Some Outrageous and Offbeat Comments about the Publishing Biz

by Warren Adler

I am always amused at the game of musical chairs orchestrated by those who run the book publishing industry. The latest is the sudden dismissal of Ann Godoff from the helm of Random House and the appointment of Gina Centrello to head a new combination of Random House and Ballantine Books. Ho hum. None of these changes will make much difference in the scheme of things, nor they will result in more interesting books or even an increase in sales, the fondest wish of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann which now is, pretty much, in charge of the world-wide publishing business.

Rather than construct a self-serving polemic and fulminate about the grievous and absurd condition of the publishing industry in twenty-first century America, I thought it might be appropriate to offer my own humble enumeration and biased critique of this industry along with some pithy references to the gloomy state of the cultural landscape based upon my own erratic experience as both a bludgeoned participant, an observer, a reader, booklover and collector over the past half century.

  1. The “business” of publishing represents a ridiculous paradigm of how any business should be conducted. Books are generally sold on consignment, meaning the retailer pays only for the books he sells, the overage is either remaindered or pulped. Think about how this would work in any other business.
  2. In an effort to show the public how diverse they are, the publishing conglomerates create “imprints”, which allegedly reflect the so-called taste level of individual editors. Of course, they are controlled by the same master puppeteer, someone on top of the pyramid who is charged to police the bottom line.
  3. Like the movie business, the key to financial success is control over the distribution process. As currently constituted, the big brick and mortar chains, control the gate to the consumer and work in league with the big “producers”, mostly Germans, English, Dutch and French companies which now dominate the American and world publishing markets. How did America let this happen? Do I want to be accused of jingoism?
  4. Does it follow that in an allegedly “creative” business that bigger is really better? Has the consolidation of the publishing industry run by big international conglomerates resulted in more compelling content and increased readership? With independent bookstores mostly fallen over the cliff, has all these gargantuan changes resulted in a better or worse intellectual climate?
  5. It is true that authors are paid bloated advances for content that often misfires in the marketplace? Not all, but most. I’m all for authors getting paid top dollar. As for the employees of the big corporations who hand out the money, good for them. Its not their money. But it does delay the inevitable. If the advances return a profit, they keep their jobs. If not, if they’re lucky, they get their picture in the New York Times and go on to more disasters. How do the once mighty fall? I’ve seen so many of these heroes with clay feet disappear, I have lost count and forgotten most of their names Its a business, stupid.
  6. For decades, I have been asking publishers and editors to define for me what is literary and what is commercial. I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. At the risk of insulting just about everybody, my own view is that no-one living can define what is truly “literary” meaning accessible and universal content that has life changing endurance and intrinsic value for understanding the human condition. Contemporary popularity, critical and extravagant praise by academics and pundits, Pulitzers, Nobel’s, and the vast array of “Literary prizes” are a mere snapshot of the times and rarely predict artistic endurance and lasting interest from one generation to another. Nevertheless such praise and fawning does make authors feel good and I’m all for that. As for what is commercial, just ask your friendly corporate CEO.
  7. The so-called entertainment business of which publishing, despite their reluctance to admit it is a part, is addicted to revivalism, meaning redoing what came before and eschewing anything that suggests originality. A good illustration is the theatrical marketplace which is currently besotted with material created years ago e.g. musicals like “Oklahoma”, “The Man from La Mancha,” “Gypsy”, and on and on or material concocted from movies and recycled for live theater. Does this mean that there is no-one now writing capable of creating anything original or merely a safety measure perpetrated by frightened and unimaginative theater owners. In publishing terms it means writing the same book over and over again, which is mostly the material that graces our best seller lists. As for the movie business, that will take a lot more space than I grant myself for these newsletters. Perhaps some day.
  8. Now for the piece de resistance and a sop to my self-serving instincts. The publishing industry is in the midst of a revolution, largely created by cyberspace, meaning the internet. As arguably the only author (forgive me) in the world who has revived his complete backlist, twenty-five novels and counting, and made them available through every conceivable format from Print-on-demand, hardback and trade and e-books, I am beginning to glimpse the future. This tells me that the publishing business, which is currently blind or merely baffled by the electronic possibilities will eventually have to reinvent itself if it wants to be viable as an entity in the future. This is not to say that my little experiment has discovered all the answers. While the books are beginning to sell again in respectable numbers and my name branding experience is showing some results, I am still experimenting with the marketing aspects in cyberspace. I am in hot pursuit but I have not yet discovered the magic bullet. Stay tuned.
  9. There is another aspect to my cyberspace bet. With the extension of the copyright laws, as recently affirmed by the Supreme Court, an author will own his material for at least 75 years beyond his lifetime. Most authors, unfortunately, do not understand or care about this provision. Their paper books will molder on shelves or disintegrate before their bodies are hardly cold in their graves. Not so with my books. While my bones turn to dust, my books will continue to live in cyberspace, happily digitalized and available for sale for the benefit of my progeny, most of whom I will never know, providing, of course, that the whole world doesn’t disappear in a nuclear cloud.
  10. Alright, all this ghoulish hubris and self-promoting fantasy may not mean that my created content will last beyond the blink of an eye, but the crucial point is that, I truly believe that I am leading the way to a new paradigm in publishing, some form of which will eventually offer a path for other authors and publishers to follow. While I can’t see too many currently following in my wake, I do hear in the distance motors revving and see on the far horizon flags flying indicating that there is a fleet of very large and very small, and somewhat leaky vessels, heading in my direction.

I could go on and on…and I will.

        – Warren Adler