Baby, It’s Going to Be Cold Outside in Book Publishing

Esther Newberg, the co-chair of ICM’s literary division in Manhattan, said she expects to be more conservative in the projects she commits to.

“I’ll be very careful in what I’ll take on,” she said. “It’s a tougher time to sell new things. People will automatically go after those authors that they’re comfortable with.”

Ms. Golomb, too, said she fears tougher times ahead for the talented young nobodies whom she loves so much to bring out of obscurity.

“I think the bar probably gets raised,” she said, in between calls from breathless editors asking her about the novel she’s selling. “Things either have to be so ready to just go and so clearly on the page that no one has any qualms about what might happen in the editing process, or it has to be completely riveting and brilliant.”

According to Mr. Abate, though, it’s not Ms. Golomb who should worry, but less established agents who have not yet developed the sort of reputation that will move editors to return their calls.

“People like Susan are going to thrive in this market, because it’s not simply commercial books that work,” Mr. Abate said. “She’s established, people know her taste, she’s delivered time and again. That’s the type of person that a publisher is going to trust enough to put a big advance in. It’s the people who are on their way up who are going to face challenges.”

Could it be that the structural obsolescence everyone’s been crowing about for the past decade—defeat at the hands of digital media, Amazon.com, etc.—would have been less painful than this, or at least more world-historically meaningful? What lies ahead instead is a necessary scaling back of ambition: an age in which the gambling spirit that has kept book publishing exciting gives way to a shabby, predictable environment that cows its participants into avoiding all things adventurous and allowing only the proven few a seat at the table.

Will the survivors envy the dead?

No! says John Oakes, who was an executive editor at the independent boutique Atlas Books before financial troubles there led him to leave the company earlier this fall. Mr. Oakes is working with a university in Manhattan on establishing a new summer training program for college graduates seeking careers in the publishing industry. Two such programs, both six weeks long, currently exist—one at Columbia, the other at New York University—and though between the two of them they already send more than 200 young people onto the job market every year, Mr. Oakes is confident there are still more eager beavers out there in need of training.

“From what I’ve seen of their operations, they seem grand, and really wonderful setups with great histories and some important people,” Mr. Oakes said Monday, shortly before flying off to the Frankfurt Book Fair. “But I think that a good overview can be provided in less time for less money, and these days, from what I understand, people seem to be concerned about their time and their money.”

Mr. Oakes envisions an intensive, “nimble” course, with guest speakers who work in the industry providing lessons on every aspect of the business, from design, manufacturing and digital distribution, to marketing, royalties and contracts.

“Particularly in rough times, this makes more sense than ever,” Mr. Oakes said when asked whether the course he’s developing amounts to sending lambs to the slaughter. “Jobs are hard to get, absolutely, but what was wonderful about publishing is still wonderful about publishing, in that it’s a mysterious and wonderful art. Some of the smartest people still stream into publishing, so a course like this can maybe prepare them for what to expect. And there are some jobs out there, and maybe via a program like this they can meet people that will help them get those few jobs that are available.”

Mr. Oakes would not reveal what university will host the program because the plans are not yet finalized, but he said his idea has so far been met with enthusiasm.

“I’ve spoken to some potential participants, people who are in the industry, and the reaction has been uniformly warm,” he said. “Even people who won’t give me a job will come speak at my little institute.”

lneyfakh@observer.com