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The future of publishing: Amateur hour in a DIY universe.

August 25, 2010

Philip Goldberg

The saddest thing I’ve read lately is this HuffPo essay by Philip Goldberg in praise of traditional publishers and the essential services they provide writers. Why sad? Because publishers are about to go the way of record labels– which means authors will be on their own.

On their own for encouragement, editing, marketing–everything publishers traditionally do. It’ll be amateur hour in a DIY universe.

Poor misguided Goldberg, an “interfaith minister” and author of 19 books with spiritual themes. He means his piece, recounting the development of his most recent book, American Veda, to be celebratory. It’s even titled: “Who Needs Publishers? We All Do!”

But considering rapid developments in self-publishing and digital books, Goldberg’s piece reads more like a eulogy.

Goldberg lists two ways his publisher, Doubleday Religion, made it possible for him to research and write an ambitious history of Indian spiritual thought in America.

First, Goldberg received an advance. While the upfront money didn’t cover the expenses incurred in three years of research, it helped, he says. What’s more, it signaled that a major publishing house wanted this book: “Given my personal circumstances, I simply could not have sustained the effort to complete the project without that commitment.”

A smart guy, Goldberg frets about a future in which authors of “research-heavy” books will have to be independently wealthy, tenured academics, or supported by “commercial or ideological organizations with a vested interest in promoting a point of view.”

The second, equally important thing Doubleday did for Goldberg was provide quality control — catching not only pesky errors of spelling and grammar, but also fact, structure and readability. A writer for 30 years, with 19 previous books to his credit, Goldberg declares: “I still need editors.”

“[W]hen it comes to serious nonfiction especially, readers, libraries, reporters and everyone else concerned about accuracy and readability should rely only on books that have been competently edited.”

Much as I sympathize with Goldberg, I can only view this with nostalgic melancholy, because the publishing process he describes is doomed. And soon. Take a look at Bob Stein’s call, at, for “a hospice for publishers.”

Stein predicts 50 percent of publishers won’t survive “the transition from print to networked screens,” suggesting they choose to go out with dignity by selling off assetts, providing employees with severance and help finding new jobs, “and then at the very end giving some wonderful parties, celebrating the end of an era.”

And those 50 percent Stein expects to survive, what will they be like? They’ll be a lot like the independent record labels thriving after file-sharing crashed the music industry. You can find a taste of this brave new world in “The Dotted Line,” Sasha Frere-Jones’ piece in the current New Yorker.

Richard Russell, owner of XL, a London-based independent, says artists should professionalize their music and bring an audience with them before they approach a label. His top act, Vampire Weekend, already had “a significant press kit when XL signed them.” Band members still do most of their own marketing through social networking on Twitter and elsewhere.

So, writers: Unless you’re already a blockbuster like Stephen King or Janet Evanovich, this is your future. Writing will be the least of what you to do.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. PJ Parrish permalink
    August 26, 2010 11:11 am

    Gee thanks, Chauncey. Now I’m REALLY depressed.

  2. August 26, 2010 11:49 am

    Just got a clipping from a friend from the WSJ about bestselling marketing author Seth Godin. After 12 books, he is leaving his Penguin Group publisher and going the self-publishing route. He plans to sell his books via ebook, POD, audiobook, apps, PDFs and podcasts only. Now this is a guy with half a million blog followers, a lecture circuit, and what publishers call “a major plaform.” So it is probably going to work really well for him. As if would for Stephen King if he suddenly decided to decamp from Simon & Schuster.

    As for the rest of us, especially fiction writers: I suspect, like you Chauncey, this model is our brave new world. But it will be a very painful transition, and most of us won’t make it.

    One more thing: I noted that some of the writers who replied to the Huffington Post article said that self-publishing isn’t viable for most authors because you won’t get any marketing attention. Hello? The huge majority of traditionally pubbed authors get none anyway. And increasingly, they don’t even get distribution to stores in any signficant way. Plus, the way things are going for Barnes & Noble, the big stores aren’t going to hold as much sway as they used to.

    I have long told would-be writers that self-publishing is a dead-end and that one is better in the hands of a traditional publisher. And I will defend to death the idea that all writers need editors. But I am seeing many of my other arguments being shot down by these new realities.

    Hence, my depression. 🙂

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 26, 2010 4:27 pm

      You’ve sketched in the situation with precision and accuracy, P.J. Some writers will survive, but htey’ll be the ones, like the boys in Arcade Fire, who are most comfortable with the new media. Or at least they’ll survive until people stop reading altogether, which I predict will happen within 25 years.

      • August 27, 2010 10:11 am

        I’d guess that people read more “words” now than at any time in history.

        Attention spans are the issue, plus the devices that cater to those with short ones, which are entire generations at this point.

        This is why I like the Kindle more than the iPad for books – I’m too tempted to go check email or Twitter or whatever on the iPad.

        Prose-based storytelling will always exist, but it’s definitely going to change.

