Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Long Goodbye for Publishing

By Chester Campbell

Mystery fans are well aware that The Long Goodbye is a Philip Marlowe story written by the iconic Raymond Chandler. It won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1955. Interestingly, it appears in a quite different context in the headline for an article in The Nation by Elizabeth Sifton, a senior vp at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

The article appears under the heading The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes.

There has been a lot said and written lately about the state of publishing, or should I say the sad state of publishing. Ms. Sifton’s article covers the history of the business and the practices that led up to the current scene as well as anything I’ve seen. She has spent nearly half a century in the field, working for several different book publishers as they merged into conglomerates. Re the latter, she had this to say:

“As the megapublishers tightened their grip in the 1980s, I was dismayed to see a number of once good firms of markedly different publishing style or literary taste make foolish, overpriced mistakes; they seemed to be losing their bearings as they paid ever more money for ever more questionable properties, entrusting the sewing up of these sow's ears to not very experienced practitioners.”

She quoted this from one publisher: "Businessmen never learn from their mistakes because they always find someone else to blame for them," he said. "Businessmen only learn from their successes. Except publishers can't do that."

Ms. Sifton says the arithmetic on how publishers calculate their income and outgo has remained unchanged since the middle of the last century. “Of the roughly $10 a publisher took in on a $20 book, say, 10 to 15 percent of the cover price was allocated to the author, leaving only the remaining $7.50 or so to cover the fixed, make-ready costs (coding, proofing and correcting the author's original disk, press preparation and such); the varying paper, printing and binding costs; the cost of sales and marketing; the overhead; and maybe some profit, 4 to 5 percent if all went well. No wonder they longed for bestsellers, the income from which would allow expansion of staff, or staff salaries, or the size of the list--or profits.”

Regarding authors’ royalties, she observes, “Their ever more powerful agents have successfully decoupled the size of the royalty advances they receive from any estimate of the books' eventual earnings, and routinely assure them that if Knopf or Norton or Morrow fails to earn back the upfront money, it's because their masterpieces were badly published, not because the advances were implausibly high.”

After discussing Amazon and Google and the current state of affairs, she bemoans, “I, for one, don't trust the book trade to see us through this. Wariness is in order.”

I highly recommend the article, which you can read HERE.


Unknown said...

Excellent article, Chester. Publishing is indeed in dire straits, and the model is flawed. I'd like to see people get tougher on returns, which seem to be at the heart of the problems.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I just finished reading the article, which bemoans big publishing's near-sightedness. As a former small press publisher (POD), I know that publishing costs are inflated. We manufactured our own books that could not be distinguished from those produced by a commerical printer, and the cost per book for trade paper was about $1.15 and $2.25 for hardcover. We paid full price for supplies, no volume discounts. And we never had returns.

Small publishers will survive and POD is the only sane solution to cutting costs. Why there is a stigma attached to the process is beyond me.

Anonymous said...


I read the article when Kit Sloan posted a link on the Sisters in Crime list. It's a good article. I'm amazed that the writer was brave enough to write it.

Interestingly enough, Kit said the SinC member who passed it on referred to it as "overwrought."



Anonymous said...

Jean wrote:
Small publishers will survive and POD is the only sane solution to cutting costs. Why there is a stigma attached to the process is beyond me.

The stigma is rapidly fading into history, but there may always be die hards who wring their hands over what they perceive as the death of the book. They can't accept that the book isn't dying,it's just changing.