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April 18, 2012


Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution.

I like that, especially as applied to the private sector.

Now if we can just do this to the academic publishers. Elsevier, I'm looking at you...

Thanks so much for this post and the link. I read the whole Superversive post and am very glad I did.

Anyone who is an author (or friends with an author) has got to see this as a serious case of chickens coming home to roost. After far too long (half a century, perhaps) of publishers taking a huge cut of the price of a book while providing nothing more than a distribution channel, the authors are back in control.

If publishers had been developing authors, or if they had been marketing to consumers, they might have been earning their cut. Since they were doing neither, they have nothing left to contribute for those who create the content that they used to sell. As ye sow....

I'm wondering how all this will intersect with the current e-book suit with Apple. My suspicion can be stated as a corollary to the statement that Ugh notes

Government will generally side with the group preserving the problem.

It is happening to the academic publishers. For example:

It will just take a little longer.

Fascinating post, Doc. When does to bidding start for the movie rights to part 2?

When ebooks and e-publishing become dominant, those of you who (like me) can't imagine living without the scent of slowly decaying paper and leather, and the heft of a volume in hand, can come to my house to have a cuppa something, and spend some time reading in a comfy chair with good light.

Well, at some point in time, hopefully soon, when all problems are solved and those that aren't are attended to by robots operated remotely by maybe two hedge fund managers at most, we can experience 99.9% unemployment with maximum white-person only productivity and show up at Joel Hanes place without stipend to read Jane Austen on an empty stomach.

Not that that would be an unfitting ending to western civilization, well read, but starving, on behalf of productivity, the Nazi ideal, promoted by Louis Gohlmert.

Bring guns, in case there are bad attitudes embraced by murderers Romney, Ryan, and Norquist on behalf of libertarian Republican filth.

Maybe, on your way, Ayn Rand, wearing a housecoat (as she was noted to do late in life in New York City on her way to the low-priced grocery cooperative) will step over you, you homeless get, and spit on you, she coming from just now grifting Medicare for her commie pap smears, the f*cking Republican c*nt, and hitching a ride from Alan Greenspan in his limo on his way to f*cking homeowners and shareholders so that he could perform cunniglingus on Rand, Ayn's legs visible up in the air in back of the limo to unionzied workers on their to s8cking owner c*ck at their jobs, Greenspan taking turns licking with Nazi murderer Paul Ryan, just like in Atlas Shrugged, on their way to the Kennedy Center to celebrate the Rick Perry murder of John. F. Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King so he could gut social welfare programs in Texas, which by justice, belongs to Santa Anna, not John Wayne, Richard Widmark, and Lawrence Harvey, who f*ck Perry's wife on a regular basis, not that she minds, Perry saving himself for screwing imaginary coyotes, among them probably co*cksuckers T-Bone, Mope Lame, and Evictim Erection of Redrum, the well-known abattoir for homosexuals, feminists, liberals, and the Chevy Volt.

Everyone knows that 50 Shades of Grey is Twilight fan fiction with the names changed, right?

Everyone knows that 50 Shades of Grey is Twilight fan fiction with the names changed, right?

Yep. It's a cool phenomenon, but I kind of hope it's not the future of fiction.

What publishing is doomed?...again?...it must be Thursday. The cries of the death of publishing have existed since the invention of the Guttenburg Printing Press that would put all the hand-scribers out of business.

Stephanie Meyer and her sparkly vampires did it. Stephen King pumped out too many books too fast, so he did it too. Paperbacks made it easy for the massess to get books that led to a deterioration of "literature".

Here's an idea...if you are a writer (or writer wannabe) why don't you concentrate on writing a good quality book and then contribute to the perpetuation of publishing.

If you're a reader, and you don't like book x, or y, or z - then don't buy it.

But if you just want to cry, "The sky is falling," well it's a pretty old tale and no one really wants to hear it.

