Why Won’t Publisher’s Print The Books That The Readers Want?

Sarah Hoyt has another blog post about the flaws of the traditional publishing industry and how it resembles the publishing in Portugal, which for the traditional publishing industry, is not a good thing.
When The Walls Fell
The strange part is that while late 1970’s Portuagal was a dark age for reading, here in the US, we were at the end of a golden age. When I was a teenager, Waldenbooks had become a presence all over the place and I discovered Jim baen and Galaxy where every magazine had an ad for a little store that sold nothing but science fiction in New York, a train ride away. I think through the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, I averaged three books a week. All good things must come to an end and in the 1990’s they did. There were a lot of reasons, but I think that the publishing industry became too corporate and too risk adverse.

A while back, there was a post on the Mad Genius Club blog about the effort to get noted attorney, and law professor M. Todd Henderson’s fiction novel,

    Mental State

The Mental State of M. Todd Henderson by Elaine Ash
At first glance, one would think that Mr. Henderson’s book would be an easy sell. Ms. Ash mentions that most agents and publisher’s wouldn’t touch the book. I don’t know who Down and Out publishers are, but I hope that they do well. In fact I expect that they will do very well. The answer to both the question why the big five publishers wouldn’t touch the Professors book and why Down and Out did is right there on their about page, Independent publisher.
The big five of the traditional publishing industry are all part of larger media conglomerates, most of them owned overseas.
Simon and Shuster is owned by CBS, Penguin Random House is owned by the Bertlesmann Publishing group, Harper Collins is owned by News Corp, Macmillan is owned by Holtzbrinck Publishing Group and Hachette is owned by the Lagardère Group. These five have subsidiaries that have the majority of the printed books published in the English speaking world.
Now why was that important to getting Mr. Henderson’s book out in the market? Because even if his agent went to two different ‘publishers’ they would ultimately be of only five ‘gates’ that would be available. So, even with twenty mystery or thriller editors Mr. Henderson only has access to five ‘gates’ or he will have to find an independent or sell independently on Amazon, which, since he has a full time and probably very demanding job, along with legal clients, that means that he would probably have let the book sit on the shelf if Down and Out hadn’t picked it up.
Here’s the story from Ms. Ash.
“In late 2015, I was hired as a freelance editor by Mr. Henderson, a law professor at the University of Chicago. His book, Mental State, is based on the real-life partially unsolved murder of Florida law professor Dan Markel. In the book, the murder is pinned on the wrong perp.
By 2017, the manuscript was ready, and we pitched agents across New York. Queries received instant responses. Eager emails came back exclaiming at how exciting the story was… until, one by one, each agent reached the part about the corrupt, female Democrat president sitting in the White House. Presto! The agents reversed out and vanished like Manhattan werewolves under a waning moon.
Finally, a conservative-friendly agent came onboard. The story went out to acquiring editors at all the majors and quickly received an offer from Regnery, publishers of Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Bill O’Reilly and many others. But Regnery’s parent-company Salem Media Group intervened. The acquiring editors were told to stand down and the offer was rescinded with no explanation.”
Reading this, I have the impression that the various agents and editors were more than a little concerned of having a Clintonesque president as a character. I can understand that. Talking about certain people in certain ways is a big no-no in their circles even if it is a fictional President. Read it all, here:
The Mental State of M. Todd Henderson by Elaine Ash
I think, though, that there are bigger issues than a book character going on here. Professor Henderson is ‘controversial’ and not in a way that an editor at the big five can easily deal with. The problem with concentration of the publishing industry is that the climate of the way a corporate culture behaves and the way management is taught creates a climate of extreme risk aversion. Signing a new author with the wrong kind of controversy surrounding him comes under the heading of extremely risky.
For an editor that signs a conservative or even these days, an author that doesn’t have pristine politically correct credential the risk is high that they will lose their friends, be ostracized and if the book flops and there will be an effort to ensure that it does, their jobs, with an effective blacklist against them. So taking that kind of chance, no matter how good the book might be, is not something that editor is likely to do.
Consider that almost all the editors turned down the first Harry Potter book. There are all sorts of reasons given, now, “the book was too long,” “the story didn’t start with the main character” or “the fat boy was a bully.” What none of them did was hand the MS to an eight year old and see what happened. The Editor at Bloomsbury did and took a chance. The rest is history.
I’m not sure what politically incorrect thing led all those editors to turn down Harry Potter. I’m sure that there were reasons that they won’t tell us now. I suspect that it was that the characters in Harry Potter were too white bread. They may have wanted the main character to be a girl or some other reason. For whatever reason, they were not willing to take the small risk that publishing Harry Potter represented. The risk involved just wasn’t worth it, regardless of the potential reward.
The publishing industry wasn’t always this risk adverse. Fifty or sixty years ago, paperback publishers were willing to try just about anything to see if it would sell. Sell they did, because they reached so many markets with such a variety of diverse in every way content. From the late 1930’s until the late 1970’s paperback publishers took books out of bookstores and libraries and put them in railroad stations, truck stops and other places where a good read would fill the time. At that time the publishing industry was innovative and lucrative. It was the fact that there was money there to be had that began to change the industry to the thing that it is today.
The problem is that it is easier, if you can obtain the credit, to just buy some innovative upstart than it is to create your own version of the innovation. So one by one, the formerly independent publishers were swallowed up, especially as the economics of scale worked against them.
At first this didn’t matter as the editorial staff and their outlook didn’t change very much. The old gang was still around through the mid 1980’s and upstarts like Jim Baen were starting their own imprints and getting books out. But as time went on and financing regulations made it harder to just startup just about anything, the big guys started to own the market.
