In New York, The Real Vanity Publishers Converge

I haven't had a drink or smoked pot in more than two decades, but I am more than willing to toss away my sobriety if the publishers who gathered at BookExpo America last week would share with me some of the high quality ganja they were undoubtedly passing around.

They think that just because they've made it through another year, that their ongoing survival is somehow assured.


If you sell enough fiction, maybe you start believing in it.

The reality is that bookstores are disappearing. That book readers are finding other things to do with their time and money. That independent publishing has stolen the raison d'etre of major publishing houses, who have lost their twin hammerlocks on the marketing and distribution of books.

New York publishers also continue to undermine the value of books by publishing mediocre books by mediocre authors who have large social media followings and therefore permit lazy publishers to publish books without needing to make the effort to market them.

This is a market strategy known as trying to fool all of the people all of the time.
It was last applied, with equal success, to the Edsel and more recently, to New Coke.

The New York Times, of course, treats Book Expo America with the solemnity due Puxatawnie Phil on Groundhog Day. It quoted such worthies as a librarian at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to the effect that "Publishing is not dead." With no disrespect intended to the librarians of Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who are undoubtedly masters of the card catalog, the Dewey Decimal System, and shushing, how the hell would they know whether publishing was dead or not?

Librarians may be the saving grace of the publishing industry, not unlike municipalities that are ordered to purchase only American cars. Years ago, if you put in a book proposal marketing plan that you could sell your book to libraries, you were essentially admitting that you had no marketing plan. Today, librarians have the luxury of spending your tax dollars on books that neither you nor your children are likely ever to read. Without library purchases of books, there's not a single major publisher that could survive today.

The unintentionally funniest quote came in Forbes's coverage of Book Expo. "Print is like Yiddish; it has been on its deathbed for 400 years," said the CEO of a major New York publishing company, whom Forbes described as the funniest man in publishing. (Compared to whom, exactly?) The funny CEO adds: "And we've learned some lessons from the record business."

Stop the presses. Yiddish is doing a lot better than book publishing, which is as halfan as a teuten bonkis (about as useful as a dead leach, a truly awesome Yiddish expression).

And exactly what lessons did the publishing world learn from the record industry? That if you don't get a handle on technology, which they have run from like Kryptonite, you'll watch all the profits sucked out of your industry and your retail stores will collapse before your very eyes? Which sounds like a latter day Yiddish curse, but it's pretty much the only lesson publishing has learned from the music world.

The quoted CEO's own company has just slithered into bankruptcy for the second time in four years. I have a book coming out with them later this year; both the contract and the payment were so late, even by publishing's lax standards, that all I can say do is quote my Yiddish-speaking late grandmother, who would have said, Mit a nar tor men nit handlen. (Look it up.)

New York publishers love to accuse anyone who does a book behind their backs as a "vanity press." But the real vanity is believing that you're still "curating information" as if you were a very special museum worker or that you are still the gatekeeper on the information superhighway. Let me remind the publishers that no superhighways pass through Manhattan, informational or otherwise. The world has moved on.

So if the publishers' new business plan is to stick their heads like onions in the ground (another Yiddish curse) and hope that Amazon, tweeting, texting, smartphones, ebooks, and that new-fangled Internet the kids are so excited about all go away, then they better stock up on the ganja. That's because their whole industry, foolishly led and now downright delusional, is going up in smoke.