The novel has been
around ever since Homer (if
you’ll dismiss the dactylic hexameter long enough to concede that he
the structure with the Odyssey).
It’s debatable who wrote the first
prose novel in modern
English, but my money there is on Thomas Malory. He finished Le
d’Arthur just in time to have someone run off copies with
printing press Gutenberg had thought up.
The someone in
question was actually William
Caxton, which probably makes him the first publisher of fiction in our
Unfortunately for Sir Thomas, Caxton
didn’t get around to
putting the book out until 1485. Although it seems that Malory did
manage to finally get himself released from prison (where he’d written
manuscript), he apparently died in 1471. So he never saw it in print.
And the general plight of novelists in
language wasn’t to improve significantly for the next five hundred
Recently, things have been
looking up — or they’ve become far worse. Depends on whether you’re
struggling writers and independent presses or for the big publishing
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. In fact, even if you did
and ended up thinking about the 1970s, you’d have arrived at the end of
relative golden age for mainstream publishing, a time when authors and
publishers and readers, had coexisted in relative harmony for a
To put what’s going on now into
perspective, we have to
back up a few decades.
Piracy isn’t new, and
Americans have excelled at it — as they have every other form of laissez
capitalism. Due to lax enforcement of international copyright laws, U.S.
were once fond of reprinting the works of foreign authors, like Charles
Dickens, so they didn’t have to pay them for their trouble. But this
bode well for American authors, either. Why take a chance on some
you might have to compensate? Consequently, a lot of American writers
publishing their own work themselves (the list is quite impressive),
the printing costs. A few of the clever ones decided to purchase the
then lease them back to publishers…or charge royalties for every copy
Things changed when Congress entered into the International Copyright
But the publishing industry inevitably
By the beginning of the twentieth
century, most of the big
American publishers had been up and running for some time: Harper since
(originally Wiley & Putnam), 1838; Scribner’s, 1846. While many
once-successful, concern had already failed financially or been gobbled
mergers — a trend that has continued to the present day.
Simon & Schuster didn’t arrive
with their crossword
puzzle book until 1924…just in time for the gold rush. Because, by the
twenties, with the economy in an upswing and illiteracy drastically on
decline, people needed entertainment. Though they did have moving
then, commercial entertainment usually meant printed material: books
periodicals. The public had become somewhat better-educated, had some
its hands, and wanted something to read.
And publishers wanted to oblige…but
realized they might
require a few authors to do that.
In 1926, Scribner’s gave Hemingway a
$1500 advance and 15%
royalties on his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (well,
Torrents of Spring is first, he threw
that into the deal, and they
printed 1,250 copies — but don’t bother to read it; the critics barely
a while there, it was “Let the good times roll.” In 1929, The
Evening Post paid F. Scott Fitzgerald $4,000 for a single
short story. In
order to get any real sense of the amounts we’re talking about here,
to multiply those 1920s dollars by about a factor of ten.
(Notice, however, that by this time
something writers are being paid, not something
Authors had traded some of their control in exchange for acceptance,
publishers had turned the concept of royalties into a carrot they could
By 1957, all Jack Kerouac could get as
an advance from
Viking Press, after years of trying to see On
the Road published,
was $1.000 (negotiated up from $900)…paid out in $100
installments — since his
publisher was convinced he’d just piss it away.
Nevertheless, this is approximately
where the myth
begins…somewhere between Hemingway and Kerouac. Here’s how it goes:
You labor away on a manuscript, just
like those guys did
in the twenties, thirties…fifties, sixties — sometimes even into the
seventies — submit it over the transom, let it kick around interminably
publisher’s slush pile, where eventually…lo, and behold, an
picks it up and reads…first a sentence, then a
paragraph, finally the
whole thing…and recognizes your genius. Instead of the regular
letter, you get remuneration and — except for some insightful, hands-on
suggestions — the acceptance mentioned earlier.
Well, good luck with all that. Even in
the “golden age,”
some of the best manuscripts were rejected by nearly every publisher in
business before they saw print. I could produce a long list of books
as indisputable classics now, which were seen by the professional
of their day as rubbish, unpublishable, or — even worse — not a very
investment. The problem with any radical new classic, after all, is
seems merely unfashionable when first proposed.
