Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Andrew Sullivan and the "Death" of Publishing

Journalist Andrew Sullivan has one of the biggest and best blogs out there on the Internet, and I am constantly amazed by his ability to write so eloquently and instantaneously about the issues of the day. He's a pioneer of the form, one of our brightest intellectuals, and someone I admire a great deal.

And the other day, he wrote, "If any industry deserves to go under, it's the publishing industry."

Huh. And here I thought the whole "fake hedge funds that are actually a Ponzi scheme" industry was first in line.

The quote in question that spurred Sullivan's salvo was from Kassia Krozser's rundown of the SXSW "future of publishing panel," and she came away unimpressed by the responses from the publishing professionals. But even Krozser, although she is frustrated with the way DRM is often currently employed (UPDATE: see comments section for more), acknowledges in the article that there are publishers trying new things. And while she certainly often posts of frustration with the industry's glacial adoption of new technology, I wouldn't characterize her as overly pessimistic about the business. She just wasn't impressed with the particular panel.

Sullivan subsequently allowed a dissent from someone in the business who thinks we aren't so horrible after all, then published a rejoinder from someone who is in publishing and thinks that even if we don't deserve to die per se, we are at the very least in the process of committing suicide.

I bring all of this up because it's merely a high-profile example of an extremely common sentiment: glee at the supposed impending demise of the publishing business. Some people can hardly wait to stomp on our graves.

People have some resentments toward the industry for a variety of reasons. Maybe, like Andrew Sullivan, they had a publishing experience they found unsatisfactory.

But Schadenfreude, while perhaps fun, isn't particularly constructive. Couldn't we at least have a dialogue about what needs changing and some good suggestions for ways of changing it?

There are definitely problems with the business. Bookstores are struggling, imprints are closing, bottom lines aren't looking great, and I'm particularly concerned that the industry is thinking far too short term with the current retrenching around established authors and celebrities at the expense of growing authors over the long term and investing in new voices.

But the industry is not stupid. Like any massive industry that is comprised of tens of thousands of individuals, it is a human institution with some institutional problems and weaknesses. But despite a reading public whose appetite for books is not growing at a particularly fast rate, despite tremendous competition from other media, we're still here, and we're doing way better than a lot of industries, including ones comprised of supposed geniuses and masters of the universe.

We're currently undergoing a massive transformation to keep up with the times. There are people all over the industry trying new models, whether it's Vanguard's no-advance model, HarperStudio's limited-advance model, Jon Karp's book a month model, or, you know, blogging and Twittering publishers and agents. Books will always be around, and so will the industry.

Sullivan is considering self-publishing a book based on his popular View From Your Window series of posts. I think it's a terrific, terrific idea. He has the the time, the marketing platform, and the resources to do this and make it a success. He probably doesn't need a traditional publisher.

Now it's just a matter of getting the book to readers. Maybe he's content to sell strictly through his blog, but his sales would be limited. To go through online vendors he'll have to deal with online booksellers, yes, part of the publishing industry. To get into bookstores he'd need a distribution deal, which would be best handled by an agent with experience handling those types of deals -- my e-mail address is on the right side of the page, Andrew.

We can only hope the publishing industry doesn't die before Sullivan's book is published.


Jen P said...

Regards the search for better collaboration, improving understanding and improving the publishing to market supply chain: in a recent article in The Guardian, Michael Holroyd talked about a meeting towards the end of last year of writers and Waterstone's staff at the UK's London Piccadilly branch, organised by the Society of Authors. (

“Deborah Moggach asked a question or two and learned that literary fiction was not on the whole welcome in the shop. In fact, the word "literary" is death to sales.”

There may be changes in reading tastes, in publishing methods and distribution, but books will go on. What seems strange to me, i sthe internal conflict one hears and experiences within publishing houses, and between authors, amazon, google, book buyers and sellers, through to supermarkets and indie bookshops. Everyone involved in the chain must learn to cooperate and work better to ensure its survival. It's not all about competition. Long live publishing. And long live literary!

Margaret Yang said...

If Sullivan wants to self-publish, doesn't that make him the publisher, and therefore part of the problem?

other lisa said...

Oh, I thought I was going to be first.

Oh well. Let me be first to say "Great rant!"

Justus M. Bowman said...

'...which would be best handled by an agent with experience handling those types of deals -- my e-mail address is on the right side of the page...'

Do you know how many bloggers want to hear those words, Nathan? Ha ha.

Michael Pickett said...

I want to say that I agree with your point about publishers investing everything in big name writers. And I'd like to use a baseball analogy (since baseball season can't come too soon) to show how that business model is flawed. The reason I hate the Yankees is because they go out every year and buy up all of the free agent talent on the market. These are the big names that almost everyone knows, whether you follow baseball or not. They've been doing it for years and they continued it this off season. And what has it gotten them lately? A dysfunctional team and no championships in almost a decade. Then, look at teams like the Oakland Athletics. They can't buy anybody. Instead they develop players from the minors who come to the majors and play as a team. They may not win championships either, but they always have a quality team and they haven't wasted so much money (and then expect the fan to fit the bill by building a new stadium where the nosebleed seats cost $100). Sorry, I meant for this comment to be a lot shorter, but as I new writer who wants to make a living as a writer while not selling out, I get kind of frustrated sometimes.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I had no idea there was so much negative feelings for the publishing biz.

Lady Glamis said...

Wow, Nathan, I sure hope Andrew emails you when the publishing industry kicks the bucket. He does have a great blog and is a great intellectual!

Tara Maya said...

I think a lot of people gleeful at the idea of the death of publishing haven't given thought to what will replace it. I know a lot of unpublished authors think that publishing houses, editors and agents are all that stand in their way of becoming best-selling authors. But obviously not every author who thinks that is going to be best-selling.

I do think the industry will be transformed, as newspapers will be, by the new media. The need for stories, and for someone to vet and brand the stories, is not going to change. In fact, I suspect as it becomes easier for anyone to set up their own publishing house, branding will become more important than ever. How many readers are willing to slog through the slush pile on their own?

