The State of Book Publishing Part I

Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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26 Responses

  1. Michael Cain says:

    I’ll withhold most of my comments pending Part II. One, though, seems relevant here.

    Pirating of non-fiction, particularly expensive textbooks, has come back with a vengeance. It started with technical journals, whose subscription and per-article prices were beyond the reach of both individual scholars and institutions in much of the world. Once that infrastructure was in place, it was easy enough to add books. American college students noticed quickly. Why pay $180 for that text when you can download the identical PDF for free? Why carry around 40 pounds of paper and a laptop computer all day when you can load the textbooks onto the computer? Once textbooks, genre fiction. You can’t download the latest Charlie Stross Laundry Files novel from Russia on release date. But you can within a few weeks.

    The channels for obtaining the source go beyond someone breaking the encryption on a purchased copy and uploading it. A friend of mine published a textbook. It was not released in any e-book format. When I found that it was available on the primary Russian pirate site, she did some investigating. What they had was a bit-perfect copy of the PDF file that was used to transmit the content from publisher (one of the university presses) to the printer. TTBOMK, no one has ever determined where along the line the file was stolen.

    Tongue only partly in cheek, you’ll know if and how quickly you’ve made it by when a copy of your book shows up on the Russian pirate site.Report

    • You make a fair point. Textbooks, while certainly part of traditional publishing, are kind of a separate thing from trade publishing (which is code for ‘the sort of book you find in a Barnes & Noble’). Pirating is much much less of an issue with trade books.Report

      • Library Genesis currently “carries” 13 of the 15 books on the NYTimes’ nonfiction hardcover best sellers list. The two not there (yet) are Kamala Harris’s and The Sopranos Sessions, both released on Jan 8 this year, two weeks ago. They have all of the Times’ top ten paperback nonfiction. I picked the first book that Amazon gave me for “baseball history” — Babicz and Zeiler’s National Pastime — and Libgen had it. A 7MB PDF that I downloaded that appears to be what would have been sent to the printer. I’d have to tear the PDF apart to check that — the usual giveaway is when licensed fonts are included. But the cover page illustration is at the kind of ridiculous resolution the printer would need.Report

        • Sure, you can get a pirated book if you want to. The question is how much does this affect legit sales? Is the typical consumer of pirated books someone who will reluctantly buy the book legitimately if that is the only option, or is it someone who was never going to pay good money for a book no matter what? I don’t have real data, but my suspicion is many more fall into the latter group than the former. Also, reading a book as a PDF sucks.Report

          • Yeah, I look at things through my own twisted lens. Most of the time I have a non-fiction book out, it’s research rather than just reading. PDFs are, IMO, much better for that — search, copy-and-paste, comments unconstrained by the size of the margin, etc. Better than epubs, too, since page numbers in the index map to something that’s easily found.

            Mostly I use Libgen as a library. I could run down to the University of Denver and use my alumni library privileges, but traffic’s a hassle and most of the books are warehoused and it takes two days to get them retrieved. Or I could request the books by inter-library loan, and it’s two weeks. Journal licenses are technically “students and faculty”, but DU bends the rule if I’m physically in the library on campus. Is the library market a thing these days?Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Unless someone’s dumb-ass publisher is having some sort of spat over digital works.

        Only books I’ve ever pirated (and I would prefer *not* to, as the pirated copies have really annoying errors in formatting) were by an author whose ebooks are available everywhere *but* the US.

        They’re older works, nostalgia kind of read thing, and they’ll occasionally pop up on Amazon for about two weeks before disappearing again, and the best I’ve come up with is there’s some back-end argument over who owns the American digital rights because they’re from the 80s. So Amazon keeps getting “put them up/take them down” legal orders….and no one actually wants to spend the money to go to court to settle it.Report

  2. Aaron David says:

    My father wrote a few textbooks, published by the standard textbook houses. But he was never satisfied with them, nor with his agent’s handling of it. So, he switched to having the university book store print up what he wanted, with less of the fluff/boilerplate that gets tacked on. He was much happier this way. They were cheaper for the students and he could tailor them for the classes he was teaching.

    I have more of this kind of thing, in boxes and on shelves, from other family members and what they have put together. Sometimes university presses, sometimes by the bookstore, like my fathers, sometimes by vanity presses. But what unites all of them is the labor of love that went into each piece. Which is not too different than what gets self-published now.

    At one time we had magazines, from Astounding to The New Yorker, that featured fiction. Allowing new authors to break into the market. As they matured they became more exclusive, featuring better authors to draw more sales. But they faced a different competitor, TV. Sales fell off.

