Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What Is to Be Done?

The demise of publishing has been predicted since the days of Gutenberg. But for most of the past century—through wars and depressions—the business of books as jogged along at a steady pace. It’s one of the main (some would say only) advantages of working in a “mature” industry: no unsustainable highs, no devastating lows. A stoic calm, peppered with a bit of gallows humor, prevailed in the industry. ... Survey New York’s oldest culture industry this season, however, and you won’t find many stoics. What you will find are prophets of doom, Cassandras in blazers and black dresses arguing at elegant lunches over What Is to Be Done. Even best-selling publishers and agents fresh from seven-figure deals worry about what’s coming next. Two, five years from now—who knows? Life moves fast in the waning era of print; publishing doesn’t.

Have We Reached the End? asks Boris Kacka, of the publishing industry in the US. Among other problems he cites drastic fall in the number of independent booksellers following the rise and rise of Amazon.com, the imminent demise of Borders, the challenge of dwindling readership, and the enormous advances paid to authors which are never recouped. (Among the flops of legendary proportions - Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games and Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons).

Carolyn Kellogg on the LA Times blog doesn't reckon it's quite as bad as Kacka makes out.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I see warehouse copies of Sacred Games and Thirteen Moons everywhere I go! What possesses a publisher to pay such advances...will they never learn...?

katztales said...

Wish someone would pay ME huge advances! Still looking for an agent and a publisher for two intrigue romance novels (what can I say, last Christmas and Hari Raya were so quiet!)

I find the lack of small publishers and book shops worrying. It's so hard to find books that aren't mainstream run of the mill tales. Oddly enough I find kids fiction is often more imaginative than adult fiction. Maybe publishers for that group take more risk?

Jordan said...

I don't think there's any need for the reading public to panic. The big publishing houses should probably take a cold, hard look at how they do business, though (and maybe they should even panic a bit). In the end, if there's demand for books, there will be books. It's just a question of who will actually be publishing them. I think we'll see a lot of small publishers doing just fine, as long as distribution can be sorted out. As a reader, it matters little to me as long as someone's publishing what I like to read; as a writer, it matters little to me as long as I can find someone to publish what I write.

Anonymous said...

Sacred Games is a "national bestseller" or at least that's what the cover says. What's wrong with an $8 million advance? it's good money, and money buys a lot of things, space to write for one.

Is it a writer's responsibility to ensure that his books sell well?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous -- did you read the article? It answers most of your questions. Sacred Games might briefly have been a national bestseller, but not long enough for the publishers to make back the advance. Which says nothing about the quality of the book. Unfortunately, when publishers lose that amount of money on a mistake that was theirs to begin with, it can be immensely detrimental to a writer's career. I very much hope that doesn't happen in this case, because I love Vikram Chandra's work.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Yea well... how much more money do you need.. you could retire on $8 million easy :)

One advance, one book, and you're set for life :)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous -- I think you're missing something crucial here. Most writers -- and I think it's safe for me to be speaking for Vikram Chandra here -- don't write to make lots of money and then retire early. In that sense, it's not a career like most other careers. A lawyer might dream of the day when they can leave the office for the last time and just spend all their time on the golf course; a banker might look forward to devoting all this time to orchid gardening. But a writer is ALREADY doing the thing he/she would do if he/she had infinite amounts of free time. The only difference is that in some cases it happens to pay. A writer wants to keep writing and never retire. And so the long-term health of your career -- your reputation, your audience -- matters a great deal, whether or not you have a couple of million sitting in the bank to retire on.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Preeta -

The fact that they _don't_ doesn't change the fact that they _can_ :)

Anonymous said...

Er, of course it doesn't. Who said it did? What I was saying was that money isn't the only, or even the most important, element of "success" to a writer. I'm sure Vikram Chandra was quite happy to have the huge advance, but he may also care about the other elements, as most of us do, and those other elements were not helped by the huge advance.

Anonymous, just out of curiosity, do you ever think about anything other than money? It often seems to be the first thing that comes up for you, no matter what the subject of the discussion. Maybe you need a holiday, or some yoga sessions, and before you say you can't afford them (how did I guess you would?!?) let me assure you that yoga can be done for free in the comfort of your own home :-) .

-- Preeta