One thing I would like to see is more room on the bottom and in the middle for niche books, which will not be bestsellers, but can still find a small, happy audience.

Flemmily said...

Meh. That's fine. He can go publish himself. I'll just finish writing my novel and move on to querying.

(And there will always be people willing to query.)

abc said...

You know, Andrew Sullivan can be a bit of an egotistical asshole. I'm just saying. He's a talented writer and smart guy, for sure, but he's sometimes just an asshole, too.

Mira said...

I think there are two issues here. One is the 'death' of an industry.

Industry evolution is pretty normal. The current way dies and a new way emerges.

Hopefully, it's a better way.

But I think there's a second point on the table - a lack of compassion for the people involved when an industry has immense growing pains.

I'm not sure Schadenfreude is exactly the right term. I think people may feel vindicated. The system as it is has been exclusive and oppressive to many.

But to forget that there are people involved - people who are not the industry itself, but work within the industry with integrity and intelligence - to forget that is unfair and heartless.

It also imagines enemies where there could be friends.

I would guess that most who work in the publishing industry are aware of the problems and would like to improve things. I had to work for weeks at my job just to get them to fix a toilet. Most of us don't make the actual decisions.

If a new paradigm is emerging, it seems like dismissing all the talent currently in play is extremely short-sighted and....well, exclusive and oppressive, now that I think about it.

RW said...

Whenever people talk about an industry, they often are using that word as a shorthand for certain sector--let's say the top half dozen traditional publishers in this case. But traditional publishing doesn't equal publishing. The top firms among them don't equal publishing. And none of it equals books. If people are reading, (and that's a big if) then there necessarily must be a publishing industry of some kind to satisfy the market. It may not include those traditional top firms, and they may deserve to die, but the death (or, more likely, the radical retrenchment) of those firms doesn't equal the death of publishing.

Jen C said...

This anger against the publishing industry saddens me. I have a feeling that it is generally a collective bitterness stemming from mass rejection, however there are some people who are so utterly against the industry with no reason, that I just don't understand.

(On a brighter note, I'm just watching the news this morning and seeing the US stock market is up 20% in the last 2-ish weeks. Hopefully this will continue!)

Just_Me said...

Publishing may change, but it won't die. Even if you made printed words illegal there would be an underground market fueled by maniac writers who just can't live if someone doesn't give them feedback on their latest WIP.

You could cut publishing back. Attack it. Hack at it. Slash away. But the root of publishing is authors and they grow like weeds. You can't stop a feverish imagination from creating. Short of physically chaining them to a wall you can't get most authors to stop writing. And so, publishing will live.

Lara said...

The publishing industry is so much smaller-scale than the banking and insurance industries. And for a while that was looking like a bad thing. But now, call me crazy and I'm not an economist, but small-scale is not looking so bad anymore.

I like cantilevered hedge structures as much as the next person, in theory, but I always had a feeling something weird was going on there. Flat is the new up.

Rick Daley said...

So is positivity week officially over?

Buck up, little campers. Look at it as the reinvention of modern publishing.

Since I am not employed in the publishing industry, it is easy to look beyond short-term despair and try to find the opportunity in this. A transition stemming from an industry in peril opens the door for creative new solutions. If you can ride the crest of the wave, you may be pleased at the success that awaits you.

And if the power of positive thought fails me, I still remember how to flip burgers from my college days.

Lara said...

Also, didn't I read somewhere (maybe on this very blog) that Europa Editions (Elegance of the Hedgehog) was doing well by following sort of an older-than-old-school publishing model--find something great, believe in it, acquire it for a little and really get behind it and build momentum?

Vegas Linda Lou said...

Here’s my last rejection. What’s an author to think?

I received your sample manuscript and enjoyed reading it very much. You have a great voice, and I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions. Unfortunately, with today's difficult publishing market, we don't think our agency would be able to get your book the attention it deserves.

I think that clearly the agent liked my work, but as you state, Nathan, the industry doesn’t seem to be interested in investing in new voices. So a lot of authors, like me, are choosing to self-publish. And we’ll do it with varying degrees of success.

My question is, do you think that, as a result of this shifting paradigm in publishing, agents will start to take a closer look at the self-published works that have proven themselves? Will there be any shift at all in the way agents look at self-published authors?

Josephine Damian said...

"And the other day, he wrote, "If any industry deserves to go under, it's the publishing industry.""

That's almost as stupid as Rush Limbaugh saying he hopes Obama fails.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Sullivan was a cheerleader for the war. Enough said.

Mira said...

Vegas Linda Lou,

I'm sorry for your rejection, but if I had to get a rejection letter, that's the one I'd want.

Sounds like you have a great book there. I think you have good options. Self-publish - with your voice you have good marketablility. or, wait it out, and keep trying in the meanwhile. Someone may take a chance.

Even in the good times, books were passed on. Didn't it take 120 tries for Chicken Soup for the Soul to get published? Their agent dropped them, etc. Look what happened there.

Chris Bates said...

Nathan, you know my opinion on this stuff.

Firstly, I’m not so sure Sullivan needs you (agents). Like you say he has a huge domestic platform to market from. He is well-known. He is published. He is opinionated. He has been controversial – privately and professionally. The fact that you forward an invite suggests that he carries ‘weight’ … maybe he is a prime candidate for successful self-publishing.

Okay, so he needs a distributor – Ingram, Baker & Taylor, perhaps? Single title – no drama. He has the platform so they’ll let him in. He probably has a few contacts too. So that covers the bricks and mortar retailers. Amazon he can do himself. He can also sell off his website. Ebook – too easy.

Sub-rights: Yes, you guys are the go-to guys. Although he could probably handle the UK market himself. Hard work though.

Self-pub downside: No advance. More hassle. Print costs. Dreaded returns!

Upside: Total control. Bigger margins – financially.

