Modern Book Publishing

January 22nd, 2009 • Kate

There’s an interesting piece in Time Magazine this week by Lev Grossman about modern book publishing, and how the way mainstream publishing does things now is a dying breed, and that change is-a-coming.

A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn’t dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it’s done. Literature interprets the world, but it’s also shaped by that world, and we’re living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since–well, since the early 18th century. The novel won’t stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It’s about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.

Now, there’s some stuff in the article that I would prefer were clarified. Grossman discusses the rise in fan fiction and self-publishing and references three authors whose self-published books sold very well through their own efforts and earned them high advances from traditional houses. But I think he could spend more time discussing the huge numbers of self-published titles that never sell more than 100 copies.
He mentions the YouTube culture of popularity bringing the best entertainment to the forefront of our consciousness, but think of how many millions of videos there are on YouTube that you’ll never see, never even hear of, that aren’t anything to write home about.
But I do like this part:

If you think about it, shipping physical books back and forth across the country is starting to seem pretty 20th century. Novels are getting restless, shrugging off their expensive papery husks and transmigrating digitally into other forms. Devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon’s Kindle have gained devoted followings.

I’ve said before, I love my Kindle, and for the ease of instaneous download and ease of transportation, a digital reader can’t be beat. But I’m not going to trash all the books I have currently, and I do think we — as an industry — need to consider the best way of paying authors, and agents, and editors, for the work they do in getting a rough manuscript to book form — whether that form is traditional or high tech.
Read the whole thing, and let’s talk about it. I’m curious to hear what you think.
(Ironically, perhaps, I first came to know Lev Grossman’s work through his novel Codex, which is partly about the search for a very old-fashioned medieval manuscript.)

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5 Responses to “Modern Book Publishing”

  1. lotusloquax Says:

    It is changing, but I don't see it changing as quickly as Grossman seems to suggest. People still love their books on paper. There is something to hold in your hands when you pay 25 bucks, and most of the older generation will not ever make the switch.
    I have an eBook, and I hate reading books that way, and I'm not that old. I'd love to check out a kindle in person to see if it's any better, but so far none of my friends or family have one that I can check out. I love the instantaneous nature of it, but I'm not convinced that it's the way I want to read, and I think there are a lot of other people like me.
    The up front cost of the reader is a deterrent for people who don't read tons too, especially when you consider varying formats coming out. I just foresee having to buy a new updated reader every couple of years just like with dvds/blueray.
    IMO Grossman seemed to mostly overlook opposing opinions, and downsides, etc.

  2. beth Says:

    I agree.
    This is a topic that I keep up with, just because it interests me. I DO think change is happening–how could it not. I think the real upheaval in the next few years won’t be electronic media (although that’s coming) but a change in the way publishing work (a la Editorial Ass, who’s blog on how she thinks publishing will change is where I rooted a lot of my thought). The current system that pits publishers against booksellers doesn’t work and can’t work in today’s society. When I told my husband about the way bookstores can order and return books with no repercussions and how publishers accept returns, he was shocked that the industry worked in that way. It makes no sense on paper–and it clearly is making no sense in real life, given the economic downturn publishing is experiencing. Restructuring the publisher-bookstore relationship will have to happen soon for publishing to remain profitable.
    That said, I do think electronic books will rise with the rise in better, more affordable e-readers…but I do not think books will go away, at least not in my lifetime, or my (nonexistent) children’s lifetime. People love books. And people love the simplicity of books. It’s so much easier to pick up a print book than worry about battery life, for example. On-the-go reading may become dominated by e-readers, but casual reading will remain a consistent paper-book dominated industry.

  3. Jen Says:

    A very interesting article, for sure. I’ve read several ebooks, and when I have the scratch for a Kindle, you can bet I’ll be buying one…the ease of downloading the book I want, instantly, from my living room while I’m lounging about in my pj’s is a pretty big draw.
    I’m also not a big fan of the current consignment system publishers and booksellers have going on…it squeezes midlist authors, leaving them at the mercy of beancounters at Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, and the publishers themselves. That said, this same model also subsidizes a lot of said mid-list authors, when big name writers like King and Steele and Grisham sell millions of copies of books for millions of dollars. Those dollars pay the advances for other books, giving the rest of us a shot.
    However, I am a bit biased, and I can admit it freely. I love the ease of this new technology, and I like the idea of books rising to the top from obscurity in such a democratic fashion; it appeals to the romantic, pull for the underdog side of me. Your comments about Youtube and the like are duly noted, and definitely have merit. There’s a lot of stuff of questionable quality out there. But I think the good stuff does tend to rise to the top, “Leave Britney ALONE!!!” guy notwithstanding.
    I’ve just started writing a new book, and I’m planning to put it up, serial fashion, on a new blog. I’m not the only one doing this, either. Is it the equivalent of going with PublishAmerica or iUniverse or some such, in terms of my hopes for a future career? I don’t know, but I’m willing to take the risk. I will say that I know what I’m getting into by doing it, that I have no expectation of gaining anything in terms of payment or credibilty with this…I have no illusions that it would make me a “Published Writer”.
    Still…it’s a lot of fun, and I look forward to doing it. Is it the wave of the future, as the article implies, sort of a farm system for traditional publishers? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like an entirely unreasonable assertion. Only time will tell, and I’ll be interested to see how it ultimately pans out.

  4. Joe Iriarte Says:

    I agree with lotusloquax and beth. I think change is coming, but I don’t think Grossman has it quite right. I think we’ll see more and more e-publishing, but I think most readers still want their reading material vetted for quality, and I think most readers want to pay for the art they enjoy.
    I hope so, anyway, because if free literature becomes the dominant paradigm, I think we’ll see quality suffer across the board. In my case, I’ve always thought I was a pretty good writer, but striving to reach the bar, trying to get past that gatekeeper, has pushed me to grow a lot more than I ever realized I needed to. If the publishing world were like YouTube, I probably would have sent my stories into the world and, if they weren’t particularly popular, I probably would have figured it had nothing to do with my writing skills. I would have found other causes to blame it on. The existence of a publishing hurdle will make the accomplishment of getting published a more meaningful one when it finally comes and, beyond that, will make it more likely that I will actually enjoy some success in connecting to readers, because it keeps me from inflicting my worst work on people.
    I read a lot of comments on a lot of blogs from people who think they’re as good at writing as most published writers, when they’re clearly not. If writers don’t get paid, then the idea of the professional fiction writer, which is admittedly a long shot even today, becomes an impossibility. How can you expect professional quality work when there are no professionals, though?
    When I got to Grossman’s last paragraph, something about the article snapped into view for me. His article purports to be something other than what it is. The introduction sells me an essay about the future of publishing. Upon reading the penultimate sentence, though, I realized that what I had actually read was an apologia for self-publishing.

  5. Joe Iriarte Says:

    If I ever did decide to make some of my unpublished work available for free online in the hopes of generating a buzz, I think I would do it through creativecommons,org, like Cory Doctorow has. There's more of a readership there that buys into the whole open-source thing than I could hope to generate through my blog or website.
    Beyond that, if the paradigm Grossman is pushing is that you self-publish primarily to attract the eye of the industry, so you can turn around and publish traditionally, then it makes more sense to self-publish where it's free. Why do I need physical books to sell out of the trunk of my car? So that I can make back less money than I spent on printing in the first place?