Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Publishing: Which Comes First, Art Or Business?

In a comment on my December 20 post, Jim Murdoch said:
The publishing industry is simply a business with a product to push. That the product is a book is academic. It could be widgets. 

I agree with Jim, but I know that not all writers do. The state of publishing today is a huge topic of discussion among writers. A major point of argument is the criteria publishers use to select books—which mainly goes to what you see as a publisher's primary goal. Here, in an admittedly oversimplified synopsis, are the two main positions:

1. Publishing is a business. Publishers primarily want to publish best-sellers. They need to make enough profit on the books they publish to keep their businesses financially lucrative. So they choose the books that they believe will be hot, that they think will sell and sell well. And they shape the books to be as marketable as possible.

2. Publishing is an art. Publishers primarily want to publish great books that readers will find thought-provoking, entertaining, and inspiring. So they choose the books that are the most original, smart, well-written, brilliant, gripping and memorable. And they work with the authors to revise and improve their manuscripts before the book is published.

Here's why this debate matters. If #1 is true and publishing is mainly a business, then the books selected by major publishers are those that have the most potential to make money—either because the author or topic is hot, or because the sales department can make them hot. This view holds that you can't judge the quality of one book vs. another by looking at which one was published by a traditional publisher.

If #2 is true and publishing is mainly an art, we must follow the thinking of the old guard. They believe publishers choose books based mainly on quality and that having a book selected for publication by a traditional publisher is an indicator of excellence. In support of that position, it is true that the big commercial publishers have brought us many great books that we love to read and re-read.

But these publishers have also brought us fake memoirs, plagiarism, books by non-writer criminals, mediocre books with predictable plots and tiresome characters, and plenty of other trash. So there is a lot of evidence supporting #1.

My personal experience also goes to #1. My nonfiction book, How To Deal With Your Parents When They Still Treat You Like A Child, was published by Berkley Books in 1992. As an academic gerontologist with a focus on communication, I saw a need for a popular book that dealt with the issues adults face in trying to get along better with their parents. I submitted a proposal and a couple of sample chapters to a NYC agent who began shopping it around to publishers. Initially there was interest and my agent suggested we might have an auction among several publishers. But then the sales departments began to weigh in, suggesting the book wouldn't sell well enough (no one ever told me why they thought that), so there was no auction. My agent continued showing the proposal to publishers until Berkley took it on. There too the sales department ruled, changing my original title and insisting I make the book longer than I thought it needed to be so that readers "would think they were getting their money's worth."

I have to admit that when my book was picked up by a NYC agent and publisher, I was a believer in #2. I felt honored that my book had been selected. I thought I would have one of those great relationships with an editor that I'm always reading about on books' acknowledgements pages. I was naïve. My first editor left the company almost as soon as I signed my contract. I had little contact with the next one. I've learned since that my experience wasn't unusual.

Today, as I've said, I'm in the publishing as business camp. I believe that having a book selected by a traditional publisher means only that they think it will sell. But I'm open to hearing evidence for the other side. What's your experience? Is publishing mostly a business pushing a product, or is it an art celebrating quality?

1 comment:

  1. Nothing is ever cut and dried. There will be publishers who fall into both camps but the major presses will all be under #1. That doesn't mean all the small presses are under #2. The thing about the major publishers is that they can, and sometimes do, take a chance on something new obviously hoping to capitalise on the novelty value (they can afford to absorb any loss); they can also speculate, which is something the small presses can't afford to do, accepting than an author might not start to make them money until several books down the line.The thing that I am starting to learn is that irrespective of the kind of publisher – unless that publisher is yourself – not a great deal is actually done to seriously market anything other than the top sellers. I find that very strange.I've had it suggested to me that going with a named publisher can almost be considered an act of vanity, like wearing a designer jumper when something out of Primark would keep you just as warm.