Journalist Andrew Sullivan has one of the biggest and best blogs out there on the Internet, and I am constantly amazed by his ability to write so eloquently and instantaneously about the issues of the day. He’s a pioneer of the form, one of our brightest intellectuals, and someone I admire a great deal.
And the other day, he wrote, “If any industry deserves to go under, it’s the publishing industry.”
Huh. And here I thought the whole “fake hedge funds that are actually a Ponzi scheme” industry was first in line.
The quote in question that spurred Sullivan’s salvo was from Kassia Krozser’s rundown of the SXSW “future of publishing panel,” and she came away unimpressed by the responses from the publishing professionals. But even Krozser, although she is frustrated with the way DRM is often currently employed (UPDATE: see comments section for more), acknowledges in the article that there are publishers trying new things. And while she certainly often posts of frustration with the industry’s glacial adoption of new technology, I wouldn’t characterize her as overly pessimistic about the business. She just wasn’t impressed with the particular panel.
Sullivan subsequently allowed a dissent from someone in the business who thinks we aren’t so horrible after all, then published a rejoinder from someone who is in publishing and thinks that even if we don’t deserve to die per se, we are at the very least in the process of committing suicide.
I bring all of this up because it’s merely a high-profile example of an extremely common sentiment: glee at the supposed impending demise of the publishing business. Some people can hardly wait to stomp on our graves.
People have some resentments toward the industry for a variety of reasons. Maybe, like Andrew Sullivan, they had a publishing experience they found unsatisfactory.
But Schadenfreude, while perhaps fun, isn’t particularly constructive. Couldn’t we at least have a dialogue about what needs changing and some good suggestions for ways of changing it?
There are definitely problems with the business. Bookstores are struggling, imprints are closing, bottom lines aren’t looking great, and I’m particularly concerned that the industry is thinking far too short term with the current retrenching around established authors and celebrities at the expense of growing authors over the long term and investing in new voices.
But the industry is not stupid. Like any massive industry that is comprised of tens of thousands of individuals, it is a human institution with some institutional problems and weaknesses. But despite a reading public whose appetite for books is not growing at a particularly fast rate, despite tremendous competition from other media, we’re still here, and we’re doing way better than a lot of industries, including ones comprised of supposed geniuses and masters of the universe.
We’re currently undergoing a massive transformation to keep up with the times. There are people all over the industry trying new models, whether it’s Vanguard’s no-advance model, HarperStudio’s limited-advance model, Jon Karp’s book a month model, or, you know, blogging and Twittering publishers and agents. Books will always be around, and so will the industry.
Sullivan is considering self-publishing a book based on his popular View From Your Window series of posts. I think it’s a terrific, terrific idea. He has the the time, the marketing platform, and the resources to do this and make it a success. He probably doesn’t need a traditional publisher.
Now it’s just a matter of getting the book to readers. Maybe he’s content to sell strictly through his blog, but his sales would be limited. To go through online vendors he’ll have to deal with online booksellers, yes, part of the publishing industry. To get into bookstores he’d need a distribution deal, which would be best handled by an agent with experience handling those types of deals — my e-mail address is on the right side of the page, Andrew.
We can only hope the publishing industry doesn’t die before Sullivan’s book is published.