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5.19.2008

Publishing and the Economy

Last week, Galleycat linked to an interesting discussion concerning the future of publishing. I don't know anything about Sramana Mitra's background, but she has a fairly sizable archive of informative articles on the intersection of technology and commerce. Her points in this article definitely merit discussion, and while I agree with aspects of her article, there are many current practices in the world of publishing that, I think, serve the industry positively.

Is the business model antiquated? To be sure. Do many (any, really) other industries operate on the archaic "product return" model (a practice dating back to The Depression, as I understand it)? None that I know of, off the top of my head.

But I tend to agree with the view that entrusting a huge corporate entity with the responsibility of publishing, packaging and distributing the bulk of wares for a 32 billion dollar industry (domestic) is dangerous. Who is the ultimate arbiter of taste? Jeff Bezos? Does the potential for abuse exist in a monopolistic situation such as the one outlined here (couched as democratizing the publishing industry)? You bet.

What's to keep Amazon, in Mitra's scenario, from unilaterally slamming the door on some writers after becoming the publisher of majority? We already see implicit censorship in companies like Wal-Mart, whose push for publishing works espousing "family values" has consciously altered the creative process for popular fiction. Do you think Wal-Mart would carry Nabokov's Lolita in its stores if that novel were published today? I seriously doubt it. And because Wal-Mart accounts for 25-50% of sales in some genres, isn't it logical to believe that some authors are sanitizing otherwise creatively risky works to get that shelf placement in a company that generates stronger sales than many foreign GDPs?

I think that independent booksellers have a direct impact on the content and cultural pulse of the reading community. I also think that the system of agents, editors and critics serves as a fundamental tradition of checks and balances. These systems filter the massive body of content out there to the extent (I've read on various industry blogs) that only 1-2.5% of work is published by the "big" (read traditional) houses.

Does that increase my competition to get a book published? Sure (I'm happy to take my chances). But does it also mediate a pool of work (400,000 titles published in 2007--a record, according to Galleycat) that is diffuse with shabby product already? Maybe being a small fish in a small(er) pond is better than being a small fish in Lake Superior.

There aren't any easy answers on this topic and, sure, I'd love to see authors more fairly compensated. But Mitra's scenario doesn't seem like it would be healthy for publishing over the long haul. I'd love to hear your thoughts. And for those of you wondering whether this economy is negatively affecting editors and their purchasing power, I've heard (anecdotally) that it is. Here's a post from an agent speaking to that...

On another note, I looked at Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian on Friday and found it a bit underwhelming. My short review was collected at Bloggin' Outloud. Take a look and, if you saw the picture, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

I wrote a short story called "Dust Country" awhile ago, and Editor Lyn Perry will publish it in the July volume of Residential Aliens. Man, I love that current cover art--really nice! If you have some speculative fiction ready to go, note that Lyn (an author himself) is currently reading for his October issue. It might be time to write that Halloween tale...

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