October 25th, 2011 by Clark Humphrey


As power in the book biz moves increasingly from Manhattan to here, the Manhattan news media treat it as a crisis, or at least as a matter of controversy.

Hence, the Sunday NY Times op-ed package posing the musical question, “Will Amazon Kill Off Book Publishers?”

What rot.

Worse, it’s predictable rot.

I’ve ranted on and on here, since years before the e-book became a marketable commodity, about the traditional book industry’s stodginess, parochialism, and criminal inefficiency.

I’ve also ranted about the particular cultural conservatism (bordering on the reactionary) that’s long held sway within the big-L Literary subculture. (That scene is not the same thing as the book industry, even though it thinks it ought to be).

Current example: Dennis Johnson (a respected publisher of, and advocate for, big-L Literary product), claiming in the NYT debate-in-print that

…publishing isn’t, right now, and hasn’t been, for 500 years, about developing [sales] algorithms. It’s been about art-making and culture-making and speaking truth to power.

The corner of publishing Johnson occupies might be about art n’ culture making.

But the whole of publishing is, and always has been, about the bottom line.

And in societies such as this one where there’s no royal family or state church to prop up (and censor) publishing, that bottom line means sales.

And, I will argue, that’s mostly been a good thing.

Not in spite of the ephemeral commercial dross that’s been the bulk of most commercial publishers’ product, but because of it.

The romances. The mysteries. The space operas. The treacle-y 19th century “ladies’ stories.” The pulp adventures. The lurid ’60s paperbacks. The advice and how-to guides. The travelogues. The comics. The fads. The tracts (spiritual, political, dietary). The bodice-rippers. The porn. The celebrity memoirs. And, yeah, today’s teen vampires and werewolves. They’re all where the passions of their particular times and places are preserved.

But Johnson wants to know how big-L Literary work will fare in the brave new e-world.

I say it will thrive as never before.

For the e-book business model is not, as Johnson fears, a recipe for monopoly.

It’s about less consolidation, not more.

There are three major e-book sales sites, and hundreds of minor ones.

Anybody can sell just about anything in e-book form on their own, or via one of these sites.

And they are.

Cottage industries are springing up to provide editing and design services for e-book self publishers.

And new small presses are forming to more fully curate “quality” ebooks, and to more effectively promote them.

Big-L Literature was, at best, a prestige sideline for the old-line major publishers. Smaller specialty presses, like Johnson’s, had to play by the big presses’ business rules (including devastating return policies with bookstores); rules that made Johnson’s kind of books hellishly difficult to put out at even a break-even level.

That good, and sometimes great, books of highbrow or artistic fiction came out of that business model, and came out regularly, is a testament to the perseverance of impresarios such as Johnson, and to authors’ willingness to work for the equivalent of less than minimum wage.

The e-book business model doesn’t guarantee success.

But it gives specialty works, and their makers, a fighting chance.

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