Publishing's crises (incompletely) explained


21 Responses to “Publishing's crises (incompletely) explained”

  1. barnaby says:

    Ah yes, the modern beatnik must be able to at least afford his $2500 a month apartment. Haven’t you thought of that?!

  2. Daemon says:

    So, what I get from this is…
    Genre is not only more enjoyable than literary fiction, but also more profitable.

  3. Tweeker says:

    This is a story about the New York publishing crisis, $2,500 doesn’t buy you the penthouse in most of it.

  4. Gunn says:

    Pour me another one of those hemlock fizzes, would you, honey? I feel a headache coming on.

    This long, detailed article pairs well with the 5-part “Publisher Imprint Report Card” at Sarah Weinman’s blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

    They are non-sequential:
    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3
    Part 4
    Part 5

    A gaping blind spot in both of these visions of the future of publishing is Cory’s publish-for the Web-and-prosper model. I would be interested in what each of these NY publishing insiders thinks of it. If they do.

  5. brownbat says:

    Wow, I guess globalization and technology can be used as tools to kill long tails too.

  6. Not a Doktor says:

    I noticed it’s impossible to get a comic book (IRL) without going to an Android’s Dungeon. I think that’s why Marvel/DC are so movie happy is that more people are more likely to go pick up a movie for the kids at walmart.

  7. Hamish Grant says:

    Sounds like amazon needs to get into the publishing game.

  8. Phil Hilliker says:

    Pretty much the same thing happened to the comic book industry. I, along with most of my fiends, first bought and fell in love with comic books in my local convenience stores. But then things changed, Diamond struck exclusive distribution deals with the big publishers and the industry shifted. Now monthly (non-trade paper back) comics are pretty much found only at comic shops and the industry insiders are decrying the lack of young readers. Kids can ride their bikes to the local 7-11 a whole lot easier than to the nearest comic shop. It’s an access issue that the industries are using to strangle themselves.

  9. J Cheiffetz says:


    Good point about the chains. In the end the article felt like more of a mood piece than anything else. (Also see similar Slate article from eleven years ago: Your perspective on publishing is vital – especially with regard to DRM. Would you be open to doing a Q&A with HarperStudio?

  10. Will says:

    Re:#1: That’s an excellent point, Barnaby. Although you were being facetious, another economic shift has hit all the writers I know– you’ve got to work full time just to get by. Unless you’ve got family underwriting, which is sweet but no guarantee of talent, there’s no way in the modern economy you can get by on part-time.

    Youngsters don’t have to worry about this too much, but making a career as a writer can mean many, many years of low or unpaid work before the book deal comes along, if ever it does (and even then, good luck living off a modern advance). Ancillary costs rise as you age– a twenty year old can get by without health insurance, but a thirty year old is getting onto thin ice, and a forty year old is stupid not to have it, and this goes double if you’ve got a spouse or a kid.

    Talking to older writers who’ve made the leap to a full-time career or academia, I often feel quite vexed. They’ll talk about struggling along on a part-time job at the diner, living in a hovel and spending all their spare time at work. But housing, food and transportation costs are really up– and wages are really, really down. This is made worse if you’re looking to live somewhere, like a big city, where you might possibly find a market for your work.

    Thus, if you are a writer who wants time to develop your skills or your career, you must work full time; the Wallace Stevens model of authorship.

    All this happens on top of the market forces on the book industry that the New York magazine article depicted, plus the evaporation of the grocery store market that Cory spoke of in his post: basically the American literary market moving to the Hollywood blockbuster model. This undercuts the payments that authors get, if and when they get signed for a book.

    One way of cutting the Gordian knot is to get your MFA and teach. Colleges still offer benefits, and job security if you make tenure, but not every good writer is a good teacher, and not every writer’s work survives the brutality of the writing workshop. The result has been a flood of MFA-esque literature onto the market. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but “academic” isn’t what we usually associate with great literature.

    If we want American literature to remain great, we need to move publishing back to a “many small gambles” model, and re-establish a social safety net that’s been shredded almost past repair.

  11. JDJ says:

    Last time I tried to access a NY Mag article via the print view the all-in-one-page really did expire soon. So here’s a pdf (1.2 MB) of the article.

  12. barbarafister says:

    That’s an excellent point – and while the power of Wal-Mart and Costco have been mentioned before, I’ve never seen anyone explain exactly why it’s a problem. Thanks.

  13. Jardine says:

    I wonder about writers who live in $2500/month apartments when their novel writing is their only source of income. I’m sure that the computer works just as well in a city where the rent is $700/month. John Scalzi lives in rural Ohio partly for this reason. If the publishers in New York City need you to physically visit them, there’s this wonderful new invention called the aeroplane.

  14. bben46 says:

    In the entire article, not once did they mention the customer. Who are they putting out the books for? What do they want to read? Where do they want to buy them?

