Complaining About the Publishing Industry is the New Black

by | Aug 2, 2007 | Literary Agents | 20 comments

Ah, the publishing industry. So large, so vast, such an easy target. Complaining about publishing is so old it’s gone from cool to lame back to cool again. Or is it lame again? I think whoever was keeping track lost count.. IN THE 1940’S.

While catching up on my Shelf Awareness and GalleyCat, I was directed to two separate articles that chide the industry for being behind the times. First up, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, who blasts the publishing industry here. Oh, and here. Um, here too.

Among Mr. Sullivan’s complaints (and that of the anonymous readers he quotes): The good old standby……. No one edits anything (I address this myth here). Also they messed up the page numbering on his book, and publishing jobs don’t pay and have uncertain career tracks. He writes, “The publishers do not care what is in their books and neither, by and large, do editors.” (Which must come as some surprise to all of the people who have had their manuscripts rejected by said editors.)

Also joining the fray is Peter Osnos of The Century Foundation, who was chagrined that many New York bookstores did not carry the book he was looking for that day and Amazon was listing the book as being available in two weeks.

I feel compelled to defend the publishing industry because 1) I’m in the publishing industry and 2) because I think the publishing industry is often subjected to some common criticisms that people tend take at face value. Is the publishing industry perfect? No, it is not. Can it be improved? Yes, it can. Will I speak in rhetorical questions for the rest of the day? Read on to find out.

Mr. Sullivan posits that “Soon, print-on-demand may put the publishing houses out of business. It can’t happen soon enough.” I would like to counter-posit that Mr. Sullivan will not likely go the POD route for his next book. Whatever its flaws (and apparently sequential page numbers are not a strong suit) the publishing industry exists because it is the best mechanism for getting good books to readers. And it is really, really good at that. Editors, although worked to the bone, love books and take a great deal of pride in the works they steward. Publishers work very hard to print the correct number of copies. Sure, people make mistakes (they are, last time I checked, human) but it’s easier to find a book, any book, than it ever has been.

Which leads us to Mr. Osnos (Maya Reynolds’s take on the article is here). Maybe it’s because I grew up in Colusa, California, population 4,075, but I never thought that a book should be delivered now. WAYYYYYY back in 1987, my family had to DRIVE thirty miles to the bookstore. And it was just a tiny little B. Dalton with a paltry selection. And the store was filled with three feet of snow and the aisles were all up hill!!

I applaud Mr. Osnos’ attempts to consult with publishers on new methods of distribution, because to me it is physically impossible for even all of the bookstores in Manhattan to carry every book that everyone wants, let alone the bookstores in the vicinity of my rice-farming town. That’s why God invented Amazon, abebooks and eBay. If your bookstore doesn’t have it, the Internet will. Now if only people would just invent a device that will print out any book for you immediately. Oh wait, they have.

Now if only publishing had a device that would beam books directly to my brain. Where is THAT invention, publishing? Huh? Huh? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I bet no one will edit those beamed books too. Publishing is so lame.


  1. Josh

    Well, I can’t wait until POD conquers the earth because those machines will run flawlessly, never jam, never go out of ink in the middle of a run, and be operated by robotic servitrons that require no human intervention whatsoever, thus negating all the problems and errors we mortals slip into the process.

    It will be paradise.

    The next logical step will be machines that read books for us and then whisper the plot summaries into our ear as we sleep.

  2. original bran fan

    Every time I think pubishing is broken, I just go to my local mega-store (Border’s) and have a casual look around. Oh, my, dog, all those books! And they all look so yummy. And I want them all. A spin down any single aisle reveals dozens of enticing books that I never knew existed and yet now I can’t live without them. If publishing is broken, how come I can find more books, more easily, than I can ever hope to read?

  3. DMH


    OMG! Retract your post and patent your idea immediately!

  4. Anonymous


    I love your voice. You can really write.

    I do feel (slightly) bad that my Trail Blazers will lay continual and demoralizing beatdowns on your hoops squad for the next decade. I wouldn’t pity the woeful Kings (my Grandma, God bless her, lives in Rocklin and adores them) in most cases, but I will now, knowing that you’re a fan.

    That said, Oden and the boys are about to turn the West inside out.


  5. Liz

    Every industry has flaws and every industry has folks who complain about too much change and not enough change.

    I won’t even attempt to address how we’ve been conditioned to expect exactly what we want NOW, not later.

    It is so much easier to find and purchase books today than it was ten years ago and I expect that delivery system improvements will continue to happen.

    What is that about complaining when your ice cream is cold??

  6. Nathan Bransford


    I wouldn’t count your chickens just yet, but I would be happy to trade places with Blazers fans. In a heartbaet.

    I think we Kings fans are going to be suffering for some time.

  7. Kathleen

    Now if only publishing had a device that would beam books directly to my brain. Where is THAT invention, publishing?

    Try Jasper Fforde.

  8. Liz Wolfe

    This is excellent news, indeed. I’m just THRILLED that publishers and editors don’t care what’s in a book. This is gonna make my job SO much easier. Had I known about this earlier, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to all those edits that were requested.

  9. Anonymous


    Hawes is good. Worthy of that draft slot? Probably not (though I can’t think of another player that would better suit your squad in that class of athletes). He’s a good player, and I think he’ll stay in the league for some time if he doesn’t have injuries.

    He cleans the glass when he wants to.

    Kevin Martin is danged talented.

    Other than that, I agree that there might be some tough years out there for the Kings.

