The State of PublishingBy Rob Roberge
July 28, 2010
As we all know (or at least we all get told an awful lot), publishing is a mess. It’s in trouble. It’s, according to my agent, the worst it’s been in his (and my) twenty years in the business. Which is all probably true. There are plenty of horror stories and statistics to back up the gloom and doom statements we all hear plenty of.
I have anecdotal personal evidence, as well, with me and some writers I know. In the past three years, for instance, two friends and I (wonderful writers Gina Frangello and James Brown) had books canceled due to the publisher going bankrupt just months (and in a couple of cases, weeks) prior to the release date.
A short history of the three books in question (with more detail about mine, not because it’s more important than the other two cases, but simply because I know more about the history—both factual and emotional—that went with the process):
Mine was a book of stories that got taken by a very cool indie press in 2006 (I’ll leave their name out of it, as none of this was their fault and they no longer exist, so what’s the point, anyway?). The book had already been a finalist for both the Drew Heinz Awards and the Flannery O’Connor Awards (note to young writers—first place in these is, respectively, $15,000 and publication and $10,000 and publication; second place is a set of steak knives…well, actually you don’t even get steak knives). It also almost came out on another wonderful indie press (down to a choice between it and another book I much admired), and again came out a bridesmaid.
Then, the story (it seemed) had a happy ending. A very promising new indie was making it their first single-author book (they’d done a very good and astoundingly beautiful anthology, so I was excited about not only the book coming out, but how great it would look). It went through editing, copy editing of proofs, and had been pre-ordered by a bunch of friends and fans (all of whom I had to apologize to and argue with the folded press to get their money back…money some of them still haven’t seen, which is embarrassing, to say the least). Then, a month before the release, I got a phone call from the publisher saying they were done, belly-up, kaput. The book would not be coming out. My good friend Patrick took to calling this book my “Chinese Democracy.”
I was, as you might imagine, crushed. After coming so close, so many times, I’d allowed myself to have some expectations (always a bad idea—hope is necessary. Expectations are foolish). After a couple of self-pitying days of calling many writer friends, who shared my grief and seemed angrier at my publisher than I’d allowed myself to become (I liked the guy, after all), I realized it could have been worse. They could have gone out of businesses a month after (rather than before) the release, and then the book would have been pretty much dead forever. This way, at least, I could start the whole ugly ordeal over and search for a new publisher. Not fun, but not the end of the world, either.
With Gina Frangello’s book, the situation was pretty similar. An indie had taken a novel of hers and the book was just about to come out when she got the call that the press had gone out of business and that it wouldn’t be coming out. She, too, had spent over a year getting ready for the book’s release, had told friends, and started the pre-publicity engine to spread the word. She, too, was stunned and deflated when she got the news—as anyone would be. This is a tough business. It’s tough to finally find a home for a book. And when you do finally find one, well, you kind of expect that it will come out in the world at that point. You get faced with a plan B you don’t get a lot of training for in an MFA program, or anywhere else.
In Jim Brown’s case, he had a deal to not only publish his new book (THIS RIVER—a follow up to his critically acclaimed memoir THE LOS ANGELES DIARIES), but a deal to reprint the LA DIARIES. The new memoir was scheduled to come out this summer (June) and then he got word that the new press (Phoenix Books) had, you guessed it, gone out of business. So, he lost both his new book’s release and the reissue of his best known and best-selling book.
Many people I meet at readings and conferences (readers and apprentice writers) are surprised by the time it takes for the average book to reach the reading public. First, you write and revise the book into publishable form. This takes anywhere from about a year (if you’re quick) to several years. I’ve known writers who worked over ten years on their books (it took Dave Cullen nearly ten years to write COLUMBINE, to name only one recent example). Mine tend to take between a year and a half and three years, though some have taken longer. But, let’s call it three years.
After that, if you have an agent, she or he sends it out to publishers. However, if it’s a book of stories, chances are your agent won’t send them out. My agent only represents my novels and memoirs. This is pretty common (it’s true of Gina, as well, and most writers I know), and I can’t say that I blame my agent. The average advance for a book of stories is about two thousand dollars, and they are harder to sell (at least to a major press) than novels. So, why would he send my book of stories to, say, twenty publishers to get 15% of that—or, $300?
