Books Are the New Cars Books Are the New Cars

Books Are the New Cars

by Anne Trubek

December 12, 2008

Major publishing houses follow American automakers into financial abyss

One would think that when those catchwords of the season, "massive layoffs" and "drastic restructuring," came to book publishing, the media would come up with a more original, literate nomenclature than "Black Wednesday." But that's what they're calling it, which I find very disappointing. (Might you work on this, "Wordtastic?")Whatever the tag, here is the damage: Last Wednesday, the "Other Big Three"-you know, Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Simon & Shuster-all announced big, scary consolidations, lay-offs, and cut backs. A few days earlier, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced it had stopped acquiring new books, which would be somewhat like General Motors announcing they are no longer going to make cars. (I hear the latter is not out of the realm of possibility.)In a scathingly on-point op-ed in the New York Times, Tim Egan shows little pity for the houses, which, he says, are responsible for constantly rolling out the literary equivalents to SUVs. Examples of money mismanagement include multi-million dollar advances paid to untested celebrity authors who routinely get multi-million dollar advances-Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld received theirs just a few weeks ago. Many houses bid on the titles because, well, the other guys were doing it; the amount of fronted money then begins to inflate. Joe the Plumber's book-What would the automobile analog to that be? A Pinto?-is coming out any day now. Sure, it's from a small press, but one that allegedly offered him thousands of dollars. Sarah Palin meanwhile received a reported $7 million advance for whatever her surely incomprehensible babble of a book might be in car terms. (It's sure to be as unnecessary and inconceivably popular as the Cadillac Escalade.)
Egan rightly seeks out moral high ground, arguing that we need to stop publishing tripe when "too many good novelists remain unpublished … too many extraordinary histories remain unread … too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil … [and] voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor's gate."Though it may seem anathema to critique an industry dedicated to the preservation of the written word, are some publishers getting what they deserve? Do big houses need a humbling a la financial services institutions, like Lehman Brothers, and auto manufacturers, such as GM?An anonymous publishing insider makes a good case for just that, writing, "We've lived a life of excess, squandering budgets, contracting friends, and pursuing the [1950s] sitcom lifestyle." New York magazine's Boris Kashka agrees, arguing that publishers got into trouble the same way everyone else did: "Big corporate publishing, like big everything else, has spent years expanding beyond the point of sustainability. It wasn't slowing down fast enough in the face of rising printing costs, decreased market share, and fatally, plummeting sales this fall. Just last year, in a burst of irrational exuberance, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt were merged by an Irish private-equity firm-a process that accrued massive debt. Their bills (along with the rest of Ireland's) are coming due."
Should we weed the big boys out? In the dirt of fallen conglomerates, might more flowers bloom? There are already dozens of struggling, small presses (which of course is not true of automakers) and hundreds of deserving authors who only ask for modest, middle-class advances. Kassia Krozser of the blog Booksquare makes this argument while pointing out that a business model reliant on shareholder interests is simply at odds with an industry made up of niche readers. "This is where I believe we are going to see an incredible rise of independents, publishers who get that small is beautiful, that there is profitability and then there's profitability."On the other hand, it's tough times everywhere. Further, it should be noted that the big houses publish titles of extraordinary merit as well as schlock. Major presses published all of the books on the Times' "10 Best Books of 2008," with Random House taking a commanding lead, with titles by favorites of mine: Toni Morrison, Stephen Millhauser and Julian Barnes. (Drew Gilpin Faust's book on death and the Civil War and Patrick French's biography of Indian author V.S. Naipaul are already on my library queue.) Of course, the dominance of the conglomerates begs the question: Are books published by the biggies, with their mighty marketing muscle, the only ones considered for such lists?)As with every other troubled industry, there are no easy answers yet again. I find myself jonesing for another well-reasoned Paul Krugman column to guide me through this world where common sense (bad business decisions should cause businesses to fail) might be foolhardy (business failures are bad for all). I cannot even self-righteously declare, "I am going to stop thinking about all this economic whoshewhatsit and go read a book!"Instead, maybe I'll fill up my tank and go for a drive. (By the way, GM honchos, I own a Volkwagen station wagon.)
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Books Are the New Cars