Monday, January 05, 2009

Writers' Woes

Christina Nealson sends this grim item from salon about the state of mainstream publishing.

"...On Dec. 3, now known as "Black Wednesday," several major American publishers were dramatically downsized, leaving many celebrated editors and their colleagues jobless. The bad news stretches from the unemployment line to bookstores to literature itself.

"It's going to be very hard for the next few years across the board in literary fiction," says veteran agent Ira Silverberg. "A lot of good writers will be losing their editors, and loyalty is very important in this field."

"One of the most visible victims was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of Philip Roth, Margaret Drabble, Richard Dawkins and J.R.R. Tolkien, among many others. Just before Thanksgiving, the publisher (actually two venerable houses, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, which were bought and merged by an Irish company over the past two years) had announced an unprecedented buying freeze on new manuscripts. On Dec. 3, they laid off what former executive editor Ann Patty described as "a lot" of employees (the industry trade publication Publishers Weekly confirmed at least eight), among them the distinguished editor Drenka Willen, whose list of authors included Günter Grass, Octavio Paz and José Saramago."

This is depressing news I'll grant you-- not least since I had a book being considered at H- M. ! But some of us have been outside looking in for years, and know -- or suspect we know-- why.

" "There were hedge fund guys with no background in publishing buying up publishing houses," says André Schiffrin, founder of the New Press and author of "The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read." He explains that corporate owners of major publishing houses expected impossible 15 to 20 percent profit margins in an industry with traditional margins of 3 to 4 percent. "They were part of that whole feeling that you could make money by buying and selling companies, rather than by selling books. At some point it comes to a dead end." "

And if you are a writer and want to write, you have to reject despair. I have been struggling with depression and frustration with publishing for two years now, and it won't get me back to Kazakhstan. There is a lot of potentially creative anger out there.

"Rumors of publishing's demise are probably overstated, but the future of publishing may depend on what those laid-off editors, publicists and industry leaders do next. The morning after Black Wednesday, a publishing blogger and e-book aficionado named Mike Cane stirred up his readers with a bite-size manifesto on Twitter: "If the FIRED NY pubstaff are such hot fucking shit, let them coalesce and form an EBOOK-ONLY IMPRINT to crush their fmr employers." However callous this Twitter-versy seemed at the time, it posed an interesting challenge: Can the publishing world channel all of this collective anger, bewilderment and fear into industry-altering strategies?

" "If the last five or 10 years have shown us anything, it's this: content will get out," Lexcycle's Choksi says. "With social networking and blogs, if you have something to say, it will get heard. It just might not look like the traditional publishing model you are used to." "

Readers' ideas encouraged. If I don't get an advance (elsewhere in the article they spoke of "modest" advances under $100,000--HAH!-- how can I get to Asia and finish my next project?

Related stuff: "Writer Bailout" (NOOOO!); and should we buy cheap books? . (Conflicted answer: I have to read!-- and since people sell MY books cheaper than I can...)

Interesting times...


prairie mary said...

After a LOT of reading, thinking, doodling on the backs of envelopes and other high-falutin' intellectual activity, I have come to the conclusion that we're chasing the wrong rabbit.

What is it that publishers do? We think they are brilliant and discerning (ahem) but actually they only supply capital. The capital is supposed to pay for someone to edit, someone to do layout, someone to find illustrations and get permissions, do the advertising, and distribute. IT IS EASY TO GET SOMEONE TO SIMPLY PRINT THE BOOK. Lulu works.

The steps missing from most Do-it-yourself is professional level editing, layout, advertising and distribution. AN AUTHOR CAN PAY FOR THIS JUST AS EASILY AS ANYONE ELSE. It's nice to have a staff, but you can use contract labor, free-lancers. in fact, many publishers are NOT doing the above except for books they consider blockbusters.

We don't need more publishers. We need more people who know how to publicize and distribute. And the missing link from "publicize" is reviewers. WE NEED REVIEWERS!

Therefore, I'm glad you're doing it and I do a bit of it myself. Always put the title of the book in the title of the post so Google will pick it up. Then, if feasible, put a squib on Amazon. That will row the boat. We can do it for each other.

Sod publishers.

Prairie Mary

Rachel Dickinson said...

As someone with a book coming out of H-M THIS spring, the whole implosion freaked me out. Some laughed and said "don't worry! Now they'll spend time publicizing your book since they're not acquiring new titles." Baloney. That's not going to happen. They're going to spend their time looking for the next big commercial venture that will pay for their bad debt. If you don't have a blockbuster in you, forget it with the traditional houses these days.

Prairie Mary has it right when she says it's about publicity and distribution, the latter being key. We can't break into the distribution system, can only go around it.


Steve Bodio said...

I think you are both right.

And Rachel-- looking forward to your book which I'll review here at least! (Would LB be too incestuous? ;-)