Friday, July 02, 2010


Actually it was that was ahead of the curve, while all the time claiming modestly that they were just a printing business. Nevertheless, they provided references to people they were willing to vouch for who could do the other parts of publishing: editing, layout, illustration, indexing for the actual manuscript and then promotion, distribution, and all that stuff. Just SAYING that raised consciousness about what self-publishing really meant, instead of letting people believe that holding an actual book-like object in their hands constituted publishing. The earliest vanity presses were happy to let you think that and forced you to buy X number of cheaply made copies to prove it, which meant that “publishing” consisted of accumulating boxes of books under your bed until their glue failed and you had boxes of pages.

But this is supposed to be about agents. There is considerable talk about how an agent’s job for a writer is to create a “platform” which seems to have two meanings. One is figuring out in what category the bookstores and libraries should shelve the book. And the other means how much status there is in the category -- how high the platform? (How much money is involved?) So the agent will say something like “will handle upmarket fiction and narrative non-fiction." In short, this woman is not for just any of you mugs. She wants IMPORTANT writers. But only a few years ago there were no such categories, so the code changes all the time. Most of the agent self-descriptions will say things like “mysteries, genre, romance -- no porn or vampires.” These “platforms” are almost always just standard popular categories. I saw a frank and useful grouping at the Great Falls Barnes & Noble: “black male erotica” -- it’s a barracks town -- but that soon disappeared. I don’t think it was because they sold out -- I think the category embarrassed someone.

Publishers also have platforms, but they call them niches. Chelsea Green is very clear about trying to build a sustainable future even if it means major change in the way things are done, while at the same time returning to some of the strong skills of the past. Haymarket is also clearly political. Many niches are girly or for children or specialize in Christian romances. Someone has said it’s a good thing for writers to look at the books on our shelves and find out who published them, so you’ll know what your fav niche is. Alas! Most of my books come from defunct publishers! Anyway, all that advice is blasted when the manuscript is New Media or Cross Media. It might not even be pages in a cover.

If the platform of the agent, the author, the publisher, the content, the reader are all lined up it is called “siloing.” If you’ve ever been around siloes at close range, that might not be appealing. Say “stove pipe” maybe, or in the water biologists call that vertical dimension the “column.” The vertical works for genre pretty well. You buy a mystery, a romance, a Western (you’re old-fashioned), a sci-fi, and then you stay in that genre category because you like it. What you might not realize is that one writer can be in several of these genres, changing his or her name to fit the idea that the author is like someone in his or her books. So the Western is written by Fatty Hossapple and the Sci-Fi is written by skx409, but it’s the same person. For most people the actual writing is transparent -- they don’t see it or think about it. It took a while for people to realize that “Star Wars” was a Western. And so was “Jaws.” If sophistication sets in, they might leave the genre box.

There are tests for readability. You can run a few paragraphs through a computer program on the Internet and they’ll tell you how difficult it is, maybe expressed in a grade level reading ability. But it’s embarrassing for folks to say they read at a sixth grade level. Which explains why people buy books and then discover they’re just too much work. Genre can kind of predict skill level, but what if it were explicitly printed on the spine? I wonder how much this has to do with the success of YA books.

Amazon and Netflix both try to pin down categories that people prefer. Eclectics like me drive them nuts. And my contempt for their five star rating system doesn’t please them either. But this is the sort of marketing “platforming” that is currently in vogue in both books and movies. Designing an algorithm that will identify a high-profit platform keeps some people busy. Action, check. Sex, check. Easy vocabulary, check. Philosophical overtones, check. Lots of scenery, check. History, check. Call Ridley Scott. Oh, wait. This is low budget.

What would be an algorithm that would call up books I want? I do NOT want repeats and sequels. I’m a ground-breaker, see. (Homesteader history.) Here are elements off the top of my head:

1. I don't really care whether it's paper or ebook, unless I would need access to the latter for vids or links. And I’d be fine with vids or music but spare me 3-D.

2. I want a book to have new insights about one of the on-going twenty or so categories I would search on the shelves if I walked into Powell's.

3. I do NOT want to read what all the "ladies" just like me read. As nearly as I can tell, I'm reading what educated and slightly louche men in their fifties are reading.

4. I don't like books to come to me passively -- like Book of the Month club or friends who urge books upon me. I like to go search.

5. There are very few writers I read in toto. ( I have the works of Peter Matthiesson, Isak Dinesen, Wallace Stegner, Sharon Butala, Mary Clearman Blew, Mircea Eliade, Joe Campbell, Gene Stratton-Porter, etc.) I NEVER buy sets.

5. I'm extremely eclectic, which you know if you follow this blog: natural history, a certain kind of religious study (comparative), Blackfeet Indians, art theory, Beaux Arts sculpture, brain structure, theory of place, and so on.

Why are Powells categories so much more useful than those in other bookstores? (Check them out on their website.) I think it is an evolution from the informed curators in charge of each of their "sections," which are quite big. It's because Powells looks at the books they are buying used or remaindered and builds categories around them, while computer people (who generally don't read) try to reason through categories, which end up looking like the curriculum and department divisions wherever they went to college. They have no real-world evidence. And Powells is fearless: they stock porn and torture and one-offs and obscure discredited authors. Because they sell. People want to read them. And because whoever has to clear out estates comes in with boxes and boxes of them for Powells to buy. This is reality-based book categorizing, not theorizing over two-martini lunches.

There are some actors missing from this pattern of writer/agent/publisher. What happened to the patron? A person with big bucks who gets interested in the career of someone and agrees to subsidize him or her. Why don’t agents find them for writers? Or foundations that will subsidize books. They say that all the capitalist moneybags are now in the hands of computer entrepreneurs who are interested in reinvesting in cyber stuff at the expense of the arts or even medical research. What are agents and publishers doing about that?

