Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Bailout for Publishing? Seriously?

by Sandra Parshall

James Patterson is right when he complains that all the talk about publishing these days is negative, focused on the industry’s decline without offering any solutions. But is he really proposing a government bailout?

Last week Patterson placed an ad in Kirkus Reviews and The New York Times Book Review, and on both covers of Publishers Weekly, asking “Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?” The ad read in part: "The Federal Government has stepped in to save banks, and the automobile industry, but where are they on the important subject of books? Why are there no impassioned editorials in influential newspapers or magazines?"

The four-page PW ad lists 46 novels and nonfiction books under these questions:
“What will happen to American literature?”
“Who will publish important books like these?”
“Who will help save America’s books?”
“Who will mentor and encourage our authors in the future?”
“Who will recommend books like these to the American public?”

Most of the fiction titles he lists as representative of America’s best are literary novels or modern classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, Harper Lee, etc., but he also includes books by Thomas Harris and James M. Cain.

The world’s bestselling thriller writer may not produce books that could be called “literature” but he is a passionate advocate of reading who has donated thousands of books to U.S. troops stationed abroad, founded a program that encourages children to read, and given time and money to literacy programs. He told PW in an interview that he hoped his ads would turn the discussion of publishing’s survival in a more practical direction. Currently, he said, publishers are in a “Woe is me” rut and the media produce the same “publishing is in trouble” story over and over. He urged publishers to “Get in attack mode.”

Exactly where that attack would be aimed is unclear. PW senior writer Andrew Albanese said in response to Patterson’s ads that “The book is changing, for sure. And reading is under pressure,” but whether “the book” is endangered is debatable.

Patterson’s ad doesn’t mention the phenomenal rise of the e-book, although it’s impossible to discuss traditional publishing’s decline without naming the main cause of it. The figures tell the obvious story: as digital sales continue to rise, print sales continue to drop. But there’s a lot more to it than simple sales numbers.

Some writers are so disgusted with traditional publishing that they would love to drive a stake through its heart, and they think all writers should jump at the chance to take control and self-publish. However, we’re seeing more and more successful self-published writers accepting offers from traditional imprints and happily turning over all the grunt work of publishing to professional editors and marketing departments. Many traditionally published writers might dabble in self-publishing but would never give up the very real advantages of bringing out their books the old-fashioned way. As long as traditional publishing attracts talented writers, including those who start by self-publishing, it will stay alive.

Everybody seems to agree on one thing, though: traditional publishing has to change, perhaps drastically, and adapt to the new realities of the book world. Unfortunately, nobody appears to know how it should change. Merely adding digital departments to process e-books doesn’t look like the answer, when so many other aspects of the business are outdated and writers and readers alike are unhappy with everything from pricing to marketing to the often poor quality of the product.

Will the federal government step in and bail out publishing? Not likely. Publishing is a comparatively small industry. If it failed completely, it wouldn’t bring down the economy, and the economic impact is all Congress cares about. However, local communities and states have a duty to keep public libraries open and provide funding to pay staff and keep both print and digital collections up to date. That is a use of public money that benefits everyone, but library funds are among the first to be cut when communities are faced with deficits.

The good news is the “the book” is alive and well. It's not always in the form of pages between two covers, but it isn’t about to vanish. Many owners of e-readers report that they are reading more than ever because digital books are less expensive than print and can be purchased in seconds. Book discussion communities are thriving online, and face-to-face book clubs are more popular than ever. Readers will find the books they like, regardless of how they're published. Patterson asks: Who will recommend good books to the public? The answer: Other readers will. Favorable word of mouth has always been the best way to sell a book.

Avid readers and book-buyers have never been in the majority – writers realize that the market for our products is small compared to that for pop songs or action movies – but they are passionate about the written word. As long as readers love to read and writers feel compelled to write, “the book” – in whatever form it might take – will live on.