Incidentally, the term “over the
transom” refers to the
submission of an unsolicited manuscript — transom
being the US
that small, hinged window once commonly found above office doors.
conditioning, these were often left open for cross-ventilation, even at
So, the image evoked is one of a writer simply chucking a manuscript
the opening and into a publisher’s office…where it would end up with
other unsolicited manuscripts, in the aforementioned slush pile.
intrinsic faith, in those days, that when editors found some free time
sift through this backlog, looking for the odd gem, hoping to discover
talent. And that faith wasn’t entirely misplaced, since big league
things like that…way back when.
But all that’s changed. Long after
this proverbial open
window disappeared, you could still send an unsolicited manuscript to a
publisher through the post, and most of ’em got read…eventually (or at
perused — which is fair enough). Unfortunately, however, this practice
become a thing of the past. Generally, the large mainstream publishing
won’t accept an unagented submission these days.
Ah, the agent quandary… The received
wisdom now runs
something like this: You probably can’t sell fiction without getting an
agent — and you probably can’t get an agent without having already sold
When editors for the big houses
decided they were simply
too busy to consider unsolicited submissions, they abnegated their
and made agents the arbiters of what was worth their consideration. The
of mainstream publishing has, in effect, made literary agents the
What’s the difference, publishing
executives ask. We’re
all just looking for books that’ll sell — better to have agents waste their
time than ours. The problem with this logic is that an industry already
by a craving for quick, short-term gain has had this motivation
Agents are frequently more jealous of their time and, therefore, even
conservative in their tastes than publishers. There’s no longer much
to find a new talent, then patiently nurture it until it pays off. (By
that hands-on editing notion is institutionally passé, as well. You’d
submit a manuscript already polished enough to be rejected as
I’m certainly not saying it’s
impossible for an unknown
author, without any connections or notoriety, to go about getting a
published in the traditional way, by landing a contract with one of the
houses. I’m just saying that it was never very easy to begin with, and
phenomenon’s becoming increasingly unlikely.
This is largely due to the business
model the large
publishing houses have adopted.
And again, it goes back a ways.
Just as the twenties was a period of
thirties was one of contraction. That applied to publishing, along with
everything else. While some periodicals managed, others went out of
And pulp magazines rushed in to fill the gap. These were produced
on cheap paper (hence, the name) and priced modestly, for a public
imaginations were as hungry as their bellies, but who now had less to
either. Although a lot of the content consisted of potboilers, many an
excellent writer got a start in those magazines, and there’s still a
nostalgia for the era. New book publishers appeared, too — Penguin (UK)
Pocket Books (US) — introducing mass market, pocket-sized paperbacks.
The surviving large publishers had to
adapt somehow, and
they decided to alter their tactics. That’s when they came up with the
of returns, allowing retailers to virtually
eliminate any risk incurred
from ordering books. “If you don’t sell ’em, you can just send
And this is the model they’re still using today.
It’s been said elsewhere that this
return policy is only
suitable to an industry of fresh food manufacture and supply, but in
there’s not a vendor of wholesale produce or a meat packer who’d put up
NPR (National Public Radio) recently
did a story on this
topic, focusing on one 300,000 sq. ft. warehouse, holding 45,000 active titles — 20
million individual books — and operated
by a distribution company called National Book Network. Jed Lyons, the
president and CEO, is quoted as saying that roughly 25% of what they
comes back in the form of a return — one out of four copies. Then, he
adds: “Sometimes I
think the only people making money in the
book business these days are the truckers who are picking up the books
go out and picking up the books as they come back.” What’s more,
not only order and return a book at no cost to themselves…they can
process again later, for the same title, if they
And those returns, of course,
usually end up getting pulped.
Since their operating costs are
invariably high — — what with
wholesale discounts of up to fifty per cent or more, and that absurd
policy — large publishers are perpetually looking for a bestseller to
out of the red, some title with the broadest possible appeal. So they
gigantic cash advances at the attempts of defunct politicians to
whitewash their own shenanigans, or the tell-all reminiscences of
indiscriminate celebrities, penned in between rehab and their next
album/film/reality TV series. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t leave
much of anything to pay unknown writers, and it doesn’t encourage
chances on anything intellectually risky.
