Sal Glynn's Dim View of Contemporary Book Publishing
Presentation by Sal Glynn
At our November meeting, Sal Glynn (freelance editor, book midwife, waiter, and author) returned to the Bay Area Editors’ Forum to revisit a topic he covered nine years ago: the current state of book publishing.
In his view, the industry hasn't changed much. In fact, he said, conditions have gotten worse, thanks to the watered-down content and bottom-line focus of corporate publishers. He cited Anthea Disney's tenure at HarperCollins. When she left her position as chairman and CEO of TV Guide and moved to the chief executive's office at HarperCollins (a position she held for 16 months), Disney dropped 106 books into contract, cut the list of titles from 1,600 to 1,000, fired 420 staff people, and wrote off $270 million in debt. “The making of books had been changing for some time, and it was Disney who forced us to look at what dangled at the end of our forks,” said Glynn. “She made sure that the bridge between the publishing past and publishing present burned to cinders, and the water flowing underneath dried up.”
(Disney later returned to TV Guide as executive chairman and serves as executive vice president for content at Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, parent company of HarperCollins, TV Guide and Fox News.)
Glynn claimed that in publishing, one no longer refers to “houses,” only to companies. He cited a “shrinking” list of publishers, the majority of which are owned by overseas companies—70 percent, to be precise. In this world of corporate publishing, Glynn contends that “books are chosen to add to the bottom line, and content is the last item to be considered. For a 30-billion-per-year industry, publishing is cheap and getting cheaper.”
How are these publishing giants able to cut costs? The first stop is the editorial department. “Slashing editorial departments continues because 'the work cannot be seen to add value.' The production budget for a 350-400 page nonfiction book is less than $9,000, which includes typesetting and design. An editor who used to have assistants and outside help now has to take on the work alone, at an average salary of $50,000 per year.” Glynn says he knows an editor at Penguin tasked with editing five books each month, and with no one to help her. By “squeezing the middle,” the chief executives in publishing are forcing the money to the top—and into their own pockets. One of many examples Glynn gave was Sonny Mehta, president of the Knopf Publishing Group, who makes $750,000 per year.
How are good books published in such an awful environment?
Writers frequently go to freelance editors for help. Glynn is a book midwife—a publishing term that can include published writers, teachers, and expatriates from publishing. Book midwives provide support and encouragement to writers, along with critiques and advice. Book midwives can also help with proposal writing, research, editing, and sometimes ghostwriting.
“Publishing companies want manuscripts that they can send immediately to production [because] editors are forced to spend time fretting over profit-and-loss statements instead of making books. Sure, publishing is a business, but the business side is concerned with increasing profit margins—not the correct use of the subordinate clause.”
He claims that few publishers provide the expert attention that some writers need to fully realize the publishable manuscript. Glynn's most recent book is The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish.
Micah Standley is the associate editor of artistic publications for San Francisco Opera. He has written and edited for projects ranging from music and opera to quilting and veterinary medicine. He is also a freelance musician in the Bay Area.