Tag Archives: digital publishing

There’s More to Publishing Than In Jonathan Galassi’s Recent Op-Ed

In a New York Times opinion piece, There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen, (1/3/10), Jonathan Galassi — President of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, writes of the decision by the heirs of William Stryon’s estate to put out e-book versions of the author’s work. Galassi wonders whether e-books are “a new frontier in publishing” or “simply the latest edition of the books produced by publishers like Random House.”

He points to the contributions made by traditional publishers in creating the finished product that goes to the public. In addition to marketing, design and layout, Galassi speaks of the role of editors in making sure that the final version of a book is the best that it can be.

Galassi does not discuss the other important role of traditional publishers. They have been the gatekeepers, not only ensuring that no book would bare their imprint before it was ready, but that any book with their stamp would be one worth reading. Publishers could be depended upon to bring us new and interesting authors, and beyond that to expand the very foundations of literature.

But the publishing industry abandoned these tasks long before e-books came on to the scene.

Any visit to a bookstore will show that nowadays it’s only name brand best selling authors and celebrity writers getting onto store shelves. If William Styron were starting out today, an editor would never have taken a chance on a book like Lie Down in Darkness (unless perhaps Styron added vampires or zombies) and Styron himself might have been forced to publish only as an e-book if for no other reason than to prove to potential agents or publishers that he could gain a following and his books would sell.

While books may still need “the care and dedication” of a good editor, publishing houses are not going to provide that to any novels they don’t believe are marketable and most of the books they believe will sell, no amount of editing will help.

The result of this is that sales are down and the publishing industry is in trouble. If only it would occur to those involved to look inward, they might find that the problem is not competition from e-book distributors. Perhaps what they need to do is look for books that have literary merit to begin with. Maybe they should be using that marketing acumen to make serious reading “sexy” again, or to find out what kinds of books would compel readers who aren’t buying theirs. Of course they need to make other changes as well. Changes might include a different type of distribution, the realization that e-book and print pricing can’t be the same, a rethinking of how royalties are set, and new ways of incorporating digital marketing. As in any industry, new technologies require new approaches.

Galassi makes a valid a point. The publishing industry plays an important role in the production of books. If they are going to continue to play an important role in the production of important books — both print and electronic, they need to change.

(This blog also appeared in Marion’s Open Salon page with lots more comments.)

The End of the World as I Know It

[Ed note:  6 March 2010 — Can’t seem to make myself say anything new today, so I’m pulling this one out of storage and giving it the sticky.  Comments welcome.]

A couple of weeks ago I went to Borders. Hadn’t been to a big chain bookseller in a while. In fact, the last time before that that I had even been in a bookstore was the close out sale of a local independent.

Borders was culture shock. Other than a small table labeled “classics” there really didn’t seem to be any space devoted to literary fiction. There were lots of tables with big glossy hardcovers on which the writers’ names were writ huge: PATTERSON, CORNWELL, BROWN.

And there were horror of horrors, the Jane Austen parodies. Granted she could be kind of a moralistic stick in the mud (Mansfield Park), but does she really deserve this? Sense and Sensibility with Sea-monsters, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre?

In my search for actual books, I also came across many written by celebs and semi-celebs. Everyone has a story and if you are famous even if yours isn’t especially interesting or well told (even to someone else), agents and editors believe someone will buy it.

Meantime Big Publishing houses are becoming the dinosaurs of the tens or whatever the coming decade will be branded. And everyone is betting on digital.

People who never would have gone to an old fashioned vanity press are now proud self-publishers. Though not in the brick and mortar stores. The PODs are at least as pricey as the books in stores, but the ebooks are cheap. An overwhelming amount of the new lit by the masses is complete shit, but there’s also a lot of brilliant and innovative stuff that never would have gotten out otherwise, and somehow the consumer has to find his/her way between the two. The industry — agents, editors, publishing houses, even reviewers that used to intercede can no longer be trusted. Notice how thin the New York Times Book Review section is lately?

Me? I’m heading down the indie path with my own plan for publishing glory which includes digital. I still don’t actually own a mobile reading device. A little afraid that kindle might be the eight track of the future. Even something small and with good lighting doesn’t appeal to me. I want a book I can read on the beach and get sand on. I want a magazine I can leave in a restaurant and then have to borrow a copy later from the laundry room because I was in the middle of an article. I want pages to turn. I want to fall asleep with the book next to me and wake up with it cradled in my hand. I want to spoon with it.

But then again, I still have my LPs.

So it’ll probably be a generational thing, and the revolution will be gradual. They’ll be people in their twenties comfortable with both digital and analog-books. The real push won’t come until school children all have the readers and grow up with them.

Of course it will also change how books are written. Some will be meant to be read “live” with tons of hyperlinked references. Can you image a truly digital version of Ulysses? But most books, I suspect will be short and simple. You can’t go back and turn the pages as easily as with an analog. There’s no app for that, so books with a lot happening where you might want to go back a few pages and reread, will be less popular, not that they are popular now exactly.

As for the analogs, will they be burned or more likely recycled? Or will they be exported to the developing world like used clothing? So not only will Adebayo be wearing a bowling shirt that says, Poughkeepsie, Pirates, but he’ll be carrying a worn midlist paperback, the pages beginning to yellow and crumble.