February 03, 2009


Dagger DiGorro

Big advances are not the impediment to publishing quality fiction. The impediments are: 1. Low demand, 2. A marketplace in which giant, cartel-like retailers dominate 3. High overhead/plant costs associated with book manufacturing. Soft Skull, Europa, and their counterparts and not immune to any of these. Of course they don't compete with the corporate giants for high advances - it doesn't even enter their calculations, or the calculations of the agents who submit works to them. A publisher may easily lose a fortune - and small houses are terribly susceptible to this - on a book (if it produces a lot of them and sells few) for which they pay no advance at all.

The other day I went to Alibris to purchase an out-of-print title that by quality standards ought never to have gone out of print. The Alibis copy cost over $200, so I exercised the only other option I had: I went to the main brach of the New York Public Library, requested copy from the stacks, and, after about 5 minutes at the copy machine, left with a perfect xerox copy of the book. It cost me about $15.

My question, though, is: why should any quality book be unavailable right now? Of course, Harry Mulisch and De Bezige Bij got gipped out of a royalty, but l'll make it up to them somehow. In fact, had I bought the book new, say as a $14 paperback, he would most likely make a $1 royalty off me, and Harry himself, as the beneficiary of a 75/25 split, would receive .$75. lf we add on the publisher's costs, which in this case would only entail only the royalty, costs of scanning (which I accomplished in 5 minutes with crappy public equipment), and making the digital version available on the internet (in a new title there would be editorial, typesetting, and translation costs, but none of these should adhere to the reissue of an out of print book), it would seem that the publisher could make a healthy profit by selling this title digitally for $4 or $5. (For a print edition there is no way that they could make a profit - at a $14 retail price - unless they sold a few thousand copies.) In my ideal ideal world this would be so.

Also, though Grossman's examples seem to equate quality with commercial success, it is true that works of undeniable merit are excluded from the marketplace for commercial reasons.

This is all to say that Old Publishing is in fact currently doing much less to vindicate your definition of "quality" as Grossman's.

Daniel E. Pritchard

Grossman also ignores the fact that publishing is doing no worse that just about every other industry in America, and far better than many.

I'm not sold on digital reading in the immediate future, not completely — not while used books are $2/per and libraries provide free books, but an digital device costs $200. Reading becomes no easier or more attractive to the majority of consumers just because it is suddenly in digital form. If it were, PDFs would have overturned publishing already. There's no real incentive for a culture-wide shift, at least not soon; and even when it comes, what about children's books and art books? The physicality and the printing are half the point.

Lit Media Reviews

I wonder if that Chinese curse was to do with 'written times' and those vital talks on, 'saving planet earth'. Recycle, recycle, recycle.

Digitally speaking, that is.

Dagger DiGorro

I think even the staunchest defenders of print ought to concede that, in the year 2009, for the publishing industry to have developed no significant electronic market for their products places them somewhere in the strata beyond lame where only GM execs reside.

It's just a good thing they excel in their role as "cultural gatekeepers."


For quality literary fiction that sells in low volume, print-on-demand paperbacks present a viable option. The quality of POD is very good and if you go with the right vendor(Lightning Source - owned by Ingram book distributors) then the per-print cost to the publisher is very low.

Everyone is talking about digital alternatives but I suspect most readers of literary fiction would prefer to have a printed book in hand. As a book designer I can confirm that the quality of POD paperbacks for a text-only book such as a novel is more than acceptable. And, of course, POD-produced books never go out-of-print.

Vince Montague

The notion of large house publishers as gate-keepers is not exact; big publishers are part of corporate entities. Their goal is profit. The books they decide to publish are geared towards the bottom line.

That's a big difference from say twenty to thirty years ago where there were publishing houses like FSG, or bigger houses that owned smaller imprints, where these companies were known for publishing the best - especially in terms of literary fiction. I don't think you can say that now about Knopf.

Gate-keepers are essential to a reader; like a library, they choose and edit book selections; that alone is a huge help to a reader. However, their choices, and the reasons behind their choices, are different today. Publishing houses are more like movie studios; they publish books motivated by what they believe(via marketing and advertising group-think) the readers want. They don't necessarily publish the best.

Doug Seibold

Great post. There was a lot I liked about Grossman's piece and a lot I found lacking, and you've neatly unpacked the latter here. Thanks.

Dave at Read Street

Mark, as you noted, the essay would have been more accurate if it described publishing houses as gatekeepers of commercially viable books rather than great writing. For a preview of publishing's future, look no further than newspapers -- or newsweeklies such as Time. Their audience and revenue streams have been carved up by sites ranging from Huffington Post to Craigslist, so they're scrambling to redefine themselves. "Quality" becomes an almost irrelevant term in the new world, where everyone has a personal itch and can easily acquire digital information to scratch it.

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