Publishing Has a Problem. Who Knew?

This must be the week of WTF? sort of stories concerning tradiitional publishing. Yesterday, I blogged about how the Association of American Publishers (AAP) was soooo looking forward to “collaborating” with the new Administration to help bring us all to “enlightened understanding”. Then as I sat down to write this post, I find this at The Passive Voice. According to an article first published in the SFWA Bulletin, publishing has a “New York problem”.

If you’re like me, you read that and went “Duh!”. Traditional publishing has had a NY problem for years. Decades. But not in the manner the author of the article, Karintha Parker, means.

I’ll admit, she had me rolling on the floor with her very first line.

Like so many others connected to this [small-yet-all-consuming] publishing industry, books were my first love.

While I completely identify with books being a first love, the opening of the sentence had me rolling. To start, can’t you just imagine all the publishing execs–not to mention all the others in the industry who’ve swallowed the pill–screaming in outrage to have anyone call publishing a “small” industry? True, it doesn’t have the numbers it once did, either in employees or in number of large publishing houses. But a few houses basically control the industry, at least the traditional end of it, and look at how many businesses would potentially fail if even one of those houses were to shut their doors.

But I kept reading. After all, PG excerpted large portions of the article before staring into his own comments about it.

Still in the opening paragraph:

But lovely as books are, the publishing machine is flawed, as all things are (as this op-ed likely is). Evidence of this creeps up in the corners of the internet from sources brave enough to give voice to their frustrations, in the private DMs and group chats where authors, publishing professionals, and readers alike sound off to avoid the disaster of blasting their grievances on front street.

And therein lies the problem, not just with the industry but with this article. First, there are still too many “in the industry” who are afraid to voice their dissatisfaction. They suffer publishing’s version of the Stockholm Syndrome. They have been told for so long that if they rock the boat, they will be blackballed and will never work in the industry again. Here’s the thing: “the industry” isn’t the all-powerful monolith it once was. There are any number of small to mid-sized presses who are more than glad to take in an author (or editor, etc) who has become disillusioned with the large houses. They won’t care if you’ve voiced that dissatisfaction–as long as you’ve done so in a professional way and not acting like some kind of loon who went off their meds. You can find work out there. It just won’t be as “pretigious” as working for one of the Big 5.

(Okay, pardon me while I laugh for a moment.)

But there’s another problem with the statement. It completely ignores the fact that trad publishing isn’t the only arm of the industry. Mind you, that’s not uncommon. Many of those involved in what we now look at as trad publishing turn a blind eye to indie publishing and would really like it if we’d all go away. After all, we haven’t paid our dues. We write too fast. We write dreck instead of meaningful works that will bring “enlightened understanding” and unity to our nation. And–gasp–we don’t charge nearly enough for our work.

And here’s the thing for those of you “in the industry”: you aren”t shackled to those jobs. You can still do what you love if you break free of the traditional chain and go out on your own (or with a small to mid-sized press). We need editors, especially qualified structural editors. We need cover artists. We need marketing help.

Gawd, do we need help with marketing and promo.

Here’s another secret, we’ll pay for it.

And, to answer one of the complaints the OP has about publishing’s “NY problem”, we won’t demand you live in the Big Apple. There is a secret we’ve learned as indies. You don’t have to live in New York–or San Fran or any other particular city or state–in order to do your job. As long as you have a working computer and an internet connection, you can work.

But you have to break out of the NY publishing state of mind.

Starting with dropping the social justice lingo and the demands that every book meet the artificial checklist trad publishing has been forcing on authors and readers. As a contractor, you don’t have to take a job. Don’t like an author’s politics? Don’t work with them. Don’t like the book? You don’t have to accept the job. There are tens, if not hundreds or even thousands of other authors out there wanting your services.

The OP actually believes trad publishing is adapting to these Covid times and will carry these practices over once we are past this “new normal”.

