Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Big Business

After reading Rick’s blog, I have to heartily agree with his points. A few decades ago, publishing wasn’t considered a business—it was an artistic pursuit, for the betterment of our society. I think the UK still considers its writers artists, as does France, I hear. Canadians, what say you? Maybe someone can correct me if my impressions on this are outdated.

But in the U.S., we’ve been swept up in cost-cutting, volume, and star quality. Publishing is Big Business, volume and turnover. Most big publishers are looking for a superstar right out of the block, though Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) and some others can provide contradictory data as to that entire concept. No one’s listening right now, though. As Rick pointed out, most people in the publishing business are barely holding on.

The six big U.S. publishing companies are conglomerates, and unless one of their cash cows comes out with a new book to keep the net budget in the black for that year, they lose money. Think Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham (I think. Does he still qualify?).

Like Rick said, publishing isn’t run like a business. What was Sarah Palin’s advance? Did it pay out? Maybe, just because people were so curious to see if she could write and what she’d say. She didn’t actually write it—that’s another story. How about either of the Clintons? Hilary got an $8 million advance. Wonder what Simon & Schuster lost on that deal.

I can’t help but digress a bit here. After she got paid, congress asked her to return it. John McCain said on NBC's "Today" that the Senate Ethics Committee may launch an investigation into the deal. The Congressional Accountability Project (Gary Ruskin, Pat Roberts, Harry Reid, see Salon, Dec. 19, 2000: sent the senator-elect a letter that asked her to make public the details of the contract and to reject the advance altogether. I poked around a bit and found out that John McCain received an advance of $500,000 for a two book deal from Random House. Faith of My Fathers came out in 1999. I haven’t yet found what Harry Reid got for The Good Fight. Bet it wasn’t $8 mill.

Maybe my cynicism about politicians is irrelevant, but the publishing business isn’t being run like any other business. Not that many big businesses, at least in the U.S., are particularly well run (CEO compensation? Don’t get me started). But I’m not supposed to stray too far from writerly topics in this blog. There are many reforms that should be made to the publishing business that would help authors. You and I could list some, and there are many I don’t know about.

Still, let’s not stop writing. Some terrific small publishers are doing well, even in today’s climate. Akashic’s bottom line has been growing, along with others. And I keep hoping someone in New York will show some chutzpa and lower the boom on huge advances that don't pay, returns, and accountability for starters.


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