This Halloween, I'm Going As a Book Publisher

The good news is that publishing, as you and I have come to love it for the last couple of decades, is not dying. The bad news is that it's dead.
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Dear Books Editor Amy:

Thank you so much for inviting me to opine on what we laughingly call the publishing business. (By the way -- you won't really publish this in the Huffington Post, will you? I wouldn't want to reveal my dark musings to the millions of readers of said site -- some of whom undoubtedly include my colleagues in the industry. So let's just keep this vitriolic spew between friends, hmm?)

The good news is that publishing, as you and I have come to love it for the last couple of decades, is not dying.

The bad news is that it's dead, or if not dead, then living dead -- which makes it a zombie -- which means it's a chic place to be, since the only thing chic-er than a zombie these days is a vampire. (Teenage magicians are so pre-Recession.)* So, perhaps that's also good news. Book publishing, or at least traditional book publishing, is a ghastly, shambling creature that consumes the living: the authors, editors, booksellers and others of our multi-talented, dedicated colleagues. Good news on top of good news; super!

Depending on what numbers you use, and whether you count self-published books as books**, anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 new books a year are published in the States. More books than ever, more readers than ever -- a recent (January 2009) NEA report details the first rise in literary readership since the 1980s -- and yet publishers, bookstores and authors are in worse shape than ever.

Historically, publishing was the one industry that was supposed to do well in a recession. The theory went that as people found themselves pressed economically, they would turn to books for solace -- to books to improve themselves -- to books for cheap entertainment. But the past year has seen major publishers, as well as the chains, release dismal financial reports; publishing stalwarts such as Dan Menaker, Jane Friedman (Publishers Weekly's "Publishing Person of the Year" for 2006) and many others who seemed untouchable have abruptly found themselves, in that peculiar Britishism, "made redundant."

What's perplexing is that almost no one, from the haughty denizens of Midtown office towers to the meekest editor at the most obscure university press, denies the state of things. Talk about publishing's ills to any editor at an established house, or any agent who relies on these same houses for his/her income, and the response is just about identical: a bemused smile, a sigh...a shrug. These days, publishing people don't even feign optimism: the -ism of choice is fatalism. Yes, there are a few makeovers in the business -- HarperCollins' HarperStudio springs to mind -- but really these are the same old, same old. "Next season will be better." It must be.

Most traditional publishers can't wean themselves from gambling vast amounts of money on "hunches" for books that may be perfectly decent but more often than not don't earn back their advances; they could no more abandon the broken system of guesstimated print runs, oversold and underpromoted books than they could abandon their Blackberries. Which is to say they couldn't.

What is to be done? Are there solutions? There are, dear Amy, but these will have to wait until my second letter to you.

All good wishes,

John Oakes

* Interesting, dear Amy, that this brief list of oldtime phenomena that have undergone a recent and undeniable resurgence in popular culture--zombies, vampires, and magicians--all got their start in the book world. In the real world, the President himself has gotten a steady measure of support from his two bestsellers, and now, thanks to the good folks at HarperCollins--perhaps seeking to recover from their 20% drop in revenue over the last quarter--we shall see how Sarah Palin's credibility is affected by bestsellerdom.

** Although rare is the author published at a big house in the last few years who hasn't felt that he/she was "self-published." Editors who are fired after a year; publicists who can't spell your name; no marketing budget whatsoever--no reviews to speak of--and a miasma of misinformation surrounding the entire process, from accounting to print runs--after such an experience, being "self-published" can't seem so terribly foreign.

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