In combination with the usual virtual practices of curating social media platforms, hosting online giveaways, and distributing both mailed and digital advance copies to readers and reviewers, publishing houses are finding ways to generate content that promotes books in socially-distanced ways. They are looking to virtual events, from guest appearances to Zoom launch parties (although, based on recent incidents, there’s some major racist kinks to be ironed out there), pre-signed books, and features in book boxes and giveaways in place of attendance at book fairs and tradeshows. In a recent article in Forbes, Brett Cohen, President and Publisher of Quirk Books, outlined what his team is doing to counteract the change in promotion. Among other things, Cohen discussed how Quirk Books, which publishes unconventional books out of Philadelphia, instituted a weekly theme where authors discuss their books and offered resources to entice purchases, including reading guides and downloadable kits.

OMG, what she sees as innovative in this time of Covid is stuff indie and small press authors have been doing for a long time. Hell, let’s face it, it is what a number of traditionally published authors have been doing for years because trad publishing’s  “promotion” for most authors has been laughable.

I’ll let you read the rest of the article. But, to me, it comes down to this. Traditional publishing has a problem but it isn’t a “New York” problem. It is a problem of knowing their audiences, of understanding they aren’t here to work hand-in-hand with the government to indoctrinate readers, it isn’t to remain faithful to an archaic business system that is dying due to changes in reader expectations, technology and delivery methods.

Passive Guy ultimately asks the most important question every creative should be asking:

PG wonders what all these remote publisher people do, exactly, to justify their taking the large majority of the revenue earned by the book the author created?

I guess we should applaud SFWA for publishing a piece that is supposedly critical of trad publishing but let’s face it. This was a soft piece. It didn’t go to the heart of what ails the industry. It didn’t offer any long-term solutions. Instead, it “criticized” while still none-too-subtly pointing out how traditional publishing is essential (in their eyes, not mine).

What do you think? Does publshing have a “New York” problem or is it something else, something deeper and more fundamental?

Featured image by JL G from Pixabay

48 comments

  1. And of course there are “racist” things about Zoom meetings. . . .

    Apparently there are no other problems with them.

    1. That caught my eye as well. Part of me is curious what is “racist” about a Zoom (or one presumes Skype, GoogleMeet, or other versions of the on-line meeting) meeting. The rest of me really does not want to know the answer to that question. I would guess it has to do with who has broadband and access to the necessary computers and internet.

    2. But, but, but, all those Zoom meetings that were hijacked. Raciiiiist.

      Okay, some of those hijackers were. But the author, imo, is being sloppy by using trigger words without explaining–and without noting the other issues with meetings via Zoom and similar services.

  2. “. . . we are doing valuable and creative work now to meet consumers where they are . . .”

    What? They’ve started doing marketing research? It’s been years since I’ve been in a B&N. I got tired of walking out empty-handed and disappointed. The publishers need to take a good look at who buys books and what they want more of. Otherwise, they’re just a prestigious social positioning tax break for their parent companies.

    1. Nah. You’re giving them too much credit. They’re simply figuring out more ways for the authors to do the promo that they (the publishers) promised to do for them.

    2. Free market research: I want book #57!! Icka has certainly become a force to be reckoned with.

  3. “Curating social media platforms.” Is that like fending off the “tsunami of swill” that was so lauded a few years ago (the fending off part)? Because it seems to me that the curating mindset is part of the problem. Rather than letting people find what they want to read and talk about, the TradPub managers still presume that they can dictate what the masses will partake of. And then they wonder why the masses are not buying their carefully curated, socially meaningful, “vital part of our national discussion and healing” books.

    1. IKR? It’s almost as if the SFWA article was written to go hand-in-hand with the AAP article I referenced. And yet, with all their inward navel gazing to figure out how to weather the pandemic, they haven’t realized we want books that entertain or that teach (as opposed to preach). What we don’t want is to be led around by the nose and made to heel at the enlighted thought processes of our so-called betters.

      1. Sadly, Amanda, we sort are not the majority of people out there. Plenty of folks do want to be led around by the nose by their ‘betters’. That shouldn’t be how it is (at least in America), but more and more folks each day are inculcated into the cult of “tell me what to think.”

        1. Unfortuantely, there are too many of those folks. On the good side, I see more and more people starting to stop and realize just how dangerous that way of thinking (or not thinking) is.

    2. Well, I do think there’s a place for curation (aka good book recommendations), but the NYC mindset doesn’t know how to do it. I’d say this site does a better job of it.

