There is one element, and only one, in the publishing process which cannot be replaced—without which, publishing, per se, would cease to exist. Most people, when asked what that is, will answer quickly, “the author.” But they would be wrong. Most people don’t want to think about how things work. They simply want it to work and they want it now. Any attempt to explain the importance of knowing is met with indignation—as if the reality is a mistake and their wanting is the matter.
Virgil wrote his poetry with a quill. Herodotus wrote his histories in the same manner. Neither had any concept of publishing, and yet we are still reading them.
In publishing, a five hundred year old business, every single element but one has been changed over the last fifty years. From the submission of the manuscript to the selling of the book in the bookshop, there is little that resembles my first forays into Anderson’s Bookshop in Larchmont, New York. In fact, most of the processes which are commonly used in publishing today were not even envisioned fifty years ago.
People will still be reading fifty years from now, but with the current mentality in charge, publishing will be an artifact. The problems facing the industry today will certainly kill this five hundred year old profession, and the effect will be as great as if we were returned to a world lit by fire—the world of Gutenberg.
It is as if the Three Stooges were in an airplane and wanting to land. What do they do? Naturally. They hit the pilot over the head.
It may surprise some to know that publishing has grown over the past fifty years—by several times over–more publishers, more people employed by publishing, more books, more readers, more sales. Yet, through most of that time, it seems that the industry has complained. The complaints were heard because they came from two very visible and vocal parts of the business.
One was the independent bookseller. The number and the size of bookshops grew—but most were chain stores using the economies of modern corporate law. My own bookshop was a casualty of the problems that have plagued the business during that time.
But I have been railing about the diminishment of both endangered parts all my adult life.
Despite phenomenal growth, there is one key element which has been shrinking—and as you might expect, it is the same element without which the entire industry will come to an end.
In the beginning, the patron was the ‘editor.’ They chose the work to be published because there was no ‘publishing industry’ that yet existed. The middle class world of merchants and buyers was only just being born. The patron—be it the church, or the prince—was in command of the heights. ‘Private property’ was hardly imagined. Property was what was held by force or dispensed for favors. Books were tools, used to impart instruction by the prince or the church—presenting only the information they wanted known.
Gutenberg changed all that. Not coincidentally, he was born into a new age of business. People had income beyond the favors dispensed by the lords. Gutenberg was a business man. A goldsmith. And he saw a profit to be made in the mass production of the book most potential buyers wanted. And Gutenberg was not only the first printer as we know it, but the first publisher, and the first editor, and the first bookseller.
As that business grew, and several new professions were born from those first efforts in Mainz, one job became the key to the success of all the others. The editor.
Now, to skip forward for just a moment. There are some who will argue that the profession of editor has necessarily changed as well. Much of that responsibility is now in the hands of the literary agent and the marketing department. Well, yes it has and is. But that is the problem. An agent cannot fill this function and be a good agent as well—it is a conflict of interest which favors the agent and not the author or the work. And as for the marketing department, one word: Detroit.
The most visible remains of the once proud profession of ‘editor’ can be seen in the person of a Michael Korda. And Korda, as reported recently in the New York Times, when asked about recent belt tightening in the publishing industry, thinks hard times will pass and soon everybody will be “back to doing what they were doing before.” Certainly the icon of the ‘power lunch’ who dispensed his favors from the Grill room at the Four Seasons might think that. He has benefited greatly by being part of the problem.
The ‘power lunch’ with Michael Korda has everything to do with a profligate establishment of politics over principle and nothing in common with the small brick building on the corner of Washington and School streets in Boston, where James Fields and George Ticknor once prompted the art of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to name but a few.
(to be continued)
Link: New York Times; Puttin’ Off The Ritz: New Austerity in Publishing by Motoko Rich. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/books/05publ.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=puttin’%20on%20the%20ritz&st=cse