    All of that is to say that people are creative and need an outlet. So they find one. People also like to be entertained and be informed. How those two needs find an equilibrium is always changing.Report

    • I touch on the pulp magazines in Part 2. They were replaced after World War II by mass market paperbacks. We SF readers tend to lose sight of this because the SF magazines were the survivors of the massacre of the pulps, and so we tend to get the chronology wrong. SF was only a small corner of the pulp fiction industry. How much of this correlation includes causation is less clear. We can certainly assign some of the blame to TV, but I don’t know how much.Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    From what I understand, the number of books needed to be a best-seller is radically lower than what was the number of albums needed to be a big hit. A gold-certified album meant 500,000 copies sold. A platinum-certified album meant 1,000,000 albums sold. A book selling in the low five figures (20,000-40,000) can count as a huge seller because most books sell around four figures or less.

    There is a big elephant in the room about what makes someone a reader and what doesn’t. One of the things that grits on me when discussed here before is that people read before there were alternative audio and visual entertainments from movies, radio, TV, and now video games. The more “neoliberal” people like to argue that it is hunky dory okay for people to prefer watching TV to reading books, it’s the market!

    One weird issue for me is that even our work ethic seems to think of reading for pleasure as a decadent activity. I’ve heard numerous people say “If I have the energy and concentration to read, I should be working/studying.” Or “I would love to read more novels but I just have too much work to do.” They can then freely talk about all the TV they watched the night before.

    But there is a weird cultural thing (and it might not be limited to Americans) where reading is something people feel like they should do but they really don’t like doing. This includes educated professionals whose success counted on them being able to read and comprehend written material.

    The question is why and how did we get here.

    Another fact is the “Life is too short for difficult books” thing that I brought up on Sunday.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      My guess is that the golden age of reading occurred because there were fewer options. I’m also not sure whether people ever really read difficult books or authors more. In his history of the 1920s, One Summer, Bill Bryson wrote that the really big popular authors of the Jazz Age are not the people we see as big today.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Likewise, you’ve probably never heard of any of the contemporary authors that Mark Twain was considered less important than.Report

        • Publisher’s Weekly has lists of the top selling books for each year going back to 1895. They make for a fascinating combination of a small number of perfectly familiar names, some who tickle in the back of the brain, and a bunch whom you have never heard of. The secret is that you have never heard of them for a good reason. There may be some forgotten gems in there, but they are under a lot of manure. Popular fiction generally doesn’t age well. The occasional spectacular exception should not blind us to this truth.

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

            Let’s look at 1895:

            Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush by Ian Maclaren
            Trilby by George du Maurier
            The Adventures of Captain Horn by Frank R. Stockton
            The Manxman by Hall Caine
            The Princess Aline by Richard Harding Davis
            The Days of Auld Lang Syne by Ian Maclaren
            The Master by Israel Zangwill
            The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
            Degeneration by Max Nordau
            My Lady Nobody by Maarten Maartens

            Trilby probably doesn’t ring a bell, but another character from this book, Svengali the evil hypnotist, might. Also George du Maurier was the grandfather of Daphne, best known as the author of Rebecca.

            Richard Harding Davis was better known as a war correspondent.

            Israel Zangwill was important in the Zionist movement. His play “The Melting Pot” popularized that metaphor for immigration.

            The Prisoner of Zenda is still read today, and still widely ripped off. (The plot is that the king of a small country vanishes, and his identical-looking cousin is prevailed upon to fill in for him.)

            Other than that, I draw a complete blank. (Maarten Maartens is a cool name, though. Like a Dutch Ford Madox Ford.)Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I read all the time and always have. Where I find it harder to get sold is on new books, particularly fiction. The major publishing houses seem to put out a lot of novels by young photogenic MFAs about young MFAs in New York who can’t find fulfillment or who find it through yoga and S&M or whatever I can’t say I find those books engaging, so I find myself reading mostly older novels, which I can get through the library. I don’t want to say that there’s more variety on Netflix or in the cinemas- I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie- but I have the impression that the supply chain for new writers isn’t what it used to be. Or, as Jim Harrison put it, it seems like what happened to the arts establishment happened in publishing.

      So, I should, by all accounts, be reading more self-published books. It’s just not so easy to hear about them.Report

      • Aaron David in reply to Rufus F. says:

        First of all, Jim Harrison was awesome. Second, I have noticed this also. And I read like you, anything and everything. I blame the MFA programs, for the “writers” who fail get jobs in publishing. And talk about a bubble. There are about four current writers that are really good, and most of the rest is just crap. Genre fiction is different but usually falls into the same pattern.