This was exacerbated as the chain bookstores grew and many of the alternative outlets for paperback stopped carrying them. While they lasted, the chains sold a lot of books and having to deal with just a few buyers made the big companies’ jobs easier. That was especially true when the buyers were not readers and didn’t actually care about anything very much other than sales numbers. Books had become commodities like toilet paper and were treated by sales people about the same way. This was not helped very much by a little known IRS case called Thor Power Tool. Thor Power Tool changed how inventories were accounted for and encouraged a push sales model rather than a demand sales model. The publishers no longer held books in warehouses until somebody wanted them. Instead they ran a print run, distributed the preorders and held some back for a year and then pulped them or dumped them onto remainder tables if the remainder people bought them at pennies on the dollar. In any case the books didn’t stay around long enough for a demand to build up. At least that was the case outside the literature circles. So an ephemeral medium became even more ephemeral.
The 1980’s also started a change in how editorial and management were handled. The trend was slow at first, but as a result of the corporate hiring practices the editors were drawn from Ivy League English majors, by and large, women and the management was MBA numbers types. Sales came from the same people selling Kleenex. One day they are working at Kimberly Clark, the next, Macmillan and after that, Union Carbide. In all these cases, the way the business was done became more important than what they were doing.
You can see what’s going on in this interview of the CEO of Hachette, Arnaud Nourry. First of all, here’s what he says about his corporate culture:
“We don’t maintain one ethos. We share values of course – culture, education, freedom of speech, services to authors, creativity, innovation. But beyond that, each and every imprint has its own positioning, spirit, ethos, development and freedom. This is the only way we can be good publishers in India, in Mexico, in Japan, in Spain, or in the UK or the US. These markets are entirely different from one another.”
About expanding into a new market:
”We are not in the education sector. We marginally export education books from England to India, but it is not the core of our business. But I do think that the more textbooks are in the hands of kids, the more they’ll find that buying and reading children books, and when they’re older, adult books, is a pleasant experience. So I’m bullish on the trade side for sure.”
He had just been told that 70% of the market is educational books. The crowning part of the interview is what he thinks of the technology that is going to disrupt his entire industry:
“There are two different geographies to look at for this. In the US and UK, the ebook market is about 20% of the total book market, everywhere else it is 5%-7% because in these places the prices never went down to such a level that the ebook market would get significant traction. I think the plateau, or rather slight decline, that we’re seeing in the US and UK is not going to reverse. It’s the limit of the ebook format. The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience. We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks – didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, websites with our content – we have one or two successes among a hundred failures. I’m talking about the entire industry. We’ve not done very well.”
Of course they haven’t done very well with ebooks. It’s been obvious from the start and the way they have dealt with ebooks that none of the big five have understood just what was going on. Nor do they seem to understand exactly what their business is. Here’s a clue. They are not selling paper with ink on it. The ebook is not a stupid product. The ebook is a new way of delivering the product to the reader. It isn’t the actual physical book that is important, it’s the content of the books. The rest of the article is here: https://scroll.in/article/868871/the-ebook-is-a-stupid-product-no-creativity-no-enhancement-says-the-hachette-group-ceo
They say that fish rots from the head and Hachette’s actions with Amazon and other things over the years, demonstrate that the head at Hachette is a long way from the reader that is their ultimate customer. Starting a war with the world’s largest retailer of your product over pricing does not strike me as the greatest strategy unless you’re planning to build your own connections to your customers. Jim Baen started to do that before his untimely passing about ten years or so ago. But then Jim understood what his market was and actively developed lines of communications with his ultimate consumer, the reader. The rest of the editors in the Big Five don’t seem to have pursued that. I think that most of them don’t expect things to change. They should know better. Look at it this way, Jim Baen and Jerry Pournelle were talking about ebooks in the early 1980’s, long before the technology even existed. I suspect that the typical big five editor barely know how to turn their computers on and I hate to think what they use their smart phones for.
In the end, I think that building that connection scares the publishing industry the most. They like to think of themselves as the literary elites, but don’t really want to understand the culture enough to be true elites. The editors were English majors, that rather than study Shakespeare, studied radical philosophy and women’s studies. They know very little of Western culture because they had so little exposure to it. The money people, the people in the conglomerates are worse, breaking down businesses that require insight and creativity into financial reports and income statement with heavy servings of modern management theory. They really have no clue.
As for we poor readers, abused and neglected by an industry that can’t seem to get its act together? We’re looking at alternatives. There are other sources for our reading fixes. Fanfiction, for instance, and strange stories that would never make it past the gatekeepers. Finally there is Amazon and independent publishing. We no longer have to accept the pablum that the traditional publishers throw at us. It’s no wonder that they see their numbers in the tank. The fact is that the five percent of us who actually read are not losing appetite for fiction as the following links show. We have lost our patience for grey goop.

There is a solution for the Big Five. They would have to commit to taking risks and finding stories that sell in land of the despicables. Of course that would mean that they would have to actually find out what flyover land actually wants. Somehow I don’t see that happening.


  1. sam57l0 · March 26, 2020

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, the WaPoo! I despise, detest, and distrust everything in the WaPoo. It’s WaPoop. Of course, the same goes for the NYT.


    • jccarlton · March 26, 2020

      Both of them are written and edited by clueless people. The problem is that their cluelessness if infecting everything else.


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