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Dan Agin

Dan Agin

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American Publishing: A Lesson From Tolstoy's Inkwell

Posted: 02/26/11 01:42 PM ET

My first published literary effort, an article about New York City, appeared in 1945 in a magazine called Gotham, the house organ of the New Yorker Hotel. Since this is 2011, I claim 66 years as both a participant and observer of American publishing.

The magazine Gotham folded.

The New Yorker Hotel eventually also folded.

Traditional American publishing is in the process of folding.

From the standpoint of philosophy, everything folds eventually, so what's the big deal?

Well, the fact of folding is usually not as important as the reasons for folding. Looking at reasons, causes, provoking events, often helps us understand how the world works.

For the folding of traditional American publishing, the most provoking recent event is the appearance of the new technology of hand-held E-readers, especially the Kindle, which at present outclasses them all.

But aside from this new technology and its consequences now apparent to almost everyone, there are other reasons for the present collapse of traditional American publishing.

I say "collapse" because the collapse of Borders is akin to the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Wall Street, and like that collapse the collapse of Borders suggests that too many people in American publishing don't know what the hell they're doing.

Why is that?

After 66 years of watching the American publishing circus and publishing as an "author," my personal views are as follows:

  • Most publishers don't read books, they just display them on shelves in their offices.
  • Most acquiring editors don't read books, they just acquire them and negotiate contracts.
  • Most copy editors don't read books, they use software to locate possible grammar and punctuation problems.
  • Most literary agents don't read books, they just read opening chapters or proposals for books and sell books to editors based on the book's apparent "handle", its "take-away", its "feel-good" score.
  • Most marketing and publicity people in publishing don't read books, they read blurbs and look at book jackets and attach a book to market demographics.
  • Most publishing accountants don't read books, they just add up the profits and losses of the various imprints of a conglomerate.
  • Most booksellers don't read books, they sell books the way most people in publishing acquire books -- as physical objects with "handles."

The consequence of this monstrous list is that in American publishing books have for the most part been sold to the public with a focus on the book jacket, the jacket blurbs, the size of the book, the typeface, the timeliness, the fame of the author -- but hardly ever sold to the public because of the words printed on the pages of the book.

Books with lovely covers and blank pages would be sold (and have been sold) if there were a steady market for them.

Well, so what? you ask.

So this: After nearly a hundred years of selling books as objects in themselves rather than as merely vehicles for the words on the printed pages, it's natural that the people in American publishing believed (as many still believe) that the public wants the "feel" of a printed book, a hard copy, something physically tangible -- rather than the words on the printed pages, the words organized and put there by the author of the book.

The publishing people who believe this are so wrong.

The hundred year focus on packaging rather than on content is the most important cause of the present crisis in American publishing.

The writer Leo Tolstoy once remarked that every time he dipped his pen in the inkwell on his desk, he left some of his blood in the inkwell.

What the public wants (certainly the literate public) is not the book jacket, or the typeface, or the quality of the paper, or the "feel" of a book -- what the public wants is the blood and guts of the author, the contact of the reader's mind with the author's mind -- and the most efficient vehicle for that contact is now the electronic book, the E-book.

Of course, if you just sell books and don't read them, how would you ever know this?

In the movie industry there's a famous adage that a film treatment should never be more than thirty pages long. Why? Because the producer's lips get tired.

We've had more than a hundred years of blatant parallels in American publishing.

By the end of this century, when the dust of collapse has completely settled, my guess is the new operating mode will be direct publishing -- no non-reading middle-people between authors and their audiences.