    We’ve had some rough times in Portland (a team that has tremendous history). Paul Allen even threatened to sell the team. Then the clouds broke and we won the stinkin’ lottery! Greg Oden comes to Portland and everything is roses.

    If a team from a market like San Antonio can dominate, then Portland and Sacramento can also.


    By the way:

    Publishing mystifies me. My agent took my debut novel out today. 19 editors. I don’t even know what to make of that (except for that it’s exciting!), but I will say that I’ve only had pleasant encounters in the industry. No demoralizing, soul-sucking stories to report. When editors like and purchase my short stories, I’m happy they found a home. I hope the same will happen for my longer works.

    The Frey case isn’t typical. I think about the writers I enjoy (I teach writing, write horror stories and read in numerous genres), and I think that quality prose finds its way to the people.

    Think about The Road. What a revelation. It’s poetic and beautiful and blurs the line between these distinctions that folks like to make between literary and genre fiction.

    Write well and clearly and the industry will reward you.

    Also, if you catch lightening in a bottle (The Secret), go with it. It goes without saying that taste is clearly subjective.

  10. Anonymous

    Hi Nathan,

    I agree that Sullivan is grossly exaggerating when he writes that publishers don’t care about what is in their books. But would you comment on one facet of book publishing that I find curious and a bit didturbing? When I write for magazines, the magazine’s fact checker verifies every fact I included, and even checks with my interview subjects even though I have the interviews on tape. But publishers of nonfiction books don’t do fact-checking. Why do you suppose that is?


  11. Nathan Bransford


    Since you write for magazines, you probably know the huge amount of time a fact checker will put into one article. Now multiply that to book length and imagine the huge task of verifying every fact in every book published. The cost and time would be staggering. I’m not saying it can’t or shouldn’t be done, but it would be a huge undertaking.

    And then, would it be worth the expense? Even at places where there is fact-checking, such as newspapers and magazines, mistakes still happen all the time.

    Ultimately we rely on the goodwill and good faith that people will do their jobs. Authors have to pledge that what is in their book is accurate to the best of their knowledge, and unfortunately some people break that covenant, but I’m not sure it’s a measure of book editors that plagiarism, falsehoods and etc. sometimes happen.

  12. serenity now

    Please tell me that despite the powerful reach of cyber-dom, books are here forever. I mean real books where the pages yellow and they smell like the weekend when they’re new and like summer vacation when they’re old. If printing from online, or God-forbid the straight-to-the-brain thing, becomes the only option I will never read a new release again.

  13. urbansherpa

    If you think the publishing business is bad, try writing for television. This is a land where agents are nothing more than pimps for the devil himself (network). (Ari on Entourage — think about it?)

    And the very FIRST item on every director’s to-do list is to get the writer/creators name OFF the project by whatever manner possible.

    Publishing is like a vacation — who cares about a trivial, little thing like page numbers? Some authors take themselves waaaay too seriously.

  14. McKoala

    Bookstores can order books. It’s just amazing.

  15. mkcbunny

    And the store was filled with three feet of snow and the aisles were all up hill!!

    I couldn’t let that go by without a compliment. It made me laugh.

    … and we shared the same bath, once a month. And ate dirt, when we ate at all. You kids don’t know how good you have it today. Grumble, grumble.

  16. sex scenes at starbucks

    Nearly everyone I’ve met in the publishing industry has behaved professionally and kindly. (I wish I could say that writers have the same score on that point, but they’re arteests, after all, and they’re apparently due a little screaming.)

    I do think publishing has some archaic practices. I do my job–editing and writing–almost entirely on-screen, so I have little sympathy for the agents and editors who refuse email subs. Get some glasses for your ruined eyes, like me, and trudge onward (in the snow and uphill).

  17. Dwight's Writing Manifesto

    The Espresso book machine to which you refer isn’t great because it sticks a vindictive thumb in the eye of agents and gatekeepers like yourself.

    The Espresso book machine is great because, as a consumer, I can get any book in the world I want. It spits it out bound with cover art.

    (yes, the prototype has some kinks. They’ll work them out.)

    The Espresso book machine is great because, as a book retailer, I only need a fraction of the square footage that I used to need. Will I move to a smaller store? Heck no! I’ll just sell more merchandise crap stuff.

    The music industry gatekeepers said the same thing you said about keeping the quality high, Nathan. I used to believe that. Now I get almost all of my music from the Espresso equivalent: iTunes.

    And I listen for new music on podcasts, the podsafe network, and word-of-mouth Web sites.

    Turns out there was A LOT of good music out there that wasn’t making it past the gatekeepers.

    The future of print books? Don’t be so sure that you are an indispensable part of the literary chain, my friend. The times they are achangin’.

  18. Nathan Bransford


    I’m not opposed to the Espresso machine, nor is my future tied to print books. I don’t see how technology would change my business any time soon. I’d just be negotiating rights for things like book machines and e-books rather than print books. All in a day’s work.

  19. Sara K.

    Your post made me laugh. I think I remember that bookstore with the snow-covered aisles!

    Also love the blog in general. I haven’t seen these matters discussed so openly and frankly before (though maybe I haven’t been looking, either).

  20. Curtastrophe

    I don’t understand how Andrew Sullivan could expect a rational, intelligent person to watch this video and then make the mental leap to condemning the publishing industry as a whole.

    Nor does it make sense to me why a writer trying to make a persuasive arguement quotes a random anonymous reader.

    Where’s the anger coming from?


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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