Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Just read a fascinating article by Elisabeth Sifton, Senior Vice President of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. She gives an overview of the publishing biz and why it might be in the state it is today.

It's a loooong read, but interesting, nonetheless. Here are a few quotes:

"But the chief marks were in the choices [a publisher] made among the materials submitted to his company; the editorial and advocacy work his staff did on behalf of the nascent books, building an audience for them, preparing the ground; the copy-editing, proofreading and legal checks; the typographical designs devised and manufacturing quality achieved; the efforts made to get attention paid to, and sales consummated of, books that might otherwise go unnoticed in the noisy, trivializing, inattentive world where readers live. For centuries, these activities were the publisher's principal raisons d'ĂȘtre..."

"The corporations that consolidated the publishing houses, like the Silicon Valley children of today, saw book copyrights as valuable "content" with plenty of cultural cachet that could be "synergistically" exploited--optimally by the other arms of their media empires. The publishers didn't mind this, since they had long depended on the sale not just of original editions but of subsidiary rights--mass-market paperback and book-club editions; foreign, film and TV rights; magazine or newspaper serialization. The new corporate arrangements seemed likely to augment these juicy opportunities. That the money men found publishing's profit margins absurdly narrow and insisted on at least a 15 percent return on their investment seemed harsh but practicable. That they had no confidence in books per se and knew nothing about writers or readers seemed a neutral factor, not the harshly negative one it actually is. As any sensible businessperson knows, you can't make money in a low-profit operation unless you stay close to your sources of supply and demand--writers and readers in this case. And it helps your profit margin to love or at least respect them."

"The stifling excess of lucrative junk is, naturally, galling for literary artists unknown or only slightly known to the mass market, whose talents are perhaps not suited to it; they want or need the filthy lucre too. Their ever more powerful agents have successfully decoupled the size of the royalty advances they receive from any estimate of the books' eventual earnings, and routinely assure them that if Knopf or Norton or Morrow fails to earn back the upfront money, it's because their masterpieces were badly published, not because the advances were implausibly high...Also, they won't acknowledge that literary quality may decline as advances increase; only rarely is a writer liberated into confidence-inspiring freedom by following advice from greedy publishers about Pleasing the Crowd. Willa Cather wasn't the only fine writer who refused advances for being, in her view, unethical, nor was D.H. Lawrence the only one who found them demeaning. The agents have much to answer for."


Anonymous said...

"pleasing the crowd". Oh man, I knew I was forgetting something! :P

cleemckenzie said...

Oh,man. Do I appreciate your posting this, Neesha.

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