By Jack Engelhard
People are actually talking about the end of books as we knew them and loved them and though I am in this business, as a novelist, I am no expert on the publishing side, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about except what I read in the papers. But this is a sad day when we’re even discussing this.
Over the past two weeks or so, as reported in The New York Times, the publishing world has not quite disappeared but it certainly has shrunk.
One major publisher has stopped taking in fresh manuscripts and others have folded one imprint into another (or simply folded), leading to resignations, layoffs and outright dismissals. None of these big houses are independent or privately-owned. Not anymore. They’re all part of some conglomerate and most times the real owners are based in some other country.
These owners are not in it for the literature. They’re in it for the money.
Back when people like Charles Scribner, Alfred Knopf and Bennett Cerf ran the business – well, they did not run it like a business. They ran it for the love of the written word. Well of course they kept an eye on the ledger, but only to pay the rent, and generally they succeeded. New York’s Publishers Row was America’s literary beacon. Along (about the 1980s) about two hundred individual publishers dissolved into about five corporations which did not ask for the latest Ernest Hemingway but for the latest profit report.
Accountants replaced editors and three words were heard above all others – “the bottom line.”
When it was about books, literature in other words, the money came in. When it turned into “the bottom line,” the money fled. That’s one definition of irony. Some experts attribute the decline to the failing economy. No, the decline in publishing began a generation ago with all that “consolidation.”
Even best-selling authors today have to stay alert to find out where their editors have gone. Some have gone elsewhere, to some other imprint. Some have simply gone.
Maxwell Perkins gathered up thousands of scattered un-numbered pages from Thomas Wolfe’s basements and attics and turned them into “Look Homeward, Angel.” Bennett Cerf engaged himself in lengthy court battles (on the matter of “obscenity”) and risked his career to get James Joyce’s “Ulysses” into print over here in the United States.
We still have some editors like that, editors who care, but they’re going fast and most of it is not their fault answerable, as they are, to “the bottom line.”
Part of the problem, then, is the industry’s insistence on finding the next big blockbuster. This is like the movie business’s quest for the big opening weekend. In publishing, this leads to big front money to people who are not true writers but people who’ve made a name for themselves as politicians and “celebs.” Most of these advances are never recovered. Television’s Tina Fey, we’re told, has been offered $6 million for some book she’s about to write. There’s the flaw in a nutshell.
Writers, true writers, who count on a healthy publishing industry cannot be thrilled to find their world in such disarray. There should be no gloating. We need publishing to succeed. We need New York to get its houses in order. This much is for sure – the onus is off small indie publishing and, until we find out who’s on first, print on demand, yes, self-publishing, may be the way to go. Given the alternative, or rather the lack of alternatives, self-publishing is legit.
Readers will keep on reading. But will writers keep on writing?
As true writers bleed and sweat in futility at their typewriters, dreaming of sympathetic editors and publishers – meanwhile, Joe the Plumber gets a contract. He got published, thanks to some publisher who wanted to stretch that 15 minutes of fame. Joe the Plumber, yes, J.D. Salinger, no. Salinger does NOT have a book coming out.
Maybe that does not say it all, but it says plenty.
About the author: Jack Engelhard’s latest published novel, THE BATHSHEBA DEADLINE, now in paperback, places journalism at the center of our culture, politics and war on terror. Engelhard wrote the international bestselling novel INDECENT PROPOSAL that was translated into more than 22 languages and turned into a Paramount motion picture starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. Engelhard can be reached at his website www.jackengelhard.com. (The first two chapters of my latest work of fiction, which may or may not get published, are up on my website. The complete manuscript is titled “Slot Attendant” and it’s about the frustrations of getting published.)