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The Death of Traditional Publishing

Michael Levin, Guest Author

The publishing industry died last week (12/6/08). The economic meltdown was the meteorite that hit the dinosaur right in the forehead. The only surprise is that traditional publishing lasted this long.

The firings of industry leaders, mass layoffs at top publishers, and the decision of at least one other major publisher to cease accepting new book proposals for consideration, taken together, indicate the end of the influence of the major publishers.

Sure, they'll be there to push celebrity books onto a celebrity-besotted public, through non-traditional book outlets like Wal-Mart and your local supermarket. But the business that began with editors who loved books and published what they wanted is vanishing, a victim of its own inability to find a reason for being in the Internet and print-on-demand world.

The firings are an immediate result of the plunging economy, but the death of traditional publishing is really self-inflicted. Publishing became too big and too dumb to survive, a victim of its own arrogance and unfathomably foolish business practices. Let me explain.

Who Chose This Stuff?

Is there any other industry that chooses its newest offerings on the basis of the collective whim of a group of people (acquisitions editors) with practically no business experience? Is there any other industry that pushes out thousands of new products a year but offers marketing support to only a handful? Even the Big Three automakers, as dumb as they are, spend a billion dollars in test-marketing a new car before launching it in showrooms.

Not publishing.

Twenty years ago, publishers spoke of an 80-20 rule: 80 percent of the marketing dollars went to 20 percent of the books. Today, the rule is more like 90-10 or even 99-1. If Dr. Phil is publishing a new book in the same catalog as a first-time author, Dr. Phil will get all of the marketing dollars and the new author will get crumbs.

As a result, that new authors sales will be so poor that agents and publishers will make the (wrong-headed) decision that her work is forever unsaleable. And shell never get another deal as long as she lives.

When I go to the library or the bookstore and study the new offerings from the major publishers, I find myself asking these three questions over and over again: Why did they choose to publish this stuff? Who do they think will really want to buy this stuff? And what could they have rejected if this was the stuff they signed up?

After all, what are the major publishers giving us? Pretty much the same thing over and over again: political tracts that pander to the left or to the right (but offer much more heat than light). Diet and exercise books that rehash what every other diet and exercise book has ever said: eat less, move more.

Motivational books that shamelessly recycle Tony Robbins, Earl Nightingale, and Napoleon Hill, either with a religious spin or a make-more-money-now angle, or book, whose authors have lots of speaking engagements and nothing new to say.

The CEO of a major publishing chain once admitted that only 2 percent of the books in his stores actually sell; the rest are wallpaper. Who knew that major publishers are actually in the wallpaper business? They certainly don't act like they're in business at all, between the poor quality of material they publish and the laughably poor efforts they put into actually selling books.

ADD:  Agent Distraction Disorder

And then there are the literary agents, as a class the least business-minded and least-organized people in the entire business world. If they worked in any other industry, their habits of letting projects languish, slip through cracks, and fall by the wayside would get them fired. Not in publishing, the land without deadlines.

I honestly don't understand how most literary agents make a living. When it comes to staying on top of things, staying in touch with their clients, and managing the book proposals they order up, they are notoriously irresponsible. I hear over and over again, even from major celebrities who were solicited by top agents to become clients, I can't get my agent to return my phone call or e-mail.

What are the agents actually doing? Maybe if they did a better job of screening projects and actually getting proposals for marketable, fresh books to publishers, the publishers would have more to work with. Or maybe not.

I call the approach of most literary agents to their work ADD for Agent Distraction Disorder. I don't know what's distracting them from doing their basic job reading and critiquing proposals, and looking for deals. How most of them survive is a mystery to me.

Actually, it's about to be a mystery to them, too, because the future of royalty publishing is small advances or even no advances for all but a handful of books. Everything is moving toward a model where authors get a piece of the back end and not a generous upfront advance. Last time I checked, 15 percent of 0 equals 0. So unless agents get a whole lot more efficient, they'll be looking for work in other fields, just like the editors who are losing their jobs.

So whats the future? There will always be millions available for the Hillary Rodham Clintons and other political heavyweights seeking book deals. Why? Because if you're Sumner Redstone and you own Viacom, and you want to make a multi-million dollar donation to Senator Clinton, you can disguise it as an advance from your Simon & Schuster book division. And there will always be room for what even the publishing industry used to call non-book book stuff about cats, new diets, and new ways to find God without actually having to pray or do something for your fellow man.

The Future Is Now And It's All About You

So what's the future for the book industry? After a dozen years, the troglodytes who run the New York publishing empires never figured out a way to survive in the digital era. The relevancy of major publishers today can be compared with that of the traditional music industry (all but dead), FM radio (all but dead) or the three major TV networks (still breathing, but of increasing irrelevance in a 600 channels/D.I.Y. world). The major publishers will still be there, in a humbled, slimmed-down fashion, but they won't matter nearly as much as they once did.

The future of publishing is in your hands, and my hands, and in the hands of anyone with a few hundred bucks to self-publish with a print-on-demand company or even to put up an e-book on their own website. In other words, the future of publishing is as much about narrowcasting as is music and video. You're the writer and the publisher (and the marketer as well). You get to choose your audience, you get to write directly to them, and you no longer need grovel before literary agents and acquisitions editors at publishing houses whose jobs, quite frankly, are going away. Meet the new boss: it's you.

What do you with all that power? You sell like hell. You use the Internet 2.0, the social networking Internet, to come into contact with the specific audience your book seeks. You connect with them through Facebook, YouTube, GoogleAds, or whatever cool new thing gets released tomorrow. You put your ideas in your audiences hands, the same way new bands are putting their music into the ears of listeners worldwide, without the mediation of a jaded, over-commercialized publishing industry.

You get to say whatever you want to whomever you want and you get to speak your piece right now, without the traditional two-year period when your ideas languish while you beg and plead for an agent to pay you some attention, seek a publishing deal, and have your book hang in limbo until it finally, finally reaches its pub date.

Your pub date is the minute you finish the manuscript, give or take the weeks necessary to run it through a typesetter and digital printing company or whomever you choose, unless you just do the whole damned thing yourself, which is so easy that your 10-year-old can be your technical advisor, if you're too right-brained to RTFM.

It's exhilarating, it's fantastic, and it's here right now. Traditional publishing is dead, a victim of it's own self-importance. Writers of the world, step over the carcasses of the troglodytes. A new world awaits, and it's all about you.


Copyright © - Michael Levin. Michael Levin is a New York Times best selling author, and author of more than 60 books, He co-writes and ghostwrites nonfiction and fiction through his websites, and His most recent books are Making Jack Falcone with Joaquin Garcia (Touchstone) and Wheres My Fifteen Minutes? with Howard Bragman (Penguin/Portfolio).


  If you would like to talk one-on-one with Larry James about issues related to this article, you are invited to arrange for a private coaching session by telephone. Go to Author & Speaker Coaching for specific details and fees.

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