"What we should really do is stop publishing books altogether"

In addition to posting helpful links, Passive Guy manages to find things that really get my blood boiling. Today it was a couple of reports from the Publishing Business Conference & Expo held last week. The outgoing president of Sterling Publishing gave a speech in which he offered such chestnuts as “The world does not need another book,” and “We’re still publishing far too many.”

The sad part about this is that it's by no means the first time I've heard this sort of thing from publishers. I remember reading that exact sentiment more than once in Publisher's Weekly back in the mid-1990s.

If you look at how traditional publishing operates, it makes a kind of sense. Because the industry's costs are so high, most books are not profitable. The people in the business end would love nothing more than to stop publishing unprofitable books. But traditional publishing is a hit-dependent industry, and there's no reliable way to predict what's going to be a hit.

But this guy can't say, "We just want to focus on the money-makers! Whaddya think this is, a charity?" Oh, no. He's in publishing. He has to lie. He has to--in this culture, he cannot possibly tell the truth.

So he says that they want the "best content" and that the mid-listers are toast because their books are neither beautiful nor essential.

Yeah, the mid-listers really appreciated that. And in case you were wondering, editors hear that kind of crap pretty much every day--from the people who actually make the decisions. Do you think it makes an editor's life easier when a writer who is reliable and has a good work ethic doesn't get paid? I worked for a editor who practically begged me to stop freelancing for other people to work for him exclusively, and even though I liked him, the answer was no because the checks never came when they were supposed to. We were in NYC, and the people cutting the checks were off in Ohio, and they didn't have to scramble to find freelancers, so what did they care?

So when a traditional publisher tells you that they love books--love love loooooooovvvvee books oh so much!!!! That's why they're in this industry!!!!! We all love books zOMG!!!!!!--you can spread that in your yard and watch the flowers grow. Editors love books. Copy editors love books. The people who make books are generally reasonably fond of them (or at least appreciate a pretty cover).

The people in traditional publishing who make the business decisions about books think there should be fewer of them, and they have thought this way for a long, long time.

Of course, there are some people who think we should have tons and tons of books out there. There are some people who have figured out how to make lots of money from having tons and tons of books out there. These people do not run traditional publishing houses. Increasingly, I think the people who actually love books and want to see more of them won't be working for traditional publishing houses either--they'll be working for self-published authors.

But we're still in a time of transition, and what truly, deeply bothers me is this: There are writers--new, developing writers--who still think traditional publishing is the way to go. I know a few who I've met through critique groups. They are very good writers. In some cases, the stories they are writing is conventional enough that I think maybe they have a shot. (You know, at getting ripped off come contract time.) In other cases, I'm thinking there's no way; not because what they're writing isn't good--it's very good--but because what they writing is different. It's creative.

And to a traditional publisher, a great, creative, different book is just weird. It's unmarketable. It won't fit easily into their narrow little marketing slots, and there won't be a place for it on the two linear feet of shelf space Barnes & Noble will be dedicating to books. They won't know what to do with it. And they will fall back on the same language they always do: The language of quality. It just wasn't good enough, sorry. We publish only the best. This book is neither beautiful nor essential. The world does not need another book.