      1. Thanks, TonyT. We “curate” by talking about what we like and why. To me, that is the best form of curation. It lets others make up their own minds.

  4. The fact that they’re still in thrall to the Woke Cult while their sales tank is a pretty good indicator of what the problem is.

  5. Most of the dumb ideas in the OP I expected. I found the thought that opening branch offices in other cities would lower overhead mind boggling. More rent in more locations = less overhead. Didn’t see that one coming.

    1. Were this a sensible group i would think “branch offices elsewhere” might mean reducing the size of the New York offices, depending on by how much and branch office location, I could see it saving money. This being publishing… I doubt anyone is that foresightful.

    2. Unfortunately, I did. I’ve seen it too often in other industries and businesses. It’s the same as believing outsourcing won’t have an impact on not only the bottom line but on employee morale. Sure, if done right, it can save some money. But too many don’t do it right and it winds up costing more to contract with the outsource contractors and in loss of customer money. It does real damage to employee morale as they wait and fear what will happen to their jobs.

  6. Big Traditional Publishing has a New York City problem. They are deeply, deeply, deeply parochial in every single way you can think of down to what driveways are allowed to be made off. Moving to NYC to work for a New York publisher seems to entail brainwashing so that the person doesn’t remember that the rest of the U.S. and the rest of the world is NOT New York City! The move makes the mover forget everything about where they grew up.

    I separate NYC from New York State since they might as well be on different continents.

    No one in certain areas of NYC seems to understand that everyone does not think like them.

    1. I’ll be honest. I have about as much sympathy when folks start whining about how expensive it is to live in NYC as I do for those complaining about the cost of living in San Francisco. They chose to live there. I shouldn’t be forced to subsidize their choice, especially not if they are working as a barrista because they can’t get a job with their women’s studies or British Lit, specializing in some obscure time period.

  7. Publishing is a business. The only problems of significance a business faces are financial: Is it making money? If not, can it forecast doing so before the capital runs out? If so, can it forecast continuing to do so? And so forth.

    I may not like their stuff, but the “churn it out” indie writers who concentrate on rapid output have grasped this truth and have internalized it. If you understand yourself as being in business, you play to the market. You give the buyer what he wants at a price he deems acceptable. The TradPub fossils have a much more tenuous grasp of this concept…if they grasp it at all.

    1. RAH wrote for MONEY! He said so. If it was good enough for him, it is good enough for ANY writer. He wrote under many names to fill magazines when they asked him to.

      1. Perfectly true, and the great majority of Heinlein’s novels were of the first quality, good stories very well told. That’s a rare combination. TradPub is in the position of wanting revenues that its current editorial attitudes and prejudices won’t support. In other words, TradPub houses place a higher priority on those attitudes and prejudices than they do on sales.

        The “churn it out” indies of the “Anderle school” are making good revenues, which appears to be their highest priority. Some of us can’t do that, whether it’s because we literally can’t write fast enough, or because, like TradPub, we have other priorities that detract from the goal of a high sales volume. As a friend of mine likes to say, “That’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla.”

  8. I think at this point, making public ‘future of the industry’ forecasts about NYC traditional publishing is futile. The covid lockdown was a huge disruptor, and on its own would have a lot of fall out yet to develop.

    If the UVW widget industry was on solid footing, and XYZ company within UVW in a good position, resistant to disruption, XYZ’s press releases might be worth paying attention to.

    Some of the important feedbacks within a major institution appear to be broken. I expect that institution to magnify instability, instead of damping it. With new confidence of fragilities in other areas, I am confident that the future will see a series of disruptions whose nature will not be entirely foreseeable.

    If the publishing status quo does not change as the lockdown shakes out, I’m confident that one of the later disruptions will end up driving change of some sort.

    All I see doing in my own business sector is hunker down, and see what happens. Changes in publishing are far beyond my own planning horizon.

  9. I was going to spend a little time reading the source articles, because I had some time to burn waiting for a Wallymart curbside pickup. I started with the Parker article. I got to ” While my experience has been filtered through the lens of race…” and realized I didn’t need to go any further. It’s an unserious bit of SJW whinging written by an unserious person.

