3 July 08 | Chad W. Post

In last Sunday’s Washington Post, Jonathan Karp makes some interesting statements about the future of publishing in his article Turning the Page on the Disposable Book

He starts with an accurate assessment of the immediacy of publishing and its ramifications:

Like most publishers, I want multitudes of readers to buy our books. Moreover, authors prefer publishers who believe in the broad appeal of their work and are committed to selling as many copies as possible. Most authors want their work to be accessible to a typical educated reader, so the question really isn’t whether the work is highbrow or lowbrow or appeals to the masses or the elites; the question is whether the book is expedient or built to last. Are we going for the quick score or enduring value? Too often, we (publishers and authors) are driven by the same concerns as any commercial enterprise: We are manufacturing products for the moment.

Among major publishing houses, the impetus to meet annual profit targets is a fact of life — the basis of budgets, salaries and bonuses. Publishers do what typical executives do: They plan. They forecast. They develop strategies for growth. Unfortunately, these attempts at producing consistent results don’t work particularly well in an endeavor that is only slightly more predictable than a game of blackjack.

This points to one of the big differences between corporate publishing and a nonprofit. Corporations need financial results. Increases in profit, which inevitably lead to producing more books, or books that they believe will appeal to a larger audience. Nonprofits have the advantage of being able to supplement their sales revenue with grants and donations, which should help these presses to fulfill their mission. (Such as receiving a grant to give away copies of a book at a reading, thus connecting more readers with a particular author.) Since nonprofits don’t rely strictly on sales revenue, they can stay away from the “bigger, faster, better” mentality that infests other publishing houses.

Enough about that though, what’s really interesting to me is the way that Karp connects the speed of publishing with its pressure on authors:

Books of this ilk [Ed. note: trendy ones that he described in prev. paragraph.] have always existed. But in the past, they’ve been balanced by substantive books, crafted by monomaniacal authors who devoted years to the work. I can’t prove it empirically, but when I talk to literary agents and fellow publishers, they acknowledge an unarticulated truth about our business: Fewer authors are devoting more than two years to their projects. The system demands more, faster. Conventional wisdom holds that popular novelists should deliver one or two books per year. Nonfiction authors often aren’t paid enough to work full-time on a book for more than a year or two.

There’s no guarantee that a book will be better if an author spends more time writing it, but years of research and reflection often provide a perspective that offers readers a kind of wisdom and authority they can’t get anywhere else.

This is a bit scary, and feels true. And makes me glad that we deal with a totally different sort of book and author.

Karp ends with a sweeping vision for the future of publishing that ends in an odd counterpoint:

The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively. Those who publish generic books for expedient purposes will face new competitors. Like the music companies, some of those publishers may shrink or die. [. . .]

Consequently, publishers will be forced to invest in works of quality to maintain their niche. These books will be the one product that only they can deliver better than anyone else. Those same corporate executives who dictate annual returns may begin to proclaim the virtues of research and development, the great engine of growth for business. For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books — works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.

Maybe. I do think that things are changing and the publishing industry is going to go through a period of upheaval over the next few years. (Christ, how long can an industry that pays Emily Gould $250K—or thereabouts—for her “memoir” continue functioning?) And I do truly believe that there is a core group of readers (like everyone who reads this blog) who care about great literature and want to read works of art, not the latest whatever.

But I wonder if this “return to quality” will come from the corporate sector, or if readers will realize that there’s a ton of high-quality books coming out every year from independent and university presses. In other words, I wonder which will happen first, a paradigm shift at a commercial house away from overpaying for mediocre books to slowing down and publishing good books; or, if readers will start to turn away from these sorts of entertainment books (they can get their entertainment fix from the internet, or TV, anyway) in favor of “works of quality.”


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