So, you have this book that takes you three years to write. You might get the right match straight off and get a publisher on the first (or an early) try. But, it’ll probably take longer. Let’s be optimistic and say six months to a year. Now we’re at four years.
Then, once it’s in the pipeline and on your publisher’s list, it’s generally another twelve to twenty four months to publication. Now, we’re are six years into the process—so you can see how it might get pretty depressing to a writer to have that book canceled within thirty days of its scheduled release.
So, yup, in both wide-ranging studies and my anecdotal evidence above, it can be pretty tough for a writer in today’s climate. However, it’s easy to focus on the bad news, but all three of the situations above end on an optimistic note.
My book of stories got picked up by the great LA-based indie Red Hen Press and is due out October 1st. Gina’s book of stories (her novel was, at that time, not available for complex reasons—but it will be coming later) has just been released on Emergency Press—another excellent indie press with an impressive catalog. And Jim Brown’s new memoir THIS RIVER has a 2011 release scheduled on the excellent Soft Skull. It should be noted that all three of these presses are doing well in this supposedly hopeless era in publishing—many indies are growing while the majors collapse. There is a future for writers and for readers.
Not all publishing stories like these end well. I’ve had friends and colleagues who had books under contract and scheduled for release, only to have the book canceled or the press fold. And several of those books have not (and, sadly some may never) seen the light of day.
While there’s bad news, there’s good news, too, for writers and publishers who work hard to get work they value out to the public. It may be tough, but it isn’t impossible—and the business isn’t finished. So, the sky isn’t falling.
Or, maybe it is—but it’s important to remember that the sky always seems to be falling in publishing, according to some.It’s been falling in this business since I started publishing in literary magazines nearly twenty years ago. In 1994, I sent my first novel (well, my first publishable one, at any rate—it was probably the third I’d written) to a bunch of agents. I was told, by several agents, that they liked it, but that it was “too literary” and too tough a sell in “today’s market” (remember, today, at this point was 1994). A year later, I had an agent and that book went out to publishers. Again, the consensus was that the book was well-written, but “too literary” to sell. Several publishers told me some variation on “ten years ago, we would have taken a chance on this, but not in today’s climate.” Eventually, the novel was published, but not in any particular hurry and at a small, but very cool press.
Ten years later, I had another novel making the rounds in New York. Several said it was well-written, but “too literary” (I’m still not sure what that means) and a “tough sell.” Again, several editors said that “ten years ago, we could have taken a chance on something like this, but not in today’s climate.” This, of course, baffled me, as it was ten years before this that I was hearing what a terrible state publishing was in. But, somehow, 1995 had become, by 2005, a time nostalgically (and nostalgia is always a lie—it’s the nature of the beast) remembered as a golden age for literary fiction. It did eventually find a home—this time on a major press.
I’ve been around long enough to know that “ten years ago” is something of a myth in publishing. Listening to agents, editors and publishers, it seems that it was always better and easier ten years ago. At some point, that simply can’t be possible.
The truth is, it’s always been hard to sell a book. And, in many ways, it may be harder now than it has been (especially at major New York presses). It’s harder to get big bucks for books (from what I hear—I’ve never been a big buck writer, but I’m ok with that. Not that I’d turn it down.). But there is a future for publishing. Writers have had to adjust to a tougher market by working harder on their own to sell their books, first to publishers and, beyond that, to the public. But the public is out there. And so are several writers, and independent and/or university presses passionately dedicated to putting books they love out into the world. It’s not all bad news, even if the sky seems to be falling every now and then.
Thanks for sharing this, Rob. Publishing can get so frustrating!
This was great, Rob. A wonderful debut. Welcome!
And: Hopefully the new TNB Books imprint can make a dent & help improve the playing field.
Thanks much, M.J. Publishing is a frustrating biz–but it’s still the best gig I know. Thanks for reading!
And thanks, too, Brad. Good to be a part of TNB. Love it. And new, passionate and good imprints like TNB Books can only help, right? I actually think indies have a good future. Not so sure about the big ones, though I still have hope.
You’re totally right–indies have HUGE potential here, having very little infrastructure to shift into gear. As long as they’re willing to dump methodologies that don’t work anymore, they have a strong chance of breaking through. Lovely of you to mention Emergency Press, which seems to be on its way–and Gina Frangello’s book is a wonderful catch for them to have. It’s super smart!