Oh...and one more thing...reading preferences are varied and just that--preferences. You can't quantify art and the quality of work because what one person hates another loves. The ONLY objective criteria is sales, which comes from ... word-of-mouth...which means enough people felt that they enjoyed it enough to share with the other people in their lives.

I've met students, and neighbors, how have thousands and thousands of books and comic books, on PDF, MOBI, EPUB, CBR, and CBZ.

And they are extensive libraries that cover high art and low art,...that can fit in a small "book" size machine....all at their fingertips and free.

wow, talk about ask and ye shall receive...in triplicate, no less!

Doc, have you been reading Scalzi and Stoss's takes on the Death/Non-death of Publishing and the Rise of the e-Book? It feels very much like a paradigm shift, a moment of transition. Not that paper books are going away any time soon, and publishers will keep going for quite a while or evolve at the last minute and survive as something else. Or literary agents will rise and take over some of the functions of publishers (the nurturing and business managing). Crowdfunding for advances? Print-on-demand? Choose-your-own-adventure stories? It's kind of exciting.

I worry about the penetration of the infrastructure needed for a move to mostly e-publishing (cheap e-readers, internet, even regular electricity). Also for some reason the shift I've noticed to e-everything has lessened my reading, even of paper books. There's just so much out there and only so many hours in the day. If everything gets published, will anything get read?

If everything gets published, will anything get read?

The function of publishing, from a reader's point of view, aside from being a distribution channel, has been to separate things worth reading from things less so. Obviously, taste plays a large role in this, and I wouldn't claim that publishers have always gotten it right.

That said, there are a lot of people writing these days. Arguably, a lot of them aren't great talents. There has always been a belief (maybe elitist) that great art isn't always recognized right away by the masses, but that there are some people who are quite good at it. Publishers have traditionally made a lot of money from best-sellers, but that has allowed them to publish less commercially viable books that have a great deal of literary merit. The extent to which this is still true of publishers these days is certainly worth discussion.

In fact, the whole idea of publishing as being "gatekeeper" has always been controversial, but I think that something should to be there to help people sort it out.

One option for helping people sort out which works are good and which not is already in place: critics and reviewers.

The challenge for the individual is to find a critic whose tastes are close to his own. (Or, almost as good, one whose taste is so opposite that you can just buy whatever the critic pans.)

Critics and reviewers generally receive review copies from publishers. Imagine everyone who wrote something online sending it to the reviewer. In other words, they would have the same problem as everybody else.

Just another point about publishing: it's fallen victim to corporate bottom line thinking for sure. But the history of publishing is pretty interesting, and I'm not so sure it's over yet. Finding worthy material, editing it, publishing it, advertising it, getting it out to critics, handling rights and permissions (including enforcement): all of those things are worthwhile. A certain amount of that can be DYI or can be oursourced by the author to agents, lawyers, etc., but publishing isn't just a lot of people sitting around getting paid to count money. There's a lot of work done in those houses.

There are some books that are worthy but I can't get my hands on. Not old books or controversial ones*. For some I know in what libraries in the world copies exist (but those are out of range). And in some cases they are in local libraries but cannot be lent out (and some stuff one can simply not do in the library).

*e.g. a certain standard textbook on Icelandic inflections published in 1989. That's not actually the original edition of the Necronomicon.

Hmm. I've been reading Konrath and Shatzkin for a while now, so I'm not quite as blown away by the success of 50 Shades as most mainstream media appears to be; anyone looking at the transitions in "publishing" right now has seen the slow-motion implosion of the legacy system going on for a few years. Which is to say, it took *time* to get to the point where 50 Shades could be a success; according to one published friend of mine, the legacy system has been failing authors on the editing and marketing fronts (for instance) for nearly ten years.

But are they really going away? No, but they are having to change. I think your comment about indie authors (of which I am one, at a very low-key level) beating legacy publisher at a game they did not know they were playing is the key concept here; and once they figure out the game, they will figure out a way to play it.

My optimism is that because of the changes represented by 50 Shades and other authors' works, the playing field is leveling out more favorably to both authors and writers. We've been played too long.

