Boris Kachka's long feature on NY publishing's crisis in New York Magazine is a sad but important read. But Kachka puts a lot of emphasis on greed and foolishness and media and bookstore consolidation, while ignoring the largest contraction in book-sales since the heyday: sales through non-bookstore venues like Wal-Mart and the local grocery store.
Historically, these outlets have sold more books than bookstores, and were a vital induction system that coaxed people who didn't (yet) love books into the bookstores. When these chains went national, they demanded national distributors to stock them from coast-to-coast. The result: a huge shift in the way these shelves are stocked: once stocked by local distributors who chose from a very wide range of titles and hand-picked the right books for each little grocery store and pharmacy, now they are supplied by a national database totalling somewhere around 100 titles. The consolidated distributors demand gigantic discounts from publishers — and even so, they go bankrupt with dismal regularity, often with FBI arrests of top execs for corruption.
So yes, there was a lot of foolishness in book-publishing, yes, some writers got stupid advances, yes, mergers and acquisitions have left many publishers without a coherent vision or command structure. But when 51 percent of your sales disappears and is replaced by a lottery system where a couple dozen titles get nationwide distribution to non-bookstore customers and everything else is pushed into a ditch, surely that must count for something.
The advances you don't hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.
Of course, back in the boom nineties, the corporations themselves were pumping up the expectations of midlist writers. Consider Dale Peck. His first novel, Martin and John, came out in 1993 to excellent reviews, and by his third book, in 1998, he was, by his own account, wildly overpaid. Books, he says, "were like Internet stocks, getting enormous advances without demonstrating any moneymaking whatsoever." Having rarely sold more than 10,000 copies, he took up with superagent Andrew Wylie, developed a reputation for being a "diva," and pretty soon couldn't sell a book to save his life. Until he started specializing in genre fiction–first children's books, then horror. Last year, Peck sold Body Surfing, a thriller about demons exiting people through sexual release. He's now splitting $3 million with Heroes writer Tim Kring to produce a trilogy of conspiracy thrillers.
Peck sees an increasingly hostile environment for the kind of books he used to write. "When you get $100,000 for a novel," he says, "you want $150,000 and then $200,000, so when they pay you $25,000 for the next one, and my rent is $2,500 a month, what do you do? The system works just fine for commercial fiction. But for literary fiction, I think we had a nice run of it in the commercial world."
(via Beyond the Beyond)