Disclaimer: I feel it irresponsible not to mention my potential bias, having been fortunate enough to get on the Emergency Press label myself. However, their last two books rocked (American Junkie and Slut Lullabies), and I know the authors they have lined up are amazing, as well.
Congrats on the book–looking forward to it. And, yup, they’re building a really good list–glad to hear you’re part of it.
And I’m biased in favor of any new indie coming into the fold. We need more of them!
. . . here here, rob! love your optimism . . . gotta’ have it in this game! . . . on the indie press front, i passed on bigger offers from corporate publishers to go with algonquin, and it was the best decision i ever made, though i had a ton of respect for the other editors involved . . . aaron is right, infrastructure can hurt a shop–and it can also hurt any author unfortunate enough (read: most authors) to wind up on the mid-list . . .
Odd to hear ‘optimism’ attached to my name, but I suppose it fits in this case 🙂
Glad to hear it was the right choice–Algonquin did some really nice work for my pal, Steve Almond. I’ve heard good things. Glad to hear more of them.
I have a lot of respect for a lot of the major press editors I know and the one I worked with, as well. We all hear horror stories that editors at the majors just acquire, but don’t actually edit, but that wasn’t my experience. I had a great editor who did a lot of work and helped make it a better book.
The publicity department, however, was another story entirely-ha! But I think that’s largely because the majors don’t know what to do with what used to be their mid-list (like you say, where most writers live…the old mid-list). They’re in the blockbuster business (and don’t seem to know that much about non-blockbusters that could still make money…just not crazy-money), and that seems at odds with most of the books I value.
. . . it really is all about the marketing and publicity departments . . . that’s where the buck stops . . . editors are not very powerful in the corporate scheme of things, though an indie editor (like my first editor richard nash at soft skull) can BE the house . . . algonquin only published twenty-odd titles last year, and six of them were bestsellers . . . they really push all their titles AND their backlist (peter workman insists–and that’s just smart business, because, hey, the books are already produced) . . . to me, that’s the effective model: don’t just print books, publish them . . . if you’re an acquisitions editor at a major big five imprint, at some point you’re acquiring books just to meet budget, otherwise you won’t get your budget next year . . . but that budget doesn’t extend into publicity and marketing necessarily . . . in the case of steve almond’s candy freak with algonquin, craig popelars designed a kick-ass marketing strategy that involved sending lots of chocolate to booksellers . . . a publisher ought to care this much about all their titles . . .
Thanks Rob, now I’m depressed as hell. But ya know, ten years ago I was depressed as hell. Maybe I’ll just publish my book on twitter – one sentence at a time. Yup, it is time for a new model. Great essay man.
Welcome to TNB, Rob. This debut post is a lovely, clear, ballast of reason, examples and common sense! Thanks for the refreshing air.
Rob! Welcome aboard! It’s nice to hear another viewpoint rather than the laid-back ‘Aspiring author, you say? Well, here’s some gasoline and a lighter. Try not to scream too much.’
And congrats on the Red Hen pickup!
Oh man, Rob! Just yesterday my “Hollywood” agent told me over the phone, “I could have sold this ten years ago but I’m not sure how we’re going to do today with this new market.” I swear to god. I thought he was being wise–or something. 10 years is a standard reply, a cliche! Thank you so much for enlightening me. Great article. So glad you’re writing for TNB.
Thanks, Katie–always great to see you. Love your pieces on TNB. And I think my next article (or a one I’ll do soon, anyway) will be about my short, problematic “career” doing Hollywood scripts. I can tell you, for one writer at least, it wasn’t easy to sell anything in Hollywood ten years ago! My Hollywood agent, at one point, said, “You should do an article about how to make it small in this town.” So, I think I will. Like so much of my career-experience, it can be a “how-not-to”. Ha!
I have a very naive question.
What the hell is “literary fiction?”
I mean, as compared to “just plain old” fiction?
When I look in the big bookstores at the racks labeled literary fiction vs. the racks labeled fiction, I really can’t see a huge difference, besides the fact that authors older than dirt get racked in literary.
It’s a good (and more complex than it may look) question. The standard, short-hand reply I hear given most often is that ‘fiction’ is plot-driven and ‘literary fiction’ is character-driven. There may be some truth to this, but it’s (perhaps obviously) a bit reductive.