The reason publishing is seen as a crap industry and why it is hated so much is simply because the creators, ie the authors are treated with disdain – ‘great industry, if only we could get rid of the authors!’. The same applies with TV and film writers. Except for one very distinct difference – TV and film writers make good cash when they break-in. The 8-15% author royalty will motivate many writers to change the business model of publishing, so too the continued dominance of corporate publishers.

The one thing most authors don’t realize, however, is the punishing work required to operate a publishing business. Prepare for sleepless nights, hard work, huge cash flows, unpaid accounts … and a whole lot of swearing.

My possibly worthless advice for authors: don’t self-publish unless you love all aspects of running a business; accounts, design, manufacturing, shipping, distributing, marketing, publicity. There are so many tiny traps to fall into, some so seemingly inconsequential that you could never, in a million years, have foreseen them.

If you are having trouble finding time to write that bestseller, forget self-publishing. Your quality of life will reduce dramatically. Best you stick to the writing task and let the publishers do their job.

Elissa M said...

I don't understand all the talk about the "death of publishing" because I read books. Everyone I know reads books. I usually have to stand in line at the bookstore when I buy books in person. Even when I'm lucky and don't have to wait to check out, I am never the only person in the store.

Not a scientific study, certainly, but people do still read books. Printed books. On paper. In other words, there is still a demand for the publishing industry's product, so I don't see it dying any time soon.

The business end of producing the product may change (and probably will have to), but until people stop reading entirely, publishing won't die.

I am sick to death of the business model that says no growth equals death. A company can be making a profit, but if that profit isn't as high as forecasters' estimates, the stock suddenly plunges.

People always talk about "buggy whips" when they talk about an industry that died. Well, there's actually still a demand for buggy whips and there are still companies that make them.

Publishing is dying? Don't hold your breath.

Nathan Bransford said...

chris bates-

He could handle it by himself, but I would wager that he wouldn't get as good a deal as if he had an agent. He either will need to manage print runs himself or he could go with a POD publisher who will handle his inventory, PP&B, etc., but he'd lose money ceding that control, and an agent could negotiate with a distributor to get a better deal.

Having an agent would result in the maximum return. But you're right. He doesn't HAVE to go with an agent, and I suspect he won't.

Chris Bates said...

Yep, totally agree.

POD would be a waste of time. No upside here. Low start-up but financially stupid.

Offset print? Goodbye time for popular blog. Goodbye low start-up cost.

And, you’re right, I don’t think he will go for an agent.

Personally, if I were him I’d be shopping this sucker around … way too much hassle to do this project himself. Traditional publisher is where it is at for these guys. All other options truly are a pain in the butt, which he will discover if he pursues either of those models.

On this one: Take their money and run.

Mira said...

Well, the reason he won't is he's making a point.

He's pissed off, he's had bad experiences. He's going to try and prove it can be done better on his own.

He probably doesn't care about the money. He's got an axe to grind.

Chris Bates said...


Unfortunately, to prove his point he has to become a 'publisher'. And with that title comes all the realities of survival/profitability in that business.

Laura D said...

I feel that the publishing industry will always be around albeit it will change. Eventually, people will build platforms (If someone from the Real World can get a platform, then bloggers can too.) and be able to get a fanbase and eventually published. Or they can self-publish with a good enough platform.
The publishing industry would be wise to consider dissenting voices. The cookie-cutter editor model will not live forever. Eventually editors will have to concede that what sells right now will not sell en mass very long. New voices are going to be the next trend. People get tired of the same old same old.
Editors will have less power over time and as far as I'm concerned, it's long overdue.

Jude Hardin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kassia said...

Nathan -- I think you captured the nature of my frustration very well. There are publishers out there who would have better represented the industry to the audience. I wish they'd been on the dais. On the plus side, the presentation spurred some very creative minds to plan something bigger and better next year.

Talking about the death of publishing is like talking about the death of the planet. Aspects of the business will, either through natural selection or seismic shifts, will not survive. As these disappear, new life will emerge. As publishing evolves, the core of the business will remain: writing, distributing, marketing, editing, curating. I have theories on which of these core functions will emerge stronger than ever before.

I do want to clarify that I am not so much anti-DRM as I am opposed to the way it's being implemented :). I am highly skeptical about the efficacy of most of these systems, especially since they increase costs without necessarily providing true benefit, meaning they tend to frustrate legitimate consumers far more than they deter pirates. As we start to see emerging business models, such as subscription-based content, smart DRM will help manage access without thwarting paying customers.

Jude Hardin said...

I like Neil Nyren's take on the condition of the industry here.

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks so much for weighing in, I was nervous that I was mis-characterizing your views and definitely want to get it right. I updated the post re: your views on DRM accordingly. Thanks again!

Vegas Linda Lou said...

Chris Bates:

I've researched Lightning Source and have been told by people who have blazed the trail that that's the way to go. No upside to POD? Financially stupid? What don't I know?

Chris Bates said...


I'm gonna disagree with you here... but not to pick a fight!

I believe that good editors are going to be worth their weight in gold. Content will always be king. But without a good editor most books will have content that is just not up to scratch.

Marilyn Peake said...

Seems there's lots of angst at all levels of the publishing field right now as it goes through a huge period of change. Most writers already know that kind of angst from working for years on a project that, in the end, may be rejected, even if the project’s very good. Right now, people in many industries are living in uncertain times. I look forward to seeing the future world of publishing, although I suspect it will be radically different than it is today. I wonder whether the future direction will lean more toward the literary or the trendy; and it seems to me that a great deal of infighting is about which of those trends will predominate, with passionate feelings on both sides of that divide. In addition, since most well-known publishing businesses are actually part of a few larger media conglomerations, there must be a great deal of uncertainty and sense of powerlessness in the individual publishing businesses, since many huge decisions aren’t actually in their own hands. And the shrinking global economy is placing pressure on everyone. It will all get sorted out eventually; but, sadly, many will lose their jobs and not everyone will like whichever future direction the publishing world takes. No matter which direction it takes, there will be people who lose out in very big ways and others who reap huge rewards. The specific direction will determine who wins and who loses. I think that everyone's on edge right now, waiting for the next shoe to drop, waiting to find out if they have personally won or lost.