Even midlist authors are rapidly
refers to books that aren’t necessarily bestsellers, but which still
enough to justify their continued publication…and — more to the point — the
continued acquisition of the same author’s next several
books. But why
waste money on someone with a small, devoted audience, who’s merely
and somewhat profitable? Couldn’t that money be better spent sweetening
when trying to acquire the new blockbuster?
With a business model like
this, the big publishers have had a hard time surviving, let alone
Here’s what the Encyclopædia
Britannica, Eleventh Edition
(1910-1911) says about this issue: “The
which make a man a sound critic of intrinsic worth are quite different
those that make him a good judge of what the public will buy.”
Wait, there’s more.
“But when, as is
now the case, expansion has gone so
far as to swamp the older traditions, and to make publishing a purely
commercial affair, the literary reader gives place to the man of
aptitude for estimating how many copies of a given book can be sold.”
the publishing industry may not have been operated by sound critics of
intrinsic worth for at least a century, but it’s obviously no longer
very impressive job of “estimating how many copies of a given book can
sold,” either. Perhaps it never did. So, thank God for POD (Print on
Before we go there, however, maybe we should briefly examine some of
expansion…because it hasn’t ceased in the last hundred years.
In an effort to stave off the collapse
houses and imprints, the publishing business has gone through round
of corporate acquisitions and mergers.
Let’s take a quick
look at how these snowballing mergers work. Here’s an example:
J. & J. Harper was founded in
1817. It became Harper
& Brothers in 1833, situated in Manhattan.
In 1962, Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson &
become Harper & Row.
Harper & Row bought Marshall
Pickering in 1988 (which
itself had only been formed in 1981, from the merger of two other
one of which had been largely created from previously swallowing
Collins started out in Glasgow in
company eventually became William Collins, Sons & Co, Ltd. in
In 1987, Rupert Murdoch’s News
Corporation acquired Harper
& Row. In 1990, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired
& Sons. Then Rupert combined the two companies into
Murdoch went on to collect various
other companies, in
various countries, including the Hearst Book Group, which gave him
Morrow & Company, and Avon Books.
But it doesn’t end there.
Henry Holt & Company bought
both Rinehart &
Company and the John C. Winston Company, in order to form Holt,
Winston…which was, in turn, purchased by CBS…which then sold it to
Brace Jovanovich. It was next bought by Verlagsgruppe
Georg von Holtzbrinck, of Germany.
Holtzbrinck also owns St.
Martin’s Press, Macmillan, etc.
CBS decided to keep Simon &
had already absorbed Scribner’s and Macmillan…before being
turn, by Gulf+Western (which became Paramount Communications)…which was
absorbed by Viacom. It was Viacom who sold it to CBS.
But Viacom sold Simon &
Schuster’s education division
to Pearson plc, out of London, which now owns the imprints for Putnam,
Prentice Hall…even after selling Macmillan to — you guessed it — Holzbrinck.
Time Warner bought Little, Brown
& Co., but recently
sold that to Hachette Livre, a French concern.
Meanwhile, Random House, which claims
to be “the world’s largest
English-language trade book publisher,” was acquired in 1998 by
another German company. I’m sure you’ll recognize a few of the other
Bertelsman now owns: Doubleday, Knopf, Bantam, Ballantine, Delacorte,
Rey, Pantheon, Vintage, Spectra, and dozens of others.
Anyhow, that’s approximately the
line-up at the moment — but
who can keep track? There’s no telling what’ll happen later in the week.
It’s like watching fish in the
Mesozoic ocean being
devoured by much bigger fish, which are then devoured by even larger
monsters — while none of them notices that seeds have already spread
across the Earth,
creating vast forests, and that some of the fish
have grown legs, and
learned how to walk.
If you thought this business model
really benefited the
bookstores, you’d be wrong. The giant publishers just kept making the
of bets, hoping that some would pay off big — like inveterate gamblers,
by the casinos they frequent (read chain bookstores
here), due to their
high-rollers’ persistence — always trying to find the wherewithal to
again…in order to break another losing streak. Yet there’s something
fundamentally wrong with this analogy, since casinos turn a profit.
bookstores, on the other hand — despite generous wholesale discounts and
virtually unlimited return policy — are going under, too. As of this
Borders has already declared bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble is
desperately to fend it off.
