Thursday, December 31, 2009


“Publishing” is not and never was what people think it is or was. In truth and actuality, it is simply the conversion of print into a saleable object -- in the case of ebooks, a “virtual” object. That is, it looks like ink on paper, but it isn’t and will disappear if not constantly fed by a machine somewhere, maybe one in your hand and maybe one mysteriously linked across continents and oceans. Let’s put that aside.

Take it to the level of paper and ink, pages numbered and held in order by a glued and sewn binding, which sophisticated people are calling a “codex” in contrast to a “scroll” though Jack Kerouac tried returning to scroll mode by taping pages into a long roll to be fed through the typewriter. Commentors are constantly returning to the evolutionary sequence of marks on a surface: clay tablets, hides, then hides cut into scrolls, then pages, then moveable type, then linotype machines. Remember them? When I came to Browning in 1961 the Glacier Reporter was composed on a linotype: it was a very noisy machine with a “typewriter” on one end that spat out lines of type cast in lead at the other end. The founder of the Prairie Star in Valier has burn scars on his arms from molten lead spattering from cold molds when the metal type was recast into pigs to put back through the process. He was a kid, assigned the task by his dad.

Newspapers were useful but expendable objects: low grade paper, smeary ink, stories of fleeting interest. These days the historic content is being put on the Internet. High end codexes are very valuable indeed: consider the huge Audubon books of bird prints, kept in cases where a page is occasionally turned by curators. But a precious codex can also be valuable, like the small letter-press poetry chapbooks that someone had to compose using an old-fashioned typestick, sort of like a hand-held Scrabble tray, to compose, and then a big wheel to force the ink onto the paper, one page at a time.

At both ends of the value scale, these are objects, inventory, merchandise, saleable as individual units with a relatively standardized value. To most people the “publisher” is the guy that made the book, though printing is only the beginning, not even really the beginning.

The book entrepreneur, which is what a “publisher” is, looks for books that will sell or that OUGHT to from his point of view. If you can get a franchise for a context that requires everyone to buy this book, you’ve got a gold mine! Bibles, textbooks, operating manuals. But let’s stick to our modern idea of novels (which are supposed to be fiction), political comment (which are supposed to be true), and memoirs (which go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction which seems to be our preoccupying category division, more than the the “prose versus poetry” of “le bourgeois gentilhomme.” The apex marker seems to be “the Great American Novel,” without ever questioning whether such a thing is possible.

Publishers early in the 20th century offered excitement, life-guides, and so on -- all chosen by the head of the publishing company according to his taste and evaluation of the times. So, CHOOSING THE MANUSCRIPT was in the hands of one or a few men. It was a mark of value because the publisher was assumed to have good taste. It was being “chosen.” Today this step is dominated by surveys and the principle that what just sold well will sell well again. (Not.) The salesmen see their task as telling the publisher what to publish, so they can sell it. No longer is the salesman expected to find a way to sell what the publisher says is valuable. They don’t CARE what’s culturally valuable. They want to sell, so they’ll get a commission.

PRINTING is something most people could understand until it went to electronic screens. In fact, the government understood it well enough to tax books piled up in warehouses before they’d even gotten to the stores because they are inventory. This meant estimating the number of books to make had to include whether it were possible to pay taxes on them sitting in warehouses. The bookstores were also taxed for what was sitting around on their shelves as inventory. In the Thirties publishers allowed bookstores to return books that wouldn’t sell. Today many bookstores return as much of the inventory as possible right about now, so that the publisher will have to pay the inventory tax. Maliciously, they return shopworn books, books with dayglo sale stickers, and books they will re-order after tax time is over because they DO sell. To keep from paying the warehouse tax on unsold books (remainders) the publishers just pulp them up.

That was yesterday. Nowadays with online used and remainder book sellers able (barely) to make money, the extra books are more likely to be sold at an enormous discount and go out into the public where they compete at low prices. This is certainly the way I buy books! Not just because they are cheap, but because they are often much higher quality content than the shiny bright schlock that salesmen push to bookstores.

There are ways for publishers to cut corners. Never let a book exceed 200 pages. Don’t hire a layout specialist. Use a standard template for the font and so on. Don’t add an index or footnotes. Limit the number of illustrations or graphics. All these things cost money.

But the major way to save money is simply not to advertise. Advertising is in the end what makes a book sell. I don’t mean sleazy salesman tactics, I mean just letting people know that the book exists at all. People are often passive when it comes to book buying -- books “happen” rather than being sought out. The potential reader catches a scrap on the radio or sees an excerpt somewhere.

All these steps can be contracted out to specialists: finding manuscripts (agents do this); market research; editing; layout; illustration; actual printing; advertising; promoting; distributing; reviews; and I suppose eventually some enterprising soul will offer to house your actual codex physical library for you: organize it, inventory, recover copies, suggest the next book, keep a list of intended reading. Personal librarians. I love it. No more dusting, no more interior decoration dilemmas. No more wandering around in your nightgown in the wee smalls to browse your holdings. . . Well, maybe this needs reconsideration.

Especially in view of this insight:
13. Book publishers will have to admit to real confusion about what the product is that they produce. The big meme coming out of 2010 will be “what is a book?” Publishers will increasingly be releasing productions that contain video, audio, animation, slide shows, and interactive game elements. Movie, TV, and game producers will see an alternate marketing and revenue channel available through “ebookifying” content they have and moving it through book channels like a “tie-in.” Where one stops and the other begins will become increasingly difficult to see (and increasingly irrelevant). (From the Shatzkin Files)

Tim Barrus adds this next part. The interview with Auletta is dynamite.

And here's the irony...

Agents and editors (publishers to a lesser extent) know that change is coming. In fact, it's here.

Now, it's personal.

I fathom that there's a take on publishing as a business. Clean and simple.

Publishing is a business of extraordinary ego.

I dare anyone to approach any editor employed in mainstream publishing, and bring up the subject of change, particularly digital change, and not receive a response that isn't downright hateful.




They do not LIKE this change. Because they can't control it.

Hence, lots of Internet discussion on content quality and the need (everyone should have one on the wall) for the proverbial editor.

Change is coming and publishing has its head in the sand.

Ken Aueletta has a kick ass book out called: Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.

This is the book that has major implications for publishing.

But note: Aueletta goes to the PERSONAL: in this book. He interviews all the Internet gurus and comes away from the collection with PERSONAL observations that it is ALL personal.

Publishing, too.

They don't want to hear that change is a constant.

Anyone who comes to them with this message will be thrown out on his ear.

My own take: As the platforms change, I think more writers are simply going to become publishers. I do not know how this will work. The advertising business paradigm they have all invested in has failed.

No one knows how this is going to work.

But it will be PERSONAL.

The idea that business is simply business provides them camouflage. This is Auelleta on C-span.


Art Durkee said...

The one point you miss here, in my opinion, is the creation of published materials as works of art. Speaking as a book designer and typographer, there is a tangible beauty to the physical object of a well-designed book with beautiful type on exquisite paper. Maybe you touch on that, a bit, by mentioning Audobon, but there's a level of the physical beauty of books that one doesn't have to be wealthy to appreciate. There are some editions of books that I keep because the edition is purely beautiful.

prairie mary said...

Hey, didn't I mention letterpress poetry chapbooks?

What I'm after here is all the naive people who think that if their book has been printed, it has been published.

In fact, getting back to your point, I'm a big fan of artists' books, which might not even be codex-bound. A woman was going to print a sermon of mine about the serpentine universe on a long snake of paper with an overlay of imitation cast-off snakeskin. She never did it because her first grandson arrived and that was the more fascinating creation!

Prairie Mary