A former colleague of mine who is still a mentor has been cracking me up over his commentary on the state of the publishing industry these days. Most recently, he expressed his concerns over the fact that HarperCollins has established a new "It" imprint. His spot-on evaluation is here. (Don't you just love his title for that post?) He's inspired me to write one of my own.
My first reaction is that the likes of some of my publishing "heroes," like Bennett Cerf and Alfred A. Knopf, who had very high standards, aren't merely rolling in their graves. They're performing miraculous acrobatics in their graves. Of course, they might smugly be pointing out to ghostly comrades that "Well, that's HarperCollins. What can you expect?" But they can't possibly be too impressed with what's been going on at their own Random House (Knopf, still one of my favorite publishers, despite having been gobbled up, is an imprint of Random House) these days.
What kills me is what kills my former colleague. Why do those running these companies insist on competing with other forms of media? They are not keeping their eyes on the ball, which is not that they need new "dumbed down" content but rather that they need to be delivering their content in ways that best suits their customers. I mean, imagine Gutenberg inventing the printing press and all the Biblical scribes of his day deciding, "Hmmm. We're going to be put out of business. What can we do? I know. We'll start transcribing street conversations." People who wanted the Bible wanted the Bible, and they knew what they wanted.
The publishing industry has always catered to a minority: those of us who read. Yes, occasionally, there is some fluke like Harry Potter that somehow manages to capture the attention of non-readers (and publishers should consider such flukes to be just that, instead of thinking they should be a company's bread-and-butter), but for the most part, those of us who buy books and read them consistently desire to read "good stuff." We are picky and always have been. For instance, I have absolutely no desire to read a whole book of "Tweets," as published by the new "It" imprint. And if you actually went out and asked Twitter addicts, I doubt they do, either. They're getting what they want from Twitter, which is instant communication, and that has nothing to do with book publishing.
I am a reader. Guess what. I don't watch television. I don't play video games. And movies? Well, I watch them, but I will almost always tell you, "The book was so much better." What do I do? I read. And read. And read. I always have. I don't believe it has anything to do with age, either. I know plenty of young people who still bury their noses in books the way I did when I was young, despite coming up to text people, check their Facebook accounts, and play video games. We are still out here. We haven't disappeared.
We readers are extraordinarily opinionated. We tend either to love or hate the books we read. I also happen to be one who pays attention to publishers and which ones give me the books I most enjoy. Algonquin? I love you. Overlook? Thank you for keeping P.G. Wodehouse and Freddy the Pig alive. Knopf, I don't know how you do it, being owned by Random House, but somehow you manage still to keep your typo-to-page-count ratio quite low.
I am not the least bit interested in some sort of "ET Tonight" version of publishing. I want talent. I want thought-provoking. I want things like excellent characterization, believable plot, writing that is seamless, and well-researched nonfiction. Is this why I find myself turning to blogs more and more often? And is this why I question whether or not publishers are really doing the same? If I were running a big-name publishing company today, I'd be spending a good deal of my time out here in the blogosphere, mining for gold instead of waiting for it to come knocking at my door.
So many of my friends (oh, and one husband) are adamantly defending the physical book. They are sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to electronic publishing. I'm not there. I am way past that. However, I am not way past demanding standards, demanding quality. I don't really care how you deliver it to me, but I want you to give me 2009's answer to Wallace Stegner, to Virginia Woolf, to Thomas Hardy. And don't tell me they're not out there. Human beings are story-tellers. Some do this far better than others and always have. They are most definitely out there. They deserve to be heard, and we readers deserve to be able to get our hands on them. A friend of mine, who recently finished reading Montaigne pondered, "What would he be doing today?" My answer? "Blogging."
The major publishers need to wake up and realize this. They do not need to be finding new markets that won't bite. They need to be making sure they keep feeding the market base they've always had. If those of us who want good quality, thought-provoking, fantastic story-telling want all that in an electronic format that works for us, then that's where publishers ought to be focusing their money and efforts. Don't change the content. Leave the empty television shows to the major networks. Leave instant communication with no real substance to Twitter. Leave inferior film versions to Hollywood. But please, please, somebody, keep feeding my mind with words strung together by those who have the imagination and talent to do so beautifully.