Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Truth About Publishing

From the horse's mouth, ie Daniel Menaker, ex Random House Senior Vice President and Executive Editor-in-Chief.

Some choice bits (which I know other blogs have quoted ):
Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public....

Financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not...

It's my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list -- "surprise" big hits with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet -- even sturdy vessels -- founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems. Because let's say you publish a flukey blockbuster about rhinoviruses in Renaissance Italy -- "The DaVinci Cold" -- one year: the corporation will see a spike in your profit and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. (The sequel to or second book after that blockbuster will usually command an advance so large as to dim a publisher's profit hopes for it.) This is close to clinically insane business behavior and breeds desperation rather than pride and confidence in the people who work for you. Cut it out, I say, or get out of the business!...

Many of the most important decisions made in publishing are made outside the author's and agent's specific knowledge. Let's say your house publishes a comparatively modest number of original hardcovers every year -- forty. Twelve on the etymologically amusing "spring" list -- January through April; twelve in the summer; sixteen in the economically more active fall. Well, meetings are held to determine which of those books your company is going to emphasize -- talk about most, spend the most money on, and so forth. These are the so-called lead titles for those seasons. Most of the time, the books for which the company has paid the highest advances will be the lead titles, regardless of their quality. In many cases, their quality is a cipher at this planning stage, because their manuscripts haven't been delivered or even written or even begun yet. But why should the literary quality of writing figure heavily into this prioritizing? It's not as if the millions of readers being prayed for are necessarily looking for challenging and truly enlightening reading experiences.
But read the whole thing if you haven't already. Thanks to my colleague Sam Thorp for nudging me about it.
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