had a ton more work to do, and there were a lot of publishing professionals kicking around, out of a job. Many of them became agents because they had the industry knowledge and networking contacts so necessary to the role. The consequence of this was the push towards bigger and bigger advances, in the belief that the more a company paid for a book, the more likely it was to actually market it, and the creation of another level of complex hierarchy. The ‘best’ agents have the greatest chance of getting their authors into print, those lower down the food chain have to scurry about kowtowing to the great and the good and bolstering their contact lists.

One of the myths that comes up time and again is that editors don’t edit work, or at least not enough. My experience of the book industry, and what seems clear from reading this book, is that there is way too much editing going on. Any author these days has to rewrite their work endlessly for the pleasure of an agent, and then for the editor of the publishing house, and possibly several more times in between for sister agencies and editors in other countries. That web of collective belief contains so many people, all of whom have an opinion. But what you end up with is books produced by committee. This is not a good thing. Plus, the system inevitably generates a quasi-mythic set of rules and regulations about what is selling at any one time, based essentially on the personal preferences of editors and agents at the top of the chain. So books are thoroughly beaten into submission – literally – moulded time and again into the right fashionable shape.

Thompson is far kinder to publishers than I am being here – the information is his, the critique is mostly mine. And to be fair, we do have a rich and still vibrant publishing industry (those heralding its demise have always been very wrong so far), but it is flawed down the middle by the fact that no one knows what makes a book good. It seems to me all the problems stem from there. But I have a lot more to read still – I’ll let you know how it goes.

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19 thoughts on “The Trouble With Publishing

  1. I so enjoyed reading this Litlove. I read an interesting take on the publishing industry in the NYRB not long ago, written by someone who had worked for Random House about 50+ years ago when it consisted of the owners and a few editors. At that time, the backlist was the publishers’ treasure chest. The were looking to make money based on their books selling year after year and their reputation based on the whole catalogue. That changed when publishers were bought by big entertainment conglomerates. Then the pressure came on to produce massive bestsellers and in 3 months a book could be out of print. That was also when books were expected to be sold and marketed like toothpaste or the latest celebrity. They keep trying to make books into those items, but the irony is that readers, while occasionally buying into it, often don’t. There are surprise bestsellers and million dollar books that fail. It’s true that there are contradictory and differing opinions about what makes a good book, but also that nobody can consistently predict what will make a bestselling book. Even with the differing opinions, a publisher that nurtures and promotes its backlist and whole catalogue at least develops a reputation for the kind of thing that house thinks is good. If there are enough publishers, then there will be a diversity, something for everyone. But that isn’t an option when there are few publishers and they are given directives and pressured by large and distant HQ’s.

  2. This sounds like an interesting read indeed…I don’t really know much at all about the publishing industry and have often wondered what happens between the creative process of the author and the point where the book actually reaches the bookshelf…I’m adding this one to my wishlist :)
    Thanks for such an in depth review with so many details :)

  3. Hmmm…seems like a book well worth reading, especially for those of us in the publishing industry. I do think so much of it has gotten so out of hand, and I’d never thought of it in terms of books being written by committee, but of course, that’s exactly what’s happening. Can’t wait to hear more from you on this one.

  4. This is really interesting — and should be mandated reading for every single new writer who hopes to have their book published. Only those inside the industry (which of course includes published authors) have a clue how many gatekeepers you must please.

    My agent is one of these former editors who went out on her own. She is very demanding but also knows how editors (and all the others in that food chain) think, which I find valuable. I trust her judgmment, as you must with your agent.

    I will also politely disagree about the “groupthink” of having to edit your book to others’ tastes. I did have to do some of this for my new book, but very little, and the larger point remained mutual — let’s find the widest audience possible! If that meant (which it did) some minor changes in tone and content, that was fine with me. Some editors and houses may be very heavy-handed and some do almost no significant editing. That may please a writer’s ego but it may also allow a weaker book onto the market.

    You can be a diva or you can sell a lot of books. Not many authors can be both.

  5. Fantastic article, really illuminating around some of the dynamics of the industry, which I am a newcomer to. I have felt that I am patroling the walls of highly defended castle, trying, pitifully, to find some chink of light, a possible way in. Thank you for some new insights – even though they are a little dis-spiriting!! Voula

  6. This is fascinating. I like your/Thompson’s construction of a dream that must be dreamed collectively. And as a lover of unusual, experimental books it’s quite worrying to me to see this trend toward the bland, homogeneous mega-sellers. I also have a visceral reaction against the idea of a disposable back-list…I want to be reading books I’ll still be returning to in 50 years, not ones I could easily throw away as soon as I turn the final page.

  7. The book sounds fascinating and I really enjoyed your take on everything so far. The bit that got me the most was about books being written by committee. With so many people in the chain I have to wonder if the best product comes out in the end. Or I guess I don’t have to wonder, I know it can’t be the case. I think it will be really interesting to see how the industry sorts itself out over the next 5 years.

