The process of creating art and then asking others to assign it a somewhat made-up market value is admittedly one of the most bizarre aspects of a writer’s job, for all that it is necessary for those of us trying to make a living. It seems likely that the math could prove even less favorable to authors — especially debut authors, especially those from marginalized backgrounds — if smaller publishers cannot thrive and maintain their independence. Indies routinely bet on daring literature and play a crucial role in launching, building, and sustaining the careers of writers whose work we need. The work being published by these presses — places such as Tin House, Graywolf, Milkweed Editions, Coffee House, Akashic Books, New Directions, Melville House, and The Feminist Press — is one thing that gives me hope for the future of publishing. Whether or not one industry giant is ultimately able to acquire another, whether we end up with a Big Five, a Big Four, or a Big One and Everyone Else, the publishing ecosystem needs strong, flourishing independent presses — and authors and readers do too.
Nicole Chung is right. And (as a Penguin/Random House author) I really hope the proposed merger with Simon & Schuster is quashed. Indeed, I’d love to see a devolution in the publishing industry. Back in the 1970s, when I worked as a receiving clerk in a bookstore, shipments came from everywhere; it seemed that we got books from a thousand presses — though maybe it was just a hundred — all of which had their own niche, their own style, their own mission. The homogenization of the publishing world is sad, and, like the dominance of a handful of social media companies, bad for our intellectual and moral environment. Down with monocultures!
So, cue Ted Gioia:
When I was publishing my first three books … my editor had my trust and vice versa. We worked together closely as individuals on every issue, from writing to marketing, even down to the tiniest details. I knew publishing was a business, even back then, but it didn’t feel like one. That started to change in the new millennium, and every aspect of that downstream process became more acutely corporatized.
Fortunately, the rest of the world has changed too, especially technology. And authors have options that didn’t exist years ago. Or, in some instances, they have options that didn’t even exist just a few months ago.
Substack is one of those options.
So I’ve decided to publish my next book on Substack.
This is interesting to me, because Ted and I have similar writing trajectories: We’re about the same age, we’ve published roughly the same number of books over the same number of years, and we’re both “midlist” writers (though he has more consistently been at the upper end of the midlist than I have). I’ve also experienced the “corporatizing” that he speaks of, but perhaps in slightly different ways: the chief factor making my life unpleasant has been the outsourcing of much of the editorial business to freelance copyeditors and production companies, which has led to extreme problems with quality control. (One reason I enjoy working with Princeton University Press is that they still keep most elements of the process in-house — though the freelance copy-editor for my Book of Common Prayer biography helped me allow some embarrassing errors to slip through.) I have several books that I want to write but I find myself thinking, mournfully: Do I really want to go through all that yet again?
I tell you, Ted’s post makes me fret — and not for the first time — about all the money I might be leaving on the table by not moving to Substack. But I love being on the open web; and in any case I would only have a fraction of the subscribers that Ted has. (I just don’t know how small a fraction: 1/10? 1/100? 1/1000?) I think I’m better off where I am. Probably. Maybe.