I have just finished Birmingham, the novel I have been working on for years. Now the really difficult part begins. I have to find a publisher. It’s always been difficult to publish a novel, but I think this is the most difficult time ever. The whole book publishing world is in turmoil, not as desperately as newspapers, which have lost a major part of their revenue stream, and not as significantly as magazines, which have to compete with free media that offer most of the same services, but still very significantly. The internet is changing everything, and nobody knows where it is going. In an atmosphere of uncertainty people act cautiously. Publishers want to publish sure things, like Stephen King. They are not keen on taking a risk on an unknown.
Yet it’s an extraordinarily exciting time in publishing. What will emerge is unknown, but there’s every reason to hope it will be vastly improved. The internet is removing the most creaky, expensive and inefficient parts of publishing. In the old model (which is probably dying but still very much alive) publishers made educated guesses as to what books they could publish and make a profit on. They made educated guesses on how many to print. They sent out sales people to help bookstores make educated guesses on which books to order, and how many. The books got published, usually by the thousands, and then sat either in warehouses or on bookstore shelves until somebody bought them. Pretty often those educated guesses were off, and those books just sat there until somebody trashed them. (Books are not very price sensitive, compared to detergent or clothes or televisions. If a book doesn’t sell at $20, it probably won’t sell at $2. Better to send it to the dump.)
It’s a wasteful system, which makes books expensive. And books, other than bestsellers, have always been hard to find. Your local bookstore can only stock a few thousand, out of the hundreds of thousands of titles in print. They guess at what you will want to buy, but a lot of their guesses are wrong. Before Amazon, it was often really hard to get your hands on a particular book.
Now, though, books can be printed one at a time, after they are ordered by a reader. Further, they needn’t be printed at all—they can be sent to you for your e-reader, including your iPhone. Readers are no longer dependent on the good guessing of their local bookstore, they can find everything and anything online.
For writers, opportunity has opened up. When I was speaking to a writers’ conference in Berkeley last fall I emphasized the remarkable fact that anybody who wants to write can begin tomorrow to publish, for free, to virtually the entire reading world. That’s the fantastic truth about blogs. I’m not sure those would-be writers felt all that encouraged by it. The obstacles to publishing are gone, but will anybody read you? And is there any way to make money from what you write?
A friend of mine who works as a literary agent told me she has been asking publishers what exactly they have to offer writers. Her point is that many of the functions publishers traditionally filled are actually filled just as well by the authors themselves. I can get my book printed, quite inexpensively. I can sell it on Amazon. I can publicize it myself on the internet. (One of the aggravating questions that publishers ask writers nowadays is, “What is your platform?” If you don’t have a large audience on your website, TV show, radio broadcast, or speaking circuit, their interest diminishes substantially. Which means they really are counting on you to publicize your own book.)
Publishers also edit and copyedit books. However, more and more of them barely do. They job out that function to freelancers, and underpay the freelancers so they barely have time to do what they should do. It’s an important part of publishing but not one that’s done very consistently by publishers. And it isn’t hard for an author to hire somebody competent to do the same job for his or her book.
The most significant thing publishers still offer is an endorsement. “This is a good book because Harvard University Press published it.” That gets readers’ attention, it gets reviewers attention, and it gets the book into bookstores. Publishers screen books. If you read blogs you will understand how valuable this is, because blogs aren’t efficiently screened and reviewed, Most readers just aren’t patient and longsuffering enough to do their own screening, so they just don’t read any of them. I’m so glad you’re not one of those people.
This screening and endorsing remains the single indispensable function that publishers fill. And don’t kid yourself—it’s expensive. It takes considerable resources to peruse manuscripts and meet with agents so that you find those few good books out of the huge amount of trash being written. However, it’s not entirely clear that publishers do this better than some other more democratic institution might. Conceivably the internet will develop efficient facilities for screening and endorsing. Google has figured out how to take us to the websites we want. Netflix predicts with some accuracy what films we’ll enjoy. Might there be some way to take us to the books we want? I think there probably will be, because the astonishing amount of content available demands some way of evaluating and screening it.
It’s all changing. It’s exciting and aggravating—especially to us small-holders who try to make a living from it. For what it’s worth, here are my predictions of the future:
–Paper books will survive, because they are cheap and portable. I reckon we will end up with a mixture of about half paper books and half electronic books. Each kind has advantages, and we’ll probably recognize that particular kinds of books lend themselves to one kind or the other—just as we have already figured out that encyclopedias work best electronically.
–I’m not sure about paper newspapers and magazines. The functions will survive, but the form is very up for grabs. I love my paper newspaper, but it’s getting very expensive, and I notice that none of my kids feels any attachment to it. I suspect it won’t be much longer before we have to pay for news on the internet. Some kind of subscription system will develop. Somebody has to pay those reporters.
–Bookstores as we know them are finished. Those that survive will morph into coffeehouses and community centers. Possibly they might become highly decentralized warehouses for books ordered over the internet, as used bookstores already have. (Interestingly, used bookstores have survived because of the internet, not despite it.)
–Most book publishing will be done by a handful of huge conglomerates dedicated to bestsellers (somebody has to publish Stephen King) and thousands of one or two-person publishing concerns that put out a handful of books, usually in a particular specialty. A lot will function as so-called vanity publishers, offering expertise to writers in how to edit, package and (particularly) publicize a book. And a lot of books will be self-published—probably the majority. Just like blogs.
If I’m right, it will be a different universe. Us old fogeys will feel sad and nostalgic. But our grandchildren won’t know what they’re missing and won’t care.