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.