In an industry that trades on rumors of disaster, the tales flying around New York (which I use here as a synecdoche for major publishing houses anywhere) for the past several years are horrendous. Though some of the horror stories may be exaggerated, at least insofar as the specific publishers involved are concerned, they are often not that far from the truth. Most publishers have enormous backlogs, and some books that have been in galleys since last summer have not yet been scheduled, may not be scheduled until next fall, may not be published for two or three years. Some of them might not be published at all. Recent contract cancellations, even of books in galleys, even of finished books, suggest that a book may not actually “be” a book until it walks out of a bookstore under a buyer’s arm.
Moreover, rising paper costs, shrinking consumer demand, and the decline in independent bookstores are also putting the squeeze on the entire book business; and the situation is not likely to improve as more and more people turn to electronic media for their reading matter.
Because of all this, publishers are increasingly careful about what they buy, and they watch what they own with a strict eye. This eye, many writers would attest, is in the center of a publisher’s forehead. Their regular vision, of course, never leaves the profit and loss spread sheets, and their ears are attuned for rumblings from the accounting department, while their necks are craning around to see who is gaining on them and how fast.
When writers gather, though, they admit that fewer and fewer publishers are buying books these days. As mega-chains continue to grow with the rapidity of Taco Bells across the country, “Mom and Pop” book-selling operations are being systematically squeezed out. The manager of one of the oldest independents in San Antonio, the Twigg, told me last July that she is probably going to have to close by this spring. None of the large publishers’ reps will call on her any longer; some have taken her off their catalogue mailing lists. She cannot rely on the national distributors, since they require minimum orders that would too severely tax her space. Even if she special orders a book, her store is given a low priority, meaning that a customer can expect a two-week wait for a current title.
Even well-heeled local or regional chains are pulling in their horns, closing stores, regrouping in the face of barracuda-like competition from mega-corporations which increasingly control the retail end of the book business. The demise of Taylor Books in Dallas a few years ago marked the end of a store that was practically an institution, one that supported local authors and brought in national figures for special signings and lectures. But such stores cannot compete with the volume discounts and flashy marketing techniques of the mega-chains which sprout like weeds in the strip centers along urban byways.
It would seem that such growth in massive stores with huge inventories would indicate an upsurge in the number of books being sold, but this is not the case. The mega-stores seem to put their emphasis on providing atmosphere, ambiance, a place to hang out, to talk about writing or books, not to buy. They stage readings and lectures, all of which benefit writers to some extent, but which are really designed to make the sponsoring stores the center of the book world in their communities. But they do not sell many books. Some, according to their managers, make more money from CD sales and even computer software and video sales and rentals than they do from newly published volumes; magazine sales constitute a huge part of their daily sales figures; some, one Fort Worth Borders manager confessed, make more money on coffee and pastry sales than they do on books. A manager for a San Antonio Barnes & Noble outlet told me that they sell more copies of book review publications than actual books. “Of course,” she noted, “periodicals are considerably cheaper than books, and for most readers, knowing about a book is as good as having read it.”
Astute consumers just do not buy many books, at least not at retail prices. And why should they? Super discount stores, used book stores, book clubs, and even some supermarkets offer the same best-sellers for a substantial discount off even the megastores’ reduced rates. Only a fool would plunk down $25 for the same novel that Wal-Mart or K-Mart will sell for $ 14.99. And if the book is any good, canny readers know that the paperback version will be out soon.
In the past ten years, commercial publishing has changed, and the changes have been quick and dynamic. To state the problem frankly and honestly, most publishers do not want good books. That is, they do not want books that have been carefully and artfully crafted; which tell a good story; which present stunning characters; which amuse, scintillate, inspire, enthrall; which are, in other words, “literary.” They want books that sell. And for big bucks. If a book has sales potential and still maintains all those qualities, fine. But unless it promises quick and substantial profit, its innate qualities are of no particular importance and have no appeal to a commercial publisher.