Book critics have had their throats slashed by the collapse of magazines and newspapers, but there’s more to it than that. For one thing, in recent decades the universities became overwhelmed with theory so esoteric, suspicious and political that it is unintelligible and unpalatable to many readers. Especially those who don’t want to give up their old WWII vintage ideas about great writers. I just read a good post about the difference between a curator (a critic) who is professionally trained and talks about abstracts and received wisdom, versus a docent (an enthusiast) who just loves the stuff and wants to share. Balance, please.

I have not seen anyone talk about the lawyers who deal themselves in. Publishers have been sued enough that they will disqualify any book that might provide grounds for a lawsuit. That’s a force for dumbing down, because vetting books and authors is expensive. Agents haven’t wanted to say this. I’d be willing to bet that they have lawyers on retainer themselves.

In the future I’ll go on with this thread. I want to talk about consortiums (a collaborating group with an assortment of skills), co-ops (several authors join to hire an agent for their group), amateur reading groups, social status, gender diffs, the taboo factor and so on. Don’t hesitate to chime in.


Every single point in this is dead-on correct.

I can't think of a single time in the past forty years when people in publishing would say: This is a good time for the business.

Those words have never been uttered. Publishing itself is the Prophet of Doom. Always has been.

Consequently, I have never believed a word publishing insiders say.

But this time it's different.

Agents at some of the big glamour factories are leaving publishing altogether. There's no money in it. Many of them are lawyers who will just go back to practicing law. Not entertainment law. Mainly corporate law.

The business itself has always been transitional. Insiders do their best to create paradigms written in concrete but these are ephemeral, too. Someone is always designing a better mousetrap or writer-trap, whatever.

But this time it's different.

I did not trust that this time it was different for a long while because I distrust the crooks who inhabit this business.

This goes double for agents. I have gone through them like water (ICM). "I could have gotten you another fifty-grand if you had been willing to wait another week."

Oh, please.

Yadayadayada. Not a word of it.

What is now different is a word called desperation.

They will tell you that they can and will ride it out. They lie a lot.

They're beginning to panic.

Two things loom no one wants to talk about.

1.) Double-dip recession. If this happens, and it looks like it will, many people in this business who are now only hanging on by their painted red fingernails, will go bankrupt. Lines of credit is an animal from the past.

2.) Cap and Trade. If a carbon-emissions tax (one proposal is in senate committee) is passed, this will be a huge blow for publishing. People are now doing some very serious number crunching. Here's what they are discovering: It looks like the energy it takes to publish a single book and sell it represents FAR more energy than anyone has wanted to admit or look at.

There is a lot of averaging numbers here and this is being done because Cap and Trade will have a very definite impact at the WTO and all of its various trade agreements. Mainly between the developed world and the Third World.

It (roughly) appears that for every book published (the kicker here and the surprise was that there is ultimately little if any difference between hard cover and paperback as everyone had assumed paperback was "greener" but this is not proving to be the case as some things like the cost of shipping from a printer to a warehouse is the same) you're cutting down an entire fifty-year-old tree. Factors that have never been incorporated into the equation now include the cost of paper used in a publishing office necessary to administrate the machinations of publishing one book. Paper is paper. Go look inside the dumpster at any Walden's Books and you will find so many shredded books it will shock you. They shred books to make room for the new books and they will be shredding many of those in the near future.

Add all of this up and you arrive at the figure of a tree. And not a young sapling. But no. A big damn tree.

If new legislation is passed with current language (it will be dumbed down as soon as publishers start having strokes), the tree publishers are using to produce this book will have to be replaced by another tree somewhere else. This is called a carbon tax. Corporations (like Ford) are already doing this in places like Brazil.

What does this mean for publishing. Easy. Two trees.

This is not good news for an industry quite used to mowing down entire forests.

The smart people are beginning to panic. The smarter people have already left.

At the moment, one of the BIG chachas going on is that old media has purchased some new schmatas and is now calling itself new media.

But they haven't really changed their ways quite yet. Nothing is transparent and digital publishing is at twenty percent if that.

But the writing is on the wall. Actually, it's been there for about thirty years.

Much of this is quite humorous. If you point out to them that they are only wearing a new schmata, they become quite miffed, and they will insist that they now possess an entirely new identity.

Old drag queens do the same thing.

A new schmata is a new schmata is a new schmata. One they can't afford anyway.

But drag queens know this: Today's drag queen with a new schmata will be tomorrow's drag queen in a tired old dress soon enough. She may, indeed, descend from a grand staircase in a vain attempt to make Rhett Butler stay at Tara. But, frankly, Rhett has seen this dog and pony show before, and he doesn't give a damn.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I'm thinking back now to the WPA days during WW II, when Walsport, a conscientious objector camp in rural Oregon, became a hotbed of training printers and writers and artists. I guess Waldport was where they put the most "difficult" COs, many of whom were indeed artists and writers, and who on leave would soak up San Francisco. It generated a colony of fine-press printers, of people who founded special-edition presses, and who were fearless publishers in the 50s and 60s, such as Ferlenghetti, Empson, etc.

Maybe it's time to do something like that again. Maybe it's time to band together and ignore the Big Mainstream Corporate publishers and just do what the collective wants to do. I can't be alone in thinking this. And I have the book design skills and experience to boot.

Another thought from another angle: It seems to me that the agents are still trying to be the gatekeepers between factions; or perhaps they're the ones who still want to be those who knock on the doors of the priestly caste, themselves gatekeepers of taste and knowledge. Maybe the real change that's happening, underneath all this, which would include the curators and even some of the docents, is that gatekeepers AS A CLASS are disappearing. In some ways, it's a good time for empowered authors, and the real problem is not the death of the publishers but the changes in gatekeeping. Just thinking out loud.