Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Publishing Has Cratered


Labor Day weekend, the long summer wanes.  Time, perhaps, to suspend my recent geopolitical rants and let things get personal. 

Of recent months I have been foraging for an agent -- the right agent -- to identify the right editor at the right book house to bring out a pair of sexy, electrifying novels I recently finished.  The response has been predictable.  Why not a proposal for another nonfiction work in the subject area -- politics, the intelligence community -- where my previous books have built my reputation, attracted a stubborn following?  Then, drafting in the wake of such a placement, perhaps a morsel or two of fiction might be slipped in sideways.  "...given the tough climate in general and the tougher climate for fiction in particular, editors look at sales histories" primarily, as one agent wrote me recently.

Demoralized as the survivors in publishing remain, I can't help concluding that they are dealing with the collapsing sales like a demoralized army stampeded into retreat -- by cutting their losses and permitting the slaughter to continue.  I wrote the agent back, pretty much as follows:.  "Nothing is going to rescue publishing," I opened, "from the economic sinkhole into which it is disappearing until everybody involved begins to understand how senseless and slack and self-destuctive the mentality of most people still left in the trade has become.  I've been writing and publishing books with major publishers since the sixtes; until recently they sold reasonably well -- certainly into five figures -- and built a solid following.

"What has obviously happened is that everybody on the commercial side of  publishing -- publishers, editors, agents, publicists -- has come to regard a manuscript as one more low grade commercial product they can process with whatever is left of their desultory staffs.  Few editors in the book houses have the interest or energy these days to read any material they are purportedly considering.  They want synopses, on-line attachments, which they can effortlessly delete before making the commitment of time and attention any serious book by a talented author deserves. It's all about categories -- how many copies did the last book sell, is the book pre-sold because some film star or controversial politician has his name on the cover.  The recent fiasco with Arnold Schwarzenegger's ghosted memoirs -- insiders tell me got a better than eight-million-dollar advance, and sold a handful of copies -- indicates why the editorial budgets of the major houses are vaporizing, and why there is little or nothing left to publish work of real literary promise."

The longstanding presumption that one of the  primary responsibilities of a senior editor is to identify raw talent and convince his bosses to support it through book after book until enough of the reading public catches on and the writer turns into an important asset to the book house seems to have disappeared.  What has replaced it is the impulse to cannibalize another publisher and lure away a "name" writer -- very often somebody on his creative death bed -- or some outside celebrity with a lot of name recognition and very little else. Ghosted books, churned out on minimal advances, bloat the sagging market. Readers are catching on, and sales figures show that.

Everybody involved appears to have forgotten is that publishing is a collaborative venture and a calling of the heart.  It is about a lot more than numbers. Ultimately, when a book by a writer of genuine talent appears, it is up to the publisher, his editor, his staff, the agent, to invest enough time and money and connections in the work to give it a chance to surface, to catch the eye of the public and build up momentum.  The climate is "tough for fiction" because the deadbeats around the surviving publishing houses have no historical memory to suggest  to them what their predecessors did to improve the climate.  What publishers today seem to want exclusively is a sure thing, something prepackaged, no risk or dedication or time or effort expected.  Gutlessness -- and laziness -- sweep the industry.

People in publishing tell me selling books is hard.  It was always hard.  Publishers of talent and imagination equivalent to that of the best of their writers brought it off.  When such people return, and understand what their part of the process requires, literary America will return.  Millions of restless readers wait.

Imagination and hard work create industries.  When the interns and hangers-on along publishers' row start geting paid, perhaps motivations will improve. 

Enough sermonizing.  I feel better, even if you don't.

Burton Hersh

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