Dispatches | January 25, 2007

While publishers today may strenuously deny it, at heart they believe what most of their antiquated predecessors did — that their business thrives on recognizable, standardized products.  Implicit in this attitude is a tangled skein of rationalizing and lost ideals, as well as a reflection of the real pressures in the current industry.  Writers hear this attitude expressed so many times over their careers that sooner or later it becomes the bleak but “real truth” of publishing.  It goes something like this.  For convenience sake, imagine a forty-year-old male editor who’s been working for Monolith Publishing, specializing in fiction, since 1988.  Monolith is now an imprint owned by a large media company based in Europe.  We’re in a break room at Monolith, and he’s staring at his coffee cup with a sour look.

“People don’t shell out money for books they don’t already know.  If it’s fiction, they want what they’ve bought before, and they want it to be typical.  Hey, if you think I don’t like arty fiction, you’re wrong–give me Margaret Atwood, I’ll be happy to publish her — but I see more bad serious novels, quote unquote, than genre novels.  At least detective stories have a story.  Monolith has great detective and chick-lit lines.  John Grisham/James Patterson/Danielle Steele-that kind of writing may be boring to a few eggheads, but what good does that do me at the end of the fiscal year? The electric bills got a lot bigger in this business when we had to start subsidizing Barnes and Noble’s million-square-foot palaces….” Broodingly, “You wouldn’t believe how they push us around, what they charge us for even a small display in those stores, how far in advance the damn list has to be ready.”

The editor looks briefly hurt, as if the treatment of Monolith Publishing by Barnes and Noble has bruised him personally.  “How good the book is is nothing to them. And their order is all that matters.  It can be a great potential seller, and their buyer yawns over his pc and says “Nope, author’s got a lame record,” or ” Those books aren’t sellin” — and that’s it, end of subject, end of book.  When their initial order comes in low, Monolith has to decide to spend money on a sinking ship or mark it off, and guess which happens? By three weeks from its pub date, I know the book’s dead.  And I have to keep lying to the author about being patient and waiting for reviews. 

“I just can’t take a lot of chances any more.  I have to know the kind of book, know its market, and trust selling twenty thousand copies. I have to be able to place decent numbers in the suburban stores.   Get em in the suburban stores or forget it.  I need the paperback to be in place and I need the subsidiary sales. That’s just the way it is.  Period.” 

He glances over his shoulder to make sure no one else is listening — “You know, Massive Publishing bought Monolith for five times what it was worth a couple of years before I came here.  Massive was still digesting us when I was coming on.  Then in ’98, before the market fell, Gigantische Bücher bought us and a bunch of other imprints in town for another two or three times what we were all worth.  Gigantishe now owns seventy-five American imprints and they’re getting rid of low-grossing editors by the roomful.  Everybody’s running scared.  I’ve been here longer than any editor on my floor.  They can pay some kid a third what they pay me.  Do those guys in Munich even know me?  I’m just a line on the spreadsheet.” 

Relying on genre writing to mitigate the tight profit margins of large publishing may be as old as the business, but our imaginary editor hints at some dramatic changes over the last 200-odd years.  In 1775, there were over 150 publishers in London’s Strand and Fleet Street and another forty in the thriving book-trade area near St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Throughout the city there were additionally hundreds of booksellers who occasionally ventured into publishing. Despite comparatively inefficient printing, the cost structure of publishing was low enough that modest sales could produce profits, and the sheer numbers of separate ventures provided a marketplace with a diversity of tastes and interests.

Soon after the mid-nineteenth century, the industry began changing in ways that augured today’s capital-intensive publishing.  The market rapidly expanded due to lending libraries, new methods in printing, and category fiction such as the Beadle dime novels, which were stamped out and distributed in bulk.  Book clubs in the 1920s and the invention of mass paperbacks by Penguin in 1935 set up the business for further growth, and the purchase of Knopf by Random House in the 1960s inaugurated the period of consolidation that has marked the last forty-some years.  By the 1980s, publishing and media had fallen into panic consolidation.  The last fifteen years have seen the development of monopolistic media empires, the spread of chain and superstores, particularly to suburban outlets, and, most recently, web bookselling.

Today’s media companies have widespread interests both horizontally and vertically.  Viacom, for example, owns television and radio stations, Paramount Pictures, a large slice of cable programming, as well as Simon and Schuster and Pocket Books and Prentice Hall.  German media behemoth Bertelsmann owns so many American publishing houses that a reader could go to sleep reading a list of them all.  They include names such as Knopf, Random House, Doubleday Publishing, Ballentine, and Bantam, each of which comprises several imprints such as Knopf group’s Schocken, Vintage, Everyman’s, and Pantheon lines.  In all, Bertelsmann owns some twenty percent of American trade publishing. In this environment, one can’t help but imagine some final apocalypse of consolidation, after which all that will be left is one huge, bewildered, lumpy beast hawking all the books in the world. 

In my next blog, I’ll offer an opinion regarding what some see as the benefits of “massification” in publishing. 

Speer Morgan