    The notion that the difficulties authors experience dealing with the tradpub industry are down to racism is part of a propaganda program put on by the American Left. Is there racism in the publishing industry? Yes there most certainly is, and of the most objectionable type. It is the soft racism of low expectations. Those non-White authors just don’t have what it takes to fight their way through like the toxic White Males do. They need a handout!

    That is some racism right there.

    As to the rest, who cares? If I’m an author who expects to get paid for my work (and I am) then I’m looking at the income side of the equation. Tradpub pays a mid-list author less than a part-time waitress in a greasy spoon. That’s pretty much the whole conversation as far as I’m concerned. I’m not even mid-list, I’m way-down-in-the-bottom list. I’d be paying them.

    But really the issue is moot because they do not answer their e-mail.

    So I put my book up on Amazon and I got money. Not much for the work I did, but I did get -something- for it. And something is better than unanswered email.

    I posit that any and all conversations about tradpub need to start there. Tradpub in 2021 America/Canada is effectively a monopoly buggy whip manufacturer. Their buggy whips are crap too. You can have any colour as long as it’s red.

    Meanwhile the superhighways are full of cars.

    And meanwhile, the SFWA masqerades as a professional organization, but really it’s three SJW midgets in a skin suit, demanding respect. “I fart in your general direction…” Monty Python.

    1. To me the hilarious part is seeing the Left accuse the exact same industries which they ideologically colonized of being racist/sexist/homophobic . . .

  10. I’ll agree that she has some points, at least if you amend “Traditional” to the front of her title. Everyone seems to agree that employees at publishing houses are almost always rich New York liberals, who look for books that will appeal to other rich New York liberals and are almost certainly written by rich liberals who may or may not be physically located in New York but almost certainly share the New York mindset.

    I do have several gripes on the article, but the primary one that jumped out at me was this:

    “And when it comes down to it, contracts and subsidiary rights are words on a page no matter where they are interpreted and are honestly best consumed with sides of solitude and silence in which the legalese can wash over and drown you.”

    WTF? I would think that “legalese that can wash over and drown you” is best consumed in the presence of an IP Lawyer who can explain exactly what it all means, how it might be interpreted, and what wording changes would best insure that someone didn’t use that “legalese” to screw you over. I wonder if that statement is indicative of how not-seriously this writer takes her contracts or how not-seriously those who should be helping her take the responsibility (yes, I know, it isn’t an exclusive or).

    1. And pretty much have been since about the time we lost Jim.
      The good Mr. Baen was about the last of a breed that gave a flying flip about what the readers actually wanted to read.

      1. There seems to be a multiple of truly huge indy authors expanding their “just me” businesses to publish and include additional authors that I think it’s possible that we’ll turn around one day and there will be a whole sudden proliferation of new publishers with their own focus and very mercurial brands.

        I mention “mercurial” because you can’t be in it for the money without caring about what readers actually want to read.

  11. The entire tradpub industry is so messed up that a corps of twenty or thirty clerks entering data into an accessible format would be a ridiculously huge improvement. But the neglect and theft from authors has been so criminal for such a long time, and the money laundering for politicians is so “important,” that they will never be forced to change their ways unless everything blows up.

  12. We need editors
    Oh yeah, definitely.

    NY publishing state of mind
    Heh. Nice.

    to generate content that promotes books
    Huh? What content is there to generate for a book? Don’t you want excerpts and synopses and such? Those are not generated content. That is derived content.

    reading guides
    Ummmm…. If you need a reading guide for your book, then I might be inclined to say your book isn’t written well. Assuming she does not mean something like a compendium of your world because you’ve written like Tolkien or Eddings.

    Does publshing have a “New York” problem
    Yes. They think like New Yorkers – provincial, self-important, arrogant, believing that the entire world turns on their sorts of likes, loves and principles. It’s the problem of all the ‘elite’ who think that if only the rubes would think like they do, they wouldn’t be rubes anymore.
    (Note, there are plenty of people in NYC who don’t think like this. But it is a very much a NYC trait.

    1. When she’s talking about “reading guides,”she’s talking about the kind of thing you’d use for a book club or a classroom as a way to start discussion, I think.

      It’s still a little silly, though.

