The State of Traditional Publishing Houses

As I approached the end of my college education last year in May, I began to wonder what I would do after I’d left the safety of my school’s brick buildings.

Like all graduates in my generation, I had seen the financial collapse of 2008 and had been hearing the dismal job numbers for years. Reporters continually said that this was the worst time to be entering the job market as a new graduate. Needless to say, optimism was not easy to come by. But I set forth with my English degree, hoping to prove wrong all those people who stereotype English majors as “saddled with a useless diploma.” After speaking with a friend of mine, I’d decided that the best route to take was to enter the world of publishing. I had long since abandoned the dream of writing a best-seller of my own, but working in publishing would keep me close to books and the world of writers that I loved.

After some searching and some time in an internship, I was able to secure a job at a very small publishing house here in Chicago. From my vantage point within this publishing company, I began to see how the industry is changing and how traditional publishing is being put at risk.

Though there are internal factors specific to each publishing house that may threaten its existence, outside forces are the main cause for doubt and worry in book publishing. All you need in order to understand this is to pick up a copy of Publishers Weekly or take a stroll through your major bookstore. If you can find a major bookstore, that is. You may remember that Borders recently went out of business and independent bookstores are struggling in an economy where $.99 e-books are appealing. The emerging markets of self-published authors and e-books are hurdles that the traditional publishing house must learn to jump.

You may have recently seen someone reading (or you, yourself may be reading) the sudden blockbuster hit, 50 Shades of Grey. This book, while a testament to how sex-starved our population seems to be, is also an indicator of the self-publishing market’s power. When it first began, the self-publishing market was seen as rife with bad writing and wannabe authors. But thanks to the commercial success of E.L. James and Amanda Hocking, self-publishing is gaining some credibility. Though it gives more people a chance to fulfill their dreams of being writers, self-publishing threatens the traditional methods of book publishing. However, I think it says something that James needed to be picked up by a larger, more established publishing house  (Vintage)  before her book’s popularity erupted.

E-books are the second major development that is changing the publishing landscape, for good and for bad. On the side of good, e-books cost no money to store and can be sold more hassle-free than print books. However, if you’re a small, independent publisher, it can be extremely difficult to get your e-books noticed among the bestsellers of the big 6 publishers. This may seem like the same monumental task independent publishers faced in a print market, it seems like a larger mountain to climb when there are so many e-books out there.

So, is the traditional publishing house dead? Not so long as there are people who believe in the printed word and want to work for it. I believe that if they continue to be adaptable to the market, while remaining a credible name in books, traditional publishing houses will survive.

8 replies on “The State of Traditional Publishing Houses”

I’ve got possibly stupid questions, but whatever. Judge away.

1. With a book like 50 Shades –crap writing, but it’s already been self-published – what’s the protocol for professionally editing something like that? Obviously she didn’t have it edited professionally and obviously their are copies of that unedited book out there already. Does that matter? How far do pro-editors go in a situation like this?

2. Do you think it says something about the “snobbery” of the publishing world that books like 50 Shades of Grey or the Inheritance Cycle had to first self-publish? Or not really? (Genuinely asking.)

3. Why would you  “abandon… the dream of writing a best-seller of (your) own”? Was that tongue-in-cheek? Or are you serious?

Don’t be silly, no questions are stupid!

1. I’m not entirely sure how to answer this one, though, as I don’t work at a huuuuge publishing company, so we don’t really have to deal with blow-up books of this proportion. Generally, I think it’s all right for there to be unedited versions/editions of the book out there somewhere. When it was taken on by Vintage, I assume that it was professionally edited and then just registered as a new edition. As far as how far pro editors go in those situations, I think if the book is really, really bad, editors tend to confer with the author and find out how to make it the best product possible.

2. I think that it says the publishing industry is seen as difficult to penetrate, as it were. I know first-hand that it’s pretty difficult to penetrate even if you’re just trying to get a job within the industry. And, having seen slush piles now, I know it’s difficult to get your work actually recognized. But it’s really my belief that if you write something spectacular (or, I guess — in the case of 50 Shades — something sensationally popular with a core audience), you will get noticed. However, the idea of being a published author and writing a bestseller is very much romanticized and part of the perceived “snobbery” might just be the way the industry works. I’m not sure if I answered this well enough, but you can be the judge!

3. To be quite honest, I don’t know if I have it in me to write a bestselling novel. That’s just a mixture of stubbornness and a somewhat lazy work ethic. But that may change over time. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be inspired to write something and pitch it to a publisher in the next ten years. But right now? I know it’s not something I can do.

When you say “have it in you” are you referring to some perceived lack of ability to craft a story or to craft a well-written novel. Plot vs. prose, I guess. I ask because one of the things that strikes me each time I read “On Writing”, which I love, is King’s opinions on bad writers, good writers, great writers and who’s got the ability be which.

Honestly, I think it’s plot rather than prose. I feel that I can write pretty well, but when it comes to pacing and figuring out when stuff should happen, I’m just not that great. I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month for five years running and though I’ve made the 50k word mark each time, I’ve never actually finished any of the novels I’ve begun writing in that month. I can get to 50k words, but I can’t wrap up the story in that time, for some reason. So, yeah, it’s just a personal thing that I’m sure would get better with practice, but just hasn’t yet.

This is really interesting to me, as I work freelance for a publishing house in London which specializes in how-to books and manuals. I wonder sometimes if the horizontal expansion of publishing isn’t a good thing, in that it allows so many more potential great authors to get a foot in the door – but then we get the massive lack of quality control that is 50 Shades, and my theory collapses. Any thoughts?

I feel like you are going to have to deal with both. The good: More people get their book published. The bad: More people get their book published. I see this over and over again with getting art into the public eye. A site like Flickr is great because artists outside of the art photography world can get noticed. Sites like Flickr are horrible because any schmuck with a camera can post to them. This is kind of how it’s going to go. At the end of the day, I think cream can get buried under milk in both traditional and more horizontal systems, but I’m kind of inclined to like a more accessible approach to publishing.

I feel the same way as you do, basically. I want more people to be included, and I want more people to achieve their dream of being published authors. But there absolutely needs to be some form of quality control. Publishing houses needn’t be uppity  and exclusionary, but we do need some kind of gatekeeper for the written word. At least, that’s what I think when I see books like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ getting out there and doing things like outselling the paperback release of Harry Potter, which just broke my heart.

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