I wonder how the process of gate-keeping in academic publishing will change?

That is, usually I can tell a lot about a book published by Oxford University Press...Palgrave Macmillan, Duke, Pluto Press,Edward Elgar Publishing, University of Minnesota Press, University of California Press, Blackwell Publishing, etc.

What would be their roles?

someotherdude, IMO, they shouldn't give up their current role. there's nothing incompatible about having internet publishing coexist with trade publishing or academic publishing. The problem is, of course, money. Academic publishers aren't self-sustaining - they rely on the institutions with which they're affiliated, and grants. Publishing is a hard business, but worthwhile. It's changing (and has been for awhile) because of new media, but if it goes away, we'll be the poorer for it.

What would be their roles?

That depends a lot on what they want them to be. Academic publishing isn't exactly a huge money maker; many books have very limited readerships. To the extent that authors and institutions are more interested in spreading their ideas, they're going to be compelled to offer ebooks for free or at least for much less than traditional hardcover retail.

For example, Nancy Levison, an engineering prof at MIT, has written a book in hopes of changing how people think about systems and safety and accidents. She knows she's much more likely to do that if lots of people read her book and that, in any event, she's never going to make lots of money in royalties. So she cut a deal with MIT Press where they offer a free PDF of the book in exchange for giving her lower royalties on the print copy.

I thought Doc had posted earlier about the petition demanding that Elsevier reform their academic publishing practices that started out with Tim Gowers blog post that was picked up by Crooked Timber here and here, but I may have misremembered.

lj, there's a difference between publishers like Elsevier (which is, actually, a monopolistic online presence) and other academic presses such as MIT Press, Yale University Press, and other print publishers affiliated with universities. University publishers are usually nonprofit entities that make no money. They, in fact, sometimes (usually) cost money. Their authors often are published on grants which the university press writes for them.

Elsevier is part of Reed Elsevier, Inc., which owns Lexis-Nexis, and other online publications. Different beast.

Sapient, that's a fair point, though there seems to be no lexical difference between (struggling to break even) academic publishing and (akin to extortion) academic publishing. However, when you bring up grants and support, things get a bit murky. For example, someotherdude mentioned Palgrave, and I have 3 colleagues who have published with them and it seems like a very interesting model, in that the book gets published if the university agrees to share the costs and purchase a set number of books. I've got several of their imprints and they are solid work, but still, when you've got universities ponying up a large chunk of the costs to a profit making enterprise to get a book published, question do arise. And it seems like a small outpost of a much larger corporate entity that really doesn't care much about academics. Palgrave also does that nod to open access by charging the author an Article Processing Charge (APC) to have the article be published as open access. There is a move afoot to have grants be tied to open access, and some have suggested that these fees are just a way of dealing with that problem.

University presses could probably be argued for as being less problematic, but some of those universities have huge endowments, so I don't think it is as clear-cut as it might seem.

"questions do arise"

Well, lj, if you are proposing to get rid of publishers, go right ahead. If you know absolutely nothing about publishing other than that you've read some books, you don't know what the employees there do, and what the money for books goes to support.

What should we, then, do about the economy? Let's look at the trade publishing model (the evil "for-profit" business): We used to have, say, publishers, who hired acquisitions editors to read manuscripts, decide what was really wonderful, whereupon the publisher decided to invest money to make it available to the public - sharing the profit with the author, but also paying for making books, editorial services, marketing services, distribution services, permissions services, plus the administrative costs of having those all (efficiently) together under one house.

Okay, so some trade publishers are public corporations which (admittedly, and I admit it freely) look too much at what kind of profit they can make off the work that they promote. I would suggest that university presses absolutely do not fit that model. Nobody here, apparently, knows anything about the budgets of university presses (universities with their endowments that they spend on presses? Not! Do some research on what endowments go towards!).