Chris Bates said...

Vegas Linda Lou:

Low margin biz.

That's why publishers hang on dearly to the hardcover business model.

If I had it my way on a business model, I'd go: hardcover release ... ebook release ... paperback release.

However, that won't hold up nowadays.

Successful POD publishing is a great way to make Lightning Source/Lulu rich!!

Chris Bates said...

Vegas Linda Lou:

I should clarify that I view self-publishing as a business. The 'No Upside' comment is coming from a commercial gain POV. There are better options dependent on your circumstances of course (Read: financial liquidity).

I wouldn't discount the POD method for low-cost self-publishers.

Anonymous said...

Too funny, Nathan! "Huh. And here I thought the whole "fake hedge funds that are actually a Ponzi scheme" industry was first in line."

Maybe he should just Twitter all day to his curmudgeon pals since he hates publsihing so much...

David Nygren said...

So Sullivan wants the publishing industry to collapse AND he wants to become a publisher, using content provided by his readers (who presumably will not share in the profits). At least traditional pubs usually pay those who provide the content, right?

I do agree, though, that it's a good idea. I really do like the View From Your Window series. And his blog is one of the best. But with so many opinions expressed per day, he sometimes blurts one out that is not fully thought through.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I disagree that publishing is dead and or that it deserves to die. I do, however, agree that changes need to happen and they need to happen fast(er).

Phenoms like Twilight and Harry Potter and The Hunger Games prove (at least in YA where I play) that people (kids) are hungry for books. They want them, they'll devour them if we give them to them. I had a niece who hated reading until she read Twilight (which broke my heart a little) but now I can't get books to her fast enough. So I don't think the problem with publishing is that demand is down. I think where we're failing readers is getting them what they want as fast as they want it.

Granted, books take a lot of time to get out, but a year to a year and a half? It's no wonder publishers are having so much trouble staying ahead of the curve. Publishers need to be nimble, they need to be able to jump on the bandwagon when the bandwagon is charging along full speed. They also need to be able to take chances on starting the next new bandwagon.

They also need to get on board with the digital stuff. Kids eventually won't care how they get their books, they'll just get them however it is the easiest, and us old people will follow along. I think as time passes the publishing houses will be less about the physical publishing and more about getting the books (digital or otherwise) into the hands of the readers.

Viva la revolution.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

@ Chris Bates:

Thanks for your insight. You're right--self-publishing is a TREMENDOUS amount of work. I'm learning a lot, though, and as more authors opt to self-publish, the opportunities for consultants with that expertise will also grow.

Always thinkin'...

Paula said...


You are correct that the publishing industry is facing multiple challenges. But to my mind, the main problem is that people are reading fewer books. Video is everywhere, and that's what people seem to be migrating to. I don't know how you fix that, but until that happens, I don't think things will look very bright, I'm sorry to say.

Janet said...

Nathan, you are so funny when you are being snarky. Nobody else is so nice when doing snark.

Lucinda said...

Human beings are physical (duh) creatures needing physical things. No matter how much cyberspace appeals to people, it will never replace tangible objects they can hold. Reading stories using high technology is great, convenient, and frugal. Plus it saves on paper, eliminates need for inks, and saves on space. But this will never replace our favorite tangible books. To quote Henry Ward Beecher, “Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.”

I think the publishing industry is trying to survive any way it can. If this means they must ADD high tech, great. But, I doubt they will ever abandon the traditional, anciently reverenced, and forever

Finally, Nathan, I agree with you about the troubles with self-publishing. Unless a person has the money, the time, the popularity (name & fame), and the marketing skills, it is best to LEARN what it takes to win over a literary agent...and hope.

Thank you once again for another great blog.

pjd said...

Napster was originally the "death of the music industry." Last I checked, the "music industry" didn't seem too dead.

What we're witnessing now is less the buggies-to-automobiles disruptive change as the packaged-software-to-internet evolution. The packaged software business is far from dead, but the vast majority of software is now distributed electronically. The winners: software makers, software users, the environment. The losers: warehouse distributors, retail stores, package designers.

The result will be what serves creators and users best. The "publishing industry" (i.e. big publishing houses that are unable to adjust to new economics and distribution mechanisms) may end up dying a slow death of attrition while new businesses move in to serve the consumer needs that are left unserved by the old guard.

Deny it, decry it, even fight it. Or accept it and look for opportunity amid the change.

AndrewDugas said...

Publishing is dying and reincarnating at the same time. The invention of the Gutenberg press created the basic model we have today.

The guys with the printing technology get together with the guys who write things. Because there are more writers than publishers, publishers can pick and choose their authors. (Of course they fight over big name authors because the power equation is reversed.)

In their own interest, the guys with the technology have over time added valuable services, such as copy-editing, marketing, and distributing.

So what's changing? Their major strength, the technology. In the blog responses that discuss the POD model, one thing is made clear, albeit indirectly. Self-publishing in the POD model lacks the copy-editing, marketing, and distributing facets that the publishers can bring to the table.

Now let's clarify something else. POD is not a business model, it's a technology. A new way of doing something better than before.

There is no reason traditional publishers should eschew POD - after all, what better way to get revenue from their out-of-print catalogs? In fact, POD makes the concept of out-of-print obsolete.

And there is no reason publishers can't focus on their enduring, core strengths -- copy-editing, marketing, and distributing -- in a new paradigm.

Nathan Bransford said...


Very true, and actually, one reason that publishers are suffering so much is because of another technology: the online facilitation of used book sales. Publishers may well utilize POD with their backlists, but there aren't many people buying new copies because they can get them so cheaply via Amazon, abebooks, etc.

The result: soft backlist sales. And the backlist is where the money is.

AndrewDugas said...

Nathan, re used book sales online:

Well, if devices like the Kindle take hold and dominate over the printed book as we now know it, like what the iPod has done to CDs, that will kill the entire concept of the used book.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes. Although it will also dramatically increase the problem of the stolen book.

I wonder what the book business was like when we didn't have to worry about this stuff. Those were the days!

