Sunday, June 07, 2009

On Publishing

Counting more week till classes are done, and all the wonderful students I've had the opportunity to work with for the last few years graduate and do great things in the wider world.


Requiescant in pace "Queen of the Blues" and longtime Chicagoan Koko Taylor, historian and multicultural visionary Ronald Takaki, Buffalo Braves baller extraordinaire and "Iron Man" Randy Smith, actor David Carradine, and eminent foreign policy scholar Ernest May.


I've been wanting to write about the book business, so to speak, for a while, but haven't found the time or energy to do so. (That mental energy has been on the wane for a while.) Instead, I've been culling articles I've come across or that others (Reggie H., Lisa M., Anthony) have forwarded to me about what's been going on with publishing, writing, and such things of late. I had envisioned a grand, synthetic post about the state of publishing, but I realize that's not going to happen, so let me try something more modest.

I'll start with a bit of news, which is that about a month ago, I received the annual royalties for both of the books I've written or co-written, and so, THANK YOU to every single person out there who has ever bought either book, but an especial thanks to those who've bought either of them within the last calendar year. They are rarefied creatures, more poetic than regular reading fare, so I really do appreciate the readership (and the reviews, positive or otherwise, and all who've taught both works, all of it!). I've received royalties for Annotations for several years now; those began appearing after the return period had ended, which followed the first few very good years of fine reviews and a second printing. For those unfamiliar with the term "return period" or the concept, this stretch in a writer's relationship with her publisher occurs when bookstores can and do return your books to the publisher if they're not selling or want more shelf space for other books. The publishers ship the books back and I believe they receive credit for them. (It used to be the case that the chains did this more than small and independent bookstores, though Amazon's and Sam's Club's/Wal-Mart's vast storage facilities may have mitigated this to some extent, at least for books with smaller press runs.)

On an annual royalty statement, returns usually show up as a negative tally against your advance, so if you got a hypothetical $10,000 advance, returns are counted against that advance until you've sold enough books to earn back that $10K. (Thus for the huge advances, say $250K on up, authors have to sell enough books to pay those back before they can start receiving royalties, and often that doesn't happen.) Larger publishers are known to do one of two things to books that are returned in bulk: sell them to a remainder house for a pittance, meaning the publisher gets something on the dollar for them but the author gets zero, or pulp them, in which case the book can go out of print. Remaindered books are the ones you often find online or on a remaindered table at bookstores, and they'll often carry a mark on the bottom edge of the pages to indicate they were remaindered. They also usually sell for a fraction of the original cover price (a $25 new hardcover book can sell at a remaindered price for about $5, meaning that the bookstore selling it could get $4 profit if they paid $1 to pick it up from a remainder house.) New Directions, the small, independent publisher of Annotations, however, has a fairly sterling record of keeping its books in print, and they've neither remaindered nor pulped it. In fact, it has earned back the advance, and so now I am receiving a small but regular trickle of royalties. With Seismosis, published by a very tiny and fairly new publisher, 1913 Press, the situation was a bit different; we didn't receive an advance (as is the case for most poetry books), but it too has sold, and so both my co-author and I received (a very small but welcome) compensation for it this year. I mention all of this because the return policy is one of the worst aspects of the book business, but it is not the only bad one; others include outrageous advances to authors for books that do not sell, publishing too many books, dumbing down books, paying the bookstore chains to feature certain books at the exclusion of others, and above all, steadily conglomerating and expecting outrageous profit margins on a business that was never meant to bring in money like others (software, discount investment houses, luxury goods, etc.). Yet in a way these may be more indicative of the book business of the past--or which is passing--and less of what is unfolding now.

Now I am not the first person to speak about the sickness of the book industry, or its considerable structural, formal, and material changes; there are quite a few books that detail its woes, which have been unfolding before our eyes for the past two decades. Andre Schiffrin's coruscating The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (Verso, 2000), is a classic, but there are others, like Jason Epstein's memoir Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future (W. W. Norton, 2002) or Laura Miller's study Reluctant Capitalists: Booksellers and the Culture of Consumption (University of Chicago, 2007), that launch a raft of insights about the history and contemporary particulars of American (and international) publishing. But even taking these books' many felicities into account, the contemporary publishing situation is so fluid that none of these works fully grasp it. At the structural level, several of the chain bookstores, which had been the bane for so many for at least a decade, are financially teetering, leaving Amazon (and Wal-Mart), a diversified retailer, as the nation's the major bookseller. The distribution has stumbled badly over the last few years. In material terms, print book sales, like sales of almost everything, keep tumbling; sales of audio books, a moneymaker for some presses, have plummeted; and only e-book sales are rising. This last bit of good news ties directly into the rise of Amazon's Kindle, the major e-book reader on the market today, and similar electronic book technologies, like Scribd, Stanza, which I have on my iPhone--the cost of most Kindle texts is far less than publishers charge for hardcover books of any sort. One of the traditional publicity and promotional avenues, the newspaper, is also faltering badly; these days it's not only book reviews sections or even book reviews that are facing extinction, but the very papers in which they appear. So how are publishers--the big publishers, in particular, which is to say the conglomerates that control the vast majority of publishing today--responding? What are they going to do? Will smaller publishers become the standard again? Will print-on-demand finally take off? Will people migrate to electronic books over printed texts, and will those persist, like radios or bicycles, as useful and perhaps quite necessary, but for the most part superseded but still valued technologies?

