Imagine you live in a small apartment above a bookstore.
Like most bookstores, it has an area set aside for perusing novels and consuming refreshments where you can relax with a alluring and fragrant pile of books stacked in front of you. The only sounds come from the soft mood music the establishment is piping in and the contented signs of other customers. You’re free to evaluate each prospective purchase at your own leisure, languidly stroking their pages one-by-one, seeing if this one or that one’s spine has what you’re looking for attached to it.
No one who works there ever comes up and hassles you about hurrying up and buying something already, there’s an implicit pact between client and business – you’re free to lounge for as long as you’d like, but if you want the convenience of taking the book with you, a fee is required.
That’s really all you’re paying, a convenience fee. Each book sits on the shelf open and waiting, shyly beckoning you with coyly designed covers and promising words – tempting you to pick them up, sit them in your lap, fall in love with them, and pay to take them home. But whether or not payment is rendered, you can still have your way with as many books as you want, regardless of whether or not you pay a single cent.
If you actually lived in an apartment above a bookstore, how often would you actually pay to take a book home if you could take your time with each and every book right then and there in the store? Probably not very often if you could conveniently come and go whenever you wanted. So it’s been a good thing for the publishing industry that very few people actually live above or abreast a bookstore.
Unfortunately for the publishing industry, and just about everyone who works for it except the authors themselves, the internet went and got itself invented – so the publishing industry is now in the process of becoming well and thoroughly screwed.
Publishing has always been a notoriously fickle business: Harry Potter was rejected by nine publishers, A Time to Kill by twenty-six. The Diary of Anne Frank was labeled “very dull,” and “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” George Orwell was told Animal Farm would never sell because “it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.”
Before selling over 130 million copies worldwide, Chicken Soup for the Soul was passed on by over 100 publishing houses. And it took Doctor Seuss’s first book twenty-seven publisher rejections before it finally found a taker.
Talk to any literary agent and they’ll tell you that publishing has always been an absolute crap-shoot. If people inside the publishing industry themselves admit that “It’s an accidental profession, most of the time,” and that “people think publishing is a business – but it’s a casino,” how exactly does it make sense to argue that the current economic model isn’t hilariously broken?
The randomness of publishing wasn’t due to some inexplicable high variance, it was a result of the fact that most people in the publishing business have no fucking idea what a good book looks like. Walk into any bookstore in American and start randomly plucking books off the shelf. You’ll have to go through about a dozen before you find one that’s worth reading more than a few pages of.
But maybe the most absurd part of the process is that even if your book did manage to run the gauntlet – querying agents, getting one to bite, finally selling your manuscript to a publisher – there was still one massive trial you had to pass. Bookstores still have to order your book from the publisher, and for Barnes & Noble’s entire fiction department this order was controlled exclusively and entirely by one woman.
Ponder that for a moment.
Some nameless faceless entity, who probably ended up getting into the bookselling business only after she failed at actually producing art herself, would hold the life of your dream in her hands, adjust her reading glasses, maybe absentmindedly pet one of the fourteen or so cats, and render judgement.
Unsurprisingly, Barnes & Noble is a slowly sinking ship – it’s only a matter of time before it comes to rest at the bottom of the business ocean alongside Borders. But there’s good news, and hope out on the horizon. Because the thing is, pretty much no one actually lives above a bookstore.
The evolution of the alphabet is shrouded in mystery, although many archeologists accept the theory that the first instance of phonemes being broken down into discrete chalky semaphore occurred somewhere inside of the Levant and probably served as a code for the enslaved to communicate the means of freedom to each other.
Kind of like the modern hobo code, but somehow more profound.
Then comes what we know for sure – the printing press empowered the Protestant Reformation, as for the first time knowledge could be disseminated free from any authoritative oversight. And now revolution is beating down the doors of oppression and autocracy in the Middle East, riding waves of electronic dissent that never could have formed without the dissemination of the Internet to nearly every corner of the globe.
Tweeting and Facebook didn’t cause any of these revolutions, they merely allowed them to coalesce inside societies with incredibly strict laws about public gatherings.
Along with authoritarian regimes, the ongoing Information Revolution now seems to be well on its way to tearing down the crumbling facade of the book publishing industry. The flip side to that is that it’s being argued that “writing, as a profession, will cease to exist,” a conjecture which couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s perhaps one of the more absurdly short-sighted and alarmist statements ever made in the short history of modern literature.
The only thing that might cease to exist is many of the superfluous managerial and bureaucratic jobs in the publishing industry, as well we writing as a profession… that can make you a multimillionaire who has a tank parked on his damn lawn. Not to single out Tom Clancy, his first dozen books or so were absolutely brilliant and firmly established the geopolitical military thriller as a genre – but the tail end of his career bears witness to just how absurd the publishing industry has become.
Instead of quietly going into retirement he leveraged his name out to a series of video games, which isn’t something you can really knock him for in and of itself. But he also slapped his name on a series of incredibly crappy books, as well as what’s hopefully one final gawdawful book that he supposedly “co-authored.” But if you’re at all familiar with Clancy’s earlier works, it becomes very readily apparent that Clancy didn’t contribute anything to that book other than maybe a plot roughly outlined on a cocktail napkin.
Or maybe on a one-hundred dollar bill, they’re probably interchangeable in the Clancy household. And the publishing industry welcomed this misleading farce with open arms, because they knew all they needed was Clancy’s name slapped on something with pages attached to it. It would sell, and they’d be able to roll in the dough it produced like greedy myopic pigs.
Ewan Morrison’s argument that writing is a dead profession because of the prevalence of e-books isn’t only short-sighted, it doesn’t even hold together logically. He jumps from the fact that “most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage: they include Dostoevksy, Dickens and Shakespeare,” which has continued to the modern system of authors receiving advances against royalties – all the way to the idea that the reduced advances are going to send authors straight to early retirements because they can’t live on the royalties from past books alone.
Even discounting the fact that Dostoevsky’s desperate need for advances came as a result of his compulsive gambling, and that J.K. Rowling isn’t alone in being able to write her first book without any hope of an advance, even living on welfare in her particular case – it becomes readily apparent that Morrison’s line of reasoning is deeply flawed:
To ask whether International Man Booker prizewinner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II. The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.
Conflating Philip Roth’s career, which was spent living in a modern American city, with an artist living in 16th century Renaissance Italy is about as asinine as it gets. The artistic market and map to success for someone authoring books in 20th century America has next to nothing in common with trying to make it as a painter and sculptor hundreds of years ago – the fundamental ideas of market and commerce were completely and utterly different. The economic framework Morrison cites has been holding up the publishing industry, not the authors themselves.