Terrors of Book Publishing
October 22, 1997
Freelance editor Sal Glynn spooked the October meeting of Bay Area Editors' Forum with an insider look at the brutal economics of the book industry today.
With a glance back at the dark ages when "it was found easier and less expensive to burn the heretical authors than their books," Glynn portrayed a faltering industry. He said the big publishing houses now yield to chain-store product managers the editorial duty to decide which books to publish.
Since books survive even as the industry totters, the rules have changed, says Glynn, who began as a printer's devil at fine press publishers in Canada and northern California. He was managing editor at a trade press for five years, then editorial director for a publisher of books on tape.
Inside the "big eight" publishing houses, only the most senior editors edit. Others count beans and attend marketing meetings, not to vet editorial content but to project how well a book will sell. Staff cuts have lowered editorial standards and savaged working conditions. Only 25 in 1,000 titles are edited. An editor who still cares - and, more rarely, is still employed by a publishing house - must take home manuscripts to edit on nights and weekends. These days, when only 50 fiction writers make money, even John Updike hires his own editors and proofreaders.
Agents - much more often than editors - champion authors. Economics make it so. The chains tally 55 percent of U.S. book sales; the independents sell about 18 percent. Book clubs and special markets distribute the remaining 27 percent. Because they sell the most books, the chains have gained a strong voice in deciding which books are published.
One of the great losses of the past ten years is the wipe-out of many of the independent booksellers who built the great houses by pressing books into readers' hands. When Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose was published, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich printed 5,000 copies. Booksellers loved it and recommended it to their customers. The next printing was 25,000, then 50,000.
Such a book might not find an audience today among product managers at Barnes & Noble, who find self-help, celebrity, and cookbooks an easy sell. Even experienced freelance editors and book packagers like Glynn are scrambling. A year ago, he was juggling six editing jobs. Today he has one. Book editors are fleeing to Web pages.
Is book publishing really this grim?
Glynn says that "outside a few major independents, trade book publishing today is dominated by eight monster media conglomerates. There are still the university presses and a host of smaller independents and small publishers, but they are finding it harder and harder to sell books in today's environment. The chains don't care and the independent bookstores can't deliver the numbers."
Despite the carnage on this side of the Atlantic, Glynn notices that independent booksellers in Europe are alive and well and still pressing books into customers' hands. That simple practice could be the antidote to the tyranny of bean-counters as arbiters of literature.