  8. Oh, fascinating! I am in academic publishing and thus semi-exempt from this batch of criticisms, so I am dying to read why a sector of the industry that I do not work in is flawed (and why, therefore, my life choices were solid life choices). Kidding, sort of. I feel like I don’t know much about other sectors of publishing than my own little corner of it, so this would be fascinating.

  9. This is all really interesting and I do hope you’ll write more about it as you continue to read since you have a sort of insider’s perspective on things. There are loads and loads of new books published every month but I do worry that so many of them seem to be just trendy–whatever happens to be selling at the moment (like books on vampires lately) rather than a really good, book that is different than the rest.

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  11. Have you been mucking around in my brain? A few days ago I was trying to remember the title and author of this book so I could check and see if any local library had it yet and for the life of me I could not remember anything. And then here you go and post about it! Thank you for bringing my straining brain some relief. I have now written down the title so I won’t forget it again. Unfortunately, there are no local libraries that have the book yet. So now I am depending on you to tell me whether I should buy a copy or not. No pressure ;)

  12. This sounds great. The idea that we were in a golden age is so interesting — isn’t it always the case that we don’t know we’re in a golden age until it’s over? What a sad thing! The point about books being over-edited is also interesting and now that you describe it, I can easily see how such a thing could happen.

  13. I’m definitely going to pick this up, thank you for writing about it. I can’t wait to see what you think once you’ve finished it.

  14. Lilian – I completely agree with your analysis here and it chimes with my memories of the bookstore. The newest release was rarely a huge hit, but I had trouble keeping the backlist on the shelves. Plus, the only way you’d become loyal to a publisher was if it had a really notable identity – Virago, for instance. Books are not like other fast moving consumer goods, and only a huge business could make the mistake of thinking they were.

    Patti – it has been a really fascinating read so far. If you have a good library near by, I’d definitely say it was worth checking out. And I’d love to know what you make of it.

    Emily – this would be such a good book for you. I would so love to hear your take on it, given that you’re in a position of experience here!

    Broadside blog – I would say this was recommended reading for anyone wanting to publish, in any way. I’m delighted that your experience of editing has been positive – that’s great and gives us all hope. Alas, I have heard too many horror stories (and from already published authors, trying to get third or fourth books out) of writers being messed around and made to rewrite significantly only to have the book dropped or refused or sent for more and more rounds of edits. After years of helping students knock dissertations into shape, I know that rewrites are always necessary, but that if you’re talking about five or six rounds of them, then those early ones were poor or short-sighted. But I do completely agree that there are many different kinds of experience to be had on this front and not all are bad.

    Voula – that’s a wonderful image of prowling the walls of a castle! I’m not at all surprised you feel that way and think your experience will chime with a lot of people’s. I hope you’ve found a gateway in now!

    Emily – well, I confess I feel exactly as you do. I’m fond of experimentation and whilst it still does get published, it’s tough to get such books onto the marketplace at the moment. And it is the backlist still that sells. After all, what do you do when you’ve read a book and loved it, but check out the backlist of that particular author? I think it’s more likely that reading another book ‘like’ the one you’ve just read.

    Ella – lol! I never noticed when I was writing – it must have happened instinctively….

    Kathleen – I am not at all convinced that having so many people involved in the editing process is a good thing! But I do share your fascination for what happens next. Something’s got to give, that’s for sure.

    Jenny – I do think you’d be interested in this. Actually, John Thompson’s first book was an analysis of academic publishing. I can’t remember what it was called, but that might interest you too. I’d love to know what you make of either of them.

    Danielle – trendy is exactly the word for it. Isn’t anybody sick of vampires yet? Or lost medieval documents? There are lots of good books that get published, but I do think there are too many bestseller-alikes that we could live without!

    Stefanie – lol! Yup, got CCTV wired up in there and everything… only kidding! But I do think it was thanks to you that I heard of this book in the first place, so I am simply returning the favour. It’s been really good and I’ve enjoyed it a lot so far. But it was expensive (I have a book grant that I use for this sort of thing). I should think it will make paperback, and will be definitely worth getting then.

    Dorothy – I know, isn’t it sad? All those decades of critics moaning that the novel was dead, and in fact nothing could have been further from the truth! I want my money back on all those Sunday newspapers.. :)

    Michelle – it is a really interesting book. I will write about it some more next week, no doubt!

  15. Thank you, well yes…. I did find a chink, a little glimmer of light… I found a small publisher (though I failed to find an agent) and my novel Honor’s Shadow, is to be published in June by Karnac Books. So now I face the daunting challenge of trying to get publicity for a debut novel, published by a small publisher. It seems there’s another castle inside the first one, like Russian dolls! Voula

  16. Voula – I do believe we have the wondrous Jacqui Lofthouse in common! Isn’t she a sheer delight? Many, many congratulations on your forthcoming publication. I really think you’ve cleared the highest hurdle there. And the very best of luck for finding lots of lovely publicity. I’ll be looking out for your book.

  17. Indeed we do! What would we do without her! Thank you for your congratulations – it does feel a hurdle…!! I am enjoying your blog, I hope you don’t mind, I have added it to the blog roll on my blog to give my readers the benefits of your insights. All the best Voula

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