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The Death and Rebirth of Book Publishing

November 8, 2012

Since movable type brought an end to the copyist garrets and sweatshops of the Middle Ages there probably has not been a more profound change in the way books are created and marketed than is going on at present. That the major American trade publishers have failed to move with, or even lead the change is a bit like IBM missing the significance of the personal computer. But worse.

Let’s look at the history of American trade publishing since its apogee in the early-mid-twentieth century. Gentlemen publishers, aware that one must make money to keep a business running, published a certain amount of popular, hack work to pay the bills and yield a bit extra. With that extra funding (they weren’t paying high salaries to anyone – themselves included) they published books of exceptional literary quality that they knew would not have massive sales. They encouraged promising authors even though the dollars weren’t there and might never be. They warehoused books, developing long term sales and a groundswell of interest and acclaim for their unique authors. The books they published are the recognized classics of American literature: the works of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck… the list is long.

Then in the late 1960’s a delirium of hubris struck. Publishers championed revolutionary elements in the racial equality and hippie movements, putting into print such works as Eldredge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice  and Abbey Hoffman’s Steal This Book: semi-Marxist inflammatory works criticizing the status quo.

Cleverly, our government struck back at the publishing business, removing the tax right-off for the costs of book warehousing. This may seem a bit devious but it was a brilliant stroke, crippling the book publishing industry which then lived largely on the gradual sales of back-list books.

Publishing had to adopt a very different business plan. This change came at the time when the publishers and editors who had made American publishing great were aging. Some left in disgust, others sold out their companies to conglomerates that seemed better able to cope in this new fiscal environment. Accounting departments, rather than editorial, became preeminent. And the book publishing business plan came to be modeled after manufacturing.

With no tax relief for warehouses costs, books now had to move like a product that might spoil. That this was the very opposite of the way to build a following for fine new literature was irrelevant. The bottom line and the survival of the company was what the corporate owners needed.

The effect in editorial departments was a wave of fear. For a new author to be accepted the acquiring editor had to justify herself by likening the book to a best seller. “This is the new Mary Higgins Clark, or Philippa Gregory.” For authors, it meant that if they did not tailor their work to fit the current marketing template they would not find a publisher.

This is not to say that ‘literature” ceased to be sought and published, but here too the acquiring editor had to show justification beyond a lame seeming, “I like it.” And here another element enters into the history of the decline of book publishing. Ironically, it was at the apogee of success of unique American authors that the subject of “creative writing” began to be a college staple.

Codifying an art form is always ill advised. American policy in the Cold War was to ridicule the Soviets for just such codifying in their suppression of individualism in painting, sculpture, architecture – the dictating to the artist that his work must not be purely individual expression but must speak to the masses. In the West’s efforts to be as unlike the Soviet model, uniqueness for its own sake was the criteria for acceptance in the taste-forming art galleries of New York. The results ranged from the dramatic, but fragile, splashed and caked canvases of Jackson Pollack to large, clear plastic garbage bags filled with – yes – garbage which the viewer was invited to observe rot, or rather, “to participate in Nature.”

But in academia this passion for individualism was being set in reverse. Successful novels were being subjected to analysis to derive “rules” for “creative” writing. That “rules” and “creative” are terms naturally at odds seems not to have been noticed. Thus three rules were derived: Write what you know, find your voice and show, don’t tell.

The first rule fostered an introspective literature well attuned to a culture entranced with psychoanalysis. The second produced some unreadable jargon, a rise in near obsessive vulgarity, and some lovely writing. In time, this striving for a uniqueness of voice would push the searching writer and editor into minority and ethnic subject matter; exotic settings conveniently came to take the place of uniqueness of voice. The third, which did address the craft of writing, morphed into a “showing” proclivity for vividly depicting sensational subject matter and abuse of the vulnerable.

Here the feminist movement found place to display the eons of abuse of women, and the distress of coming of age could be parsed by painful incidents and dangerous encounters. And the best of books, seeking inclusiveness, should be introspective, set in Asia or Africa in the voice of a troubled adolescent girl. What more could Literature ask?

The answer is, such well tutored “creativity’ isn’t creative at all: it is the work of earnest students or those desperate to please a well-schooled editor. This is not to say that there are not some honest books produced that just happen to fulfill the rules. But the yawning absence on the bookstore shelves of books that have nothing to do with any of these rules, books of untrammeled imagination and genius, gives the lie to the very notion that “creativity” can, or should, attempt to be taught.

The academic approach to the nature of books to be considered “good” has influenced two generations of would be writers and the editors who enable them to pass into the world of professionalism. Coupled with the preeminence of publishers’ accounting departments, the result has been decades of degenerating publishing as editors must justify themselves with imitations ad nauseum of best sellers and books that fulfill the “creative writing” classes and “inclusiveness”  shibboleths.

The post-Freud, post-Marxist, formulatized approach to book selection worked for a while, then began to fail as a new generation of readers, growing up after the Cold War, took little interest in minute self-examination or, surrounded by comforts and prosperity, failed to resonate to the cries of the abused.

Publishers became convinced there were few readers left, and shifted their selectivity toward supposedly ever useful how-to books and, for easy to buy gifts, ghost-written celebrity bios. The how-to books could originate in editorial meetings and be allotted to writers for hire; the celebrity bios offered acquiring editors the delights of expensive lunches with celebrities and the prestige of high-priced contracts.

To fill out the floor space of the big chain bookstores the Illustrated Book, which to the unconvinced eye is a comic book, was produced in sufficient quantity to fill up four aisles – in a deliberate reach to what publishers were presuming was an illiterate public.

There have been nay sayers. Jeff Bezos of Amazon was not convinced that serious readers were a vanishing specie. The success of his on-line book marketing may drive trade publishing and its partners the chain bookstores to extinction instead. His opening up of self-publishing through Amazon’s subsidiary CreateSpace is generating an entirely new industry. And this new industry, while serving an immense population of amateur writers, is freeing amateurs and professionals alike from the dictates of accounting departments and classrooms.

From the welter of new books being published by authors themselves, it may be hoped a new, fine and free literature will emerge; an immense new reading public already has been found and has the means to communicate its tastes and its “likes.”

For me, it meant refusing lucrative contracts from Random House, Viking and a string of publishers, beginning in 1985 and ending in 2008, with my agent Jacques de Spoelberche unable to find an editor to so much as look at my manuscripts. The problem: my book, Montfort, is a large historical novel about a man, and it’s neither a mystery nor a “war book” – the only acceptable categories then for American publishing of historical novels about men. I steadfastly refused to change my main character to a woman, as was repeatedly demanded by editors conforming to the current marketing rules. For me to do so would require doing ludicrous damage to the actual history my work explores.

Thus I found myself, by 2009, stepping into the world of indie publishing. Montfort The Early Years was the first book under contract with the newly merged BookSurge and Amazon affiliate that is CreateSpace. I’ve had something of an upfront seat for developments since then and have become a strong partisan of indie publishing.