Publishing and the “D” word

I think I’m at risk of having my credentials as a blogger-about-writing revoked if I don’t address the question “Is Publishing Dead?”

Everywhere I go on the web, there seem to be armies of literary zombies staggering around groaning “We’re dead. We’re dead.” Among the crowd is Garrison Keillor who in a recent New York Times op-ed piece summed up the future of publishing as “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”

On the other side of the argument are the literary vampires, who seem to have no trouble finding plenty of fresh blood on the writing scene. (Perhaps this explains why so many best sellers these days are about…vampires.)

In an effort to stave off attacks from either faction, I’ll make my point quickly:

Publishing isn’t dead. It just looks different. The way it has looked different every few decades (or, perhaps, every century) since Grak & Thog published the first stone tablet and underpaid the content producer. Ink-stained wretches whining over their absinthe never go out of style. (You notice how absinthe has recently made a rebound? Now is the time to be on the lookout for collectible quill pens and inkwells. You heard it here.)

For those of you with a bit of reading time, a few observations:

Books. Easy publishing has resulted not only in a proliferation of really bad books but, sadly, a proliferation of bad books that have the cores of quite decent books in them. There’s no longer any motivation to edit, refine, and restructure a book for years to gain the attention of a publisher (who’s likely to treat you like a peon, anyway). It’s just too easy to self-publish. The result is that the author breaks even in the short term, but the actual book suffers. On the bright side: Great books on obscure topics are easier to publish and easier for readers to find.

Editors. While publishing is busy shape shifting in dark corners, it’s editing that’s on its death bed. (Or possibly on its deathbed or death-bed — who knows, these days? As long as you don’t put an apostrophe in the possessive “its,” you can get away with quite a bit these days. Particularly if you steer clear of Martha and the Knights of Good Grammar at SPOGG.) People who used to be editors have turned into content producers and writers where they edit content the way that your mother used to tuck a napkin into your sack lunch — hoping, vainly, that someone will appreciate it. It’s increasingly common to see books published by major companies that have received only a cursory edit and, apparently, no proofreading at all. It’s sad, but editors are nearly extinct.

Publishers. The people and companies that make money by redistributing what writers (and other artists) produce will always be with us. Today they’re running around buying domain names, signing contracts with printing, binding, and shipping companies, and negotiating deals with distributors (from Costco for print to Amazon and Apple for digital publications). No matter how many editors they lay off—while wailing about downsizing and “the state of publishing these days”—many of the same folks are still at the top and, not so mysteriously, still in business. And they’re still interested in authors who write the sorts of stories that readers still buy — whether as ebooks, audio books, or print volumes. Publishers are doing just fine.

Authors. While the threshold for becoming a published author has been lowered dramatically by inexpensive self-publishing and internet marketing, the layout of the literary world once a new writer crosses that threshold and stands, blinking, in the lobby is pretty much the same as before. The big hitters. The cool people. The literary-prize winners. The mid-listers. The late-bloomers. And the one-hit wonders. Authors are in the same place they’ve always been.

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