Thursday, February 19, 2009

My thoughts on the responsibility of the publishing industry to change.

Jaysus. I just read the NY Mag article written back in Sept about the state of the publishing industry for the first time. Don't know how I missed it before, although I was dealing with a lot. Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Scary.

I have some thoughts about this based upon the little I know about the industry. It seems to me that as a business model, it is just FLAWED. It's a mistake to take something like publishing - which originated originally to create "art" back in the day - and try to make it into a big business playing by the rules of capitalism. It's not a money-making venture, not at least, if you have the values of creating quality work in mind. Think about the idea of getting art galleries to become huge conglomerates, feeding artists big bucks and asking them to churn out 5 mediocre pieces of art per year or something, and then hoping that those pieces will sell big and return on your investment. Simply not possible. The creation of quality literature does not mesh well with your big business plan of pumping 7 figure advances into one dude and leaving everybody else out to flounder. It doesn't foster the creation of writers. It certainly doesn't help foster a relationship between writers and editors and publishers. So what happens when the Updikes and the McCarthys of our generation die? Who's left to replace them as the writers of our time? Nobody. Why? Because literary fiction is dying a slow death. The moral being sold is simple: write us the next big blockbuster shitty hit, and write it fast, otherwise don't bother. Literary fictionists need not apply.

This, is of course, a catch-22 in many ways as well. Readers dictate what's being sold (because publishers subscribe to the capitlist nature of business), and right now readers want fast-paced commercial fiction of whatever milieu happens to be hip at the moment. Publishers cater to this in order to keep sales up, and churn out more and more, losing big on gambles sometimes, but also making it big. In the meanwhile pushing out the guys who are steady and quiet and producing books with more modest sales. On the other hand though, the publishing industry holds sway over what is being produced and marketed to readers. They make certain types of literature available to people. They put it in the front display. They tell people what they should be excited about and they encourage people to want and expect the crap they often read.

I don't know about other writers, but the few I know all really seem to love and appreciate quality fiction. Yes, we all want to make it in, of course, and the current model seems like well, you have a shot at making it BIG, maybe, though who or what seems entirely a crapshoot (nobody knows. How do you know if you're going to be the next Stephenie Meyer? Quality of writing, content, genre - it all seems completely random). But on the other hand, we all equally lament the fact that the industry as it stands has seem to have lost its purpose. When I read this article, I thought, how nice, once upon a time, publishers existed because they cared about literature. Because they wanted to help great writers contribue something to society. They did it because it was important. Now it's near impossible to hold onto that mentality and still turn a profit it seems. There's SO MUCH on the bookshelves, and yes, as a lover of books I think that's nice. But on the other hand, I wonder how much of it is actually good. And how do I FIND the good stuff?

I kinda feel like the bubble is bursting here. For everyone in the world, publishing included. I hope that maybe this forces people to look hard again what the values of such an industry exists for. As a low-profit margin industry, I think it's a fallacy to be caught up in blockbusters that exist for half a NY minute. There's no way around being low-profit, then you might as well reinvent your business model to achieve the original purpose of publishing as it was in its purist form.

Easier said then done, I know. And it's already happened, so I don't see how it can be undone. As a writer, of course I love this idea that I can maybe make some dream advance of 7 figures (ha) and make it my career. But that's not why I got into it. And so, as a reader, I'd ask - no, PLEAD - with the industry to change the way it operates. I'm afraid that the way it's going, it's erasing literature as we know it. And pretty soon, we're going to be Hollywood in print, where everyone just awaits the next Adam Sandler movie and forgets that once upon a time, people went to the movies because it was an art form.

I don't know if that makes sense. It's just that the fate of publishing I think is bigger than just about a capital venture. It's about the masses. It's about the art we put out there. It's about what will endure, 100 years after we're gone? If Twilight is hailed as the best of our century, I might as well quit now. I got into this mess because literature is art. And I suspect that, for a lot of editors and agents, they did too. But the business model of publishing is killing that, and I just can't stand to see that happen.


Also: boycott the Kindle. That's just book blasphemy.

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