Although some out there may find it hard to believe I actually understand the profit motive. Who doesn’t want to make money in return for their hard work? Who doesn’t want to see the money they invest in a project come back with interest? Unless you’re looking for a tax write off there’s not much point in doing business if not for the money. Since that’s the world we live in, that’s the way you play the game. (Whether or not that world is necessarily a good one is a whole other question)
That being said, yes here’s the “but” you were all waiting for, there are times when this model is totally just doesn’t work. While it makes perfect sense for an investment banker or a stockbroker to work along those lines, the idea of book publishers existing solely to make profits is a concept that needs re-examining. The problem stems from the ways in which they insist on doing business.
First there’s the fact that they seem prone to making mind boggling stupid decisions when it comes to handing out advances. Paying an author like Lauren Weisberger two, one million dollar advances after she had only written one book, and that a gossipy hatchet job about her former boss at “Vogue” magazine, is not what most people would call economically sound.
Okay so her first book The Devil Wears Prada was a bestseller, but she has no track record as an author, and even in New York City bitchiness doesn’t play well for an extended period. Her second book Everybody Worth Knowing is already showing signs that it will not come anywhere near the success of her premier effort. There are only so many bad reviews an author can get before people start believing them.
Simon and Schuster have committed two million dollars in advances to this woman, and God knows how much money on top of that for marketing and publicity. All in the hopes that she might catch lighting in a bag again, write a hit, and provide a return on their investment. What kind of business sense is that?
We’re not talking about a proven best seller like Steven King, Tom Clancy, or John Grisham, but a one hit wonder whose only previous experience was a year’s internship at “Vogue” I’d say the chances of Simon and Schuster recouping their close to three million dollar investment (advances, promotion, and the physical cost of publication) are pretty slim.
How many good books are not going to get published because they’ve committed that much money to one person of dubious quality? By performing this type of crapshoot of dumping all their eggs in one basket aren’t publishers actually diminishing their chances of making money?
I would think that it would be a simple matter of probability. You publish five books for an investment of one million dollars and you have five chances of striking a chord with audiences. Even if none of them become run away best sellers your odds of breaking even or turning a profit are higher because none of them have to generate massive sales to begin showing a return. In fact I would think the ideal book for a publisher would be one that generated consistent sales over an extended period of time rather than one huge burst of popularity.
The folks that own the rights to a work like J. D. Salingers’s Catcher In The Rye are still getting a nice return on their investment close to fifty years after its initial publication date. Certainly there is no way of guaranteeing any books durability, but walk into any book store and pick up any one of the books that still sells fairly consistently and I’m sure you’ll begin to learn what to look for when it comes to quality in a novel. If not than perhaps you shouldn’t be in the publishing business in the first place.
Is it any wonder that next to the music business these people are some of the biggest whiners when it comes to complaining about their profit margins? Look at the whole brouhaha around Google’s proposed on line library which would have permitted people to read excerpts from books that are protected under copy write and the full text of books in public domain.
Not only does it show how petty they are when they worry that something like that could possibly make any substantial impact on their profits, but it also shows them to be out of touch with a good many readers. Have you ever read a scanned document on a computer? No matter what the quality it will never be equal to actually reading a book.
One of my favourite authors is serialising an older story of his online and I’m having a hard time reading it off my monitor, and he’s been typing it, not scanning. Scanned material is really aggravating to read and very few people I know have ever been successful in reading a complete novel on line let alone one that has been uploaded through scanning.
Instead of looking at the Google proposal for ways in which they could make money: promoting books, promoting reading etc, they immediately became defensive and couldn’t see past the fact they might lose a few pennies. In my mind that would be a far better investment than a two million dollar advance paid to an author with only one book to her credit.
An industry like publishing, or any artistic endeavour, is not the best place for profit oriented business practices. There is an inevitable clash of philosophies that happens. Artistic growth is based on the freedom to be able to create from your inspiration, not working to suit the needs of a market.
None of the great works of art that are still popular today were created on the basis of their marketability. For all people say that Shakespeare wrote for his audience, implying market forces at work, his work simply mirrored the society he lived in. We look back and say “oh he wrote for the lowest common denominator so he could make money” when in fact it was just a reflection of his societies morals and standards.
Modern publishers don’t seem to have the vision to see past what was popular last week, or what this year’s trend is. They cheat the reading public out of experiencing the diversity of the world’s potential by creating a blinkered view of what they can make money from. Unfortunately by flooding the market with only those books they believe people will buy, they have generated a spiral of self-fulfilling prophecy. The only books that are marketable, are the ones that people are buying, (which are the only ones for sale) so we have to continue putting out books like the ones people are buying, and on the circle goes.
It’s now reached the point of such ridiculousness that an author I know, who has world wide sales well over the million mark, is unable to get an American publisher interested in his latest work because they can not fit it into their vision of the market place. Although since this is the same industry that had J. K. Rowling “translate” Harry Potter into American I can’t say I’m too surprised.
If publishing wants to survive and compete in this new high tech world they are going to have to rethink the way in which they do business. Like sports league and other entertainment industries they have started to price themselves out of the reach of the majority of people. When they are paying out advances of one million dollars, plus having to worry about marketing expenses and printing costs the prices of individual books keep rising higher and higher.
This of course limits the number of people who are going to buy books, which in turns limits which books are going to be published, and look we’re into another spiral of self perpetuating limitations. Sure you can walk into any big chain bookstore and see hundreds if not thousands of books, but walk through any section, be it mystery, science fiction, or just straight fiction and see how many different books there are really.
I’m finding it harder and harder to find anything on the shelves that stands out as different and exciting. In the past five years or so I’d say I’ve come across only five authors whose work is distinctive from the bulk of what’s being published. Maybe other people’s experiences are different, but I know for myself that whereas I used to be able to go into a bookstore and come out with at least a couple of books I was really interested in; now, more often or not, I come out empty handed.
The only two choices I see for publishing houses to change the situation is they either have to start emulating not for profit organizations where the emphasise is on ensuring the work gets produced. The people working for the company make a salary, but there is no one expecting to reap a windfall from the profits to pay for their penthouse over looking Central Park West.
The other option is to stop paying authors massive advances. If none of the big houses are willing to pay, then agents will very quickly realize they will have to start lowering demands. If publishers are able to get out from under huge monetary commitments to only a few people, financial risks will be kept to a minimum allowing them to be open to different ideas.
Unless, or until, this happens the people who suffer the most, aside from authors, are us the readers. Publishers will continue to deny us access to books because their view of the world is defined by how much will it make me. Tis a pity, but tis true.