Mira said...


I think the ones who will have a more difficult time are those who are older and more entrenched than you are. You're young, flexible and smart. You see the possiblities of new technology. You're forward thinking.

Whatever changes come, you'll be in the front row. It could be very exciting. Change can bring some really good things.

Besides, you have this wonderful blog with many loyal supporters.

I've been on this earth long enough to know that sometimes the hardest things turn out to be the best. Everything will work out.

For one thing, once I actually write something, you can be my agent. We'll make sooooo much money, you could start your own publishing company and do it right.

You'll see. It will work out.

MaLanie said...

I do not know enough about the publishing industry to comment about it. Ultimately, I think greed is the culprit in all the industries that we see failing today.

The more I learn about the publishing industry the more self-publishing is looking better.

The book, THE SHACK was self published and its been on the best seller list 36 weeks now. (I personally did not like the book- not because of the writing or story but because I do not believe in religion)

The Christian publishers rejected The Shack because it was too risky and the secular publishers rejected the book as it was "too religious."

I bet they regret rejecting it now as six million copies are in
print. and several publishers have tried to buy the rights.

T. Anne said...

Death? How about the metamorphosis of publishing. I don't go the newspaper looking for fresh information nor do I go to the bookstore looking to have a conversation with authors, but the internet fits a plethora of needs. I don't think anyone is eagerly awaiting to stomp your grave Nathan, although I do feel like I'm witness to something happening. Perhaps it is e-books and smaller presses that will guide the way to this new era of publishing. I think the model of big publishing may have already toppled, maybe when the dust dies down we can better establish the landscape.

Anonymous said...

Here is my complaint about publishing: All the big "literary" bestsellers they tout as the next huge thing that absolutely suck. Favors of all sizes are called in for blurbs, publishers gush about new titles. Honestly, the last few times I've bought supposedly great new books were the last few times. I felt like I'd been robbed. Even the reviews at are written by the author's friends and family. It sometimes seems like only the unfavorable ones are truthful.

I'd trust publishers a lot more (and buy more new books) if they tried to find out what people actually liked, instead of pitting one public relations team and set of rolodexes against another. As it is, I stick with what I know I will like, because most new books are all hype.

Chris Bates said...

There is one sure fire way to make money in the publishing industry.

You too can make a lazy million by participating in this amazing business.

I invite you to buy my ebook “Green Eggs and Scam” and find out how to ‘earn’ your retirement.

Simply send $5 to each of the people listed below:

1. Chris Bates
2. Chris Bates
3. Chris Bates
4. Chris Bates
5. Chris Bates

Now forward on this message to your entire email address book – be sure to alter the list of previous participants, removing the one at the top of the list, moving all the other names up one position, and adding your own name to the bottom of the list.

Because the number of new participants is growing at a fantastic, exponential rate, you should collect this payment from a ridiculously large number of people.

Don’t listen to the doomsayers, publishing success can be within your grasp today.

Nathan Bransford said...


Well, what you're really saying is that the publishing industry isn't promoting the books that YOU like. Which is fine. There are a lot of books out there. If you like books out of the mainstream you might just have to work a little harder to find them, but the authors will thank you.

The thing is, the books that are promoted as the next "big" thing achieve that tag because lots and lots of people all throughout the publishing process, from agents to editors to sales teams to bookstores, think it's big. They're not always right, and they're sometimes an insular group. But it's not because they're stupid.

Tastes vary. It's impossible to accommodate everyone. Luckily the Internet makes it easier than ever to discover the books you want to read.

Sarah said...

Nathan, what sort of people want publishing to die? Any guesses why?

I things have been crazy the past six months, but I don't expect the industry will vanish.

And again, who would want it to? Or do these death-to-publishing people object only to a certain business strategy, like huge advances for a few bestsellers?*

Like most folks here, I work full-time and hollow out portions of an otherwise overflowing schedule to write. Part of me wants to pull out the world's smallest violin for the D-T-P camp. A lot of us would love to have the opportunity to be that close to the publishing industry.

*I was at Charlottesville's Festival of the Book last weekend and attended a panel on the current state of publishing. Deborah Grosvenor mentioned that she'd heard of one publishing company that took out loans to pay its super-advances.

Whirlochre said...

I can't think that publishing, like anything else, suddenly finds itself at the mercy of the forces of flux.

It's more like a speed of morph thing, like flux has sped up.

I have absolute faith that as long as there are people there will be stories worth telling and more than enough ears to willing to listen.

How that happens will depend on the means.

The transition from slate to paper didn't destroy us and I suspect the move from paper to vapour will be similarly advantageous in the long run.

But for anyone caught up in the transmute, it can only seem like the worst kind of werewolf movie scenario.

Full moon?

No! No! Arghhhh!

History teaches us not to deny the whirl of the world.

Sadly/thankfully, it's 2009.

PS: yay positivity, etc — did anyone here die from the millennium bug?

Jen C said...

I wonder if publishers, agents and writers had the same feelings back when television became something that seemed to be taking over entertainment. Did everyone think it was doom for the industry then? How about video games?

I think it's likely that this is not as new a subject as we think it is. Just like this isn't the first recession, the Melbourne earthquakes were not the first earthquakes, and the Blog Challenge is defintiely not the first sporting bet competition that I've ever done poorly in.

If physical books have survived through history up until this point, with all the new technology that has come onto the scene, I think that there's hope for the little guys yet.

Chuck H. said...

Death? Of Publishing? Just my damn luck. I jump on the boat right before it sinks. Again.

Oh well, maybe I can still get into acting before it's too late.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Many people have already voiced my thoughts several times each, but I must chime in anyway to add how much this negative attitude is getting wearisome. It's not limited to the publishing industry--it seems so many want so-and-so or such-and-such a business to fail, simply because they don't agree with the opinions, politics, or practices involved, and want to be smug know-it-alls when their viewpoints are "vindicated".