As recently as ten or 12 years ago, when a writer started out with his first book, he would most likely have an editor who had built his reputation on finding new authors, then developing them. They did not make a lot of money for the first two, three, or four books, but they made enough to keep writing. The idea was that the fifth or sixth book would be a “breakout,” and the writers would make decent, maybe even big money, maybe win a few prizes, maybe get movie deals, maybe hit the best-seller list a time or two. Then the writers would be in the publisher’s stable, would be loyal to the editor who “discovered” them, and over a few decades, would develop a reputation and a readership that would benefit ever)one.
Such a system worked, and it made sense. Many writers gradually became major names, “household words,” “name brands” over the years. Names like Robert Ludlum, Elmore Leonard. Stephen King, Dean Koontz come to mind. This was what was called being “in the process.” It might take three, four, even five books, but writers could expect that their day would come. The editor would carry them over the rough times, ignore smallish sales figures and gross returns, groom them for “breakout,” and all would be well sooner or later, preferably sooner.
After 25 years with the same publisher, though, one editor of this sort left to take a senior position with another company, which was a wholly owned but totally autonomous corporation belonging to a “mega-house.” This was the editorial equivalent of a “breakout.” Now, he could control not a few but a whole company of writers. He was ready to count coup. He eventually brought a half-dozen or so young (in the business) writers with him, began developing them in the same way he always had, and figured that within ten years he could have the best house in New York. But things changed, and the change was abrupt and unforeseen.
The company in question was, as I say, a wholly owned subsidiary of another publisher, which was itself sold to a non-publishing entity, which employed a whole raft of MBAs whose jobs were to do nothing but figure profit and loss. Some of them actually read books, but none seemed to care very much about them. What they cared about was reading spread sheets. After two years, the books this editor was publishing were not showing profit, at least not enough profit, and the MBAs’ quarterly reports were not good enough. The editor was fired.
According to the story, a young corporate assistant vice president from the parent company got off the elevator one Wednesday afternoon and “fired everyone in sight.” He fired the secretaries and the maid. He even tried to fire a messenger boy from a private mail service. Twenty-five editors got the ax that afternoon, and the publishing house, for all intents and purposes, was closed. One writer who was under contract for the company said that when he called, all he got was an answering machine. “You could hear the wind howling down the empty halls behind the voice,” he said.
Two weeks later, the parent company reopened the subsidiary, but only as an imprint house attached to the parent. (According to another rumor, the VP who did the firing and shut down the house forgot that this was one of the oldest publishers in New York; he himself was fired the following week.) A corporate vice president was put in charge. She probably had never edited a soul, or at least no successful soul, but she had absolute control over how things would be done. And they were done according to the most vicious enemy of writers, “market surveys.” Corporate suits took over the book business. In a few years, she herself was fired when she “lost” a major “name brand.”
The new rules are simple: if a book, any book, does not turn significant sales numbers, the writer is gone. Even a first book has to “pay out,” earn back its advance, or the writer’s second book probably will not be published. Gone are reasonable advances, generous deadlines, and any sense of responsibility on the part of the publisher for the book’s success. A new and insidious clause has also appeared in contract boiler plates, allowing the publisher an effective “quitclaim.” If a contracted book for any reason fails to meet expectations, a publisher simply does not have to accept it. Moreover, the writer may now be liable for any advance against royalty paid on the contract’s signing. Scary business, that. But writers have no choice. It is sign or walk away to another house which will have the same rules.
Rule two applies to the editorial staff. They are not to buy any book that fails to fit into a standard genre category or to have “blockbuster” potential. The latter class applies particularly to books by celebrities and other famous people. “Literary fiction” has become the dirtiest word in New York.
At the same time, over the past decade, there has been a serious industry-wide downsizing, a bloodletting starting sometime in 1989 and really never stopping. The result of this massive shakeup was that editorial numbers in New York were cut by as much as 33 percent (some sources said it was more like 45 percent). And salaries for lower echelon editorial staff—never high in the first place—were scaled back as well. Thus, today, almost every editor in New York is doing the work that three to five editors were carrying five years ago; many experienced and book-loving individuals who were editors five years ago have left the industry. Some have become agents or independent book doctors. The result has been a decline in editorial integrity, both from the standpoint of acquisition and from the standpoint of quality work.
