Something's Not Quite Right in the Publishing World Today

Something's not quite right in the publishing world today. You'd think that in this Information Age more people would be writing more books than ever before, that small new publishing companies would be springing up to bring promising new authors to market, that a new Renaissance would be blooming in the world of books, the arts, and culture in general. Not so.

It's as difficult as ever, today, to bring a new book to market. No established publishing company will consider a manuscript that is delivered "over the transom" (unsolicited). The only way to approach a publishing company is through a book agent, and finding the right book agent is enough to discourage all but the most intrepid new authors.

Furthermore, even if the larger publishing houses did take time to consider a book by a previously unpublished author, and even if they found the ideas or story fresh and original, they'd decline to market it unless they could sell sufficiently large quantities of the book to make a substantial profit.

The publishing of books has become big business. Books are no longer treated as precious vessels of ideas, but rather as any other common commodity. Wheat. Pork. Books. Shampoo. Deodorant.

Book lovers cringe at the thought that the business of books has been reduced to the buying and selling of a crass commodity. Books are no mere commodity. They're one of the most precious things we own. A well-written book is the essence of human spirit, captured in tangible form for all the world to enjoy.

The commercialization of the book, and the sorry state of today's publishing industry, is well-chronicled in a 1989 book titled, "Beyond the Bestseller: A Literary Agent Takes You Inside the Book Business," by Richard Curtis. Written by a successful literary agent with over 25 years experience in the business, the book speaks with some candor about the flawed process which modern publishing houses use to publish books.

In the final chapter, "Toward Reform," Curtis crystallizes his comments:

"The publishing industry is critically ailing, and no one, from the creator of the written word to the consumer, is untouched. The signs are everywhere, some statistically demonstrable, others less tangible but manifest to anyone who has been in the business long enough to watch it evolve. Some of the more commonly voiced ones are:

* The conglomeration of trade and paperback book publishing.

* The bureaucratization of editorial decision-making.

* The "blockbuster mentality" and the increased dependence of publishers on big-name authors.

* The insecurity and instability caused by the buying and selling of publishing companies.

* The growth of bookstore chains, with their emphasis on current best-sellers.

* The narrowing of publishers' profit margins.

* The high prices of both hardcover and paperback books.

* The diminution of new and experimental literature.

* The soaring rate of books returned unsold to publishers.

* The drop in advances and royalties paid to most authors.

* The increasing delays on settlement of advances and royalties with authors.

* The decline of professional standards of line editing.

* The failure of publishing to keep dedicated editors.

* The influx of business administrators into publishing, and their influence on editorial policies.

* The assertion by authors and agents that publishers are cheating them out of royalties.

Obviously, there is no single comprehensive explanation of what has gone wrong, nor any all-embracing solution. Still, it is surprising that authors, agents, publishers, booksellers, and other book people, highly intelligent individuals all, should continue applying patches and poultices to the symptoms when it is clear that the dimensions of the problem call for a thorough reevaluation of the way things are done in the publishing industry."

But while the publishing world looks more dismal than ever, there is hope on the horizon. It's entirely possible that new technologies will arise that will undermine the monopoly the big New York City publishing houses have on the distribution of books. The exact nature of these technologies is still emerging, but the certitude of their arrival cannot be questioned.

So watch out all you big city publishers. A populist revolution in publishing is just around the corner. And just as surely as in Gutenberg's day, a new Renaissance will flourish amid all the creative and expressive arts. Despite the death grip the publishing industry has on the production of books, there is hope yet.

Phil Shapiro

Copyright 1995

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