Within the publishing industry, things are transforming right now. This can be a bit unnerving for new authors trying to break in. I'll be one in the next several years, and the idea of everything changing around me can be a bit scary--lots of us will be going through these new processes together, but there's also no exact prior example to look to. At the same time, it'll be exciting to watch and evaluate how the industry is evolving as I prepare to jump in. And it is evolving--not dying.

Anonymous said...

I, too, am the victim of the Twilight phenomenon. My oldest daughter who was already an avid reader brought it home, and my youngest daughter, whom had never picked up a book, scooped it up. Now I have the entire Amazon YA section in my house, and books aren't coming out fast enough for them, nor a big enough variety.

I do disagree about the digital book, however. Neither daughter will give up a paper book for the Kindle.

My solution: cheaper prices, more variety, faster printing times, no smooshed up print. Guess what, three of those options are available on digital. Just do it on paper we'll have it made.

Margaret Welman Paez said...

One word: content. Content drives the industry.

The industry needs a better method to scour for good content. As it is now, the way the publishing industry mines for new content is unbelievably serf/landowner like in nature. Think Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "Help, I'm being oppressed."

As the industry transforms itself again (hey, remember when people said no one would buy books online at Amazon?) I think you will see a more populist approach to sifting out the good from the bad.

The whole filter first then publish way may be outdated--for now. We'll see, but like everything else around us, the internet has changed everything.

Like what you ask? Uhm, example of that would be #queryfail. Oh, I went there. Sorry.

Writer from Hell said...

I don't understand that statement - 'publishing industry will die'. Why would it? Its form, processes may change but so long as there are readers, there'll be publishing.

This thing about blogging self publishing .. ya great. It is not just about producing a book. It has to be distributed, publicised, promoted, the works. A complex process requiring complex layers of agents, editors, booksellers, the works. You can't do away with them.

We may be rejected authors and hence resentful but lets us be clear the industry exists not to give a platform to our supposed talent, but to deliver entertainment, information etc. to the readers. sob or call someone a sob, no one cares. The fittest will survive.... (and should)

omg I'm going for a jog..

Fire_eyes007 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Writer from Hell said...

I think every publisher should set aside a quota for new voices. May be u know just 20% or even 10% of his output. And this is not for the sake of new authors but coz it makes good business sense. Recession or not without newness, the industry will wither. But new is also risky thats why i think the bulk will still have to be tried and tested perhaps..sob

Steve Fuller said...

People have said a lot, so I'll keep this simple. In today's publishing world, the thing that keeps me optimistic is this:

If you are a talented writer with something interesting to say, you will be discovered. Bottom line.

If traditional publishers pass on your book, you have other options. Start a blog, self-publish, etc.

That doesn't mean EVERYONE will be discovered, because lots of people are bad writers. But if you are good, somehow, someway, people will find you.

Twenty years ago, there was no Plan B. Thank God we live in 2009 and have a Plan B.

Misssy M said...

"the current retrenching around established authors and celebrities at the expense of growing authors over the long term and investing in new voices."

This is the problem and it's not just a publishing problem...TV/radio is rife with it too. It's getting harder and harder for new talent to break through. I just had the radio show that i worked on canceled- we played new music, we had sessions from new bands, we had a book club, a film club- we were fresh. The station canned us as soon as the Ofcom (I'm in the UK) rules changed to allow them to only play chart music and not have specialist programming.

The week after this happened my book which was being presented by an interested editor to her board in a major publishing house was declined because me and my co-author were not names. My agent showed me the feedback- it just said "Need Name attached"

In two weeks I experienced personally a microcosmic example of what's happening to new talent out there everywhere in all areas of the media. No new talent investment , no book industry in 15 years. Or at least a very drab one.

Richard Lewis said...

Lately I've gone up to the holy mountain and inscribed on stone tablets two rules of writing (these rules have changed a bit, so I've done a bit of mountain trekking and chiseling):

1) Writing is good for the soul, but trying to get published must be the least important thing in your life.

2) But if you insist on getting published, then write something they can't say no to.

Now that latter commandment has some interesting depth to it--because if you do try to write such a novel, you almost certainly won't succeed, but somebody out there in the great unknown will somehow effortlessly write the novel that nobody can say no to. It's the law of large numbers at play. Somebody nobody ever heard of before will grab the brass ring--it just won't be you.

Mood: grumpy. Wearing a corset, post back surgery, that keeps me inactive. I can write but this publishing climate, who wants to?* I want to go surfing. But my back, I can't.

*Oh, I'll always write. And I will have an audience, too. It's in my will. When I die, my kids don't get a thing from me unless they submit a substantial book report on my books to the estate's executor, whom I've just changed to one Nathan Bransford.

RW said...

It's like what they say about the unemployment rate -- when you are unemployed it feels like the unemployment rate is 100%. Whenever the head of GM or the head of Warner Brothers or the head of the Realtor's association says the auto industry, the music industry or the real estate market are dying what they real mean is that their own bottom line is suffering. These industries might be in trouble--probably are--but just because the richest people involved are getting less rich doesn't make it so. Even my freshman composition students can spot the error in that logic, and I wish the journalists who churn out these "death of the industry" articles could. Declining sales and layoffs at the biggest traditional publishers sure doesn't sound like good news but just because it feels like the death of the industry to them doesn't mean it is. There's more to the industry than the bottom line at those few businesses.

Stephanie Faris said...

People just aren't reading as much...which is a greater concern than the death of an industry, I think. The fact that people are getting their news from 18-year-old bloggers rather than trained journalists...the fact that people are going to see movies based on classic novels they've never even heard of... Doesn't this say something about our society in general? Publishing just has a lot of competition now...but I sure hope that doesn't mean there will be a day when you can't go to a bookstore and pick up your favorite book. At the very least, publishing will just have to become all electronic...but to me it's depressing to think of books and magazines being gone completely.

Richard Lewis said...

Clarification. When I say "it won't be you" I mean the generic you. Please don't be offended, it's not personal. The specific you, well, we're humans, and part of being human is that we're optimists for the most part, we're the exception to the rule.

Jenny said...

Um, Nathan. No.

