Friday, June 27, 2008


As I struggle to understand the book world today, occasionally ramming my head into a corner because of wrong premises and insufficient evidence, I see two forces -- maybe three -- as massive to the point of controlling what happens: capitalism, manufacturing, and passive distribution. So, in sequence, let’s see if I can explain.

Capitalism is something I never understood until I owned this little problematic house, which attracts lenders. In the US capital assets control “class” and access to advantages more than education, which is meant to be a key to acquiring capital. The idea is that if you have “capital,” meaning disposable income either in the form of cash credits or possessions against which money can be borrowed, then that “capital” gives you a place at the economic table where money is made through the use of money. Access to a lovely lifestyle has nothing to do with it. Can you borrow money? Can you loan money for interest? Can you control the terms?

The trouble with capitalism -- unlike wages -- is that it quickly becomes predatory: that is, the people who have capital make money by preying on those who don’t have much, so must borrow, and today’s capitalists feel no obligation to compensate by putting their assets into good schools, charity hospitals, or the arts in any form. These are seen as government functions.

The difference between land owners in England some years ago and land owners in the US today, is the idea of noblesse oblige. (Wikipedia: 1. Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.. and 2. (Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms with one's position, and with the reputation that one has earned. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honourable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility." Being a noble meant that you had responsibilities to lead, manage, etc. You were not to simply spend your time in idle pursuits.) This ethic no longer exists, neither among the super-wealthy nor among government officials.

Still the extremely rich DO want to acquire markers of their importance and sometimes books can do that through fine or antique volumes worthy of purchase -- but also by the subsidized production of books pushing themselves, either directly or through their interests. The middle classes, who aspire to be wealthy, also use books as markers. This explains why they buy books but never read them -- leaving them around for others to see, always hardbacks with flashy covers, and hopefully signed by the writer in hopes that people will be impressed by their connections. The ideas contained in the books, the skill with which the writing is done, the implication of the book in the larger dialogue of ideas on the planet, are simply invisible to them. Occasionally they worry about resale value, which also discourages reading, since carrying a book around, writing in it, risking coffee stains and whatnot, would presumably lessen the value. Things must be protected even if the protection defeats the purpose of the thing, because the REAL purpose is the preservation of capital.

Capitalism, the use of money to make more money, is the basis of what we’ve understood to be publishing. It is a reservoir system for writers who have no capital -- that is, the publisher has funds which it uses to subsidize promising writers. It is quite like a “patron” in the old system where those with money (the king, the pope) keep artists on retainer while the latter compose music or paint. In those days the accomplishments of the writers reflected well on the publishers as patrons. But now publishing is run as a business: many major houses have been bought by corporations who expect the same kind of returns from books as they get from soup: 10% profit or more. The exception is publishing arms of universities, which do not expect to make a profit, but because they don’t, the universities (themselves starved for cash except for those programs subsidized by corporations in hopes of research and development they can use, which spares the corporation the expense and expertise necessary) have no capital. So university presses have become an arm of salary work, certifying employees (professors) for continuing employment and earning a living for the in-house employees. Writers are compensated by the stamp of virtue, though the academic presses are no more likely to have inspired editors than any other press.

Manufacturing books, after salaries, used to be the bulk of the cost of a book because they were normally printed in large numbers to save money. Much of the cost was setting up the printing machinery, rather than in the paper, buckram and ink. Also, much of the cost was in the provision of warehousing that protected the books from damage. Two ways of losing money were printing too many books so that profits are eaten up by storage cost, or not printing enough books so that a new press run was necessary. Repeated press runs became a marker for success, but unless the new printing were out before the popularity or usefulness of the book was over, then more expense had to be levied against profits.

The cheapest part of the manufacturing was the actual writing -- the payment to the author. But because not many writers have the stamina to hold a regular wage job or enjoy capital of their own, publishers invested with payments up front, estimated according to what they guess sales will be. The author received no actual profit until after “sell through,” that is when the publisher made enough money to have some profit. I’ve never been clear about what happens if the advance is never equaled by the publishing profits. Of course, the publisher determines what the costs are, which leads authors to accuse them of padding costs to avoid showing any profit.

The cheapest way to store books is to ship them out to bookstores who put them on their shelves. The agreement is that if they don’t sell, the bookstore can return them. In short, bookstores sell books on consignment and do not invest their own assets in buying books, even if they believe in them. Neither are they much interested in the physical condition of the books they return. The only real cost of a bookstore is rent on the physical premises and salaried employees. Bookstores do not advertise but rather sell advertising to the publisher in the form of display in advantageous spots and so on. Yet books are often most successfully sold by clerks who love books and recommend favorites.

