Friday, 28 May 2010

Publishing Apocalypse... Now

"In the world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes."

So says Benjamin Franklin, whom I understand to be some sort of semi-important historical figure. I hear he's even on money in the States! Thus, I can only conclude he's the American equivalent of our own Robert Burns.

The Speculative Scotsman is perhaps not the most appropriate venue for a discussion of taxes, but Franklin's other sure thing seems to coming up a lot these days. Spend any amount of time on the internet reading about books, video games, movies, CDs, TV... whatever you please, in fact, and sooner or later - very likely sooner in this age of miserable navel-gazing - someone, somewhere is going to be predicting the death of it.

So what's dying today?

Well, publishing, of course. Of late, it's become almost vogue to gainsay the imminent demise of publishing. And I suppose it's not difficult to see why: what with the widespread adoption of eBook readers and the addition of the iPad to an already rather overbalanced equation, it seems that more and more, people are reading elsewhere, if they're reading at all. Sales are down across the board, self-publishing is up, up, up.

As Garrison Keillor writes in his column for the Baltimore Sun:

"Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it's all free, and you read freely, you're not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you're like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

"And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you've got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75."

Of course he's going a point - publishing, as we know it, is perhaps dying. But it's difficult to discern Keillor's meaning in amongst all the grumpy old man moaning. So what is it that's killing publishing, Garrison? Is it the text-speak? The economy? The bloggers? The internet?

What a lot of horse. Here's another of his so-called gripes:

"Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I'm sorry you missed it."

This is priceless stuff, isn't it?

Clearly, if you don't write your manuscript on a typewriter, it isn't worth the paper it isn't written on. If you communicate via email or use word processing software, you're an amateur.

The man obviously wants to make a fuss. His use of inflammatory language is a deliberate ploy to stir the pot. Publishing is assuredly not, as Keillor would have it, dying. It is only changing - as all things do. That it is not what it once was, that the industry has had to adapt to new technology, new media, new modes of communication, is symptomatic not of the end - woe betide us all - but of evolution.

Over on Flavorpill - thanks to Robert Jackson Bennet for the link - Judy Berman has touched base with a bunch of industry professionals to see what they had to say about Keillor's shameless attention-seeking. If all this doomsaying has gotten you half as riled up as it has me, I'd urge you to click on through and read the responses for yourself. But let me end on a particularly choice rebuttal, from literary agent Colleen Lindsay:

"It is his snobbery that got publishing into this mess. He talks about the coveted New York Times, but the Times doesn’t review the books that keep publishing alive. He is afraid of genre fiction. Publishing isn’t dying, it is evolving, and evolution hurts... Werewolf and vampire porn saved publishing."


  1. Ha. Nicely done. The guy reminded me of the old "we used to walk to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways."

  2. Catherynne Valente said something rather smart about this whole thing a few months back. It's now off her blog, as she doesn't keep an archive, but she made the argument that should publishing houses with all of their editorial and marketing staff dissapear, they would simply reappear on its own. Wait, there's someone out there who can make my book better and get me a larger readership for a share of the profits? Yes, please?
    The simple fact of the matter is that there is a large amount of work in a professionally published work that isn't present in something you submit to Lulu or other self publishing companies. For the vast majority of us, that editorial work is the difference between a handful of sales and actually turning a profit on your writing. And just as much editing and marketing goes into an e-book as a print book, the only difference is the difference in costs between converting the book into an e-format and actually printing the thing. I think it's easy to forget that in all of our giddyness over new technology.

  3. I'm old enough (36) to remember when VCRs became a household item in Norway in the mid-eighties. There was a huge discussion about ehether this meant the death of cinema.

    This discussion reminds me of the e-book discussion that is going on today. Cinema is still here. And as I think Hardcovers are the cinema of books (with paperbacks being the DVDs), I don't see peinted books and publishers disappearing anytime soon.

  4. That should of course be whether not ehether...

  5. I'm not sure I understand the brouhaha over Keillor's column. I see him as something of a humorist, a latter-day Mark Twain. "Shameless attention-seeking"? "Snobbery"? He's trying to be funny, people. It's his job.