Andrew Sullivan versus the Publishing Industry

Andrew Sullivan recently blogged, "If any industry deserves to go under, it's the publishing industry." See here.

From an earlier Sullivan blog post -- "The future is obviously print-on-demand, and writers in the future will make their names first on the web. With e-distribution and e-books, writers will soon be able to put this incompetent and often philistine racket behind us."

From another -- "The first print-run of my last book was published with an indeterminate number of copies with the pages in the wrong order. I was the only person who noticed. No one at Harper Collins or the printer was able to tell me how many books had been misprinted, or shipped with misprints. They had no idea; and no way to find out."

Andrew Sullivan has published some brilliant books. Virtually Normal, for example, is an open-minded, insightful and entertaining work on the politics of homosexuality. Now Andrew Sullivan is a phenomenal blogger -- the Daily Dish deservedly won the 2008 Weblog Award for Best Blog. (Incidentally, I heard Andrew Sullivan is considering putting out a book of the "View From Your Window" photos, which are actually my least favorite feature of his blog -- perhaps this is because they make me feel like I'm his only reader who has a shitty view from my window. Could it be that posting hundreds of insightful political comments a week, and also lambasting the publishing industry, is actually a cunning marketing strategy for a coffee table book? That's so gay -- just kidding!)

Here's what I keep coming back to about the publishing industry. While the most initially striking thing about this Naomi Alderman article on the future of publishing is how truly terrifying, on how many levels, Stephen King looks holding a Kindle, the most important factoid therein is that roughly ninety-five percent of published books make a loss.

I think many of us writers are vaguely aware of this while also being in emotional denial about it.

This fact has many ramifications. I can imagine that, if I owned a publishing company, and I knew ninety-five percent of the books I published made a loss, I probably wouldn't expend a lot of effort on quality assurance on a book until I was sure it was one of the other five percent.

As a text-delivery mechanism, books have simply become prohibitively expensive and inconvenient to distribute. When I say this, people often respond "oh but books are so beautiful, reading something on a screen just isn't the same," and so on. But books are not necessarily as beautiful as Carolingian illuminated manuscripts, papyrus scrolls, or Shang dynasty oracle bones. And they can also be physically dangerous -- if I'm in my apartment when an earthquake hits, I may well perish under the weight of thousands of obscure volumes. The way my weekend's going, I might even welcome such a fate...

8 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan versus the Publishing Industry”

  1. Elizabeth K. Burton

    There is no excuse whatsoever for allowing quality to lapse in anything much less the written word. I just finished reading a mass-market by an award-winning author that was so riddled with copyediting errors as to be painful to read, and it’s clear that some major publishers are using the unproofed copies of books to produce the ebook versions.

    The problem with the mainstream publishing industry is that they operate as if it were still 1920, when production costs were relatively low. In other words, the entire production process is expensive because they haven’t managed to figure out how to streamline it without compromising quality. So, they choose to compromise quality, then complain about the expense while sighing that book sales are declining because no one reads.

    Maybe book sales are declining because the product is becoming unreadable.

  2. The 95% loss figure is misleading and perhaps disingenious.Firstly, the accounting practices of large corporate publishers is slightly less self serving than Hollywood. I would wager that Small Beer Press, Akashic, Melville House, Unbridled Graywolf Milkweed et al do not published 95% money losers.

    Its arguable whether a book is lovelier than an e reader or an illuminated text is more beautiful.It is a useful function that a book can be personlized (signed by author,gifted to a friend, notes in margins or tipped into pages)

    Fear of being crushed in an earthquake is a valid concern and if that’s something one worries about than perhaps the public library is for you…

  3. I was going to post an impassioned comment, but then I realized that James Sullivan said it better and more concisely that I ever could:

    “My own view is that the publishing industry deserves to die in its current state. It never made economic sense to me; there are no real editors of books any more; the distribution network is archaic; the technology of publishing pathetic; and the rewards to authors largely impenetrable. I still have no idea what my occasional royalty statements mean: they are designed to be incomprehensible, to keep the authors in the dark, to maintain an Oz-like mystery where none is required.”

    To quote Public Enemy: “Shut ’em down, shut ’em, shut ’em, shut ’em down.”

  4. Elizabeth K. Burton

    If you’re going to post misstatements, at least have the courage to identify yourself.

    There are six major publishing corporations in the US. There are 70,000-80,000 independent presses. Condemning the entire industry on the basis of how the majority of it chooses to operate is short-sighted.

    I can assure you there are very skilled and talented editors working right this minute to ensure quality, just as there are very talented writers who for any number of reasons will never sign a contract with one of the mainstream publishers. For those who have the desire to self-publish, there are now ample opportunities to do so. However, not everyone has that desire.

    So, by saying the entire industry should just disappear, you are, in essence, condemning those writers who have no desire to deal with the nuts and bolts of publication to the same anonymity as if they had no other options than the mainstream publishers.

    As anyone who has ever worn pantyhose can tell you, one size never fits all.

  5. Almost all of your potential readership is online, many will no longer have the attention span for a book. You’ve got yourself a blog. Sweet.

  6. I have not yet determined where this infantile rage and anarchism is directed —books, editors,corporations,readers?

    And no more editors? That’s just crap. Dan Frank, Elizabeth Sifton, Jill Bialosky, Jonathan Galassi, Robin Deschler, Deborah Garrison, Jody Pavlin, Gary Fisketjohn, Robert Gottlieb are just a few of the editors whose existence is being ignored by raillery against the established publishing order. Sheesh.

    As for me personally, my web presence is based on readers who care about books.

  7. To note a typo, the quote Anonymous attributes to James Sullivan is actually an Andrew Sullivan quote. I think Andrew Sullivan’s anger is primarily directed against Harper Collins, with whom he had a bad experience — and by extension the other big publishers.

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