Lisa Moore, a great small-press publisher (Redbone Press, in at least one of whose books my work has appeared) and correspondent, hipped me to one of the best recent takes I've read (and I've been collecting quite a few of late). It's by Farrar Straus and Giroux Senior Vice President and author Elizabeth Sifton and is "The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and Its Woes," it appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of the Nation. (I must note that FSG, though part of a huge German-led conglomerate, Holtzbrinck, remains one of the sharpest publishers in the industry.) Sifton anatomizes the situation rather thoroughly and at times wittily, offering such thoughts as:

In America, pubescent vampire novels are selling like crazy to readers of all ages, also memoirs about cats and puppies; classics are still in demand, as are cookbooks about cupcakes, of which there are an amazing number. Books by brand-name writers continue to populate the bestseller lists (though not racking up the numbers they used to). Every week the trade bulletins report hundreds of new books being signed up, sometimes for absurd amounts of money, by dozens of publishers. Self-indulgent excess doesn't go away, then. This exorbitance in the book sector, as in the gigantic financial and housing sectors, has been weakening our culture for decades. Hubristic, ill-considered follies reached notable highs under the Great Deregulator, President Reagan, but to be fair, book publishers then (many still carrying the names of the confident men who had founded them twenty-five, fifty, 100 or 150 years before) were panicking, for they were losing their once dependable base, and Reagan made things worse by cutting federal funding for libraries and other appropriations that had helped to fuel America's postwar advances in literacy and book-based education.


Their ever more powerful agents have successfully decoupled the size of the royalty advances they receive from any estimate of the books' eventual earnings, and routinely assure them that if Knopf or Norton or Morrow fails to earn back the upfront money, it's because their masterpieces were badly published, not because the advances were implausibly high. This is cheering, of course; writers' egos are always shaky, and they tend to forget the sage warning that you should disregard compliments extended by someone whose income derives from your own. Also, they won't acknowledge that literary quality may decline as advances increase; only rarely is a writer liberated into confidence-inspiring freedom by following advice from greedy publishers about Pleasing the Crowd. Willa Cather wasn't the only fine writer who refused advances for being, in her view, unethical, nor was D.H. Lawrence the only one who found them demeaning. The agents have much to answer for.

What now? Publishers are battening down, and chain stores are struggling, having staked so much on nationally merchandised dreck, having committed themselves to imitating the look of the big indies but never quite matching their tighter local focus and skill in "hand selling" genuine books to readers. Anyway, the entire world of American retail business is veering toward obsolescence. Must books now find their way in cyberspace?

This leads Sifton to query what the future not only for publishing, but for reading and books in general will be, particularly in relation to the Internet. (She mentions the lawsuit against Google's unauthorized scanning of copyrighted books, which New Directions, like countless other publishers, was party to.) She has no answers, but is wary, and doesn't trust publishers to do the right thing(s), or perhaps isn't sure if they'll even know what the right thing is until it's too late, despite their self-interest in doing so. She ends the piece by quoting John Locke to make her point, and so the larger question remains: what now?

