Monday, February 21, 2011

Publishing ain't dead, but it's a deer in the headlights

I attended the San Francisco Writer's Conference this weekend, met a lot of people, and learned plenty. I also had the unexpected pleasure and honor of falling into a hotel lobby conversation with keynote speaker Dorothy Allison, an author who I have admired since I read Bastard Out of Carolina soon after it was published in the '90s.

There was more at the conference to blog about than I'll ever get to, but I have to remark on an odd session on Saturday afternoon, when eight fiction editors from a mix of large New York houses and small presses introduced themselves to a crowd of some hundred or so writers and then fielded questions. There's a lot of anxious Kremlin-watching among authors and would-be authors in this era of e-books, major publisher consolidations, and mammoth bookstore chains going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Everybody wants to know what's next. Nobody has a clear view of the future.

The editors on the panel had a lot to say about what kinds of fiction they wanted to buy, whether authors should consider hiring a freelance editor, how self-publishing affects a book's prospects for New York publication (poorly) or a second book's prospects (a better story, depending). Good stuff, worth hearing.

Then talk turned to e-books. And here's where it got strange.

Most editors on the panel represented large New York houses. They were mostly thirty-somethings, I guessed, employed by the likes of Macmillan, Bertelsman AG, Simon & Schuster, et al. And when they answered questions about the shift in book format from paper to digital, they weren't copping to the fundamental upheaval in the industry. You can't actually blame them. They're only the tip of a huge, sinking iceberg, and they're not making decisions in the executive suites of the Six Sisters. They can't speak publicly in contradiction to their employers' Official Line. Not if they want to keep their jobs. I'm guessing they're all polishing CVs & working out back-up plans for when the next round of pink slips are handed out. I think I would be.

So the answers to writers' questions tended toward tweaking placement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

Piracy was a big issue for these editors. One trotted out the fascinating confession that publishers are worried Amazon might underreport the number of electronic books sold, since there's no physical check or balance on the retailer's unverified assertion. What we need, the editor mused, is some kind of 'phone home' record of a digital book being unlocked by an end-user. You know, like Microsoft has been printing on their software distribution media for fifteen years.

A couple of brave writers posed more pointed questions to break open the subject behind the subject. After one editor insisted that publishers were existentially bound to Amazon, however devious and untrustworthy Jeff Bezos might be, a writer asked "Why do you need Amazon? Couldn't publishers get out from under Amazon's thumb by setting up a distribution arm that the major New York houses can promote as a go-to destination for buying books without a middleman?"

The answers were breathtaking in their lack of inspiration. There was truth in each. But ... the pedantry!

"The beauty of Amazon," one editor said, "is that everything is there."

"Can you name ten books published by [insert name of any particular publisher here]?" asked another.

"Amazon handles the piracy issue," yet another explained.

And another was quick to imply that the Six Sisters would be busted for monopoly practices if they tried to move in lockstep.

Does any of this sound familiar? Wasn't there another media industry (hint: used to sell vinyl, then CDs) that has more or less crucified itself on the same sort of recalcitrance over new content formats and business models? I'm not claiming to have a prêt-à-porter solution to hand to NY publishers (if I did, maybe I could convince one to publish my own book and quit all the shilly-shallying around with agents and queries and whatnot).

But did anyone on the panel name alternate means to the NY Times bestseller lists or Amazon's recommender features to refer readers to books they might like? Goodreads? Library Thing? Facebook? Book bloggers? Book tweeters? No, no one did. Of course, none of these are an instant panacea. But nurturing and promoting a diverse ecosystem of distribution and recommendation channels has to be in publishers' best interest, right? To counter the weight of big, bad Jeff Bezos?

Why not invest in doing so?