The pressure for demonstrable and quick success mounted along with the workload. The typical editor now has about 20 books on his desk at one time, all on serious deadline, and each comes with a profit and loss forecast sheet that says exactly what numbers that book has to turn to pay out. If it fails, the writer is gone. If too many of them fail, then the editor is gone. Profit drives the industry, and potential profit determines what will and will not be published.
At the same time, and illogically, the very houses that are squeezing staff and demanding measurable success from every writer’s work will pay millions of dollars for a book by a political figure, movie star, celebrit}’ athlete, convicted criminal, or accused felon, even when the named author was no closer to the actual manuscript than most of them have been to an actual book since they left school. Ghostwriters, slaving away for a fraction of a percent of what the supposed authors are getting, are hard at work for a decimal point of what they might have made writing their own books a decade ago. The supposed authors are raking in the big bucks, and so are the publishing houses. In the meantime, they are quibbling over a few grand paid out to a new writer who is a few months late on a deadline, or whose work might require some editing or management in order to find a place on the publisher’s list. A big loser in all this, typically, is the writer. A bigger loser is the reader. And possibly the biggest losers are the formerly idealistic young people who became editors, who are now reduced to a collection of brown-nosing company cogs, fiercely loyal to policy, no longer able to take any pride whatsoever in their product. As one editor lamented to me, “Nobody edits books anymore. We just catalogue them, manage them, and shove them to copyedit for processing.”
One timely result of all this is a demand for categories. Every book now has to “fit” some surefire category on the publisher’s list. Let’s say Editor Al gets a novel he really likes by Author Ray. He takes the manuscript upstairs to the corporate VP, who is functioning as editor-in-chief Instead of looking at the book, she asks, “What kind of book is it?” Editor Al says, “Well, it’s about this young boy and this old man . . . ” She interrupts. “No! I mean what kind of book is it? Have you seen our list?” Of course he has. “We have crime, mystery, thriller, romance, adventure, horror. Western, children’s, juvenile, and science fiction. Which of these categories would it go under?” He shakes his head. “None of them. It’s kind of literary.” She shakes her head. “Best-seller?” Al admits that it has potential, but no iron-clad guarantee. “Then we don’t want it,” she says. “Get back to your desk and quit fooling around.” End of consideration.
To put it another way, the midlist is dead, and literary fiction is on life support. But this isn’t news, either. Look what happened to poetry. In 1950, almost every one of the 23 “major” New York houses had a “poetry list.” Today, only three or four houses in New York publish any original poetry at all except in their textbook divisions. They regard poetry as a “loss leader,” something they publish in order to reduce their corporate profits and taxes and maybe snag a Pulitzer Prize in the process. Alarmingly, some houses, faced with horrendous competition in category fiction, have dropped fiction altogether. There are nasty stories of “payola” floating around, too, stories of editors paying to have some titles placed on regional best-seller lists, anything to keep their numbers up, their jobs intact. In sum, the machine has to keep running, keep churning out product, for that is what generates the profit that drives the industry.
The irony is that the quality of editorial work is diminishing as well. The average editor in New York starts out at about $25,000 a year, or less. And he is living in Manhattan or a nearby borough, where a one-room apartment in a dangerous neighborhood can go for a grand a month, plus utilities. This is less money than a public school teacher can make. (Yet applicants for editorial positions are standing three deep at any employment office in New York. Go figure.)
In exchange for this princely sum, the editor is asked to put in close to 80 hours a week. Advancement is possible if a bestseller emerges; but by and large, editors work in a sweatshop environment with little hope of anything good coming their way from the companies they work for. Moreover, because of these conditions, the quality of aspiring editors is declining. One has only to look through a few published novels on any bookstore’s “recent release” rack to discover that major errors in grammar, fact, style, structure, and even chronology and logic occur with regularity. To put it another way, and to quote a dozen New York agents, “No one knows how to edit anymore. Maxwell Perkins is dead.”