        Lately, much of what I have been reading is from the late Victorian era through WWII.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Aaron David says:

          I’ve never been a fan of the Victorians. I find them overwrought. The MFA problem is real but I’m not sure the solution is the current mania to keep all things “genre” or “YA okay.”Report

        • j r in reply to Aaron David says:

          There are about four current writers that are really good, and most of the rest is just crap.

          That is a pretty extreme statement. I can easily think of four contemporary writers of literary fiction whose work I love and there’s probably not much overlap in our lists. That suggests to me that there are plenty of good contemporary writers.

          The MFA/publishing industry problem and its obsession with upper-middle class angst is a thing, but it’s not the only thing.Report

          • Aaron David in reply to j r says:

            Out of curiosity, who? I am thinking of Murakami, McCarthy, Le Guin, and Houlebeque. So far I haven’t found a drop off in the quality of the writing of any of them, at least not to speak seriously about. The last few McEwan books I have read have not been up to snuff, there was a real drop off in Saturday and the next few. Ellroy’s latest is a real stinker and I have a feeling that foretells a poor future. I may be a little too harsh on Chabon, but I feel that he takes the easy way out in the same way Stephen King does. Colson Whitehead is someone I want to like, but I don’t think he pushes the envelope enough.

            I will admit to being out of the book business in a full-time sense for a good decade and might be missing a few of the newer authors. But my feeling is that while there are more than a few who could put together a good and beautiful sentance, they aren’t pushing. Either themselves or their readers.

            Also, I am thinking of fiction, so that might change the calculus a bit.Report

            • j r in reply to Aaron David says:

              I was just thinking of the last few “new” fiction works that I read and that gave me a non-exhaustive list of very good writers. Helen DeWitt just put out a book of short stories. It’s a little esoteric, but The Last Samurai might be my pick for the best novel so far of this century. I recently read The Underground Railroad, but I haven’t read anything else by Whitehead. Maybe his other work is underwhelming, but that book demonstrates that he can definitely write. The Sympathizer is a great book as is Marlon James A Brief History of Seven Killings. Paul Betty’s The Sellout is another great book and it’s funny and not McSweeney’s/Andy Borowitz “oh, I see why that’s witty” funny, but actual laughter funny. That list right there contains two Pulitzer winners and two Man Booker winners. So yeah, there are issues with literary fiction, but still many great writers working right now.

              From your list, I’ve only read Houllebecq. I’ve read everything before Submission, which frankly sounds like trolling to me, but he can definitely write and he definitely has interesting things to say.Report

              • Aaron David in reply to j r says:

                Firstly, I always look for new writers, and you have given me plenty. So, thank you. Secondly, Go, Go And Read Murakami! I led a book club here at the OT on his breakthrough Norweigan Wood, of which I consider some of my best writing. A Brief History Of Seven Killing looks good, so I will start there, as soon as I finish the latest from Murakami.Report

            • If by “Le Guin” you mean Ursula Le Guin, she isn’t current, as of a year ago.Report

      • I discuss self-publishing in part 2. Spoiler: I don’t think they are for you.

        As for current trends in traditionally published fiction, what you are describing seems to be bad literary fiction, of which there is an over-abundance. In fairness, there always has been. It’s just that looking back, time has conveniently separated the wheat from the chaff for us.

        I traditionally also read a lot of SF. It seemed to me back in the ’80s and ’90s that the field was getting sclerotic, and I was losing interest. Maybe it is just me, but I have been seeing a lot more interesting stuff over the past decade. Look at the list of Hugo winning novels for the past ten years and you will find that straight white guys are in the minority. I just finished The Three Body Problem, which won the 2015 award, in translation from the original Chinese. The next three years running were won by N. K. Jemisin, who is as far from being a straight white guy as is possible, and is terrific.Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    Isn’t it the law that you have to mention Thor Power Tools?Report

  5. I really enjoyed this perspective. I first became aware of the process involved in books, and the self-publishing v traditional publishing when I did read throughs and edits for my uncle who is a writer. He really debated, and for him settled on self-publishing. It worked out in his instance where he has since had opportunity to write two more books with a publisher because of the decision he made. But to the point, his reasons for going and succeeding with a historical fiction book line up with your reasoning for traditional publishing and how “niches” like baseball rules need avenue to that specific interest group. Looking forward to part II.Report

  6. Oscar Gordon says:

    I’ve been finding that fiction, much like TV& movies, is suffering from formulaic glut. Too many stories follow too many familiar tropes in painfully obvious ways, such that I get quickly bored because I know where everything is going long before it gets there. Finding authors that can keep me guessing is a challenge.

    BTW, Three Body Problem, how is the translation?Report