Book Publishing Today: Not for the Faint of Heart

A writer who took a close and critical look at academic publishing in 2005 turns his attention to trade publishing. And what he sees is even less pretty.

If you’re an idealist about books and publishing generally—and you want to hold on to your idealism—Merchants of Culture isn’t for you. It torpedoes many of the traditional notions book readers cling to, especially that dearly held conviction that artistry and quality are treasured by publishers and will always be recognized in the end. Apparently (unless almost by accident) they won’t. Cynics, no doubt, have always known this. But the eyes of even the most hardboiled of them are sure to be further opened by the catalogue of crassness, most of it perpetrated quite blatantly in the publishing industry, that fills John B. Thompson’s latest book of revelations.

His previous exposé of the publishing racket (the words “exposé” and “racket” seem quite appropriate in this context), Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States (2005), dealt, as the title indicates, strictly with the field of academic publishing—a field that has shrunk substantially and has had to make major adjustments as heavily subsidized university presses struggle for survival owing to a by now familiar combination of horrors, such as  economic hard times for higher education and  relatively tiny readerships when book readers are also declining in all fields, not to mention the much publicized competition from electronic rivals. As for academic journals, the situation is even more dire. Many of the finest of them can no longer afford to produce hard copies and have gone on-line in order to survive. At least in their case, the move makes some sense. After all, their contents are often anthological. Researchers are, accordingly, reluctant buy the entire journal when they may only want to consult a page or two, or even just a footnote, in a specific article.

Having uncovered the innards of academic publishing with great acumen, Thompson in Merchants of Culture turns his attention to the most lucrative area of the business: “trade publishing” principally in the U.S. and the U.K. I should mention that Canada doesn’t rate a mention in the entire book, except for a brief comment in a parenthesis: “I’ve said that the logic of the field is broadly similar in the US and UK–New York and London are the two metropolitan centres of English-language trade publishing and the field stretches across the Atlantic, embracing both countries (and indeed Canada, which, in terms of most forms of publishing and other creative industries, in inextricably interwoven with the US).” Now there’s a familiar story.

For those who don’t know the in-jargon, “tradepublishing” means “the sector of the publishing industry that is concerned with publishing books, both fiction and non-fiction, that are intended for general readers and sold primarily through bookstores and other retail outlets.” Included in the category are such genres as cookbooks, detective fiction, romance novels, poetry, etc. As a touchstone for trade publishing as a whole, Thompson frequently holds up Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (which, Thompson suggests, is loathed and loved in equal quantities by both the reading public and the denizens of the publishing industry and often for the same reasons). The book typifies the behemoth or the bête noire the modern publishing world produces or is produced by.

All in all, claims Thompson, some very bizarre-seeming things are going on in “this new age of publishing” that didn’t used to be there before. Among the many examples of this bizarreness, he chooses to dwell on the case of the (once) largely unknown professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, Randy Pausch. He, you may remember, was dying of pancreatic cancer and gave an inspiring last lecture on realizing one’s childhood dreams. By a series of convolutions, the video of his lecture got on to YouTube. Pausch was invited to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey (“the Oprah effect” is vastly important in these matters), and, in the course of time, publishers in New York asked him if he’d like to make a book based on his lecture. Though his life was short, Pausch agreed to do it—-of course, with the help of a co-author (but that’s another topic). His newly acquired agent negotiated a  $6.75-million dollars advance, even though Pausch  had never written a trade book before. Pausch himself was astonished at that. The publishers immediately began a massive (and massively expensive) publicity campaign. The Last Lecture went straight to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and sold more than 3.6 million hardcover copies.

Most of us might agree that such a thing truly is bizarre though we’re sort of used to it by now. Surely, however, it’s an outrider and doesn’t have much to do with what we have traditionally thought of as the way in which most successful books come into being. Not so, says Thompson. That’s where we’re wrong. We (the still-idealistic readers and writers alike) only think the instance of The Last Lecture is bizarre because we’re abysmally ignorant of the business side of the profession. Our naiveté might have been quite excusable in earlier, more innocent times but isn’t in this “age of information”? And Thompson is  going to give us that information. When we find out how the forces that have come to dominate the publishing world have changed (and Merchants of Culture is going to teach us exactly that), we’ll no longer be at all surprised at how things have turned out, Thompson says: “For the players are not acting on their own: they are always acting in a particular context…in which the actions of any participant are conditioned by, and in turn condition, the actions of others.”

So, what are the forces that define this “new age of publishing?” Thompson, who loves to enumerate, suggests there are principally three (each of them broken down into further enumerated subdivisions, sub-subdivisions and so on).

The first force is the growth of the retail chains and the resultant changes in the retail environment of bookselling generally. Surprisingly, the mega-bookstores such as Borders and Barnes and Noble, which have been the cause of great consternation among the operators of independent stores (whom the mega-bookstores have, frankly, have helped kill off), are not regarded by Thompson as great villains in the transformation for the worse of the book industry. No, even the mega-bookstores have, in their turn, had a very tough time of it. Among the causes of their hardships are such esoteric but vital matters as “the mass-market hardback,” the astonishingly high return rate of hardcover books (even apparent “best-sellers”) to the publisher, and the continuing menace of online booksellers such as  Amazon. Thompson is sympathetic to their plight and expects us to be, too. After all, when all is said and done, at least these mega-bookstores’ raison d’etre was to give pride of place to books.

