The Book Business: Looking Ahead

About 15 years ago, a Canadian friend, an expert in the field of advanced technologies, advised me to get out of the magazine business. “In 15 years,” he said, “no one will be reading magazines and newspapers. Everything they want to know will be available online.”

I understood what he meant, and in a sense, he was right. Everything I want to know is available online. But new magazines appear every day or at least every month. And newspapers soldier on, albeit often without a far-flung network of reporters, or dignified book sections, or an enlightened curiosity about community power structures or the reaches of personal privacy. As for book publishing, it, too, is being reshaped by new technologies, which seem mostly to endanger the continued employment of aging editors and other book people well trained in the “old ways” but not so handy with word processors and the like.

I do think that by 2025 a number of events will have occurred, at least a few of them likely to change the business of book publishing in ways that can’t easily be reversed.

1. The publication of fiction (both novels and short stories) by new and not-yet-hugely-popular writers will continue to drift toward “small” and university presses, where such books will be offered mainly in paperback—with almost no advertising or promotional budgets and little reviewing—and allowed, frankly, either to sink or swim. Advances for these books will be small, with royalties paid, ever more frequently, for actual sales rather than for hopeful projections. As a consequence, books from Algonquin, Chronicle Books, Steerforth and others, because they will be more and more associated with emerging young talent, will tend to be taken more seriously.

2. At the same time, mainstream publishing houses will hire a swarm of smart, well-read, highly sophisticated young editors who will pay staggering sums for stylish, sensitive, self-revealing works of fiction that will be widely admired for their cleverness or audacity but will have substantial sales only in Denmark and Thailand. After a few years, those smart young editors will be replaced, often by their assistants, and will go to graduate school, get married and/or set sail on a 36-foot sloop for a dream visit to the Trobriand Islands.

3. As more and more publishers are taken over by conglomerates, the profitability of these publishing operations will more and more come under the scrutiny of financial officers looking for quarterly results rather than long-term prospects. Publishers who don’t show consistent returns from investments will find them selves managed more and more by corporation officers eager to market products of proven value, i.e., books by writers with a known audience or with subjects known to be in demand.

This will work against authors with no or specialized audiences and against books with apparently limited market appeal. On the other hand, even cautious publishers periodically discover unimagined sales strength in books they produce with little fanfare and modest expectations. The guessing game will continue, though editors who guess wrong will find themselves looking for new jobs, and actual editing, as opposed to packaging or assessing public temperature, will not be very high on the list of job prerequisites.

4. Someone will send to Viking Press a longish novel manuscript entitled “It Ain’t Rocket Science.” The book will have much to say about German V-2 rockets sent to dishearten Londoners and others during World War II, and it will include an early chapter devoted largely to the contents of a toilet bowl. A recent college graduate, hired by Viking to screen unsolicited book manuscripts, will judge the novel erratic in its focus, too demanding in its use of scientific detail and sometimes uncomfortably frank in its view of bodily discharge. The book has possibilities, he will write, but only if its focus can be tightened and clarified, its language made more accessible, and that toilet bowl expunged. Long after the book has been returned to its author, the slush-pile reader will discover he has rejected “Gravity’s Rainbow,” a novel published by Viking 40 years earlier and regarded by some critics as one among the two or three most distinguished novels written by an American in the second half of the 20th century. The slush-pile reader will move to Wall Street and become a prosperous commodities broker.

5. Agents and editors will further institutionalize the slow reading of manuscripts. One prominent book editor will be publicly censored for a continued pattern of prompt response to book submissions and will be asked by her colleagues to wait at least three months before dipping into the opening chapter of a novel written by anyone other than one of her classmates at Sarah Lawrence. A special commendation will be awarded to editors who misplace at least one out of 25 book manuscripts, thus preserving the industry standard. Still another editor will be honored for postponing a final book decision for seven years, breaking silence only in response to a court order initiated by the now deceased author’s literary executor.

6. At hundreds, perhaps thousands, of writers conferences across the nation, would-be authors will come in search of the mysterious secrets that will catapult them into the ranks of published authors. Advice will not be in short supply—ranging from “Listen to your inner Emily Dickinson” to “Write really well” to “Don’t forget to enclose the SASE.’’ Visiting writers will come with tales of patience and persistence followed by celebration and a lot of time spent in bookstores talking to audiences of 12. Some writers will modestly admit to successes that relieve them, permanently, from having to worry about mortgage payments or college tuition for their children. Their secret? The answers vary, and most make sense, but hard work, patience, commitment and intelligence will get you only so far. At some point, writing is like jump-shooting. You’re either a craftsperson, or you’re not.

Even so, conferees will get a lot of inspiring talk. In the tradition of est, they will learn that success is a state of mind and that getting published is a matter of determination. They will come away from these conferences in a better frame of mind, though not necessarily as better writers. At the very least, they’ll have learned not to single-space manuscripts or send abusive cover letters. If they Ye lucky, they will have learned a bit about why their manuscripts have not been welcomed so far and what, broadly speaking, they can do about it. Underneath this surfeit of advice, mostly well intentioned but often too general to be useful, is the unspoken premise of these conferences: meet actual editors, agents and published authors. See them in their ordinariness. Consider what they can tell you about the decisions they make and how they make them.

7. As trade books are used more and more in university and college classes, more and more thought will be given to study guides and other materials meant to complement stories, novels and many works of nonfiction. Publishers once offered this material in separate brochures or pamphlets but, now, often bind them in with the basic text. The competition is fierce where course adoptions are concerned, and my guess is that publishers will find imaginative ways to support teachers who wish to use conventional trade books for classroom purposes.

8. Perhaps most important, books will continue to be valued and read at least for the foreseeable future. More will first appear in paperback than has been the case, as production costs make hard cover publishing expensive and new tax laws shorten the shelf life of books that don’t sell. Many books, some of them worthy, will be reviewed badly or not at all. This will seem conspiratorial to the authors of these books, but the realities of the reviewing business (too many books, too little reviewing space, too few dependable reviewers) will guarantee that outcome. Fiction and poetry contests will multiply, not least because many sponsors (literary magazines in particular) have found that “reading fees” provide a major revenue stream. As these contests multiply, each will have correspondingly less importance, but the costs are minimal to those submitting entries, and their hopes are unflagging.

“My life is an open book,” someone once said (probably Donald Trump). That may not be the way to go, but better an open book, even if a paperback, than no book at all.

About the Author

C. Michael Curtis

C. Michael Curtis edits fiction for The Atlantic Monthly, for whom he has worked since 1963. He is the editor of six anthologies of short fiction—”American Stories: Fiction from The Atlantic Monthly, Volume I and II,” “Contemporary New England Stories,” “Contemporary West Coast Stories,” “God: Stories,” and “Faith: Stories”—and his essays, poetry, reporting and reviews have appeared in The New Republic, The National Review and many other periodicals.

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