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Book Industry's Schizophrenia, and Hey, That Sounds Familiar

Motoko Rich’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times points out the crazy extremes of the book business in these times, comparing Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “temporary” acquisitions freeze with the situation at Hachette:

As first reported by Publishers Lunch, an industry newsletter, Hachette is giving bonuses equal to one week’s salary to every employee in the company, in addition to the regular bonuses for which staff members are eligible.

Why is this possible?

On the surface these twin pieces of news would seem to suggest that success in the book industry, as with other forms of entertainment, is increasingly dependent on the production of major hits, works that are so successful that they can support a family of less successful siblings. David Young, chairman and chief executive of Hachette Book Group, said that the company had racked up 104 New York Times best sellers this year.

Once upon a time, some publishers suggested, they could cultivate under-the-radar authors and slowly build an audience for them over several books. Now, with few exceptions, books tend to come out of the gate at the top of the best-seller list or be deemed failures.

Sounds somewhat like the essay I’ve been serializing . . . The best quote in the article—well, if you’re a bit self-deprecating and ironic—is this one:

“It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities,” said Esther Newberg, a literary agent who represents blockbuster authors like the thriller writers Patricia Cornwell and Linda Fairstein and Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The Times. “I would hate to be starting out in the business.”

Uh, shit. At least the foreign authors we’re publishing are household names, you know? Like Ricardas Gavelis . . . Or, um, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, both of whom are destined to be Oprah Book Club pics. (Did I mention how an Open Letter subscription makes a great holiday gift?)

Actually, Motoko loaded this piece with great quotes:

“I cannot conceive of ever saying, ‘We’re not buying more books,’ ” said David Shanks, chief executive of Penguin Group USA, another publisher that has had a decent year with successful titles like Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual guide A New Earth and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which has continued its best-seller status on the paperback list. “You might as well put up a sign saying, ‘We’re out of business.’ ”



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