  3. August 26, 2010 10:11 pm

    People will never stop reading literature, not everyone anyway. In 25 years, readers will be an even smaller minority than they are now and writers will continue writing for them, the independent venue their common outlet. It will be something like the audience for Fielding et al back in the 18th & 19th centuries, an educated, enthusiastic few, but what the hell, “few” are better than none. I used to think going independent was for losers. I totally disagree with my former somewhat elitist attitude now. If John Edgar Wideman and many, many other first-rate writers can go the independent route, so should those who deserve to be published but can’t make it happen in the “majors.” The majors’ message is generally something like this: I’ll publish this first novel, but I won’t support it, no money for ads, no tour because no one knows you, and if the book fails I’ll kick you out of my stable, you broken down thirty year old has-been. Who needs that sort of ego-crushing?

    Why write anyway? Not because you want to, but because you NEED to. If you still do it despite the odds against, then you really are a writer and nothing but death will stop you. The writing is better than the expense of therapy, right? Put your neurosis on the page. And be well, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 26, 2010 10:20 pm

      Edmund White, speaking at the Key West Literary Seminar a couple of years ago, said that novelists are becoming like poets, writing for a small, devoted audience, with little to no hope of making a living thereby.

  4. August 27, 2010 10:41 am

    I hate this “authors need to write” argument. If you look at what is typically considered the best fiction of the last 80 years, probably none of it would’ve been written if the authors couldn’t make a living at it. Hammett, Chandler, Stout, Thompson, Cain, Westlake, etc. would’ve all been doing different things to make a living. So yes, I’m sure some many books would’ve been written over this time period, but not by the professional writers who ended up producing the works that we treasured. Of course, if Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Westlake were starting up today, they wouldn’t be able to get published anyway (Stout probably would).

    • August 27, 2010 10:42 am

      I meant to say the best crime fiction, but you could probably argue that Hammett and Cain both wrote books that could be argued also as some of the best fiction written during this period.

    • August 27, 2010 11:12 am

      I’m with you, Dave, on this thing about writers writing out of pure love. What reverse-snobbism bullcrap. Any SANE writer really want to make a living writing because it is the one thing they do best. And all the writers you mentioned slogged along in crappy day jobs and churned out some pretty low-grade stuff to make their more durable work possible.

      Chandler supported himself writing pulp detective stories for “Black Mask” magazine, as did Hammett. Don Westlake wrote pulp and porn, Cain was a working journalist. Stout wrote romance and adventure pulp, taking 20 years to really break into publishing in a major way. I suspect for all these guys, working in the “minor leagues” helped them hone their craft for the novels to come. (The prototype for Hammett’s Spade was the Continental Op of the Black Mask stories).

      And don’t even get me going on all the literary types who sold their souls to Hollywood to pay the bills.

  5. August 27, 2010 10:55 am

    But…. how will the cost of research be covered in this imminent future? Please don’t say that only university professors will have the freedom to write narrative non-fiction.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 27, 2010 2:05 pm

      Narrative nonfiction requires no research, though. It’s the fact-based nonfiction that will become the province of tenured professors and those willing to sell their souls to corporations with something to sell.

  6. August 27, 2010 11:49 am

    One last comment then I will be quiet.

    Thought you all might find this bit of news interesting. Things are moving at the speed of light:

    Weeks after said that it is now selling more electronic books than hardcovers, a leading book publisher said one of its prominent new titles is generating greater e-book unit sales than hardcover unit sales during its first week on sale.

    Laura Lippman’s thriller, “I’d Know You Anywhere,” went on sale Aug. 17, and in its first five days sold 4,739 e-books and 4,000 physical hardcovers, said News Corp.’s HarperCollins Publishers.

    “This is the first book of ours of any consequence that has sold more e-books than hardcovers in the first week,” said Frank Albanese, a senior vice president at HarperCollins. “What we’re seeing now is that if a book gets a good review, it gets a faster lift on the digital side than it does on the physical side because people who have e-readers can buy and read it immediately.”

    Ms. Lippman, who has written more than a dozen books, is well-known in mystery circles and has authored four novels that have hit the national best-seller lists.

    In recent weeks, a number of leading publishers have indicated that e-books today account for about 8% of total revenue, up from 3% to 5% in the same period a year ago. Some expect that e-books will account for as much as 20-25% by the end of 2012.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 27, 2010 2:07 pm

      Very interesting…I hate ebooks, but I’m happy for Laura. If anyone deserves ever greater success, it’s her.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    August 27, 2010 9:11 pm

    Is there never a light at the end of the tunnel, Chauncey Mabe? Once again, what you say depresses me.

    • August 27, 2010 10:42 pm

      Candace, not sure this is a light at the end of the tunnel, but if you find a book or author you like, talk them up, tell your friends. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps writers writing, even in this bleak environment.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 28, 2010 11:55 am

      I’m only describing the world I see developing around me. I’ll concede to a somewhat bloody turn of mind. I am a bit of a Cassandra — or a Jeremiah, to be gender appropriate. But rejoice: Despite the rapid decline of American civilization, plenty of books remain from the Before Time,and I’m sure you’ve not read htem all. I know I haven’t. Plus the occasional good book gets published, as if by miracle, today. Here’s two: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, and Dave Zeltserman’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field. Oh, another: Stiltsville, by Susanna Daniel. I’ve read all these in the past 3 weeks or so. and they are all very good.

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