Greetings from Book Expo America Part II: Publishing is Doomed

It’s 8:30 AM on a Wednesday and I am listening to Karin Slaughter talk about writing. Slaughter—a Jodie Foster-type, Southern, with short, dusty blonde hair—is the keynote speaker at BEA’s Writers Conference and she is quite chipper at this ungodly hour. She has reason to be—she’s one of the few writers who actually sells books.

You see, loyal NPIers, fewer than 1% of books published sell 100,000 copies and something like 90% of books never earn back the money from the advance. You may be wondering how publishers make any money. Well, they basically wait for Dan Brown to sell 87 billion copies of his books.

The Writers Conference, in addition to being a chance to connect writers with agents and editors, is something of a primer on how the publishing industry works. And it’s not pretty.

As in Hollywood, there is tension between the creative side and the business side of the industry. Not surprisingly, agents and publishers are looking for books that will sell. Often, books that are good and books that will sell overlap. But a book being good is very rarely enough to make it sell. 

So agents look at much more than book quality. As one agent said, “People think you get your book published and that will make you famous. That’s backwards. Get famous, and then we’ll help you publish your book.” So get ready for more books like this and this and this.

Fame works, and so do gimmicks. The only aspiring writer there who I am actively rooting against is a British man who suggested facetiously (I think) that the U.S. should try to land on Mars so we could get some good books about it (based on how trying to land on the Moon spawned a whole genre in the 1960s).

Why am I rooting against him? Am I an Anglophobe? Do I hate Mars? No, I am rooting against him because he made a point of telling people that his principled ethics make him, “opposed to broadcasting…I only believe in narrowcasting.” He is opposed to broadcasting because it leads to problems with “gatekeepers” or those who decide what gets to be broadcast. This means he won’t go on television or radio to promote his book, and he was worried that this would devastate his writing career.

You may be asking yourself, what the hell is “narrowcasting”? Well, Stephen King talks about it here, but it’s really a bullshit word. The whole concept of “casting” something implies that you make it available to a wide, or broad, audience. Apparently, the only ethical form of communication is one-on-one conversation, or maybe some sort of epistolary television.

The Brit’s worry, however, was quickly dispelled as the agents in the room actually thought this was an excellent idea. You see, having ridiculous ethical qualms helps your “platform” and helps generate buzz about your book. They gushed over the idea of a modern Pynchon who can only be seen on YouTube: “Frankly, I see it as a positive.”

Of course, the mother of all gimmicks is a blog. One of the best ways to get a book published is to have a successful blog, like this one, for example (Get ready for the NPI book! Tentatively scheduled for the summer 2019!). But you can’t just start a blog with the intent to get a book out of it. As Jane Friedman says, “one way to get published is to not care about getting published…you have to be very Zen about it.”

Friedman actually leads a discussion on self-publishing at the conference. And this is what leads me to the conclusion that the publishing industry is doomed.

Right now, of course, self-publishing is seen as a consolation prize for people who can’t find a real publisher. Much of Friedman’s talk was devoted to the problems just getting over that stigma. For most people at the conference, this is a huge difficulty—these people aren’t looking to be the next John Grisham necessarily, but they want to see their books in print.

This, however, is a generational thing. Friedman herself admitted that the last three books she has read, she’s read on her iPhone. Soon, publishing a physical book will simply not be practical.

And this is why publishing is doomed. Right now, the publishing industry is basically financed by celebrities and literary superstars like King, Grisham and Brown. The fact is, though, that superstars don’t really need publishing companies to hype their books—the same way Radiohead doesn’t need a record label to promote its album—and celebrities can achieve the publicity-bump a book gives them through Twitter and the blogosphere now.

If publishing a physical book doesn’t make financial sense for the few writers who DO sell books, and these are the books that finance the entire industry, then it doesn’t bode well for the other 99% of books. So is this going to finally bring about the end of literature and the long-awaited “death of the novel”? Maybe. (Probably not.) But I do think it spells the end of the publishing industry as we know it.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] more from the original source:  Greetings from Book Expo America Part II: Publishing is Doomed Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and […]

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  2. Posted by lawgorrhea on June 17, 2009 at 9:42 PM

    Case in point:

    http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20285499,00.html

    Reply

  3. […] situation is actually eerily reminiscent of what is going in newspapers right now (and publishing for that matter), except that the loss of newspapers is being treated as a much more morose affair. […]

    Reply

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