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.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Future of Publishing

I've deliberately avoided writing about what is happening to the publishing industry these days. Massive layoffs, hiring freezes, wage freezes, falling printruns, falling advances... The news coming out of New York has been gloomy. Long considered a "recession-proof" industry, publishing is discovering just how vulnerable it is in our modern electronic world.

So what does the future hold? To depress those of us who value fine writing (and a living wage) even more, here's a quote from a recent article in Time--"What Publishing Will Look Like?"--in which Lev Grossman talks about the evolution of publishing and the novel in particular:

"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....

"...More books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City's entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.

"We can expect a literary culture of pleasure and immediate gratification. Reading on a screen speeds you up: you don't linger on the language; you just click through. We'll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life."

"Cheaper, wilder, trashier"? "More books, written for little or no money"? "More romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative"? All I have to say is, Oh, dear...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In Our Lifetime


What we witnessed this morning--not just the inauguration of a man whose father would have been ordered to sit at the back of a bus sixty years ago, but also the peaceful transfer of power from one side of the political spectrum to the other--is something of which all Americans, whatever their politics, can be proud.

Congratulations, Mr. President! And congratulations, America.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

“I Can See Russia From My House!”

No, this isn’t a blog about politics. But I do intend to use politics to make a point about something. Marketers work very hard to come up with tag lines that can be used to “brand” products. But sometimes this branding happens spontaneously, and I think we could learn something by looking at how and why that happens.

Think about the way in which presidents, vice presidents, and candidates are so often branded, for good or ill, by one telling phrase. For Nixon, it was (cue lowered eyebrows, shaking jowls, and guttural voice) , “I’m not a crook.” For Reagan, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Reagan was lucky; if Afghanistan hadn’t crashed the Soviet Union, Reagan’s defining line would probably have been the endless dazed “I don’t remember” from the Iran-Contra hearings.) Clinton? Take your pick: “I did not have sex with that woman.” Or, “That depends on what the meaning of is is.” Bush II? “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Brownie!” (closely followed by Mission Accomplished and “Bring it on.”) Think about Dan Quayle and what comes to mind? Potatoe.” Hart? The Monkey Business.

These politicians did not choose these phrases as their defining tags; the media and the public chose for them. Why? Because for some reason, these phrases resonated with people. We see this sort of thing happen with movies, too. Think about Make my day. I see dead people. Show me the money. You had me with hello.

Why do these phrases become so iconic? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to happen as often with books. True, most people would recognize the first line from Pride and Prejudice. Gone with the Wind gave us three lines: As God is my witness I’ll never be hungry again, Tomorrow is another day, and Frankly, dear, I don’t give a damn. But were those phrases so well known before the movie? I don’t doubt there are other examples from books, but it says something that I can’t think of them.

Still, I suspect we could learn something important by studying these phrases and thinking about the way they click. So, thoughts, anyone?

p.s. I know Sarah Palin actually said you can see Russia from Alaska. But because Tina Fey’s line so wonderfully captured the essence of the absurdity of the original, that’s the phrase that will forever characterize Palin (that and the turkey massacre).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mama Mia!

Yes, I know it got bad reviews, but I don’t care. I love this movie.

I meant to go see it when it was in the theaters, but a couple of hurricanes and a looming book deadline got in the way. So during the holidays, Steve and I sat down to watch the DVD with my daughters. All four of us laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. To appreciate this, you need to understand that my daughters hate ABBA. I mean, they were virtually born hating ABBA. And they still loved this movie.

No, it’s not profound. And yes, it’s silly. That’s one of the things that makes it so much fun.

But the amazing thing is, that at one point—where the Meryl Streep character is helping her daughter dress for her wedding—I also cried. Not as in laughed-so-hard-I-cried, but cried because my heartstrings were tugged. Any time a movie can make me laugh and cry, it’s a keeper. I don’t buy many movies, but I bought this one.

So if you’re in need of a good laugh and you haven’t seen it, grab some popcorn. Just don’t forget to keep watching when the credits start to roll. I still smile at the image of “Mr. Darcy” strutting on stage in a priceless imitation of Elvis Presley.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Back to Work, Or, Oh My God I’ve Less Than Two Months to Finish This Book!

Well, it’s a new year, and I’m back at work after more than three weeks off. I haven’t been anywhere. But sometime in early December, when my youngest was home from college and I realized my tree wasn’t up, my house wasn’t decorated, and I hadn’t bought any Christmas presents, I decided I had two choices: I could either keep trying to write my book and end up resenting Christmas and making my family miserable, or I could take off my writer’s cap, put away my manuscript, and just enjoy the holidays.

Christmas and my family won.

I had a great time, and I hope my family did, too. Last Friday I put my youngest on a flight to Italy. I spent the weekend taking down the tree and cleaning up my house and office (I even filed). Then, early Monday morning, I opened up my eyes and went, Eek. I have less than two months to finish What Remains of Heaven!

I’ve spent the last two days rereading what I’ve already written and going over my notes for what lies ahead. It’s going to be close, getting this thing in on time. But with a few trips up to the lake and no more disasters, I think I can make it.

And I had a great holiday. Happy New Year’s, everyone!