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

A frost is coming to publishing. And while the much ballyhooed death of the industry this is not, the ecosystem to which our book makers are accustomed is about to be unmistakably disrupted. At hand is the twilight of an era most did not expect to miss, but will.

For now, the stifling timidity many editors and agents are predicting appears not to have taken hold. The Penguin Press just acquired a book about the history of American counterfeiters written by a recent college graduate who works at Lapham’s Quarterly. Literary agent Susan Golomb, who introduced Jonathan Franzen and Marisha Pessl to the world, is out with a manuscript for a novel by first-time author Tom Rachman, and interest from editors has been so energetic that she had trouble keeping up with the preempt offers. Mitzi Angel, the 34-year-old editor from London who was recently brought over by the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and charged with signing up new, unpublished talent, has acquired the rights to a collection of short stories by David Means, whose debut collection she published when first starting her career in the U.K.

Soon, though, people may find themselves compelled to be more wary. Only the most established agents will be able to convince publishers to take a chance on an unknown novelist or a historian whose chosen topic does not have the backing of a news peg. The swollen advances that have come to represent all that is reckless and sinful about the way the business is run will grow, not shrink. Authors without “platforms” will have a more difficult time finding agents willing to represent them. The biggest publishing house in the world, meanwhile, will be overhauled by a 40-year-old man who worked in printing until he was appointed to his post as CEO of Random House Inc. last spring.

“Think of it like a supply chain,” said one publishing executive who would not speak for attribution. “If the newspapers have fewer ads, they’re running fewer book reviews, so therefore, for those books that don’t have a pre-established audience, there are fewer opportunities to appeal to the consumer. Therefore, there are fewer of those consumers going into the bookstore. The bookstore recognizes this, and they tell you your mid-list books aren’t doing shit, so they’re not gonna order them, or they’re just gonna order 100 copies. They can cut off those books, and then the publisher is faced with a tough decision—how am I gonna buy those books that I know I can only ship 100 copies of? What am I gonna do? Am I gonna keep doing it? Or am I gonna spend more [money] chasing established authors?”

Endeavor Talent Agency’s Richard Abate, who has in recent months done deals for Tina Fey, Heroes creator Tim Kring and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, called this the “tent-pole effect.” Skittish publishers, he said, will flock to books by well-established cultural figures—celebrities, athletes, etc.—which they feel they can count on to achieve blockbuster status just as those books are becoming more in-demand and harder to reel in. Publishers feel vulnerable unless they have at least one such title in their arsenal every season, and as a result they will offer more outlandish sums of money for them than ever.

Mid-list projects, Mr. Abate said, the kind of books that have traditionally attracted advances in the $50,000 range, will suffer as a result: For little-known literary authors and journalists, “the advances are going to be lower and it will be that much harder to sell them.” 

In fact, he said, these books “might not even get bought. We’ll see how it shakes out, but my guess is we’re going to have fewer purchases, smaller lists, more focused lists, and it’s going to get tougher for all those books.”

Some of those books might end up going to the university presses, many of which have teams devoted to producing trade titles meant for audiences outside of the academy.

“If the advance levels come down, then we’re pretty much back in the game,” said David McBride, an editor at Oxford University Press who acquires academic and trade books on politics and sociology. “There’s a level of high-profile author that we’re simply not going to get anyway, but for some mid-level people who I think are really good who may have been signed up by, oh, I don’t know, Random House or Simon & Schuster two or three years ago, we might be better situated now.”