“Saving” the Publishing Industry

Today’s post I write in response to a recent article I came across in The Guardian entitled, “Ten ways to save the publishing industry.” In particular, it was suggestion #2 that arrested my attention:

2. Publish more selectively. In a recent open letter to Amazon customers touting Kindle Direct Publishing (through which authors sell their books directly to readers), founder Jeff Bezos claimed that the programme produced “a more diverse book culture” with “no expert gatekeepers saying, ‘Sorry but that will never work.'” Bezos evidently regards the function of publisher as obsolete. Publishers will flourish when they are seen as discriminating arbiters of their customers’ tastes. Limiting the number of books published will assist in emphasising this vital role of gate-keeper. Publishing successive books by the same author, or books grouped tightly by type or subject, will underscore the publisher’s authority as a curator.”

I was at first (and still am) in disagreement with the article’s writer, Colin Robinson, when it comes to the title — after all, in many respects the publishing industry is thriving, just not in most of the traditional ways or for many of the traditional players. However, when I came across this bit of advice, I found myself at once perplexed as well as impressed. Perplexed because aspects of this suggestion are ancient rather than innovative, such as “Limiting the number of books published will assist in….” Limiting the number of books published per year by celebrity authors or parts of bestselling series has been a longstanding practice of most major publishing houses. However, I was also impressed because I had never seen this practice linked before to publishers’ jobs to be “discriminating arbiters of their customers’ tastes.” This is what I trust publishing houses for in the first place; when I buy a book published by one of the Big Six, for example, I am expecting a certain level of writing and editing quality that I do not typically expect of independently published books. I had simply always assumed that their publishing calendars in these situations existed more to draw out as many possible dollars per book as possible rather than in attempt to be diligently attentive to their customers and their customers’ tastes.

**Please note that this is not to say that all or even most independently published books are of a poorer quality than books published through a traditional house; however, as a reader, I will say that the majority of my experiences with independently published books has not been as pleasant, challenging, or worth the money as have my experiences with books that went through professional presses.

At any rate, I could not agree more with Robinson’s suggestion that by being more discriminating, traditional publishers may begin to gain back the trust and respect of more readers. After all, when the vampire and then the zombie crazes began hitting mainstream publishing, I personally found it a real headache to have to wade through all of the knockoff plot lines and gimmicks being suddenly shoved in my face by both traditional and independent publishers/authors alike. Had traditional publishers perhaps been less willing to throw themselves under the bus of these young adult crazes, then perhaps I’d have spent more money on leisure books this year.

I’m not saying that I have to like every book that appears on a bookseller’s shelf or that all writing should be a certain way, but I do believe that all writing should be of a certain caliber regardless of genre or audience. And it has always been the job of editors and publishers to discern and promote this caliber. Don’t young adult readers deserve something original and well written to read? Don’t young women deserve a few heroines who aren’t consistently dependent upon a romantic plot line or obsessed with men who abuse them and call it love? Don’t high school students and middle school students deserve a few historical fictions more in the vein of Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels than Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Again, many of my own biases are coming to play here. I’m not saying that Grahame-Smith’s novel isn’t good or shouldn’t have been published, but I often wonder if it would have been published had it been written perhaps five years later or earlier. I simply mean to say that, given that authors are being constantly told and trained to look for trends in order to write books accordingly, shouldn’t publishers begin to rely more upon their training as talent scouts for talented and innovative writers with innovative stories? And, if they did return to such a focus, wouldn’t it make for a more diverse and exciting collection of books at our local bookstores? Wouldn’t it restore a bit of our faith and understanding of the purposes of traditional publishing houses?

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