Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Future of the Publishing World: Are we talking too much and not doing enough?

By Laura Caldwell

In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, editor Graydon Carter had this to say about the demise of the newspaper business and the accompanying bitching about it: “I’m not one to complain, and I’m sure you’re not the sort to, either, but aren’t you growing just a bit tired of reading about the demise of newspapers—in the papers themselves? It’s no wonder readership is down. Who has the patience to hear endless whining about someone else’s misfortune when your own fortunes are rickety? This is not to say that the health and vigor of the nation’s dailies are not vital to the intellectual health and vigor of the commonwealth as a whole, or that newspapers aren’t an essential force in keeping a watchful eye on corrupt politicians and venal corporate overlords—neither of which are in short supply these days. I would also hope you feel that the loss or even weakening of the nation’s principal daily, The New York Times, would mark an end to life as we know it. The Internet is partly to blame for all of this, and perhaps micro-pricing or gated content will be part of the solution. “Youthing” down a paper to attract 21-year-olds isn’t the answer: the only way you’re ever going to get the average 21-year-old to read a daily newspaper is to wait 9 years until he’s 30. My suggestion to newspapers everywhere is to give the public a reason to read them again. So here’s an idea: get on a big story with widespread public appeal, devote your best resources to it, say a quiet prayer, and swing for the fences.”

Is the same true of the publishing world? Are we talking too much about the days of yore and not moving on enough? Certainly, there has been a fair amount of woe-is-us going around and for good reason. On “Black Wednesday” last December, some powerful publishing houses laid off a significant amount of people. The Kindle and other e-readers are confusing things, people have said, and killing the art form known as The Book. Then there was the Google battle over the scanning of millions of library books and the subsequent litigation filed by the Author’s Guild and a number of publishers. (By the way, has anyone seen any cash on that yet?)

But despite the grumblings, I’ve found, for the most part, that authors, their publishers and agents are, at least by their actions, semi-optimistic. Maybe it's because the publishing business is, and always has been, an oddball industry. Take, for example, the fact that book retailers can send back the product they don't sell (at a discount). Such books are then destroyed. You won’t find that many other businesses. In part because of that oddity, there's also the fact that authors sometimes don't find out how their books are truly selling for months, or even almost a year, after their release.

And yet, at its core, the publishing business is a gentleman's business. If someone says, "We want to publish your book," there's a very, very good chance they're going to do it. (Unlike some other entertainment businesses, which may talk a good game but rarely produce results that have been promised). Also, authors seem to be highly adaptive. Notice the acceptance, and even huge enthusiasm, around social media. Sure, there were some people (like our own Marcus Sakey), who initially refused to get on Twitter, but now you can't stop the guy. He’s running contests to give away books, as are many other authors. Jason Pinter ( isn't just giving away books, but music and a character named after a reader as well.

And then there are the many authors who are finding social media to be one of the best avenues for reader feedback. On my own Facebook and Twitter (@LauraACaldwell) accounts, the more reader comments I get, the more I want, especially now that I’ve released the Izzy McNeil books (the third, Red, White & Dead came out two weeks ago). This reaction of mine is not so much because I'm attempting to adapt to a new economy and, therefore, a new publishing industry. It’s mostly to do with the fact that I write (like most authors) in order to be read. I write in order to entertain. And with my recent Chicago mystery trilogy—and hopes of more Izzy McNeil novels on the way—I really want to know where my readers see these characters and this story going.

And so, although Kindle may change reading somewhat, as will cell phones (many in the business predict that the next generation will be reading their books on their personal media device—something between a cell phone and a laptop), I’m one who doesn't believe that The Book will ever die. Maybe there’ll be fewer of the printed variety, but I tend to believe that this art form, even if it changes and appears drastically different in the future, will survive. The written word and the audiences’ ability to imagine, in their own head, the way a story plays out, can never really be lost. And us authors, even with our bits of grumbling, are addicted to what we do. We can’t stop even if you want us to. And so, as editor Graydon Carter suggested, we’ll write the big story, say a prayer and swing for the fences.


paul levine said...

I grumble; therefore I am. A writer.

We have to just keep doing what we do. The market forces will march on with or without us.

We write because we have to. It's a cough, an illness, and it can't be cured.

Dana King said...

I have to laugh about some of the reasons given for Black Wednesday. Like Kindle sales have already made publishing unprofitable. Pubishing had a tough year, but adult sales were actually up. it wasn't that companies were losing money so much as they weren't making as much as they wanted, and the financial panic gave everyone--not just publishers--an excuse to cut head count.

Thanks for including the Vanity Fair excerpt. I've thought for a year now that newspapers are becoming their own worst enemies. They insisi on cutting the things that made them unique (investigative journalism, more detailed looks at various topics) to compete with the internet and cable news on fluff and opinion, areas in which newspapers' opponents have an advantage.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of strategy knows the key to success is choosing the battlefield. Newspapers seems determined to want to fight it out on the fieldof their competition's choice, which cannot go well.

Jason Pinter said...

Thanks for the shout out Laura! This is a very insightful article, and what I find most interesting about the last few years is that it seems like authors are the ones leading the charge when it comes to finding new ways to reach readers. They're the ones interacting with fans on Twitter and Facebook, they're the ones creating web presences. And because of that, publishers have had no choice but to follow suit. Thankfully there are a lot of authors with not only talent, but entrepreneurial spirit. And whereas they might be a little slow to adapt to new technologies and social networking and ebooks, it is happening.

Hopefully the revolution will not be forced upon us, but it will be led by those who create content.

Laura Caldwell said...

Dana, well said - "the key to success is choosing the battlefield."

Pinter, I think you're right. Authors are the driving force behind a lot of change. I still really like your idea of making BEA more of a reader event. Who do we talk to about this? said...

I've meddled with writing for years but always felt alone in my own world. Publishing seems to resist recession and publishers survive, despite claiming they are having a hard time. What the itnernet has achieved for writers is to let them gather and have a good moan without having to leave their dens or their garrets. I think it's great to be able to link up with perfect strangers who seem to have similar thoughts to my own, although on a different scale. We are all the same, whether we are successful or not. We love to write and some of us wish we could emulate the successful members of this coveted group. Me? You've probably never heard of me, but I'm a writer like all of you, and I'll keep going until there's nothing left.

Michael Parker

Laura Caldwell said...

Michael, I know exactly what you mean. I wrote for about nine years before I got published, and although I couldn't find a publisher, much less an agent, for oh-so-long, I knew that I would always write. For me, it was a thing I did for myself (like some people knit or scrapbook or paint) that made me happier as a person. I loved the act of it. And no one was going to stop me. So keep at it, and thanks for checking in here at the Outfit.