So is loyalty. Turnover is at an all-time high, and it is not unusual for a writer to discover that his new publisher has assigned him to the same editor he abandoned at a previous house, or to that editor’s assistant. So what does this mean for the writers out there who have manuscripts in progress or even already making the rejection rounds of editors and agents? It means each of them must learn to write for category’, to figure out what’s hot, and to deliver it promptly before the category cools. They must forget about writing well and learn to write popular. They must abandon any notions they ever had about merely telling a good story with interesting characters or even writing what they want. They should be studying what’s in the top ten and trying to imitate it. Additionally, they must be more careful than ever of grammar, style, organization, construction, and all the other elements that editors used to take care of after a book was delivered. If it is wrong in manuscript, it will be wrong in the galleys, and it will be wrong in the publication, and reviewers will fall on it with the bloody enthusiasm of feral dogs. Craft is everything today; art don’t count.
Sure, there are always exceptions, and it is great to believe that hard work, perseverance, and a dedicated belief in the quality of one’s own work will pay off, that literary attention will succeed, and that quality will triumph over machine-stamped trash. But the bottom line is that the state of American publishing is not going to improve any time soon; in fact, it will probably get worse. The Nancy Taylor Rosenbergs and Mary Higgins Clarks will inherit the earth, or at least the big contracts, and the W.P. Kinsellas and Winston Grooms will find comfortable university presses to publish their work. Meanwhile, the whoever elses out there will continue to scrap around for a low five figures and be damned glad to have it. Anyone who tries to sell a book based on literary quality, not on marketability and category appeal, will have trouble, will most likely fail.
One woman tried to argue this point with me at a talk I gave recently. She kept telling me I was all wet in my characterization of the publishing industry as being only interested in commercially viable properties, that literature was still king. I then asked her to name three major literary novels, by Americans, published in the past five years. She said “Salman Rushdie.” I said, “He’s not American.” She said, “Umberto Eco.” I said, “He’s not American.” And so it went. Remember, it was Norman Mailer, one of our most prominent literary figures, who supposedly said that in America, a “writer can make a killing, but not a living.”
If a writer is European, Asian, or Oriental (without the hyphenated American behind it), there is a chance of success, but if you are an American writer, get back. Even black and Hispanic writers are feeling the pinch. And distaff writers, while popular at the moment, will probably fade as well. Editors will aver that women buy more books than men, but women reading women has never been a reliable trend according to long range “market surveys.”
Most of the few American literary writers who are still producing regularly find that they must bolster their income by aligning themselves with special interest groups (feminist, gay, environmental, etc.). Most receive comparatively modest advances, must be highly prolific, and supplement their incomes by teaching in universities or consulting for institutes and television networks. The big money losers in the past half decade include a veritable Who’s Who of “major contemporary American writers” who have failed to put up impressive numbers. Some “great American authors” cannot even get contracts, though their names are virtual icons among those who worship the contemporary American literary pantheon.
It is simply getting harder and harder even to get in, to stay in, and to make money once you are in. As I said, almost every contract issued now has an “escape clause” in it, an effective “quit claim” that puts the responsibility for a book’s success on the writer’s shoulders, even if the publisher fails to promote it. An editor told me, “They’re turning us into a low-rent Hollywood. We’re supposed to make ‘B’ movies and sell each one like it’s Gone With the Wind, even though we get zip for distribution, promotion, or advertising.” Another editor said that it is worse than that: “More thought goes into a pilot for a TV commercial than effort goes into editing a new book.”
So why bother writing at all? Why not just get into a warm tub and open up a fat vein rather than slave away writing a book probably no one will want? The results of the former action will not be particularly stimulating, but at least there is a finite sense of purpose about it. The answer is that writing is still—in spite of the narrow-minded, profit-mongering, myopic and frightened editors’ and publishers’ demands—an art, an impulse, one of the oldest forms of human expression. At the moment the philistines are in charge of the temple, the moneychangers in charge of what will or will not be seen and read; but most of us who continue to assault it with our best work keep hoping that somehow, somewhere, there will be a breakthrough, a sudden awareness that quality, care, and talent are more valuable than crass imitation or the quick buck.