That’s because neither the bookstore
chains, nor the large
publishers, have successfully adapted to the evolving habits of their
Perhaps they’ve forgotten how. It’s not that the customers are reading
simply that they’re purchasing reading material in new ways. Some have
using e-books. Most still prefer traditional books with paper pages,
they’re buying them online.
Let’s tackle e-books first.
As recently as 2008, when that NPR
piece was done, Mr.
Lyons (remember him…president and CEO of the book distribution company
scrutiny?) said, “Ten years ago, I would have guessed that at least
half of the
book sales in this country would be electronic. It’s less than
one-tenth of 1
percent today. So I think the book is going to hold its own.”
I happen to agree with him, but the
landscape is changing.
According to a representative of R. R.
sales went from 1.5% of the US
market in 2009 to 5% in the first quarter of 2010. And Bowker should
can’t get an ISBN in the US
without going through them — and they publish Books in Print.
stands for International Book Number; consequently, you should never
say ISBN number.
It’s redundant, and makes you sound like an amateur.)
This is a growing segment of the
market, and will probably
change how many trees we cut down in future. But for now, it’s still a
struggling segment, beset with problems.
First, there’s an emotional
resistance to curling up
in bed with hardware, rather than…you know, a
printed book. Most of the
reading public still think of a book with paper pages in the same way
Also, we’ve had problems with the
rendering of fonts,
graphics, indices, etc. Plus, there was an initial dilemma over which
and software to employ…since manufacturers were producing products
mutually incompatible. A lot of these issues have been addressed, but
Amazon got into a pricing war — by trying to hold the line at $9.99 for
e-book — against Macmillan…then HarperCollins…and finally Hachette Livre.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s the
license agreement). When you download a book to your Kindle or ipad,
purchasing an object (a printed book, in other words), you’re merely
the privilege of reading digital information on a single device — not to
it, copy it, or give it away. In fact, although Amazon’s terms of
the Kindle do say you can keep a permanent copy of your purchase, the
recently reached into Kindles everywhere and erased 1984, by George
Orwell. In all fairness to Amazon, they did this because it came to
attention that the digital publisher who’d supplied the book to them
actually hold the rights to it, and they refunded customers their
Still…a lot of those surprised and irate customers suddenly began
Orwell’s memory hole — the place where inconvenient
disappeared, in Big Brother’s dystopia. Amazon has deleted other books
Kindle, but 1984 turned out to be a particularly
unfortunate example of
their ability to do so.
These end-user license agreements
haven’t been kind to
libraries, either. Remember libraries? They used to buy a copy of some
other, then lend it to us. (This may not have been
such a juicy
arrangement for publishers — but what a deal for the public.) Well, it
they’d like to do the same with e-books, but aren’t really allowed.
HaperCollins has announced that they’ll let libraries loan out an
more than twenty-six times — before it’ll disintegrate. And they think
rather generous, since both Simon & Schuster and Macmillan have
sell e-books to libraries at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to see
authors compensated for
Yet I don’t much care for the notion
of putting lending
libraries out of business. I’ve had on an ongoing romance with the
library all my life, predating my first sexual contact (and thank you,
Franklin — wherever you are — for introducing the
concept to these shores).
Those are my tax dollars at work — and I’d rather see a government
distribution of ideas than bombs, any day. Advice is something I seldom
dispense, and then only grudgingly, but here’s a piece of it I’ll give
hesitation: Cherish your librarians. Don’t piss ’em
off, either — they’re
a force to be reckoned with. Especially en masse.
Although this parable is
rapidly becoming more electronic, that doesn’t mean it can’t morph back
An independent publisher today
isn’t standing exactly where Sun Records was in 1952…but somewhere in
general vicinity. In the early fifties there were five major record
pretty much controlled what music you’d hear: Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca,
Capitol, and Mercury.
Either you’d manage to land yourself a contract with
one of these, forget ever really being successful,
or get out of the
business. Not sounding enough like Sinatra was your
fault, not theirs.
(If you’re a writer, is this beginning to sound familiar?) Of course,
weren’t about to throw good money at upstarts like Elvis Presley, Jerry
Lewis or Johnny Cash. They didn’t produce “race records,” either. This
before Motown…and before the big labels admitted that white kids liked
blues and rock ’n roll.