Also, what WAS ‘mainstream’ or ‘entertainment’ fiction may later be critically accepted as worthy of literary study–say, for instance, the case of Raymond Chandler vs. someone like Hemingway. In 1950, at Universities, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who thought Chandler was the novel-writing superior to Hemingway. But, Chandler’s critical star has risen, while Hemingway’s (the novels, at least–not the great, amazing early short stories) has fallen critically to the point that many (me included in that group) would say he only wrote one really good novel (THE SUN ALSO RISES) and that his gift (and his greatest influence) was in short fiction.
For me, I use ‘literary’ as more of a shorthand to a shelf in marketing/publishing. I think there’s only good fiction and bad fiction…and some of the literary fiction I’ve read is bad, and some of the ‘popular’ fiction is quite good. “Literary’ becomes something of a genre with conventions just as much as speculative fiction or noir or whatever.
A lot of it has to do with where the publisher decides to shelve you/categorize you. For instance, my last novel (MORE THAN THEY COULD CHEW) was written (and thought of by me) as just ‘a novel.’ But, it got accepted by a crime fiction imprint of Harper Collins, and so it became ‘crime fiction.’ Why? Because it had criminals as many of its characters. But it wasn’t written as a crime novel…it just got put there (which is fine by me–they can put the stuff wherever they like, so long as they put it out). But what makes Gatsby, or CRIME AND PUNISHMENT NOT crime novels (when they’re both, studies of a crime figures, looked at in one light)? They’re wonderfully written, for one (not comparing my stuff to those), but also, they simply got shelved as lit.
So, this is a long, non-answer, I suppose.
In general, though, fiction that aspires to art that doesn’t fit in some pre-determined genre gets thought of as ‘literary’ fiction. And then we’re back to the shorthand answer (which actually applies in a lot of cases) that literary fiction is character based and mainstream fiction tends to be plot based. But there are so many exceptions to this as to make the definitions problematic at best. Note sure that helps!
All best–thanks for reading.
Thanks for a very involved and well-reasoned reply!
The question isn’t merely hypothetical…I’m writing a novel that conducts sorties into various genre territories…whodunit, theological, sci-tech, demonology, a little twist that is definitely sci-fi…but it’s really completely character-based. The various plot devices are set up using some science-based premises.
…but to slap a “sci-fi” sticker on it would be a horrible travesty.
How to avoid such a thing? I’ve perused the sci-fi shelves these days, and they’re depressingly similar to the romance pulps.
I will certainly agree that times are somewhat different. Back in 1972 my stepfather published with Knopf, but in today’s world can’t get them to even read something.
Rob, glad to see that your “Chinese Democracy” finally got picked up by Red Hen. I like Red Hen. They release some very good books. And yours will be no exception.
Also, look on the bright side. “Chinese Democracy” had a few pretty darn good songs on it.
Welcome to TNB, my funk soul brutha.
Yeah, it’s my “Chinese Democracy” except I didn’t get 23 million to not put it out for over a decade. Nor did I get Bucket-head to guest on any tracks 🙂
Thanks for the welcome, man–always good to see ya.
Here’s something as bad as your indie press folding: an author being cancelled by a major publisher not because the book was no good but for “business reasons.” Back when I was an agent, this happened to me when a major house restructured and cut a hundred authors loose. One of them was mine and she was devastated. It is indeed and always has been a rough business.
I had a friend who lost her book in one of those business purges. Tough stuff. There are so many ways for things to go wrong AFTER the acceptance. All the ones mentioned, PLUS the classic, ‘the editor who took the book/loved the book left the publishing house’ scenario. That’s happened to a couple friends, as well…and then they were left with editors who DIDN’T acquire (or love) the book, and it just sort of trickled into the world with no support.
It is a rough business, for sure. What’s amazing, though, is that most of the people I’ve worked with (at both major and indie presses–and my agent) love books, love them passionately, and work really hard to bring them into the world. While the business is rough sledding much of the time, most people I know who are involved with it are pretty great (of course, I haven’t been involved with the bean counter who nixed 100 accepted books–that was ugly).
Great post, Rob! I’m actually the guy whose book came out before Gina’s, so I’ve lived through that “book would have been pretty much dead forever” situation — my collection, Ryan Seacrest is Famous, came out on Impetus Press, which I believe is the one that had Gina’s book in the queue. It was, obviously, the last book that came out on Impetus.