Sifton's overview and critique proved an interesting lens through which to read New York Times book beat reporter Motoko Rich's blasts from the BookExpo America, the annual US bookseller's convention, which took place two weeks ago in New York City. In her March 29th entry, she noted the "gloom" cast by diminishing book sales. Even the convention itself had shrunk, and some publishers and booksellers were present in obviously reduced fashion, while others did not attend at all. The next day, she posted a more positive, peppier article that, that focused on publishers' thoughts on e-books and which, I noted to Reggie and Lisa, I could have filed from Evanston; it said little that you might not extrapolate from the previous day's downcast report, though some details, like the decision to distribute cards with links to online .pdfs of works, versus actual print galleys, was enlightening. (This reminded me of the fact that at least for the last few years in most of my classes, I've decreasingly distributed photocopies of any articles, and have posted either online links or .pdfs on my courses' Blackboard sites. Even coursebooks are less like from now on.) One other noteworthy bit of news was that on one of the BEA's many panels, acclaimed author and screenwriter Sherman Alexie's declared that he refused to let his novels be distributed in electronic form, and that when he saw a woman on his plane to New York reading a Kindle, he "wanted to hit her." Whoa, Sherman! (He has since apologized.) Rich also submitted entries about the event (naturally) on the Times's Paper Cuts blog, such as what the most recommended books were. Many seemed to be new works by previous seasons' breakout authors, or anticipated bestsellers by prior bestsellers, though there were a few, including a family saga that favored Gone With the Wind (ugh!) and a nonfiction book about a plane crash survivor (just the thought makes me wince) that editors could not put down. But of course, it's always a roll of dice, isn't it, and I don't think publishers would like to think of themselves as engaging in something akin to Steve Wynn's business, would they? As to the larger questions Sifton's piece raises, Rich had (and has had) few answers.

Lisa went to BEA, and sent back a few links--June 1 and June 3--from Shelf Awareness, a great resource on the publishing trade, and both presented different angles on the BEA. The first gave an overall portrait of a trimmer but livelier convention, with some key changes on display and more attendees than the previous year in LA but fewer than two years before in New York. Media representation, however, rose from around 1,250 to 1,700. (Hmmm.) I hadn't realized that having authors in attendance was formely frowned upon, but the Shelf Awareness writeup suggests that booksellers and readers raved about the opportunities to interact with authors. Lastly, as Lisa noted in an email, this entry gives a fuller context for the Alexie panel.

And then Reggie sent (and I'd come across) yet another take, by Elizabeth Eaves, in Forbes, entitled, "Why Write?" Her ultimate take:
In short, book-writing is a worse-than-ever means to a livelihood, and mass-market renown is disappearing as a concept, fractioning into a million niches. Ultimately the only good reason to write books remains what it probably always was: The compulsion to try to entertain, persuade or make meaning is irresistible, and the process absorbs you like nothing else. If it doesn't, there's no reason to bother.
Write because you love, because you surely won't be making money from it from now on (unless you're lucky, Oprah Winfrey picks your book for her club, you tap into some existing or unforeseen market,! But I'm back to the games of chance analogy, see?). But again, to the larger question, whither publishing as we knew and know it, or rather, wither...?


  1. Thanks for the Royalty Rundown info, John. I'm not sure a lot of writers understand how that works, although we all dream of retiring on those checks (Yeah...good luck with THAT one!:)

    No comments directly on this (except to say that I too would love to write or read some grand collation of various thoughts on the publishing business!) but wanted to add that I'm also looking at the various changes in the newspaper business -- aka watching newspapers sink slowly deeper and deeper into the red. I find it sad, disturbing, fascinating, and have either forwarded or commented enough on it that someone sent me a message asking if I was in the News Business!:)

    Nope just a reader/writer -- and in the business of creating that which you can't get the news from -- "yet men die miserably every day//for lack//of what is found there"

  2. Quite intriguing, John. Alot of this is akin to what's going on in the "depindie" film world, where the major studios are abandoning the indie film acquisition biz altogether (except for well monied projects like "Slumdog"), opening up more opportunities for truly indie projects to do self-distribution, albeit for a smaller revenue channels...

  3. Reggie, thanks for replying. I think it's a dream of many writers (if not all) to be able to retire on royalties and other funds gained from writing. BTW, did you read the piece in the current New Yorker about Nora Roberts, and her multimillion-dollar prodigiousness? I wonder if Victor reads her work....

    I also hear you about the newspaper business. In addition to falling revenues, many made disastrous financial choices over the last 10 years, such as the New York Times's stock buyback and the horrendous consolidation and overleveraging by the Tribune companies. I keep saying that a move to not-for-profit status might be the way to go, but it will mean far less money and power, and a different relationship with funders, for most papers. A sad state of affairs.

    And yes, how right Williams was, in a love poem, no less....

  4. Jason, it does remind me of the depindie film world too, though movies are still making a great deal of money. Less than they once did, but still far more than books ever have, and of course, the laws of supply and demand are different with both too. One thing I've wished would happen was that true indie filmmaking, using the cheapest but best technologies available, would take off. There are so many topics, so many stories, that never make it into theaters, so a kind of grassroots cinema like Nollywood would be great. Yes, I know there are variations on this already here, so I guess the issue is how do we learn more about what's going on. Does that make sense?