Much has changed in the way that writing gets published... and read. Two things, however, remain unchanged: the creative talent of the writer and the intellectual curiosity of the reader.
Alan Rinzler has a solid reputation for being a tough, tasteful, and precise editor to many famous writers.
"The book business," he says, "has always only been marginally profitable. Even in the halcyon days of publishing, when I was fresh out of college, when Richard Simon was in one office and Max Schuster in another...when Alfred Knopf was down the street and Bennett Cerf was running Random House, most of the books being published by those titanic icons lost money."
A business model, if there was one, was based on "the publisher's passion," Rinzler continues. "In those days, an editor would acquire a book because he loved it. He believed in it. But only a few books made enough to compensate for all those that failed. It was the old 20/80 rule."
Book publishing has forever been an industry with very slim margins. "A profit of 5 to 6 percent meant that you were doing well," Rinzler points out. This was largely due to the up-front expenses in traditional book publishing: typesetting, and then printing and binding a book in long press runs; warehousing the books and having to distribute them to innumerable book stores around the country; marketing and publicity. ... All these caused out-of-pocket expenses that were incurred before a single book was ever sold. And then, as the unruly frosting on the cake, unsold books could be returned by the stores to the publishers for refunds... further expenses.
"Of course, this in no way affected the impact of the publishing industry on the general scene," Rinzler says. "It had a very high visibility because it influenced ideas and social change. It reflected what was happening in politics, the arts, the culture."
When the first shopping mall store chains (B. Dalton, Walden Books, et al.) came along, there was much worry on the part of the traditional publishers about what this could mean to their sales and profits. "Those stores were originally considered low-brow warehouses," Rinzler says. "Paperback reprints for a dollar each. A lot of people in the business predicted the end of traditional publishing and independent bookstores." In fact, however, sales increased rather than decreased and profits soared for the top best-sellers because of far greater volume over so many new outlets.
And now, electronic digital publishing and distribution, and self-publishing are changing the scene in ways that are even more dramatic.
"Gradually, kicking and screaming," Rinzler notes, "traditional book publishers and sellers are being dragged into the 21st century. And one of the biggest factors in this has been the rise of Amazon. Their brilliant new idea was to sell books on line and through the mail directly to buyers, in ways that traditional publishers had never before done. Also the idea of discounting certain titles, or offering chapters of a book for free, the result often being that readers buy the books in much greater volume...because they know what they're getting."
There's an authentic revolution in book publishing that has greatly impacted the author's potential to receive a greater share of the profits. In traditional publishing, the author's royalty has always been 10-12-15 percent for a hard cover; 7 1/2 to 10 percent for trade paperback; even lower for certain kinds of mass publishing. Now, with the advent of Amazon's Kindle reader, Kindle e-book and CreateSpace print-on-demand self-publishing programs, an author can receive as much as 70 percent of the retail price as royalties.
The growth of electronic publishing has brightened the future for individual writers in ways that provide new incentive for true writing talent, and new enthusiasm among readers of good books. With electronic publishing, more books that are well written are finding the light of day, and delivered much more quickly into the hands of avid readers. Traditional publishing is, to be sure, still doing fine. The printed book will not disappear, but the market share of ebook to print has grown from 5 percent to 30 percent over the past few years and is projected to surpass 50 percent of all book sales within two or three more.
"Yes, I think this is the best time ever for an author," Rinzler says. "The balance of power has shifted from the gatekeepers to the artists. Now the author is in a position to take control of the means of production, which has almost never been the case in the history of publishing. They can control the content, the design, the appearance, the production itself... and also, by the way, receive a much larger share of the profits from all that."
Rinzler breaks into a grin.
"I understand that an author may want to do things in the traditional way, having the imprimatur of that important publisher's brand name on the spine of his or her book. But to me, that's like having a spot on the roster of the 1947 Yankees. Now I always ask my writers, 'How much time have you got? How much patience? How much tolerance for frustration? Rejection? Or for just plain being ignored?'"
Rinzler's questions reveal the reality, for most writers, of dealing with traditional publishing. And that's why, he continues, self-publishing has now become such a viable alternative. What once was the worst thing for a serious writer to do, now offers very great potential value to that writer. No longer is self-publishing an embarrassing admission of defeat by authors whose work does not attract a traditional publisher. Now writers can hire their own developmental editors and jacket designers and skip over the big wait.
"If you've gone for a year or two with no positive response from traditional publishers, self-publishing begins to look pretty good," Rinzler avers. "And of course," he adds, "there's the precedent of self-published books becoming best sellers. Miracles do happen!"
Terence Clarke's new novel, The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, will be published later this year.