Monday, January 26, 2009

The Future of Publishing Revisited

Once upon a time, publishing was considered a recession-proof industry for a simple reason; people always need to eat, and people need to be entertained. Reading was one of the few, cheap forms of entertainment available when there were only three channels on TV and not much else to do. But now there's cable TV, Netflix, video games, the Internet... lots of alternatives, which is why in this recession the New York houses are hurting (and so are those of us who supply the New York houses with their product—namely, writers).

Last week I published an excerpt from a recent article written by Lev Grossman. He had some scary things to say about the future of publishing. Yes, our industry is changing, but I don't agree with all of his predictions, in particular his emphasis on the impact of e-books on the industry. Remember back when e-books first appeared and so many people were heralding them as the future of publishing? Ten-plus years on, that now seems less likely. Most of us spend far too much of our working lives staring at a screen (and a big chunk of our non-working lives, too) to want to read a book that way. Oh, my poor eyes.

Initially, the E-book publishing phenomena held glittering promise because it was seen as a way for experimental, edgy writers to get their stuff past those stuffy, shortsighted New York-based guardians of orthodoxy known as editors. In the romance genre, for instance, writers and readers of sci-fi romance and fantasy romance in particular enthusiastically embraced e-publishing, since the big publishing houses were producing so little of “their” kind of books. Now, with the 10-year-plus craze in vampire romance still going strong, it seems New York publishes little else. Did New York listen to the e-publishing world and respond, or would the dark urban fantasy phenomena have come even without e-books? I could be wrong, but I suspect New York was reacting (albeit more slowly than e-book sites) to the popularity of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer rather than to anything else.

What I do know is that the enthusiasm of many for cheap or free e-books quickly cooled when readers discovered what New York editors actually do to earn their salaries. They aren’t there to serve as the guardians of orthodoxy, however much it might seem that way to the frustrated writer weary of being told his book is unmarketable. New York editors are there to weed out the wannabe writers who slept through English Grammar 101; the writers with no ear for dialogue and no clue how to set a scene; the writers who make up their plots as they go along and never bother to go back and revise for consistency. In other words, readers gained a new appreciation for New York publishing houses in their role as what Steve Malley, in an excellent analysis of this question, calls Quality Portals.

Nevertheless, e-publishing has had an impact on publishing, and not necessarily in a way that is positive for writers. My agent was in the midst of negotiating to get back the rights to several of my old, out-of-print romances when new Kindle versions of said books suddenly appeared on In other words, e-books have become a way for houses to keep books “in print” and therefore under contract without having to devote warehouse space to actually stocking said books. This can be avoided with special wording in new contracts, but older books remain vulnerable.

This post is getting far too long. I’m off to the lake for a few days of intensive writing, but I plan to revisit other aspects of this topic next week.


Steve Malley said...

I envious of your lake-time right about now. I'm feeling a little bit overwhelmed by all I have on my plate at the moment, wishing I had a retreat where I could make the day-to-day stuff quit picking at my sleeve.

Write well. We'll see you again soon!

midnightcajun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Gramlich said...

I didn't realize that about the Kindle editions as a way to keep books under contract. Good something to know.

dandeliongum said...

hello! i found your blog and thought this particular post was very interesting, probably because i lived in new orleans growing up and recently moved to new york city. i've always loved writing and reading and thought about pursuing it.

so i just thought i'd say hi!
p.s. the lake is a brilliant place to write, i used to always sit at the mandeville lakefront for inspiration.

laughingwolf said...

thx candy, i can't see spending $300-400 + for a 'reader', even if the ebooks are cheaper than those in print

enjoy your writing hiatus :D

Shauna Roberts said...

Candice, you may already know this, but Where Serpents Sleep will be one of the Editors' Choice Titles in the forthcoming February issue of Historical Novels Review. Congrats!

cs harris said...

Steve, I wish I could have got more done; the Muse was definitely not in tune.

Dandeliongum, thanks for stopping by.

Charles, the newer contracts are written with minimum sales rules to keep this from happening any more.

Laughingwolf, a friend just showed me her Kindle and I definitely won't be lining up to buy one!

Shauna, I did not know that! Thanks for the tip.

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