their daiK’ sales figures; some, one Fort Worth Borders managerrnconfessed, make more money on coffee and pastn,’ sales thanrnthey do on books. A manager for a San Antonio Barnes & Noblernoutlet told me that they sell more copies of book reviewrnpublicahons than actual books. “Of course,” she noted, “periodicalsrnare considerably cheaper than books, and for most readers,rnknowing about a book is as good as having read it.”rnAstute consumers just do not buy many books, at least not atrnretail prices. And why should they? Super discount stores, usedrnbook stores, book clubs, and even some supermarkets offer thernsame best-sellers for a substantial discount off even the megastores’rnreduced rates. Only a fool would plunk down $25 for thernsame novel that Wal-Mart or K-Mart will sell for $ 14.99. And ifrnthe book is any good, canny readers know that the paperbackrnversion will be out soon.rnIn the past ten years, commercial publishing has changed,rnand the changes have been quick and dynamic. To state thernproblem frankly and honestly, most publishers do not wantrngood books. That is, they do not want books that have beenrncarefully and artfully crafted; which tell a good story; whichrnpresent stunning characters; which amuse, scintillate, inspire,rnenthrall; which are, in other words, “literary.” They want booksrnthat sell. And for big bucks. If a book has sales potential andrnstill maintains all those qualities, fine. But unless it promisesrnquick and substantial profit, its innate qualities are of no particularrnimportance and have no appeal to a commercial publisher.rnAs recently as ten or 12 years ago, when a writer started outrnwith his first book, he would most likel}’ have an editor who hadrnbuilt his reputation on finding new authors, then developingrnthem. They did not make a lot of money for the first two, three,rnor four books, but they made enough to keep writing. The idearnwas that the fifth or sixth book would be a “breakout,” and thernwriters would make decent, maybe even big money, maybe winrna few prizes, maybe get movie deals, maybe hit the best-sellerrnlist a time or two. Then the writers would be in the publisher’srnstable, would be loyal to the editor who “discovered” them, andrnover a few decades, would develop a reputation and a readershiprnthat would benefit ever)one.rnSuch a system worked, and it made sense. Many writersrngradually became major names, “household words,” “namernbrands” over the years. Names like Robert Ludlum, ElmorernLeonard. Stephen King, Dean Koontz come to mind. This wasrnwhat was called being “in the process.” It might take three,rnfour, even five books, but writers could expect that their dayrnwould come. The editor would carry them over the roughrntimes, ignore smallish sales figures and gross returns, groomrnthem for “breakout,” and all would be well sooner or later,rnpreferably sooner.rnAfter 2 5 years with the same publisher, though, one editor ofrnthis sort left to take a senior position with another company,rnw hich was a wholly owned but totallv autonomous corporationrnbelonging to a “mega-house.” This was the editorial equivalentrnof a “breakout.” Now, he could control not a few but a wholerncompan of writers. He was ready to count coup. He eventuallyrnbrought a half-dozen or so young (in the business) writersrnwith him, began developing them in the same way he alwaysrnhad, and figured that within ten years he could have the bestrnhouse in New York. But things changed, and the change wasrnabrupt and unforeseen.rnThe company in question was, as I say, a wholly owned subsidiaryrnof another publisher, which was itself sold to a non-publishingrnentity, which employed a whole raft of MBAs whosernjobs were to do nothing but figure profit and loss. Some ofrnthem actualK’ read books, but none seemed to care very muchrnabout them. What they cared about was reading spread sheets.rnAfter two vears, the books this editor was publishing were notrnshowing profit, at least not enough profit, and the MBAs’ quarterlyrnreports were not good enough. The editor was fired.rnAccording to the story, a young corporate assistant vice presidentrnfrom the parent company got off the elevator one Wednesdayrnafternoon and “fired everyone in sight.” He fired the secretariesrnand the maid. He even tried to fire a messenger boy fromrna private mail serice. Twenty-five editors got the ax that afternoon,rnand the publishing house, for all intents and purposes,rnwas closed. One writer who was under contract for the companyrnsaid that when he called, all he got was an answering machine.rn”You could hear the wind howling down the emptyrnhalls behind the voice,” he said.rnTwo weeks later, the parent company reopened the subsidiary,rnbut only as an imprint house attached to the parent.rn(According to another rumor, the VP who did the firing andrnshut down the house forgot that this was one of the oldest publishersrnin New York; he himself was fired the following week.)rnA corporate vice president was put in charge. She probably hadrnnever edited a soul, or at least no successful soul, but she hadrnabsolute control over how things would be done. And theyrnwere done according to the most vicious enemv of writers,rn”market surevs.” Corporate suits took over the book business.rnIn a few vears, she herself was fired when she “lost” a majorrn”name brand.”rnThe new rules are simple: if a book, any book, does not turnrnsignificant sales numbers, the writer is gone. Even a first bookrnhas to “pay out,” earn back its advance, or the writer’s secondrnbook probably will not be published. Gone are reasonable advances,rngenerous deadlines, and any sense of responsibility onrnthe part of the publisher for the book’s success. A nev’ and insidiousrnclause has also appeared in contract boiler plates, allowingrnthe publisher an effective “quitclaim.” If a contracted bookrnfor any reason fails to meet expectations, a publisher simplvrndoes not have to accept it. Moreover, the writer may now be liablernfor any adance against royalty paid on the contract’s signing.rnScar,’ business, that. But writers have no choice. It is signrnor walk away to another house which will have the same rules.rnRule two applies to the editorial staff. They are not to buyrnany book that fails to fit into a standard genre categor}’ or to havern”blockbuster” potential. The latter class applies particularly tornbooks by celebrities and other famous people. “Literary fiction”rnhas become the dirtiest word in New York.rnAt the same time, over the past decade, there has been a seriousrnindustry-wide downsizing, a bloodletting starting sometimernin 1989 and really never stopping. The result of this massivernshakeup was that editorial numbers in New York were cut by asrnmuch as 33 percent (some sources said it was more like 45 percent).rnAnd salaries for lower echelon editorial staff—neverrnhigh in the first place—were scaled back as well. Thus, today,rnalmost ever}’ editor in New York is doing the work that three tornfive editors were carrying five years ago; many experienced andrnbook-loving individuals who were editors five years ago have leftrnthe industry. Some have become agents or independent bookrndoctors. The result has been a decline in editorial integrity,rnboth from the standpoint of acquisition and from the standpointrnof quality work.rnMAY 1998/19rnrnrn