No, the problem retail stores are those like Costco,  Walmart, and your local supermarket that only stock best-sellers and do it in much the same way they stock cans of beans. They are able to sell the books at a fraction of the price we’d pay in a genuine bookstore. The reason they can do this is that, paradoxically, they receive huge discounts from the publishers, who simply can’t afford not to sell books in these huge discount stores, knowing their competitors most certainly will. One of the unfortunate consequences of these bargains at the retail stores is that the book “consumer” eventually comes to think that paying more than, say, $5.99 for a hot new book is a rip-off. Clearly this is very bad news for the genuine mega-bookstores, not to mention the remaining independents. How can they possibly compete? In the U.K. especially, publishers are suffering badly in terms of ever-escalating discounts and ever diminishing profits.

The second force, then, is the rise of the literary agent as a key power-broker in the field of English-language trade publishing. As has already been evident in the world of sports, agents demand the highest price possible for their clients. In the case of books, the agents want huge advances for the authors with established names—for example, in fiction, Dan Brown (once again), or J.K. Rowling, or the late Stieg Larsson. Publishers, to be competitive, have to be willing to pay the big advances. Some of them have mortgaged themselves to the hilt, a strategy that was easily negotiated in the pre-recessionary times.

Obviously, if publishers have to pay a huge advance to a popular author, they then find themselves having no option but to spend proportionately as much money in promoting her book to make sure it sells massively. Hence those lavish efforts we see on TV and in the newspapers that are meant to influence mass markets. They’re an example of the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. The book must become a best seller to justify, or even to recoup, some of the publisher’s investment. The efforts usually succeed if for no other reason than that the poor reader, exposed to the saturation marketing, buys the book just to see what all the fuss is about (poor old Dan Brown’s a culprit, once again). 

The result of this heavy investment in a handful of authors is  an unwillingness or inability of publishers to pay much, if anything, in terms of advances to subsidiary authors. Nor is there much left in the kitty to publicize their work properly. In the jargon of the trade, it’s a case of “letting dead fish float downstream.” These minor authors’ books languish, for a short time, at the back of the huge bookstores far from the Starbuck’s counter. Soon enough they’re sent back to the publisher and the pulping machine.

Finally, then, the third force is the emergence of transnational publishing corporations. These beasts stem, says Thompson, from successive waves of acquisitions and mergers beginning in the 1960s and continuing through to the present day. With these corporations comes a model for publishing that is strictly a business one. If the “product” doesn’t make profits, someone has to pay. Hence, some of the very finest editors and their assistants quickly become redundant. Many simply quit as they see the demise of quality in favour of profits––for example, books by celebrities such as President Obama or Sarah Palin (with the help of her co-author), or guaranteed winners like (poor old) Dan Brown. Ironically, many of these former publishing insiders have avenged themselves by becoming agents. They have few illusions about the new realities, perhaps the most depressing being that book readership has declined—most people don’t read that many books, and those they do read are almost invariably picked up at the front of the supermarket or the mega-store.

Thompson’s listing of these three main causes of the changes in the publishing world isn’t just to give him an excuse to vent. On the contrary, he struggles to be objective and to show what he calls the inevitable “logic” of the “field.” Indeed, he even admits there are some benefits in the gigantism of the industry now, especially “benefits of scale”; i.e., efficiencies in technical matters like printing, etc. He also argues there’s still a profitable place for very small publishers who make a name for themselves in terms of quality rather than mass appeal. Yet Thompson is himself a book lover, and some of the most passionate parts of this otherwise quite analytical work are his eulogies to the traditional book.

He’s not at all, for that matter, worried about the bête-noire of many readers–digital books, or even the threat of them in a more distant future. He doesn’t really consider the technology all that important or transformational in the field of trade books, not yet at any rate. Indeed, most of his inside sources in the publishing world (interestingly, the fear of reprisals makes most of them demand anonymity) aren’t concerned about the digital threat, either. They doubt whether the much-mooted Kindle or E-book reader will ever hold more than ten per cent of the market. As one U.S. insider says: “Sure you can carry 80 books around on this $400 reader, but the number of people I know who require 80 books to be carried around at one time is very small. For narrative, immersive reading digital readers are a complete waste of everyone’s time.”

Yet, almost every day since I’ve read Merchants of Culture, I see new figures about the sale of reading devices that would make the heart of a literary Luddite sink. It’s hard, for example, to square Thompson’s optimism with the recent announcement in the Globe and Mail that H.B. Fenn, Canada’s largest book distributor, plans to file for bankruptcy. Especially when the CEO suggests that the company is in trouble “due to the loss of distribution lines, shrinking margins and the significant shift to e-books….” How sad if the buying of e-books is one of the ways in which Canada isn’t “inextricably interwoven” with the U.S.!

E-books aside, however, the internet and online book sellers such as Amazon now do what the bookstores seem no longer able to:  they bring little-known books to our attention. Anyone who has searched book vendors online knows that once you get past the ads on the homepage and start searching with your own keywords, a wonderful thing happens: the beautiful, obscure, and once-lost volumes start floating to the surface. This miracle, together with access to thousands of used book sellers across North America, is  a salve to at least some of the horrors Thompson reveals. For writers doomed to obscurity and those readers intent on finding them, this aspect of the new technology represents a welcome alternative to those tables groaning under the weight of best sellers in Costco and Walmart.

Nancy McCormick is a Law Librarian and Associate Professor of Law  at Queen’s University and a frequent contributor to Academic Matters.