Tuesday, June 26, 2007


I think it has been underreported how much the traditional publishing industry, through failure and simple change, has invited self-publishing, which is often based on Print on Demand.

First, publishing houses were bought up by international corporation who expected the same kind of investor profits as Campbell soups: that is, 10% or more. This pushed the business from a educated and possibly bankrolled gentleperson's enterprise to the ordinary commodification that in other contexts might be called "prostitution."

Second, advances for works not yet written had to be justified but works not yet written are of necessity unquantifiable. This threw the ball to the market research and fame-is-fortune people. The amounts of advances became a feature of publicity and were compromised by Hollywood-style book-keeping anyway: creative deductions for all associated costs.

Third, the whole problem of print runs, much exacerbated by the brilliant decision of the tax people to consider books inventory to be taxed and also the simple physical necessity of keeping books warm, dry, and pristine (another cost) meant a motive for short print runs and quick liquification which are deadly for books that need time to develop an audience, like Native American books. (Frankly, I think this problem alone snuffed the NA literature renaissance since back east publishers had no idea how to market NA books, therefore ordered small runs and ended them quickly to avoid risk, therefore eliminated eventual wide sales.) Again, the Hollywood model: profit in the first hours of existence.

Fourth: The corporation model required "lean and mean" staffing which meant editors who formerly developed the "house focus" by putting in many days of reading in offices were pushed out to being "agents" who had no house, no focus, no stable of faithful writers, no handholds but the necessity of earning a living. I discovered that some agents are not making a living by selling books but by kindly offering "for a fee" to rewrite over-the-transom works to make them more saleable. This was formerly called "editing" and paid for by the publisher.

Fifth: Proofing and fact-checking are time-consuming and time is money, so -- beyond maybe Spell-checking -- those quality-control elements went out the window. Anyway, fewer and fewer new hires were capable of proofing OR researching a fact, a national education failure.

Sixth: The author has to be promotable, so one strategy is to represent that books are written by popular people, though ghosted by someone else, or to represent the author as a larger-than-life person. This is the slippery slope that took us to the "packaged book" which is invented by sales people right down to hiring someone to tour around pretending to be the author. Or resourceful writers pretending to have shocking pasts.

Seventh: Publishers had somehow made a devil's pact with bookstores to allow the stores to return all unsold books. Not just the ones that are still clean, undamaged and saleable, but also the ones that have big dayglo sale stickers or are shelf-worn or that are simply in the way when it comes time to inventory for a tax-audit at the first of the year. The underside of this pact is that bookstores charge publishers to place the books favorably, as on the end of an aisle.

Eighth: A person who has spent his entire life in media work was recently shocked, SHOCKED to discover that publishers don't bother to spend money on promotion or ads anymore. Which has caused newspapers, whose income came from the ads, to discontinue their book review sections.

Ninth: Another little money-saving step: no money from the publisher for research or the acquisition of necessary photos or graphics. The author must foot the bill.

Tenth: When it comes to the step of selling to the public, the money-making publisher likes big chunks of sales and so sells through chains, either “book” chains like Barnes & Noble or Amazon or “Big Box” chains with special discounts like Walmart or Target. This has caused many small quality bookstores to go out of business. But the regional sales force that makes the sales to such venues are not innovative about replacing them with special interest stores (sports) or local interest stores (grocery stores on reservations).

I have beside my reading chair a book called “A Glorious Accident: Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle” by Wim Kayzer. It’s a “tie-in” to a PBS series which was a “concept” developed by Kayzer. He invited some cutting edge thinkers to talk among themselves, something like “The Edge,” which is a website for thinkers who are a little bit “out there.” (I was clued to this book by Michael “Blowhard” of 2blowhards.com.) So this is a “tie-in” product that is “generated” rather than written because it consists of the transcriptions of Kayzer’s preliminary interviews with these quite fascinating men. The publisher is W.H. Freeman and Company, which publishes science books and engages in “custom publishing” by which they mean classroom books that are composites of other books and lab manuals tailored for specific classes. In other words, Print on Demand.

Is this a good thing? Well, here’s an early sentence: “As I drive to his house on Sunday morning through New York, ever fascinating, pompous, and threatening, I feel apprehensive.” Is this a lost appositive, a confused referent, or a peculiar personification of a city? The book has narrow margins, though the subject cries out for many reader notes. It has clearly not even been run through a Spell-check: “srot” for “sort” as well as the kind of thing that evades Spell-check: “his” for “has.” A previous reader had kindly gone through my used copy and made corrections with a ballpoint but even he or she missed a few. In a book explaining complex logic and new paradigms, such problems hurt.

At least on Lulu the author has control of these matters, which are the difference between Print on Demand and Self-Publishing.

But I submit, if the professionally “published” books are bad and the self-published books are good (which they often are), then what is the distinction of a book produced by a publisher?

Further, I submit that it is not in the production of the book at all, but in the promotion. It is the soulful portrait, the national interviews on prestigious media outlets, the beautiful advertising, and the currying of the promotable author that makes the difference. All of which moves the focus from the quality of the book to the appeal of the writer.

And I return to Snoopy receiving a letter from his publisher. “We have decided to publish your book. If the first copy sells, we’ll print another one.” But Snoopy is resourceful and has grown a longer tail. This is the essence of Print On Demand: that once it’s digitized and can be found by a search engine, no book will go out of print. But that means anyone can write a book. The mystique of the demonic, ecstatic, exceptional genius author who is brought to us by a perceptive, capable, nurturing editor is gone. Oowoooo! Howls of displeasure.

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