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from London who was recently brought over by the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and charged with signing up new, unpublished talent, has acquired the rights to a collection of short stories by David Means, whose debut collection she published when first starting her career in the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.”
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.”