So I really appreciate your post, and I think I can understand some of what you went through. It’s a weird thing to have a book go missing like that. On one hand, I’m happy that it DID exist — it had a nice little run there, so I feel in a lot of ways like I was lucky for the thing to have gotten out in the world to begin with. But it still blows that it doesn’t really exist anymore (you can buy used copies in some places, and I have the requisite few boxes in my basement, but I’m pretty sure the actual printed copies have been pulped, or are sitting in some warehouse somewhere; in any case, they’re not available to anybody, including me). I’m not mad at Impetus in the least — I’m one of the editors/publishers of Barrelhouse magazine, and know maybe better than most how tenuous/bad/ridiculous the economics of indie publishing are. I mean, if any of us wanted to get rich, we’d be doing something, anything else.
I went through the same kind of process — anger, resentment, confusion, then a kind of numb resolve that this is what happened and the best path forward would be writing more, rather than obsessing about a book that doesn’t exist. It’s still a hard thing to swallow, but looking ahead and using it as impetus (pun, um, intended) to write more is the only choice that’s out there, really. Even though I kind of got screwed by forces operating way above my head (the death of Borders, is what it really came down to), I agree that things can always seem bad if you look at them in the wrong way, and there’s a bright future ahead for literature and indie literature.
Anyway, thanks for the great essay!
What happens, legally and contractually, when your publisher releases, then folds?
The question really is, do the rights revert? Or are they sitting in some limbo where the out-of-business publisher might sell them forward to someone at some point?
Are you then able to republish somewhere else?
Sorry to hear about your experience with “Ryan Seacrest is Famous” (like the tile, btw). That sounds rough. Worse than rough.
Even when places don’t go belly-up, some presses are terrible about getting books to the public (not saying this was the case with Impetus, but it just reminded me of something else). I remember ordering LIKE LOVE, BUT NOT EXACTLY (an AMAZING book of stories by Francois Camoin) for a class I was teaching and the U of Missouri Press never sent them…they were who knows where? On a pallet in some warehouse or something (the book is out of print now, but it was in print at the time). Here I was, with 20 solid sales (not a huge number, but still), and they couldn’t be bothered to send them. Odd.
And, yup, if we wanted to get rich, we picked the wrong gig. I’m thinking of quitting and getting into waste removal or asbestos abatement or something 🙂
Thanks (to you and all I haven’t commented on directly) for reading!
DWOZ — I can tell you that in my case all the rights reverted back to me. Soon I’m to start trying to find a home for my second collection, and I’m hoping that having the first one in my back pocket could be regarded as a positive thing, at least for some publishers. We’ll see…
Thanks so much for writing this. I appreciate it a great deal. I’ve already sent it to two different people who could benefit from it as well. One of whom is a dear, dear friend who wrote one of the funniest books I’ve ever read – on par with Christopher Moore – and it was a vampire novel on top of it! And, just like you describe above, the press folded before the book was published. My friend was in a pretty bad depression afterward, but has persevered and is now turning her manuscript into a screenplay and has some Hollywood types already interested in seeing it when it’s done.
The ten year thing is very, very interesting. I had an agent recently tell me that adult fiction isn’t selling and that I should think about approaching my novel as YA. “Adult fiction was really hot ten years ago, but not now,” he said. He is an astoundingly nice man, so I don’t doubt his sincerity, I just find that really interesting.
Thank you again for posting this.
Thanks much for reading it, Gloria. And passing it along. Glad you dug it–means a lot.
I wonder what impact the relative ease of publishing digitally (is that the correct term?) will mean for the industry. Saw today that eReader editions of books are expected to surpass paperbacks in sales by the end of 2011. Of course, people still want physical copies, like me, but there is a definitely shift.
I heard that on NPR yesterday. Maybe someone who knows more about eReader stuff can chime in? It’s interesting news, though I’m not sure what it means for the future of publishing (that’s not expressing a doubt about it as a form of delivery for literature–just an honest statement of not knowing much about that whole side of things).
I think I’ll always was physical BOOKS, you know? The object, for me, is special. Though I could see having a Kindle (or whatever) for long trips…it seems pretty cool to carry a ton of books in the space of one book.
