In our usual binary way, the reading public has actually registered only two things: paper books which we recognize as objects and pack into our lives on that basis while knowing very little about how they get made; and ebooks which we see only through the glass window of the little tech gizmos. But the REAL impact of this difference is behind the scenes and the DEEPEST impact is on the developments of “cultures” responding to those changes.
In the popular mind, the “mental image” BEING PUBLISHED has always mostly been one of elite achievement, often after a long period of suffering on the part of the writer -- not the publisher, who takes the parent role, providing the Seal of Approval. Indeed, nice comfy writers who have private incomes are rather resented, because the other popular conviction of educated persons is that at some point they each could write the “Great American Novel” and vindicate themselves. Or they could write a revelatory, astounding, and absolutely true memoir. Over and over the books themselves used these concepts as internal plot devices until everyone stopped questioning their reality. Newspapers had book sections that promoted this assumption. The idea persists on NPR.
This idea is in fact gone. The colony of publishers on the island of Manhattan is down to five “legacy” publishers owned by Europeans. They are simply capital investors who require a healthy return. These publishers have dispensed with the famous slush piles by outsourcing them to the people who used to be their in-house readers and who are now free-lance agents who only make money if they sell a book. Each publisher has “imprints” which are sort of sub-sets for which one person takes responsibility. If they don’t make money, they simply wink out. Everything is driven by the need to make money. Editing has become a gypsy occupation. Advertising is where the money goes.
The people who have the most clout in terms of what is published are the salesmen, considered experts because they go out there in the field and deal with bookstores, esp. volume buyers like Big Box Stores. Bookstores (endangered themselves) order what they like, return whatever doesn’t sell even if they’ve put dayglo “sale” stickers on the books and let the books be damaged, return books at the end of the year to avoid the taxes they must pay on inventory and then reorder the same books because they do sell. Bookstores must now compete with online providers, not just the publishers themselves or other new book sources, but also the huge back inventory of used books that used to be available only by going into a used book store or employing a book finder, who did the same. These are books nurtured in the old system so their quality is much higher.
Even the salesmen are now replaced by “quants” -- quantifiers who investigate numbers to see what sells the most. They don’t like “outliers” and “long-tails”. There is a lively market for “remainders” which are books dumped by the publisher as unsaleable at some mysterious auction. Possibly these are the result of over-optimism about what will sell, failure to allow enough time for word of mouth to develop, or failure to promote. They show up in used bookstores or catalogues that include music, movies and calendars. A person can read wonderful books as low-cost remainders because somewhere someone loved them a little too much.
Amazon weirdly recognizes books as just a product and advertises them alongside bug spray, knee pads, household accessories, clothes. EBay skims off some of the specialty books or particularly valuable books to sell at auction. Abebooks.com, Alibris.com and Powells.com sell used books. Literate people who can navigate Google, etc. declare themselves bookstores and sell through these venues. I find myself acquiring the books of retired anthros, often books they wrote and used as texts, therefore accumulating a lot of copies of no use without classes. Sometimes these books come from the Salvation Army and other organizations which accept donations of physical books to sell. Really valuable old books, unrecognized, show up there.
All of this is the product of the MARKETING changes of physical books made possible by computers. Nothing to do with eBooks. Likewise, the disappearance of book reviews from newspapers, which was the primary way many of us knew what to read, is NOT due to the disappearance of physical books. Quite the contrary. Newspaper desks are heaped with books begging for review. It is the shift of news-seeking people to the computer websites as well as television and resurging radio that has impoverished newspapers. Book sections are cut because the ads from publishers didn’t pay for the space.
Back to the impact of electronics on book manufacturers, which is what the publishers must be if they are making physical books. The only way to cut costs for the physical object has been volume printing -- a lot of copies means less money per copy. But with electronic printing, it’s possible to “print on demand.” So if you order my books from Lulu.com, they will print you a copy and mail it to you. Or you can order enough for a class. No worries about running out. There is no such thing as an “edition” or “going out of print” or “first printing” versus “second printing.” There are no remainders. There are no returns. The Espresso printing machine, which is about the size of a player piano, will print you any book that has an electronic file (zillions of them), bind it and kick it out warm as a cookie in the time it takes to drink a nice coffee. Weirdly (again) the most common use is to create a blank book for journaling, not a manuscript but a binding.
Electronics also affects acquisitions. Queries go to freelance agents. Many will not consider any queries from people who have not already had a book published. (The snake bites its tail.) Agents work in genres -- some do certain age groups, others will only consider certain subject matter. This is because the value of an agent is in their ability to know the market and predict what the publishers will be willing to acquire. That’s what all the lunches are about, publisher to agent, agent to agent, agent to writer. Rarely publisher to writer. Most publishers do not read books. And electronic queries are processed in a quick and sketchy way.
The publishers are also imposing editorial duties on agents. Not just to line-edit for correct English and spelling, but also to advise changes, to push for different outcomes or even contents, to “colorize,” to make everything more commercial, and (OFTEN) to hire a ghost writer or a “book doctor.” If the writer balks, he or she is told they will lose the offer to publish. This was once done in-house. It is more acute now that the cost of making a physical book is higher. There is constant pressure to be shorter.
Some publishers require the writer to submit a plan for advertising and estimated sales. Some, especially academic presses which only exist to serve their community and pay the salaries of the Press employees, will ask the author to secure a grant to pay for all or part of the costs and to pay for all illustrations, which might be costly graphics as well as photos or art work. Material books must be stored in warehouses, shipped, handled and packed by people with muscles and at some costs, including the vagaries of rising paper costs or health insurance. It is too expensive to allow authors free or low cost copies of their own books, so they do not have boxes of them at home.
Authors themselves are dented and remaindered by the increasingly greed-driven, corner-cutting, ghost-written, closed-circle-marketing -- all accompanied by the erasure of advances and the diminution of royalties to 5%. Some authors understand computers and what they could do as direct marketing websites, what is called a “platform.” They know it is the same as putting boxes of their books in a car and driving them through the country, hand-selling at readings and events, hoping it will amount to pump-priming. Others, who had been quietly writing all this time, could not get a grip on what was happening and only knew they were wiped off the game board.
Most wannabe writers have no concept of all this and go on happily scribbling in their fantasy world. What impact reality will have on writers and their motivations is open to speculation. But as Abraham Lincoln remarked about the man being run out of town on a rail, if it weren’t for the honor of it all, he’d just as soon stay home. But as another thinker said, if all you can see is bars, you need to re-focus on the spaces between them.
Tomorrow I’ll take a swipe at ebooks.