Publishing Perspectives takes a reflective look over the past ten years of publishing through the eyes of John Reed, a books editor at Brooklyn Rail and also an esoterical US author of a number of novels during this period. His current novel, Snowball’s Chance, was published by a little-know literary press in 2002 and this year was republished by Melville House Books. Reed, in his article for Publishing Perspectives—Publishing in 2002 vs 2012: Better, Worse or a Stalemate?—goes as far as drawing up a chart to try and evaluate the changes. Reed’s conclusions – if you want to call them that – are of course somewhat subjective and based upon his experiences of the publishing world and the journey of one book through a passage of ten years.
The short article by Reed perked my interest because I’ve been writing a series of extensive articles this year on The Future of Publishing 2020 and you cannot look forward into the coming ten years of publishing without continually glancing over your shoulder into the past. What struck me most about writing the 2020 articles is the realisation that it is a precarious business to label what is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ now and then.
The Future of Publishing 2020: Control (or Jeff Bezos Stole All My Books and Ate All The Hamsters)
The Future of Publishing 2020: Disruption
The Future of Publishing 2020: Risk
The Future of Publishing 2020: The Push & The Pull
PP’s Editor-in-Chief, Edward Nawotka, summaries Reed’s chart with the following:
Better in 2002: Big Presses, Distribution, Democracy of Literature, Book Coverage, Literature in Education and Copyright.
Better in 2012: Small Presses, Online Book Sales, The Writing Itself, Readership, Self-publishing, Literary Culture and Parody.
Stalemate: Editorial, State of Narrative, Economy of Writers.
While I am in broad agreement with this summary, there are a few things that could be highly debatable. Reed himself says that the kind of editing work carried out on Snowball’s Chance in 2002 is not something we would see from a small or big press today. Therein is at least one reason why I would argue that editing is probably—on the whole—worse today than it was in 2002. The scales weighing curation and nurturing talent against commercial investment, speed to market and success has long tipped in favour of the latter. Publishers’ sales and marketing departments have a greater say in what leaves the front door of the house more than ever before, but it still holds firm to a production proccess with a twelve to eighteen month span. The growth in cottage and small presses and self-publishing has attempted to counter the balance of the scales, and this has led to basement rooms filled with literary champions, cultural zealots, and authors taking a turn in the editorial and publishing chairs. They all beaver away into the twilight hours—some content to smother their lack of publishing know-how with sheer passion. But this is the price of opportunity in the new publishing landscape.
The next part in my series on The Future of Publishing 2020 will focus on discoverability. Is readership better today than it was ten years ago and will it grow in the next ten years? Readership and audience reach for an author are tied inevitably to discoverability. How do you define what readership is? I think there are more people reading today than ever before, but we need to understand what it is they are reading and why they are reading it, rather than assuming readership is about books alone. Only then can we truly evaluate what it is we mean when we talk about readership and how much books have a role to play. This may ultimately prove to be the greatest challenge for publishers in the years ahead—moving from simply being producers of books to content managers.
Reed describes Amazon as being ‘a book and crap bazaar’ in 2002, and despite the millions of dollars Amazon has poured into investment in algorithms, search and marketing tools, the more cynical might argue what has really changed in the intervening years. What has changed is that the reader—faced with a greater sea of choice—now has the task of sorting the wheat from the chaff with whatever discoverability tools are to hand.
“In 2002, you went to the bookstore and looked around. Now, people make their choices, and their choices are influenced by what they see online. Those who are able to resist the constant temptation of propaganda and idiocy are able to employ the internet to inform themselves on subjects of interest and personal aesthetics. It’s that population of people—among the what? six million writers?— that has raised the overall quality of U.S. creative writing. With distribution as is, however, there’s not much evidence of that in the marketplace.”
I would add one caveat to Reed’s Publishing Perspectives article, and perhaps it touches on what he calls ‘the economy of writers’—and that for me is a case of quantity over quality. Reed sees the economy of writers as a stalemate right now, but I think we will see this get worse. Just as readership has grown—whether you define it as reading a book or no more than reading the daily news on your iPad every evening—more readers are becoming writers in the new publishing landscape of opportunity. The pie is not getting any bigger in relative terms.
“In 2020, more than 80% of authors will operate independently and will control and manage their entire writing output with less than a quarter earning a full time living. The remaining 20% will be a combination of writers from national writing academies, independent publishing cooperatives and publishing houses owned by media /agency companies.”
From: The Future of Publishing 2020: Control or (Jeff Bezos stole all my books and ate all the hamsters!)