Book Pricing for Literary Fiction: On Critiquing the Industry

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.

10 Responses

  1. Expressing Contempt”I am
    Expressing Contempt

    “I am slightly distressed that some people … told me that I seem to be expressing a lot of contempt for the industry and the people who work within it.”

    Hi Levi,

    Earlier in these discussions my comments got similar feedback. Interesting, huh? It doesn’t feel good either because I didn’t mean to insult anybody.

    What I really want to point out, though, is this article in the sunday NY Times. Books for the Ages, if Not for the Best-Seller List by Clark Hoyt.

    It seems to tie in a lot to the discussion in that it talks about how important the best seller lists are and how people (publishers I guess I mean) play them.

    And amazingly, the New York Times will simply remove best sellers from the list even though in sales they qualify because they have been on the list for too long.


  2. Yes, a very interesting
    Yes, a very interesting article by Clark Hoyt! Glad you pointed it out.

  3. Robust VictoriansI know I’ve
    Robust Victorians

    I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m really getting off on these excerpts from J.I.M. Stewart’s Introduction to The Moonstone (1868), by Wilkie Collins (The Penguin Classics Edition).

    “Today we are inclined to believe that the highest excellence in a writer is incompatible with the achieving of wide popularity…and there is unfortunately much evidence to support this view. The Victorian age held a robuster faith. (Charles) Dickens, upon association with whom all Collins’s success was founded, took it for granted that the best work would win the widest acclaim, and contrived to combine an astute and vigorous commercial sense with a confident belief in the moral and artistic qualities of what he produced.
    (Italics mine).

    And here, Stewart touches on the problem of genre fiction:

    “For the development of the detective story, moving as it does within a number of sharply limiting conventions, is not easy to reconcile even with some of the quite modest purposes of ‘straight’ fiction. For example, as the intricacy and ingenuity of plot increases, it becomes more and more a condition of success…that we should go short of any sure sense of character as we read…anybody in the story must be capable of acting under any motive.”

  4. General comments and a
    General comments and a question

    I think that older editors tend to be very good (non-fiction) writers because they came from a tradition that valued and taught education, literature, and good writing skills. Younger editors may come more from the sales and marketing community. Everyone in publishing seems to have had a private school education, so perhaps they can all write well.

    Blogs: I don’t read them (except this one, and I didn’t know it was a blog!). Call me old-fashioned. My question: does anyone in publishing actually read these myriad private, amateur journals (some quite good, like LitKicks)? I can’t imagine editors or executives selecting from the thousands of blogs and taking the time to read them. Sort of like government decision makers reading political blogs. I have no clue — are blogs read by more than a few non-influential people?

    And thanks again for a great series.

  5. Good question, Dan, and as
    Good question, Dan, and as for LitKicks I’m happy to say that, yes, what I write here does seem to get a fair amount of currency within the literary/publishing professional community. I have many friends who work in publishing, and they’ve let me know that this series has been noticed at all the appropriate levels. Also, LitKicks has good page ranking within the search engines, is generally well-linked by other blogs and is picked up by many RSS readers, so I know the words get “out there”, for whatever good this does.

  6. Head against a WallBy their
    Head against a Wall

    By their nature big companies don’t care about anything but profit. It is their reason for being. If the industry half of the book industry is hauling it in, we’re just asking the wolf not to eat the lamb here.

    Publishing is hungry like the wolf.

  7. I have to respectfully
    I have to respectfully disagree with your summary here. Here’s how I see it — of course major publishers are in it to make money, but there’s a world of difference between a) making money while delivering a great product the way customers want it and b) making money while frustrating your customers, your partners and your suppliers with inferior products and inferior results.

    I don’t want to encourage publishing companies to stop trying to make money. I just want them to start doing more of a) and less of b). I think they will make more money, too, if they start doing more of a).

  8. Golden Age?Thinking about
    Golden Age?

    Thinking about publishing now, it seems almost impossible that an editor like Maxwell Perkins could exist today, who worked with Fitzgerald and Hemingway and who wrestled with Thomas Wolfe to get his gigantic output into publishable form. I think Dan is right, the editors of today are marketing types, not men of letters. This series has really gotten me thinking about all levels of the business of books.

  9. Or maybe there are lots of
    Or maybe there are lots of great books coming out today. The only difference is, bread costs more, gasoline costs more, books cost more . . .

  10. Besides, Max Perkins had no
    Besides, Max Perkins had no choice but to shepherd his writers, the fuckers were all drunk!

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!