As background for our discussion of publishing practices for literary fiction, I’ve recently read memoirs by three publishing executives: The Business of Books by Andre Schiffrin (formerly of Pantheon and Random House), Another Life by Michael Korda (who spent his entire career with Simon and Schuster) and Book Business by Jason Epstein (of Doubleday, Anchor, and ultimately Random House). All three are riveting reads, and I recommend all of them to anybody interested in learning more about how this complex industry works.
I’m guessing that if you put Schiffrin, Korda and Epstein on a panel together they’d probably agree more than they’d disagree, though Schiffrin’s basic tone is bitter and resentful where Korda’s is sunny and at worst sardonic and Epstein’s temperament falls somewhere between these two extremes. All three books emphasize the massive shifts that have taken place in the publishing economy since Random House decided to forgo its independent status by selling stock to the public in 1959 (the rest of the American publishing universe tumbled into Wall Street’s massive maw soon after).
Andre Schiffrin clearly sees this as a lose-lose situation for all who love literature, and his book’s primary thesis seems to be that modern publishing conglomerates make a terrible mistake in requiring each new book proposal to aim for profitability, rather than allowing publishers to subsidize their preferred works with the successes of more popular titles.
Michael Korda’s book is less polemical about the future of book publishing, though he notes the same worrisome trends as Schiffrin. Korda’s prose sparkles brightly, especially when he is telling stories about the writers and executives he has known in his long career at Simon and Schuster. I suspect that some of these yarns have been embellished through years of dinner-party repetition, but that barely dims the appeal of this enjoyable book.
Like Michael Korda, Jason Epstein reveals himself to be an elegant and crafty writer, capable of beautiful turns of phrase. Can editors often write this well? I’m truly surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t be. Epstein’s volume is concerned that corporate publishing conglomerates have allowed themselves to become so marginalized in the creative process that writers, literary agents and software developers will soon realize that they can work together to reach readers directly without the hefty middleman getting in the way at all.
Reading these three books in quick succession only makes me want to read more of the same, and a recent visit to the Strand (New York City’s biggest used book shop) has yielded me several older volumes in similar veins, all of them reaching back to earlier eras. Apparently the “publisher memoir” is a sub-genre in itself, and has been long before the modern era. I’ve got a lot of catch-up reading to do, and I just hope I enjoy this next stack I’ve just bought as much as I’ve enjoyed Schiffrin, Korda and Epstein.
Given that I’m obviously a person who loves and cares about the book publishing industry, I am slightly distressed that some people who’ve followed our current “Does Literary Fiction Suffer from Dysfunction Pricing?” symposium have told me that I seem to be expressing a lot of contempt for the industry and the people who work within it. This is an unfair generalization, and I’d like to turn the question around and ask one myself: why do book critics and literary bloggers limit their scope to the evaluation of specific books, rather than critiquing the companies that produce these books? Why is it so utterly strange and uncommon to examine the practices of the book publishing industry that I have to endure being considered a hostile observer, an intrusive smart-aleck, just because I am asking business questions that should interest anyone and everyone who cares about the future of literature?
As we near the end of this two-month inquiry, I’d like to make it clear one last time that my motivation in beginning this exercise has not been to mock or deride publishing executives, but rather to earnestly appeal to them to be more responsive to their audiences and more innovative in the ways they market and package the excellent books they produce. With that said, the final posting in this long series is on its way: a set of recommendations as to how the book industry can better serve the needs of its loyal customers without sacrificing profitability or financial gain.
This final set of recommendations is the culmination of this entire inquiry, but I don’t deceive myself that it will make a big difference on its own. My biggest hope, in fact, is that this series will inspire other book critics and bloggers to write about the business side of publishing more often, and more critically. There’s a lot of territory to cover with this subject. And even if all our recommendations fall upon deaf ears — and I truly hope they don’t — I can tell you from personal experience that this type of investigation carries its own reward. It’s just plain fascinating stuff, and as we near the end I can only hope that my readers have enjoyed this process as much as I have.