Contemporary publishing isn’t quite as
far behind the
curve as the music industry was in 1950, but it’s nowhere near the
independent music has attained today. Authors haven’t reached the point
musicians have, where any band with a few good cuts can also cut their
on their own label.
If you want a glimpse of where
independent publishing could
go, however, let’s stretch the analogy a bit further, and take a look
DiFranco. She didn’t want to put up with corporate bullshit and created
music label at eighteen years old, founding Righteous Records in
1989 — renamed
Righteous Babe Records in 1994. The last time I checked, it was making
five million dollars a year. Not only did she do this without selling
don’t think she didn’t get offers), she also nurtured the talents of
artists along the way.
I don’t really expect Alfresco Press
to do that well (we
don’t tour as much, for one thing…). But then, she probably didn’t
expect to be
quite this successful when she started. Anyhow, I’d like to go on
saying, “God bless you, Ani DiFranco. You’re a fine example for us all
emulate.” (Besides, she probably doesn’t hear this sort of thing nearly
Music and literature have several
things in common.
There’s all that writing, for openers. Aside from
this, both have
copyright infringement, struggling artists trying to find some success
compromising utterly…and big corporations always attempting to
equation. Then, there’s the fact that both (albeit filled with artistic
types — usually plagued by things like sensibilities or integrity) are
just figuring out how to make a buck. So, both involve marketable
There may be electronic ones now, like MP3s or e-books, but we still
old-fashioned kind, too — things people physically purchase and take home
on their shelves…in order to take them down again, to read or listen
that have to be pressed into CDs (even as we seem to be rediscovering
vinyl)…books that need to be printed.
The advent of the Internet,
and concomitant electronic technology, has produced the most democratic
redistribution of information in over two hundred years. But that
this development is incompatible with print. In fact, it’s been quite
beneficial. Large publishers were reluctant to see this at first, since
resistant to change, in any event. But there was a more autocratic
their hesitation. Although the large publishing companies have come to
of this technology themselves — for both printing and marketing — the new
technological developments have actually favored small, independent
When anyone with modest resources and something worthwhile to say can
it, those who hold most of the power suddenly find the world a more
Think back, and tell me if you can
rebellion percolating in the American colonies without those incendiary
pamphlets by Thomas Paine. It was the proliferation of small,
publishers that made it all possible. And Print on Demand is
perhaps the most
revolutionary development in publishing since Gutenberg.
Here’s the beauty of it: manuscripts
can be edited, sent,
and stored digitally…before a mysterious transubstantiation takes
place — and
they’re turned into actual books. This miracle can
occur by the
thousands, like loaves and fishes, or individually, just for
The process is called POD.
Not only that, this particular mystery
can be delivered
directly to your door, via a simple internet transaction.
Since the quality of POD books
is excellent, independent publishers can compete with larger rivals.
said, the big companies have begun to use this technology themselves,
sharing the same printer with small presses). A prohibitive initial
isn’t necessary to launch such a venture. And, because books can now be
on demand, the small press is liberated from perpetually making further
speculations — estimating how many copies of any given title should be
advance, then paying to distribute and/or warehouse those which will…or
be, sold. Essentially, it frees the small publisher from the necessity
a large one.
Just because you no longer have to be
from a wealthy
family to set up a publishing company, however, doesn’t mean that
independent press is for everybody. While the financial demands might
lessened, those on a small publisher’s time and skills have
increased. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it is
This essay isn’t meant as a how-to
If you’re crazy enough to seriously consider this line of work, there
very good books on the subject, which would serve as functional
may not need to a three-piece suit to get into publishing these days,
are a lot other grown-up things to contend with.
Aside from contracts, copyrights,
ISBNs, and registering
various items, you have to deal with printing in
order to get a book
published, and marketing to get it sold. That much
should be fairly
obvious, I’d think, but there’s more. Books require editing, of
cover design. If you don’t possess sufficient skills to do these jobs
you’ll have to farm them out. The same applies to website construction.
you don’t think you’ll need that, you haven’t thought much about
It’s nothing a dedicated, intelligent,
and stubborn person
can’t handle, but…
If you don’t have some passion for all
this, and a genuine
belief in the material you intend to publish, you really ought not to
Operating an independent press may
actually require the
abilities and temperament of a high-functioning lunatic. Fortunately,
for those of us who occupy that category and fit the description, we’ve