Books are products.
That’s not all they are, but it’s a pretty bloody important aspect, especially for those of us who are trying to make a living writing (or editing or selling) them.
Publishing is an industry. Part of what it’s about—and has always been about—is making money. For most of its history most of that money has been made by people other than writers.1 That’s still the case. Sure, some writers do just fine. As it happens—at this moment in time—I’m one of them. I don’t make a tonne of money, but I’m finally making more than I did as a research fellow.2
But the fact that my career’s toddling along okay (right now) is not why I read articles about “books as product” without blanching. That’s not why it doesn’t bother me to walk into a hall big enough for a city of dinosaurs that’s entirely full of books. I love books! I’m thrilled there are so many of them. And that there are so many people busily bringing them into existence.
Long before I sold so much as a haiku I was fascinated by the industry. By how it operates from the booksellers to the sales reps to the publicists to the editors and agents and writers right through to the execs at the top of the multi-media conglomerates that own most of the big publishing companies in the world. I’m fascinated by the economics of small presses and medium-sized presses too. I want to know everything there is to know. One of the coolest parts of going with Scott on his book tour was meeting so many sales reps and booksellers and media escorts and gossiping about the industry and learning new stuff I hadn’t known.3
I subscribe to Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch. I read a tonne of different publishing and bookish blogs by agents and editors and booksellers and librarians. Most of the conversations I have with fellow writers and with agents and editors and sales reps and other publishing types quickly turns into gossip about the industry. Who’s making the big deals? Which house is going after what kinds of books and why? Are the Twilight books the new Harry Potter?
I’m not saying I think publishing today is all roses. It’s not. But it never was. I spent more than a year of my life reading through the letters of Judith Merril and other science fiction writers of the 40s and 50s. Their struggles to make a living are very familiar.
Like Carole Cadwalladr I’m depressed by how few foreign-language titles are translated into English. By the books I think are hideously bad that do incredibly well4. But I remind myself that it was ever thus. The Pilgrim’s Progress is possibly the most boring book ever written. Twas a bestseller in its day. Crappy books have done well in the past; they’ll do well in the future. But there are always wonderful books flying off the shelves too.
There are more books being published than ever before. There are more readers than ever before. I think that’s fabulous.
I’d be depressed if we could no longer fill the halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair. If people weren’t excited about the latest books or by Doris Lessing winning the Nobel or by the latest crazy book deal.
I guess I’m a publishing geek.
- Most editors and publicists and sales reps and booksellers don’t make much either. Seriously if you go into any aspect of the publishing industry trying to make your fortune you’re delusional. [↩]
- Barely. And only as of this year. It could change. [↩]
- For instance I had no idea media escorts even existed. [↩]
- that dreadful YA I mentioned recently better flop! [↩]