      1. — [Reading / discussion guides are] still a little silly, though. —

        I’ve always thought so as well, but after I published the first three of my Realm of Essences novels, a host of readers immediately exhorted me to produce a discussion guide for them. I don’t understand the need. If your book club is discussing a book, shouldn’t the insights and questions of the members be paramount?

        That having been said, there appears to be an appetite for such guides. Maybe schools are driving it…or perhaps, “marketing and promotion services” that sell themselves to aspiring writers.

      2. It is very silly and potentially dangerous, especially if the author doesnt put the guide together. Think of it as a school text, one that “interprets” the material. We know where trad publishing’s emphasis is right now. Now consider what it can do taking a book and driving the way it is discussed. The potential is not something I like thinking about is isn’t something I’d agree to unless I had input into it.

  13. “What do you think? Does publishing have a “New York” problem or is it something else, something deeper and more fundamental?”
    Yes.

  14. The problem with traditional publishing is twofold: first, the people in it who are doing most of the actual work (that is, choosing the books, editing them, etc.) are the sort of people who think spending a 100k on an MFA in order to get a job in NYC that pays less than 70k a year is some kind of path to financial stability; second, the people running the companies are still under the impression that they are the only game in town when it comes to getting books to the reading public, and are therefore content to maintain their near-parodically exploitative and clueless business practices.

  15. None of what the SFWA OP and PG say is new. A good deal of this came out into the open during the Sad Puppies phenom five or six years ago. When I wrote about it at the time I called it a monoculture problem: There’s only one worldview in tradpub, and it’s the worldview of Ivy League degrees in gigantic coastal cities. It’s possible because big presses control access to the retail channels. (I’m speaking of print books here. The big presses are still struggling with the idea of ebooks.) When I had a publishing company back in the ’90s, our biggest problem was distribution. We were forced to ally with a much larger NY press just to get books into bookstores. Without that kind of a deal, a small press is gonna have a helluva time getting its (printed) product in front of the public. But today, well, print is an extra-cost option…

    Location matters, in that it should be cheap. We were based in a seedy industrial park in the north end of Scottsdale, Arizona. We hired people from Arizona state schools, mostly, and they were terrific. (I interviewed exactly two Ivy Leaguers in twelve years. Their ignorance was exceeded only by their arrogance.) The cost of living there was low, and thus we weren’t forced to pay sky-high salaries. Being located in Arizona didn’t seem to be any kind of disadvantage.

    With retail sales of printed book a constantly shrinking percentage of the publishing business, there’s no reason for any presence in any huge city, certainly not New York, LA, or Frisco. Being near a good airport helps, so I’m talking Phoenix, Omaha, or Des Moines rather than small towns in Wisconsin. (That’s not impossible, but it complicates logistics.) Such cities will themselves act as filters, since the people you don’t want working for you will never consent to live there. To tighten that filter further, set up shop in a red state.

    Basically, Amanda’s nailed it: Tradpub has a cultural problem. It’s not the only problem, but I think that most of publishing’s problems (expensive cities, wokie wonk staffers, clutching desperately at business models long gone obsolete, a peculiar, almost sexual fetish for hardcovers, etc.) emerge from and are anchored by culture. All of those problems are easily avoided, given the will (absent, alas) to avoid them. If B&N ever goes under or closes even half its stores,there will be blood in the streets of Manhattan like the industry has never seen. Indie authors and small press will then have their first opportunity to move to center stage and take over the industry I’ve always loved. The popcorn’s in the pantry. Once that bloody curtain rises, this is gonna be quite a show.

  16. The lag between “most people realize this business model is broken” and “company goes under” is astonishing. None of this is new, yet these companies keep going. What’s keeping them alive?
    There was a clue – posted here a while back: Institutional purchases. Apparently, last year was a really bad year for textbooks and other classroom books and it HURT.
    The gradual breakdown of the school monopoly (which is also taking an astonishingly long time) may be the final straw – or not. Predicting collapse (correctly) is easy. Predicting when is much harder.
    I’m equally surprised that ABC, CBS, and NBC still exist (they do, right?). I feel like Pauline Kael (of “no one I know voted for Nixon” fame).

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