I can’t recall a time when writers, myself included, weren’t complaining about the dire state of publishing – the difficulty of selling a book, the difficulty of staying published once you’ve broken in, the unfairness of it all.
The cries of doom have risen to fever pitch in the last week, with news of widespread layoffs and downsizing at some of the biggest publishing houses. When Timothy Egan’s column titled “Typing Without a Clue” appeared in the New York Times last Sunday, a lot of writers seized on it as the perfect expression of their own frustration with a business that chases bestsellers and spends money on books of little merit instead of nurturing real talent.
I have to admit I’m bemused when I see mystery writers praising Egan’s piece as if he has championed their own cause. While Egan raises valid questions – what can Joe the Plumber possibly have to say that warrants putting his thoughts between covers, and why would anything written by Sarah Palin be worth a $7 million advance? – I don’t think he's speaking for crime fiction writers. Like most people who rant on this subject, Egan seems angered by the lack of support for literary novels and, as he says, "extraordinary histories" and "riveting memoirs" as well as the works of foreign writers who “struggle to get past a censor’s gate.” I don't think he's upset by the difficulty of getting a new cozy mystery or police procedural published.
(Egan himself writes history, by the way, and he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His one work of fiction, a 2005 novel titled The Winemaker’s Daughter, was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “scattered, clumsy and overearnest.”)
Plenty of people would say that crime fiction is part of the problem in today’s publishing business. They look at all the mysteries and thrillers on the bestseller lists and denounce them as garbage with no lasting value. They deplore the big advances paid to authors like James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, and David Baldaccci. Yet readers love those authors' books and buy them, literally, by the millions. Patterson often has two or three books on the bestseller lists simultaneously. Can anyone realistically expect the folks at Little, Brown to turn their backs on profits of that magnitude and concentrate on “small” books that might sell 3,000 copies each? Of course not. And to hold onto a writer like Patterson, the publisher has to plunk down a lot of money up front.
A Patterson book will earn back every cent of the advance and a lot more in profit for the publisher. An investment in such a proven commodity carries no risk. Publishers run into trouble, though, when they fork over million dollar advances for novels that don’t interest readers. It’s easy to see how it happens. A book has the elements of previous bestsellers, plus some unique attribute – it’s the same but different, just what publishers want – and several editors become convinced it will be The Next Sensation. In their determination to get it, they bid against one another until the advance reaches a ridiculous amount. Sometimes the book does well, everyone profits, and a new star is born. Often it either flops or has mediocre sales. Then the publisher is in trouble, and so is the writer.
Aside from the established stars of the genre, few crime fiction authors these days are naive enough to feel safe because they have publishing contracts. I know a lot of writers who have been dropped by their publishers in recent years, not because their series were outright failures but because they didn't “break out” and become bestsellers. Even imprints that don’t expect bestsellerdom for every author may, nevertheless, routinely discard a series after two or three books if sales don’t grow rapidly. As far as I can tell, the only people who feel bad about this are mystery writers themselves and mystery readers. Maybe Timothy Egan cares too, but I have my doubts.
Publishing is an old-fashioned business that can’t seem to catch up with the modern world. Online marketing, for example, remains largely unexplored territory for some houses. But the people who run publishing companies have recognized one sad fact about modern life: the number of people who love to read -- really READ -- and have time for it has declined drastically. For people who want a book-like product without the heavy work of thoughtful reading, they publish junk food for the mind that is quickly enjoyed and discarded. Good commercial fiction -- the category the best crime novels fall into -- is several cuts above that, but it is still primarily entertainment. A healthy market remains for commercial fiction, and that drives publishers to take insane gambles in the hope of a big payoff.
The latest round of layoffs and restructuring reduced the number of salaries publishers have to pay but apparently changed little about the way they do business. I’ve never known a time when publishing wasn’t in trouble. I probably never will. And I doubt there’s anything writers – or readers – can do to change a business that isn’t willing to fix itself.