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
This idea doesn't work in art and music. What happened in those cases was that they became clubs for academics where one academic paints or writes a work for other academics and the sophisticated critics. (This also happens in that nebulous genre called "literary fiction"--as if the genres aren't literary.) All connection with the general population becomes lost.
Dickens, for example, made his fame and fortune via pulp fiction and was like a rock star in England and the U.S. Mozart in his day and other "classical composers" were wildly popular, again like rock stars of that age. We don't need to disconnect publishing i.e. literature from the masses.
And why does Patterson think publishing is in trouble? He and his co-writers make millions. Methinks it's all about control and wishful thinking from an old man beyond his prime (I stopped reading him years ago).
Just some thoughts....
PS: Looks like you're getting some spam here.

Sandra Parshall said...

Like a lot of people, Patterson seems alarmed that publishing is changing. But readers are driving that change, and all publishers and writers can do is try to keep up with it. I think it's great that so many authors are self-publishing and a lot of them are quite successful at it. Getting away from the attitude that only traditional publishing is acceptable is good for everybody.

And I can't help noticing that Mr. Patterson's books are selling in huge numbers in digital form. My e-book sales are invisible compared to his, but I'm grateful for that extra income and for the new readers who have "discovered" me through e-books.

What worries me is the "everything should be free" attitude. It nearly destroyed the music business, and I don't want it to do the same to the book business. Why would anybody expect a book to be free after the author has poured months or years of time and hard work into it? Writers deserve to be paid, just like any other worker.

Anonymous said...

You always give us food for thought, Sandy! This whole topic of the future of print books is somewhat like the issue of the golden age of Hollywood. I heard a professor from Fordham U. speak last week on that topic - I foresee changes in the physical property of " books" but I do not foresee their demise! Change, yes! Thelma Straw, MWA, SinC

Sandra Parshall said...

A related story in Forbes: When self-published authors dominate, what will publishers do?

Anonymous said...

I don't recall him saying anything at all about bailing out publishing - it was bookstores and libraries...

Sandra Parshall said...

One of the questions he asks is "Who will publish important books like these?" He seems to assume that if traditional publishing fails, no "important" books will be published in the future.

Anonymous said...

Many libraries have already reached the 50% tipping point for non-book items. The biggest budget categories for many libraries today is electronic and job-hunting resources. So even if there was magic government help, chances are the money would be spent on non-book items, to upgrade computer systems or to repair the disintegrating physical buildings that house many libraries.

Steven M. Moore said...

I think the numbers game Sandra mentioned is important. Music certainly survived the indie movement, but its format changed. Literature is going through the same stages. Art perhaps needed government intervention than most.
As Sandra says, what we have here is a conservative voice (Patterson's) expressing a resistance to change...but change is inevitable.

Sandra Parshall said...

I don't know if it's true in every case, but I've read several times that the move to digital has reduced the incomes of musical artists. It has certainly changed the concept of what an album is.

The good news is, as with books, singers and other musicians who don't have the backing of big companies can now produce their own recordings and sell them online. They can make YouTube videos to build an audience. Didn't Usher discover Justin Bieber through a YouTube video? Big publishers are certainly discovering writers through their self-published work.One thing feeds into the other. I don't think there's any reason to panic.

Diane S. said...

Consider what it is that a publisher adds to the writing. I think it's great that writers can get their works out directly to readers, but to really do it big, one needs legal experts(contracts experts willing to do not only domestic but international contracts and deal with international laws); marketing experts (someone today who can do the social media plan of attack, the traditional webpage/blog stuff, basically coordinate the whole thing, decide and hire whomever does whichever parts, and maybe is the same party or a related one who determines the cover art needed, finds and gets it done, and helps find a saleable title. Then we need accountants to keep track of all the sales to and from different locations and in different formats, and distribution/logistics to get the formats to the readers. These can all be outsourced and managed even by one outsourcing, but typically they've been put together under a business called a publishing house (which was also doing the printing and binding of the thing published, since it was in a tangible format) and they all worked for that entity, not for the writer. Today, the writer, or a group of writers (as many blogs have shown that groups of writers can form cooperatives) can create these structures for him/her/themselves, and that would be the strength of the masses essentially. Many cooperatives, run much like credit unions perhaps (one model - no profit per se, but everyone shares based on what their returns are, or however they want to define their internal agreements), where the owners are the users of the business as well. Think about it. Let me know what you think.