Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Miriam Goderich on the supposed death of publishing

The reports of publishing’s death are greatly exaggerated (to paraphrase Mark Twain who would undoubtedly have had something snarky to say about all the premature wakes for the industry). Those of us who have to read all the blogs and publishing articles and who have made business gossip into an art form have been nattering on about how bad things are for sometime now. Empirical evidence supports the hearsay, of course. There have been a lot of layoffs by the big trade houses in response to losses on the balance sheets, and the worldwide recession, the fact that no one has quite figured out the role of e-books, and the struggles of the print media in general would lead one to believe that the patient is gasping his last breaths.

But, I think that’s a limited and needlessly dark view to take about a business that’s been around since Gutenberg rolled out his printing press at the 1439 Frankfurt Book Fair. At the risk of sounding hopelessly Candide-like, my feeling is that having survived plagues, revolutions, world wars, and the publication of Moby Dick, publishing should be able to survive the current economic downturn as well. I can’t imagine a world without books and I bet you can’t either.

To some extent books have always been a luxury. In the U.S., illiteracy rates are shockingly high and even among the general population of literate citizens only a small group actually read books much less buy them. So, in fact, our business has always had outsize cultural influence despite the relatively small market that buys its product. That’s a good thing. Because, while we always hope that market will continue to grow, we publishing types know that art and ideas will still need to be disseminated in order for societies to progress. The form may be different – maybe you’ll be carrying around a Kindle or one of its cousins or maybe you’ll be reading your “book” on a computer or television screen -- but you’ll still need the publishing process to weed out the chaff and point you to what you should be reading, or might want to read because everyone is talking about it, or have to read because it provides information distilled in such a way as to make sense of the nonsensical, or really, really have to read because it’s the most fun you can have without leaving your seat.

In the first three months of the year, our agency has sold about 25 books, a few of those for pretty hefty advances, and even as those sales were going through, we were hearing that last rites had been administered to the dying publishing business. I think that like the Sicilian widow in Moonstruck, publishing will soon (well, as soon as they figure out how to mend their broken business models) get up off the death bed and start cooking again.

But I’m sure a lot of people disagree…


  1. Bravo! Thank you for the ray of sunshine amidst the dreary pundits.

    It is great to hear of your agency's success. If it helps prove your point we are proud to say that our agency has also sold more than 20 books since the beginning of the year despite the prognosticators.

    Ultimately is it always about the content. Great books, great writing, and great ideas should (and will) always prevail.

    Steve Laube
    The Steve Laube Agency

  2. Good news is contagious. Keep it coming!

    Confucius says; war not determine who is right, war determine who is left.

  3. Yay! Thanks for the hopeful post.

  4. I don't generally trust people who preach the sudden and inevitable end of an entire industry. Industries may evolve, but they are rarely wiped out so quickly.

    I do trust sales records. Sort of an "actions speak louder than words" scenario.

  5. I kind of suspected that readers were a distinct minority, but it's nice to hear it confirmed by someone on the inside.

    What I would really like are some numbers, number of new books printed each year, total number of books, stuff like that.

    And what was the problem with publishing Moby Dick? Or was that just a figment?

  6. The death of publishing is like the death of a vampire. You can stake it, cut its head off, dump it in a vat of holy water, and set it out in Alaska for 84 days of sunshine ... and the damn thing will still rise from the grave for yet another sequel.

  7. It's not going anywhere. Once they get themselves situated with the rapidly changing technology, i.e. ereaders, ipods, etc. they'll be fine.

  8. I think publishing shouldn't die because it's an important part of the society, I think it's the way to awareness people, it's like a information source, avoiding publishing is like cutting the the wings to a bird.m10m

  9. Wonderful post. This is most inspiring post. I love to read such kind of material. Blogger did a great job here.

  10. The person that owns the information. it has the power. It is pretty impressive how information can influence people.