    The readers are obviously not interested in the junk the publishers WANT to put out. Most chain book outlets, such as Wall Mart, Drug stores and airport ‘news’ stands have about 20 to 50 titles TOTAL in stock.

    The NY publishing world is totally out of touch with reality.

  15. mouthyb says:

    This is exactly why I get annoyed with the course work in my MFA program. You get the professors who want you to read a lot of ‘art is dead’ theory (as in, ‘don’t publish because no one wants to see it,’) or you get the ‘genre is a dirty word’ professors. The false inflation of the market for literary fiction produced by MFAers for more MFAers creates the sense that MFa programs ought not be responsive to trends in writing. I disintguish the MFA inflationary market from the rest of the literary fiction market for the simple reason that the rest of the world and a lot of the MFA students wouldn’t buy these books without an authority figure standing over them forcing them to read the books.

    It troubles me because I do like good literary fiction, and I read a lot of genre that would have benefitted from the sort of classic principles of writing that are taught in MFA programs, but you cannot use anything which might be confused with genre in the workshop process, and there are times when I’ve had to read works in my classes that would, in any other market, have been punished for the elements missing from them (and in a thoroughly uninteresting kind of way; less on purpose than because the author was too darn cool to bother.) I don’t want to homogenize lit fiction and genre fiction, but there is a troubling (for me) discrepancy between good fiction (fiction that is interesting and troubling and well-written and intelligent) and fiction that has not been as carefully polished or is more or less unaware of audience (which goes for both MFA market literature and genre fiction.)

    Moreover, as someone who is going to have to sell some serious copy to get a job, I want training in vulgar things like genre for the simple fact that I’d like to be able to pay back my student loans. (I want to leeeeeeive!) I realize this makes me a terrible person and a lousy artist, but there you have it. I need a job.

  16. Another Aaron says:

    Has the publishing world ever been in touch with reality? Has Wall Street, Congress, Big Oil, the IT industry, the art world or anyone else? You could say that as a general complaint about almost anything.

    Besides, of course the fiction publishing world is out of touch with reality….its their bread and butter. It’s the nature of fiction…..I’d be dissappointed if they WERE in touch. :)

  17. angry young man says:

    Here is how you calculate an appropriate advance:

    Use market data (Bookscan, author’s previous sales, sales of comparable books, your house’s track record with similar books) to project sales of the book under consideration.

    Multiply that number by the price.

    Multiply that number by the book’s royalty rate.

    The result is the earned royalty.

    If this was for a hardcover book you plan on putting out as a paperback later, do the same for the latter. Add the earned royalties.

    Finally, if you expect to make some subrights sales (translation rights, serials, book club, etc.), add the author’s percentage of this income.

    The total is the appropriate advance for the book because that’s what it will be earning the author. Paying anything much more than this number, is pure folly.

    The trouble is, too many editors/publishers want to pay grandiose advances to show they can, thus attracting more agents and bolstering their own egos.

  18. mdh says:

    Wait, isn’t is Cory’s fault?

  19. ralphw says:

    I used to buy my comic books at the local grocery store. That’s not possible anymore, even with the bookstore-inside-the-grocery store model.

    If eBooks insist on the same DRM protections as media content, then eBooks will suffer the same fate. eBooks aren’t the answer to a broken business model. There are better ways to figure out what people will want at the neighborhood bookstores, but the Wall-Mart model isn’t it.

    The transition to “open textbooks” is already starting to happen with college textbooks, but for the reason of them being overpriced. The publishers stopped adding value, and once you realize you can implement a peer-review system over the internet, there’s not much reason to keep the old system any more.

    The future may either be ad-supported, or belong to subscriptions (for digital works), but you can only afford a limited number of those.

  20. wolfiesma says:


    I was wondering the same thing… I feel bad publishers and bookstores and writers are having a hard time… but I wonder if more attention paid to the consumer might help the struggling industry. First of all, are there any readers out there like me that think a hardcover book price is just too steep? They are like 25 bucks! I hate it when I read a scintillating review in the NYTimes (nearly every day) and then think, oh, well, hopefully I’ll remember to look for that in paperback. And even then, you are still paying around 15 bucks a book. It’s too expensive.

    I’d also buy more books if I knew better what would fit my taste. I’d actually appreciate some directed marketing to help steer me to my next great read. I love rating the books I read on GoodReads, but there is no feature there that says, based on your reviews of these books we think you will like this. If I knew it was something I’d really enjoy, I’d be more willing to pay the price.

  21. Will says:

    Re: #19– Jardine, Scalzi went to U. of Chicago and studied under Saul Bellow. That’s a very serious hookup for a young writer, and while I doubt Saul was the one who pitched Old Man’s War to Tor, running in that circle is nothing to sneeze at, and it represents a very significant investment of money. Writers laboring in obscurity can produce great work, but will never make a living at it– you’ve got to go to places where other writers, publishers and influential people gather, and that’s not rural Ohio. Once you know the right people, you can move where you like.

Leave a Reply