To get distribution Andrew would not need anyone to negotiate a deal. If he put the "publisher" into self-publisher, bought an ISBN block and published his books directly through LightningSource, all he'd have to do would be check off the "Distribution" box on the contract and he would be distributed via Ingram Books to all online bookstores and any brick and mortar stores who ordered his book--worldwide if he signed two more more LS contracts.
And once he had signed those contracts he could set his own discount within very generous limits.

You're very young and while I appreciate your enthusiasm, as someone who has been involved with mainstream publishing since the 1980s and who has been successfully self-publishing since the 1990s (by choice, after writing a bestseller) I think you underestimate the degree to which mainstream publishing has misunderstood and mismanaged the new technology at every step starting in the mid 1980s.

Nathan Bransford said...


I addressed that earlier in the comments section. What I'm saying is that he could turn inventory control, pp&b etc. over to someone like lightning source, but he wouldn't get as good a deal as if he went through an agent working out a distribution deal. Putting all of that in the blog post would have broken up the flow of that paragraph and made it caveat-ridden.

But thanks for the reminder that I'm young. I needed that.

Dara said...

The publishing industry won't die. It'll change, but I cannot see it actually "dying" in the sense that some people are clamoring for.

Self-publishing may be great for Mr. Sullivan, but for many average joe's like myself, it's just not something I'd be willing to consider anytime soon. Too much money is needed upfront to get printed and marketed and there's absolutely no guarantee that one can break even.

I'm sure it'd work for him just fine, but it's certainly not something for me and for many of my fellow writers.

Anyway, like you stated, publishing is always going to have some sort of problems--just like every other industry.

Justus M. Bowman said...


To celebrate your blatant youthfulness, I brought you a quote from Cat Stevens.

'Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?
You're only dancing on this earth for a short while.'

Anonymous said...

young...sure thing! what do you mean you needed that?

x x

Anonymous said...

sea of books

water water everywhere
not a drop to drink
my vial is empty
waiting for an agent to fill!

Anonymous said...

i was a writer once
hale n hearty
merry though not gay

then i became a salesman
going door to door
postman looked enviable
though he doesn't
exist anymore

I cast a spell
on publishing
may it wither n die

so i can revert
to being a writer
merry again in my soul!

Anonymous said...

get out on the streets
sell your body
it might have been
easier if u were jsta 'wore'
at least u wd have had a pimp

but ur a writer
u have got to sell
your creaky writing
and your soul
degrading and dire
just to get an agent
that is the imp

Anonymous said...

O! But its alright.

if the agent is 'dashing' throw the apple away!

Anonymous said...

As a published author, my main frustration with publishing is simply that it creaks along with business practices that would've been more familiar to industries 100 years ago than to most industries working today. Why does it still take a year at minimum to get a fully edited book into print? Why are lines of communication so tangled and virtually every step of the process so inefficient? (I used to work at a Fortune 500 company, where, if we had done things in 1/10th the time publishers routinely take to turn things around, we would have been fired in short order.) There's so much institutional pokiness that it's no wonder the industry isn't as vital as it could be -- because the desire and demand IS still out there.

For what it's worth, I don't think publishing will die, but the companies that get their act together and adapt faster are going to be the ones that survive.

Anonymous said...

anon 8:55

but i think nowhere else is the supply so high either. I mean soooooo many people write and not that many read.

I too worked in a company for a long time. But I don't find publishing as too inefficient. Now coming to other industries - I don't call them efficient either.

Nathan Bransford said...


"Institutional pokiness" is a great phrase, and yes, I agree. To a certain extent the industry is going to move more slowly because it takes a long time to read a book and a lot of people have to (theoretically) read a book in order to publish it. But that doesn't mean that everyone needs to turn into sloths. It drives me crazy sometimes.

Mira said...


You know what would be cool? If publishers marketed.

Okay, maybe they don't want to market new authors. But could they at least market books as a concept in itself?

Milk changed it's whole image with it's "you got milk" ads. They made it more 'cool' for adults to drink milk too.

Publishers could do the same thing with books. Come up with a slogan and a hook.

Show kids listening to books around a campfire. Show adults cuddled together on a couch reading. Show a student getting inspiration and fire in their eyes from the right book.

Show something.

I'm going to write a whole essay. Maybe I'll make Nathan really happy and post it here. It's an essay about the wise and successful business practice of crossing your fingers and wishing.

You put a book out. Then you cross your fingers and wish really hard it will sell.

If you really want it to sell, you can cross more than one finger. And wish really, really, really hard, (as opposed to just really hard.)

Boy, does that work.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:07

How can you say not many people read? I'd say at least 80% of the people I know pick up at least 3 books a year, and 80% of those pick up at least 20 books a year, and my family personally buys at least 80 books a year (2 readers and me when I have time, but I read what they do.). All it takes is one good story to get someone hooked.

Cool idea, I can see it now a kid lying in th middle of Hogwarts reading a book. With the kids walking all around them. Or lying in a golden field with a dragon circling overhead. For Romances a housewife being swooped off her feet by a pirate.

Mira said...

Okay, here's my short essay. Nathan, if you don't want me to do this, please just delete it. I won't give you a hard time.

People who work in the publishing industry are never late. The morning is the most special part of the day. It's the magical time of the cross your fingers and wish meeting.

Everyone in the company, from the lowliest to the most high, meet at the same time in conference rooms across the land. Then they cross their fingers and wish really, really hard that their books will sell well today.

They bow to the right. And wish.
They bow to the left. And wish.
They bow in the direction of the nearest bookstore. They take a moment for a collective intake of breath as they all wish with all their might and every fiber of their beings that their books will sell well today.

Then they recite a poem of wishing.

After the meeting, they return to their regular work refreshed, knowing they've done everything they can to move their product.

There is one rule though. No hugging in the wish meetings. That would be unprofessional.

Now you know the insider secret to the art of publishing. Use the knowledge well.

AndrewDugas said...

Sure, a nice "reading is cool" program might work, but I would go a more adult route. Since more women read than men, have a dweeby guy making good time with a hot babe because he can discuss the novel the hot babe has in her hands.