Sure, any attempt to shift the status quo will be riddled with risk, though perhaps no more risk than sinking slowly (or not) into the tar pit of literary history. No, I don't understand the publishing business one one-thousanth as well as the least knowledgeable editor on that panel. I'm not a good businessperson in the first place. Yes, I get that Bezos has a lot of publishers by the short hairs because Amazon is a distribution channel that must be reckoned with. Yet it doesn't take Warren Buffett to see that publishers are taking refuge in sand castles as a tidal wave approaches.

Here's what editor Jennifer Joseph of of Manic D Press, also included in the panel, said of the publishing industry on Saturday: "This is the most revolutionary time since Gutenberg invented the printing press." Here's something else she said: "We're trying to fit great literature into a different way of living" [i.e., into a way of living that increasingly fails to make time or attention for books].

And what did Dorothy Allison say in her keynote the day before? In her slow Southern drawl she told the room that "publishing ain't dead." Allison was looking at the big picture, considering the simple truth that everything changes. She spoke of attending an historians' conference decades ago, before all the intertubes were fully screwed together, and hearing the academics describe changes coming down the pike exactly like the ones we're experiencing now. As she put it, "historians think long." But just because publishing is changing doesn't mean it's finished. At least not for those who adapt to its evolution.

Jennifer Joseph and Dorothy Allison -- seasoned women who have been around the block more than a time or seven -- sounded like they were grappling with things that are actually happening. Certainly more so than most of the editors representing their very large, very slow-to-respond publishing houses. Or so it seems from the oblique angle this writer has on the industry.

I have nothing against very large publishing houses. I don't think paper books are going away. I would like to see my work published by one of the New York houses sooner than later. But it's not confidence-inspiring when editors from the Six Sisters pretend they're dealing with a little brush fire burning in the far corner of Podunk ... when everybody can see that the brush fire is an inferno and it's burning in the heart of literary New York.

Thanks to wwphotos for the image of Jeff Bezos from the photographer's flickr stream.


  1. And where's the conference that addresses "adapting to its evolution?" There are e-book selling conferences where hucksters try to sell hope in the form of e-book packages, and there's the industry conference, where the industry pretends that the roof isn't caving in over their heads. I think part of the problem is that nobody knows and too many people have a stake in selling the answers.

  2. @Steven -- That's a fair question. But there were quite a few sessions at SFWC this year that dealt with what writers need to do to cope with The New Reality ... that no matter who publishes one's work most marketing is left to most authors. A lot about 'building platform.' I'm going to blog a bit about what I heard in this vein either Thursday or next week.

    It was this one, very well-attended session that struck the odd note, as far as the sessions I attended are concerned. And as I mentioned toward the start there was useful information to be gleaned even at "Meet the Fiction Editors." Hucksters and hope? Sure. Industry pretense? Yup. Attendees confused by all the contradictory signals? Of course. But I'd say if a writer wants to jump into the business of getter her/his work read, s/he's better off learning to weigh and filter sooner than later, and these conferences are a crash course in doing exactly that.

  3. The discussion on eBook and Amazon was so fascinating and sad. The recent news of Border's bankruptcy illuminated clearly that by relying on Amazon as their eCommerce partner, Border's destroyed its own chance of becoming an online presence. Same can be said about relying on Wal-Mart for movie DVD sales as well.

    Publishers should and must band together to develop some independent online outline. They have the products while Amazon has a shell. They need to take better control of their products.

    Matthew Felix Sun

  4. "And here's where it got strange..."
    Yes, the e-books thing. I'm pretty sure I was one of those people who insisted no one will want to give up on LPs, the artwork - the lyrics, holding it in your hands while you listened to the record. So, now when I hear people (myself included) say, 'but people want to hold a book' I wonder how accurate that statement is. It's all ch-ch-changing.

  5. It's funny - I don't have any beef with the industry: it's trying to navigate it's way through some rough waters and hold on to a market share. I can't imagine being in a business where you might need to say "we have to lose 20% of our business, change our model, etcetera, to move forward. It's hard. I do have some beef with conferences, though - as much as they're fun: they always skirt around the tiny chances of success because it's in their best interest to keep you coming, as the conference itself is big business.