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Is Publishing Dead?

February 25, 2001|MARIAN WOOD | Marian Wood is vice president of G.P. Putnam and publisher of Marian Wood Books. A veteran of many years in publishing, she has worked with numerous writers, including Sue Grafton, Hilary Mantel, John Lanchester, Linda Bierds and Daniel Woodrell

The problems we face in the publishing industry aren't new, though they are exacerbated by the way they are now converging. To understand where we have arrived, we have to go back more than 30 years, to the time when large corporations unconnected to publishing began to buy up established firms. With an influx of cash, New York publishers expanded, moving into expensive "uptown" rental space and, in passing, learning the corporate approach to the expense account. Overheads began to far outstrip profit margins, and the new owners discovered they might have better put their money into savings accounts. Curiously, it took them far longer than expected to move in on these balance sheets. But move they did, and by the 1970s, publishers soon found that the bottom line was not some hypothetical notion requiring only lip service.

It should have come as no surprise. Most of their new owners were, after all, publicly held corporations. But what may surprise some is that the immediate impact of the bottom line was not some ruthless hacking away at literature. The truly important effect was that this was the moment when management ceased to be drawn from editorial or even marketing ranks and publishing houses began to be headed by MBAs, men with little or no connection to, or knowledge of, the product or the customer, and when middle management ceased to be a bookkeeper and a contracts manager and became bloated with hundreds of financial officers all dutifully engaged in doing the numbers, their very existence on the payroll producing more overheads publishing could ill afford. But neither could publishing any longer ignore the imperatives of modern management.

Problems, then, of management, leadership and finance have been with us for quite a while, though perhaps not as prominently as today.

The solutions to these problems became problems in themselves. As balance sheets bled into red, more oversight managers were hired, thereby distancing management all the more from the "product" (books), the "producers" (writers) and the "market" (readers). "Funny" accounting practices (endemic to large corporations in America) were put in place: here, loss was gain, debts were assets and one runaway bestseller could bail out a fiscal year and even put bonuses in the pockets of management. Best-selling authors went from being writers a publisher had developed over the years to established writers who could simply be bought, given enough money, and by the '80s, checkbook publishing was a given. It ruined a lot of reputations as publishers pushed too many books into the stores in order to justify out-sized advances, then took astronomical returns. Mostly, the author paid the price when he was next shopped around by his agent. Damaged goods. Enter the celebrity book. Can't be damaged--it is usually only a one-shot. If it bombs, only the publisher suffers, but put enough out there and there were bound to be major successes. And with celebrity books, there are so many interconnected media reasons why it will very possibly hit that it seems to be market-tested, something those MBA managers understand. (Many a hit never earns out its spectacular advance; but then again, enter funny accounting and the land of the write-off.)

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