On the other hand, there's a lot writers can do, too. Speaking of "Milk" -- remember when they beat some retrograde ballot initiative by having every gay guy call everyone in his family? The idea being that if everyone was reminded that someone they knew and/or cared about was gay, they could not in good conscience support the ballot.

Well, writers, time to step up. Every time you get some poem or story published by even the most lame literary publication, online or print, spread the word.

Tell everyone you know, tell your co-workers, tell your family. Email the link to everyone in your address book. Put it on Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, everywhere. Put the link as your status on Gmail.

Same thing with local readings. A couple of years ago I read at a Literary Death Match and some co-workers showed up to support me. They brought friends, too, people who would never even stumble into a reading. And you know what, most of those folks still show up every month because it turns out that lit events CAN be fun. (And of course, the LDMs do attract a good-looking crowd.)

The only answer to too much supply is to stir up demand.

Writers, do your part. Spread the word.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

I feel worse as a reader than as a writer. I have been a reader all my life.

Anonymous said...

How strange that a published author wants the publishing industry to do down. As a media pundit doesn't Sullivan want his ideas spread to as many people as possible by whatever means? I agree that if he becomes a self-publisher then he is part of the problem.

Mira said...

I have to say, sometimes I crack myself up. Ha.

Anon and Andrew those are great ideas.

In all seriousness, I think a campaign to improve the image of reading would be very successful. Authors could do their part, but publishers have the funds to really do some promotion.

Why not? Some really well done ads would be really effective. Advertising is effective.

Liz said...

Well, if there are people who are shouting for glee that the publishing industry is dying, then they will be sorely disappointed. The publishing industry *is* changing. Because the market - authors with products and readers to buy them - is changing. Whether or not publishers and affiliated industries keep up with it or not is irrelevant, imho. There are certainly opportunities for new business models emerging. But the original model - exploit rights to written content in as many markets as possible - will continue to be the purview of the seasoned, experienced publishers. Look for self-publishing to turn from a stigma "vanity" publishing to an important early proving ground for new authors, now that it will be so much easier. Publishers (and agents) will be able to see new, unsigned talent emerging in real-time on the web. The more independent authors can get their works out there and start to build an audience, the easier it will be for you to find them and help take their career to the next level.

It's an exciting time to be writing, for damn sure.

Weegee said...


Thank you for writing about and offering forum for discussion of these important issues.

Kevin Smokler of here. I was at the SXSW Panel in question, inquired as to why the industry stood in the way of those who wanted to cheerlead for their books. Panel itself its the subject of my Huffington Post column this week.

Let's keep this conversation going. What's at stake is too important to raise and forget.

Glen Akin said...

Things I think:
(a) The publishing industry will not die, unless publishers wake up and combat the age-old problems that have been crippling the industry for what seems like eternity.

(b) The traditional "book" will not die, not anytime soon. It's one thing to read a textbook from a computer/kindle, it's another thing to read a novel from it. The kindle is great, don't get me wrong, but in the long run it will pose more problems for the publishing industry.
People keep pointing to the ipod/other music and movie players that increased the popularity of downloadable music/movies over music/movies stored on CDs/Dvds. Well, guess what, it also increased mass piracy of music/movies, and piracy is something the publishing industry cannot recover from. The Kindle CAN be cracked/hacked. And once it becomes to number one channel for buying and reading all types of books, people will find a way to exploit it really well.

(c) Self publishing really isn't the way forward and doesn't solve anything.

There must be a change, and that change has to come now. One of them should be publishers so-called obsession for "literary books", which they profess to be the next big thing. These books hardly ever sell as much as genre books to begin with. Yes, I love and read books tagged under the literary genre, but do you really think there are a lot of people who will buy a book that chronicles the life of a man who tries to figure out if he's good or evil or in between for 700 pages?? And the money these publishers pay these so-called literary authors (not all of them though) ... it's shocking. I keep wondering how they intend on making their money back. No wonder the industry's screwed up. Everything works backwards.

AndrewDugas said...

Glen Akin -

You've got a few things upside down.

A) You say "unless" but you really mean "if," right? Consider the same construction with different terms: "I won't get a divorce unless my wife stops sleeping around."

B) The iPod, etc., came YEARS after the piracy craze. In fact, it was the iPod and services like iTunes which provided legit ways of purchasing music digitally. Before them, it was buy the CD or download illegally. So really the iPod et al. REDUCED piracy. (That and the fact that the recording industry showed they meant business by suing a girl scout who downloaded "Happy Birthday.")

About hacking the Kindle, sure, of course, some techies will do it in a minute. A friend of mine hacked his Play Station to play illegally copied games. But these guys are less than 1% of the population. Hardly a threat.

And about that, has it occurred to anyone that a book bought for the Kindle can't be lent to a friend without lending the whole device? Underground book lending hasn't exactly broken the backs of the publishing houses in the last five hundred years. I'll it's more than 1%, too.

C)Self-publishing isn't a way forward, but it will increase because the cost is coming way down, next to nothing thanks to POD. And why shouldn't authors, after exhausting all the traditional third party routes to publishing, leave their MSs to rot on their hard drives?

Wasn't the beauty of the Gutenberg press that it made publishing so easy? Didn't the explosion of books the resulted improve humanity's lot as a whole? Didn't the massive sharing of information advance not only the sciences but the democratic movement?

Self-publishing has always been with us, but POD really puts it in reach of EVERYBODY.

That ball is just getting started, who knows where it may lead. If what's out there is any indication, though, freelance copy-editors have a huge opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Publishing does not need twenty-five floors of prime real-estate on Broadway. Nor does it need approx three Vice President-level employes out of 10 to get books to readers. The days of the massive, vertically integrated publishing colossus are numbered.

The brain-trust at Random House, for instance, are firing content producers and beefing up production. Not the bet I'd make at a time when NOBODY can say with any degree of certainty just how and what we'll be reading in, say, five years.

Much as I hate to admit it, Sullivan is right on some points.

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