On the Demise of Publishing, Reading, and Everything Else

This article, from the editors of The Quarterly Conversation, originally appeared on that site in their issue #15.

Books are commodities, and as we head into the sharpest economic downturn since 1982—indeed, quite possibly since 1932—publishers are feeling the pain.

The reactions of many of the industry leaders do not instill confidence: in just one example, albeit a flagrant one, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt declared an acquisition freeze, only to make an abrupt 180 degree turn when the move resulted in widespread shock. (In a much less publicized but arguably worse move, HMH also unceremoniously showed the door to legendary 79-year-old editor Drenka Willen, who oversaw the acquisition of an almost impossibly good backlist, the likes of Calvino, Grass, Eco, and Saramago; the publisher has since allowed her back, presumably so that she can resign with a measure of dignity.)

The troubles of the big houses are making headlines, but it’s unclear whether their answer isn’t, like the 36 head-sanded Senate Republicans who voted to scrap Barack Obama’s stimulus bill for one made entirely of tax cuts, more of the same. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse, who previously proclaimed that Chris Anderson’s “long tail” theory was so much backwash in the wake of blockbuster books, argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model even more alluring and successful than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has “worked wonders,” and that it makes more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than to spread money among a number of low-payoff books.

Of course, one might point to the many large advances paid out to authors who have flopped, as well as the glut of celebrity memoirs finding a second life as home insulation, and conclude that Elberse is speaking from the decks of the Titanic. As opined Richard Nash, the editorial director of plucky independent press Soft Skull, “she’s only looked at the corporate model and developed theories about what works on their system. Which is self-fulfilling, since their system is designed to work that model. It’s really quite dense. Almost hare-brained.”

Nash might be onto something. Amid chaos and layoffs among the large New York publishing houses, Nash reported that 2008 was a banner year for his press. So have numerous other indie and small publishers, including Margo Baldwin, whose Chelsea Green Publishing specializes in sustainable living titles, just the thing for hard times. In a recent interview Baldwin predicted large-scale changes for the publishing, nothing short of a general reinvention of the industry, and she isn’t alone.

Beyond indie publishers, who might be seen to have a vested interest in predicting the demise of corporate publishing at large, Gideon Lewis-Krause, who was sent off by Harper’s magazine to report on the Frankfurt Book Fair, intimated in the resulting essay that the kind of ego-ridden system that recently gave Richard Ford $3 million for 3 books is on the way out. Although Lewis-Krause was somewhat coy in his critique of corporate publishing, it didn’t take the closest of readers to sense his disdain for the publishing houses that have been agglomerated into billionaires’ media empires, and his eagerness to see their business model disintegrate.

Read the rest of the article on The Quarterly Conversation 

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