Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Life's not fair. Neither is publishing.

Sandra Parshall

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.


Joyce said...

Excellent post, Sandy!

I have no problem with real writers getting huge advances, but it makes me sick when celebrities and people like Joe the Plumber get large sums of money (let alone a book deal in the first place). Who's going to even buy Joe's book? His family? His customers?

There are so many excellent writers who have been busting their butts for years learning the craft and what do they get? In most cases a big, fat nothing.

Sandra Parshall said...

Joyce, you'll be happy to hear that Joe *didn't* get a big advance from a NY publisher. His book was published by a group of small presses called PearlGate Publishing. He claims that big publishers were after him with "dollar signs in their eyes" but he doesn't think the large houses need his help the way small publishers do. So he decided to spread the wealth by letting the little guys cash in on his notoriety. Generous of him, right? Too bad so few people want to buy the book.

Julie Kramer said...

I think you're spot on, Sandy. I laughed; I cried. I think you should send this to the NY Times Op-Ed page.

Camille Minichino said...

I agree with Julie, Sandra; this is worthy of the Op Ed page.

The one other point I've been making about the Egan article, though not as eloquently as you, is his political bias -- does Egan really think the Obama memoirs are that much more worthy than the Palin memoirs would be? Is Obama really in the category of Mark Twain and Joan Didion (his examples).

No list would publish my view on that, by the way. Moderators intervened, though I was speaking in terms of literary merit.

Kenna said...

Great article, Sandy. I agree with your point about Egan's sympathies. I found his article interesting from the standpoint of the points he was making, though as we all do, I'm sure he brings his own biases and views to the table. That would be why it was published as an Op Ed article.

Being a newbie, unpublished author makes me far from qualified to speak on this issue - I'm still at the 'learning my craft' stage. But I feel the frustration, all around, in the publishing business on the list serves I subscribe to and the blogs I read, and just wonder whether there isn't a better way?

As you say, the publishing industry seems to be unable to fix itself - maybe it will take some out-of-the-box thinking from outsiders to get it done.

Sheila Connolly said...

I have to admit I'm puzzled by an industry that (at least until recently) expected to sell no more than half of the books they printed, then trashed the rest. And they were happy when the author managed to sell that many. This seems an outdated and inefficient business model, particularly in this computer-driven age. Why can't they manage to match output and sales a little better?

And the marketing efforts of even the larger publishers are pathetic. They're still sending to the same list of reviewers, and then they turn around and tell their authors (or at least the new ones), "Use the internet! It's free!" And that's the end of it. Only the Big Names get the big bucks, when it's the new writers who really need the support.