Tell me, lj, have you ever read about the history of Farrar, Straus and Giroux? Scribner? Do you know the history of Beloit Poetry Journal? Do you know anything about Yale University Press art publications?

Do you really hate books? Why are you rooting for putting people who promote books out of a job? Do you really believe that there is a viable alternative, or that authors want to do all of the work of publishers by themselves?

Just one question: do you know anything about this?

Because in addition to a decade practicing law, I spent the rest of my life in publishing. People do stuff in publishing besides count money.

I'm not lobbying for it - it will live or die based on the decisions of the executives, the intellectual property laws, and the way people figure out how to charge money for writing. But don't kid yourself - a lot of very good, dedicated people do excellent work in a belief that people's writing is an incredible, inspiring part of human experience. They promote it. They make good literature and good nonfiction rise to the top.

Down with them? I'm not on board with that.

Oh, and by the way, do you think that most publishers are part of the 1%? And what profession do you have that we can all trash and ban?

Oh, and also: just read all the manuscripts yourself. Have fun with that.

And don't forget this: you hate publishing and want to fire all of their employees? They're http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/books/blog/2010/05/do_women_rule_the_publishing_w.html>women. Thanks again!

"Why are you rooting for putting people who promote books out of a job?"

As a reader, I'd have an easier time of it if more (and more efficient) book promotion was actually happening. As outlined in "Extruded Books: A Cautionary Tale" and elsewhere, the current state of publishing involves very little promotion of books by publishers. And of course, it's no skin off my nose if they remain in an employed state, but I'd prefer they not keep robbing authors of ebook royalties, publishing unproofread stuff, etc. while they're at it.

"Do you really believe that there is a viable alternative, or that authors want to do all of the work of publishers by themselves?"

The very article series on which we are now commenting has dedicated itself to the ways in which the former functions of publishers have fallen by the wayside and the ways in which in the case of E.L. James they were fulfilled by fandom.

Cool! Fandom! Popularity contests rule!

I'm not sure where I said anything about getting rid of all publishers. I thought that the problems with Elsevier are related to what Doc was talking about in her post.

And it's certainly not a question of firing people (and I'm not going to be doing it), it is a question of where the market is going. I'm sure there are going to be good points and bad points, but no one is going to be able to stop things from changing. While I do know a bit about the histories of various publishing houses, I also spend a lot of time working with publishers and representatives of textbooks in Japan (nice folks all and I'm not wishing them any ill-will, so if I made any suggestion that they should be fired, it was certainly not my intention), and whether you like it or not, they are changing. The first step to managing that change in understanding it, and I don't think the art publications of the Yale University Press are really going to stop that change.

Oh, and please consider this an invitation to write more about the economics of university presses and how endowments are related (or not) to that. Here in Japan, each university has a shuppan iinkai, which publishes one or several in house journals (know as kiyo) and then subsidize faculty members publications. It is in that context that I have dealt with Palgrave. I'd be interested to know how it works in the US.

Having worked in trade publishing from 1986 until about 1998 - I can vouch for a lot of what the article says - along with a few other points - I remember the job of finding new authors was farmed out to Agents -acquisition editors seemingly did their job mostly by having lunch with agents.
Also as publishing was historically a business with a low return - (5% was a figure banded about) which was unacceptable in an era when 20% returns were becoming the norm (I blame wall street's inflated return levels for this but that's another essay). This led to pressure to publish sure things either new books by already established authors or series (you'll notice Robert Ludlum is apparently still writing some years after his death). Among other things this led to the vanishing of the mid level novel and any chance of bringing an author along and building a career.
And in the effort to expand their market there was a constant effort to try and publish books for people who don't read (you might see the problem with this idea)which led to the big buck celebrity autobiography which could work very well Trumps first book or very badly Vanna White's book (yes the woman from Wheel of fortune - really it was going to be a big book huge).
So I'm not shocked that publishing is in the straits it's in - sad (I knew a lot of great people who's heart and soul were books) but not shocked.

acquisition editors seemingly did their job mostly by having lunch with agents

Seemingly? I guess when you worked in publishing, you weren't an acquisitions editor. Not that there aren't lunches with agents, and not that agents aren't important. Agents, in some cases, do shop work to acquisitions editors, but that doesn't mean that manuscripts are accepted based on the tastiness of the food.