Which brings us conveniently to the third point: passive distribution. A bookstore must request books when customers ask for them or if the manager sees the likelihood if it selling. But mostly sales are either conducted through discount deal-making at the top of a franchise in the case of a chain like Borders and the Big Box stores like Wal-Mart, or by distributing salesmen who take responsibility for a particular area, or (increasingly) by the author traveling with copies of the books to leave on consignment. In short, books arrive on the assurance of others, are on consignment anyway, and are sold at the demand of readers responding to the mass media advertising paid for by the publisher.

These three forces have “reduced” (I mean this to be pejorative) books to objects, useful mostly as markers for prestige and success. Even the flood of transgressively titillating books are meant to make a profit and to provide an opportunity for the kind of repentance scenario so beloved to mock Christians. The word is “ignoble.” Look it up yourself.


prairie mary said...

THIS IS FROM TIM: NOT ME! People get confused.

Most books where the writer was paid an advance by a mainstream publisher in excess of $25,000.00 do not make the advance back. Publishers whine they have to eat this and they blame the agents. This is like the kettle blaming the pot. And then there is creative accounting. Hollywood is famous for the front end and the back end deals. Publishing, too, aspires to this but the numbers are far, far lower. Whether a book does make its advance back can be an issue open for debate. Every year I get a statement of numbers of books sold by a publisher who shall remain anonymous who lives in Boston. What is hilarious is that every year the number of books sold is the same one. Exactly the same. Down to the book. In ten years that number has never varied one iota. There is a REASON mainstream publishing steadfastly refuses to deal with writers in le flesh. You are REQUIRED to have an agent and not just any agent; it has to be an agent the publisher approves of. Why. Easy. Only the publisher and the agent and the editor can fit the threesome in le bed. A writer makes this four and four is too much even for them. I am intrigued with the term: inspired editor. WHERE, pray tell, is this rare animal. I have never met one. I have met tired editors, unamused editors, exhausted editors, drunk as a skunk editors, editors who can dance on the head of a publisher's pin, but there are two kinds of editors (who people swear are real but I do not believe it) who are mainly a mythological illusion. The curious editor. And the inspired editor. These are contradictions in terms. People get very angry with me for saying in public -- burn the books -- but I mean it. --

Tim Barrus

prairie mary said...


The biggest mistake people make when looking at publishing is believing the rhetoric that publishing is a business and it is about the money.

Publishing is not unlike a tribe.

It is a social contrivance. As such, publishing (90% of all books fail to make money which immediately illustrates that publishing is not a business as what business could afford to lose money on fully 90% of what widgets it produces) is about a pecking order, decorum, ritual, and status. These are highly valued human motivators as opposed to the social significance of money. The terms money and business are a smokescreen. Money in publishing is a sometimes accouterment. But the reasons for the existence of this "business" have cultural origins, not business ones. Las Vegas has better odds than the odds that anyone who writes a book will make money. Status is not limited to University publishing. I was astounded at exactly how many writers I knew who eventually got published, were also people (this is not an accident) who do NOT need the money. They have trust funds, wealthy families, are very definitely representative of the American aristocracy, and as such, what we have are a group of people who were groomed from day one to uphold the scared rituals -- follow the rules. Be a team player. The Number One Rule of Publishing is: never criticize publishing. At the merest whiff of this breach of etiquette, they will wash their hands of you -- you the heretic -- forever. These are also abstract values. Thusly it's easier to subscribe to the false notion that publishing is a business. Publishing is a cultural activity that keeps the aristocracy the aristocracy. Books are a quaint idea, but they are secondary concerns. The first and foremost concern is that one keeps one's place in the social hierarchy. Monkeys do it. Birds do it. Wolves do it better than anyone. Biologists used to believe that most behavior on the part of canis Lupus could be chalked up to its behavioral association to reproduction. This has been radically modified. Sometimes, often, pack hierarchy only has a peripheral relationship to reproduction. Many, many pack behaviors have their evolution in a social status where reproduction is a reinforcement, but it's a secondary reinforcement where the immediate reinforcement of a social status affirmed and reaffirmed (six, seven times an hour) is inherently neurological, and homo homo Sapien is no different. Writers will tell you about the rush they get when they first see the book hot from the publisher. The brain -- which has been put on hold for a length of time considering the rituals of publishing -- finally gets that rush it needs to perform the entire dog and pony show again. -- TB

prairie mary said...

Tim's comments are particularly relevant because he's a survivor of old-paradigm publishing (who still give him a fly-by now and then, like gold miners looking for some residue they can "heap leach" mine. He's been there, done that and has the scars to prove it.

There are two intriguing aspects to this:

1. One is that at least one really fine book (IMHO) resulted from this system: "The Boy and His Dog Are Sleeping."

2. The other is that Tim has gone to the most cutting edge possible sort of writing: vlogging, combining video of a tachistoscopic and bricolage style with personal word-dance narrative you could call poetry if you wanted to.

But, as he says, he's too uncontrollable for people to risk capital and too transgressive to get any prestige points.

I think he's new-paradigm altogether.

Prairie Mary