Monday, March 02, 2009

Has EVERYBODY stopped reading?

Over the past several years many in the publishing industry have complained that the reason sales are down is that people are no longer reading. They are watching tv or on the internet or playing video games – everything but picking up a good book.

Now, though, it seems that even my publishing colleagues aren’t reading either.

It is true our business is going through a very challenging period. It is, however, still a business of ideas and words and in order to adequately judge whether those ideas, proposals and manuscripts that we agents submit will work, publishers and editors have to actually read them.

This last week a senior editor at a major publishing house received a proposal from us and rather than read it at all, she simply looked up other books in the category and decided that since they hadn’t sold, it wasn’t even worth reading one word of this author’s work. In another, rather shocking instance, a publisher of a very good house turned down material I had submitted saying that the fiction market was extremely difficult these days. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the note – the material I had submitted clearly stated that it was a memoir.

If we in the industry don’t read, then I fear our days are numbered. I say, let’s pay more attention to what we are doing and less to the businesses that are taking our customers away.



  1. This is a bit frightening, but I can assure you that some people are reading. Some very important people.

    My middle school students are devouring books. Books that would make the eyebrows of some parents touch their hairlines. Books that are real and honest, have language that doesn't talk down, and offer perspectives about issues that will soon be real. They are trading (but not abandoning) Stephanie Meyer for Lisa Bray, Jeff Kinney for John van de Ruit, Sharon Creech for Sarah Dessen. And these readers are running out of titles.

    So do not despair, the readers are still here, but they’re demanding. They want characters who aren’t afraid to get dirty. Characters who will help them push against the walls that confine their minds to the ordinary and predictable. Not true fantasy, but reality with a twist. And most of all, they want characters who speak and think as they do. They want characters who will give them voice.

    So the snow is falling, school has been called, and it’s time to roll up my sleeves. I’ve a character in solitary confinement (in-school suspension), and while scrounging around her attic for a book to help pass the time, has just discovered a mysterious key hidden in her grandmother’s wedding dress... I wonder where it goes?

  2. In the past two weeks I have purchased "Water For Elephants" by Sarah Gruen (delightful book I'm recommending to everyone), "The Choice" by Nicholas Sparks (couldn't stand it and stopped in the middle of Chapter 1 - but that's just me), and "The Reader" (loving it and will be done very soon). So some people are still reading. I do wonder if trips to the mall or book store are down due to the economy, and whether the library is seeing an upturn.

  3. I don’t know about people within the publishing industry, but on the reader side I’d say people are reading now more than ever. I can’t keep up with the demands of the 6th grade readers in my classroom and my personal library is threatening to take over my house. It seems like your publishing colleagues aren’t reading carefully . Maybe you need to bold key words like “memoir” in the same way that I bold or underline important directions on tests (like: answer in complete sentences ).

    I can't help with those already in the industry, but I'll keep working on my 11-year-olds so that someday (hopefully) you'll be working with a set of avid, careful readers.

  4. Ouch. In a sense, your experience is reminiscent of what we writers in search of an agent often come up against in our query wars. Agent responses at times make us wonder if they read the query. Sounds as if this malady isn't just endemic among agents. Here's hoping some sort of vacine is found to cure this virus.

  5. One of the things that shocked me when I started working for a university press was how little the books we published were actually read by anyone. The acquisition editors would check the title and the proposal and that was about it. Copyediting and the like was done out of house by freelancers. I decided that once I graduated I would look for work in trade publishing, because surely publishers of fiction read a little bit more of what they were selling in order to sell it!

    Maybe that's not so much the case. I know that workloads are very high for everyone, but I would hope that publishers are still paying -some- attention to the words they are selling, and not just the spreadsheets that are supposed to scry for them their profit and risk.

    All the more reason to go into publishing myself and do it my way, I suppose.

  6. I am constantly astounded by the number of Facebook updates about what my "friends" are watching on TV. Many of these people are writer/editor/agent people. I am not judging them for watching actually can be a very fun/useful/smart way to get away from words on a page, but I do wonder how they have time to watch ALL the TV they watch! I have a feeling it is at a cost to reading. It must be. You can't give up your work or your time with your family or it's your leisure time - your reading time.

  7. This might explain how Twilight got published.

  8. I'm a committed reader. I read two or three books each week. This past year, I've been reading old books that I've found in my library's stacks--mostly biography--because almost every new book I see is a copy of some other book that sold well two years ago.

    My impression is that editors are so obsessed with the idea of selling books to people who read one book a year that they have forgotten readers like me who read 150.

    Hint: I'm an intelligent older woman. I may be old, but I may well live another 30 years like my parents did and I'd be buying books (as they did) to the very end. Don't write me off so fast!

  9. This is the stuff of nightmares! I feel as the publishers are undermining themselves, as are the newspapers and magazines. I'm feeling abandoned!

    Meanwhile, I'm surrounded by avid readers, journalists and writers like myself--on Facebook, on Twitter, at Emerson College where I teach, at home, in my social circle. My network of contacts constantly talk online and in person about what they're reading now (and next). We all fret about what is to come of publishing. I really, really hope that this is temporary.