My hope (and uneducated guess) is that ebooks and the like will augment, rather than replace, traditional books. But who knows? It’s a changing playing field, that’s for sure.
Yeah, I guess I’m not real sure, either, where the eBook thing will take the industry. I share your hope.
Definitely prefer a physical book. There’s nothing like filling up a bookshelf. Whenever I go to a house I’ve never been, my favorite thing is to look over their bookshelf. I would hope they don’t go away. Kindle or Nook can be cool for specific purposes, but I will always prefer paper.
I feel for you having the dust jacket yanked out from under like that. I have a very similar story that I won’t bore you with, but suffice it to say I was really glad the place went under before contracts were signed, or the book would probably still be in legal purgatory. In a way I feel lucky. Also, it seems like you have a lot of interesting stuff happening, so the experience may have been beneficial in the long run. The more (good) material you pound out+the less naive you are+having realistic economic expectations+completely embracing the notion that you are your own marketing department regardless of the size of the publisher=a reasonable chance of success amongst the perpetually rumored ashes.
Hey, I used to have a cassette with some Urinals stuff on it. Sandwiched between Void, Agnostic Front, and half a side of Pere Ubu..not possibly the same 70’s LA outfit, is it? Man that was lo-fi before anyway knew what Lo or Fi meant. Hey, forget writing, Thrash is where the real money is.
Sorry to hear about your book (damn, this seems to have happened a lot). Best wishes for you and it in the future.
And, WOW! Can’t believe you know the Urinals…yup, same band as the late-70’s VERY lo-fi punks. I’m the new guy (the last 5 years or so), along with the original guys–Kevin Barrett ad John Talley-Jones. We have a new record (actually a real old style album…vinyl is in with the kids, apparently) coming in the next few months. I love the sound of the early stuff (I have no ego attached to it, as I wasn’t in the band then)…kinda wish we kept that sound for the new record, but you practically have to do it with wire recorders and wax records! But, yes–same band. Always good to have another crumbling business (the music biz) to fall back on 🙂
Rob, welcome aboard! Hell of a debut, man. Thanks for the no-holds-barred education on some of the many realities in the industry. Hopefully within some of the challenges listed above, we can ferret out some solutions. I will be referring back to this as a point of reference in the next couple months- the unvarnished truth sounds thorny, but here’s hoping there’s still lots of room for optimism. Good stuff!
Excellent piece, Rob. My press has picked up two books that were left without a home when their publisher went under. Given the economic climate, it’s incredibly easy for a publisher to get pulled under. That said, there’s more enthusiasm for indie presses and literary fiction in recent years than I’ve seen since I got started. I think you’re right to be optimistic.
Bless Red Hen. They saved me from an agent nightmare. (One house and then, “Put it on a shelf and write me something else.”) Now I feel lucky. (or doomed and then lucky?) Anyway, thanks for telling your story. We all need more of the “things you don’t learn in an MFA program.” UCR is lucky to have you.
I’ll have to see if I can find you for a drink next time I wander back to Banning…
Hey RR–We could heave easily talked about llama farming or square-knot tying or my new personality test called “Could you Lead a Regime” yesterday if I’d known you were already nose-deep in this particular conversation. But I guess it’s just what we’re all thinking about.
One more piece to the puzzle here is the difference in marketing between the big houses and, well, everyone else. I’m not just talking about tours, I’m talking about creative marketing like broadsheets, text-to-buy, music tie-ins, blah blah. Branding and platforms. Nonfiction people and fiction superheroes (or supervillains, like Dan Brown) seem to be much better at all that than your otherwise awesomely talented “mid-list” writer.
This is one reason why TNB is so great–book trailers! Facebook pages! Online book groups! That’s the ticket.
Also: regarding ebooks. The sales stats are staggering, and one reason why, I’m guessing from all the reading I’m doing on it, is that the people who love hardbacks are also, in many cases, the people who can afford to buy e-readers. So people by ebooks they might not take a chance on in a bookstore, and then they also buy ebooks of old favorites they want to have with them on the train to work.
We’re thrilled Rob managed to get picked up by Red Hen, and are even more excited to feature one of his short stories in the upcoming issue of Shelf Unbound, a new digital magazine featuring what to read next in independent publishing. Sign up for a free copy at http://www.shelfmediagroup.com and see what other independently published authors are doing.