There are many, many people trying to get published by good presses, way more people than could reasonably be read by even the most diligent publishing houses. The fact that a good agent wants to represent an author means that there's probably something to the author's work. So it's a first way to narrow the slush pile.

lj, as to university presses, I was thinking more about liberal arts, fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, not so much scientific research. These presses rely on granting organizations, literary prizes, and other sources of funding because they aren't well funded at all. The idea that people are making money hand over fist while giving authors the shaft is ridiculous. Although, as I've states, trade publishers have to observe the "bottom line" way too much because of their corporate structure, even they manage produce reliably interesting and intelligent work, some of which is supported by the celebrity publishing that Professor Fate talks about. (Because, yes, people buy that crap because they want it, just as some people like fan fiction and others don't.)

I have a soft spot for university presses as a lot of linguistic research probably wouldn't get published if it weren't for them. I also know, having read linguistic manuscripts for people, that they don't get magically into print. But linguistics in particular (and university presses in general) seem to be a tiny fraction of the market (though the data I found thru google seems to be pay to view reports, so I may be wrong) If that is the case, should the industry maintain the same model because it works for a small fraction of what is published?

I recently went back to the states and my junior high school daughter got her first taste of being in an American book store and understanding the experience, and when my brother asked her what was best about visiting, she said dreamily 'going to the book store' and my brother replied 'just like your father'. So I'm really aware of what we are losing when we change models. I love my iPad, but the visceral ability to pull books out, page thru them, take a stack back to the coffee stand and read before deciding what to buy is something that I look forward to every time I go back to the states. I come back, despite myself with half my suitcase filled with books. So I'm not 'rooting' for the people who have basically made me who I am today to be fired. But Doctor Science seems to be describing a process that is taking place and is certainly one I want to understand and accusing me of wanting to change things (that I have no power to change at any rate) doesn't really get us too far.

liberal japonicus, as you note, bookstores in the United States are chockfull of books of every possible subject matter. Many of these books are being offered electronically for people (like me) who are running out of shelf space. I'm happy for that - it's a readers's paradise, as your daughter seems to agree.

I'm also happy for the internet. I know a few people who think we're at the end of literature because of electronic communication. I disagree with them. What I don't understand about Doctor Science's posts and some of the comments is why the success of 50 Shades of Grey means that publishers and the people who work them have to be maligned. The models can coexist, and support each other, just as is happening with "50 Shades."

Doctor Science's post is based on an exaggeration of the current problems with publishing. I'm not going to pretend that publishing has no problems - I concede right away that trade publishing's biggest problem is that it is playing the Wall Street game, and publishing wasn't designed to support huge profit margins. Nevertheless, it delivers many excellent goods at an affordable price, and people aren't terribly exploited in the process (IMO). (And, yes, once in while there's a typo, and once in a great while there's a more egregious editorial error.)

I just don't understand what the average reader's problem with publishers is. Authors who want to bypass publishing houses in the belief that they can make money on the Internet or by self-publishing should definitely go for it. I have no problem whatsoever with people trying different models.

I wish I'd seen this thread earlier. I too was in publishing -- Scribner etc. 1978 to 1994 -- and I blame the bean counters that started popping up in the mid-1980s. That was the start of when the bottom line mattered more than a book's contents.

To see how publishing was back when books were what mattered, read "The Time of Their Lives" by Al Silverman (he founded BOMC). I'd have loved to be in publishing back then. I'd never have survived those 3-martini lunches, but to be able to publish something just because you loved it…

debbie (and anyone else) if you would like to put fingers to keyboard to write about something like your experiences (in this case, your experiences in publishing) especially in response to a front page post, please let me know at libjpn at gmail.

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