Is Optimism About the Future of “Serious” Publishing Possible?

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In the kind of defeated sigh about the future of books that is increasingly commonplace, Sarah Weinman, the news editor at Publisher’s Marketplace, argues that in the digital age there’s no room for “serious nonfiction.” The gist of her argument is familiar, the kind of thing we’ve been hearing for years: without “traditional” publishers there will be no large book advances for what she calls “prestige” work, like Robert Caro’s multi-volume LBJ biography.

Her argument might have been a little more persuasive had she considered the fact that Caro actually went broke writing the first of his biographies, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Caro had to sell his house, and take a job teaching, to support himself and his family in the seven years it took him to finish the book. Plus: his wife worked. When I saw Caro speak at an event in Tribeca, recently, he was asked what kind of advice he’d give to aspiring biographers. “Become independently wealthy,” he said.  And that’s from one of the biggest names in the “serious” business, who grew up as a writer in publishing’s alleged golden years.

It’ll always cost a writer more to do serious work of any kind than it will to just dash off some crap-on-delivery thing. And that goes for fiction, too. And it is, much of the time, thankless, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. That’s just how writing like a motherfucker goes.

That said, I don’t think there is anyone out there who has recently looked at the state of book publishing, I mean really looked, and not tightened her grip on her wineglass. Unlike Weinman, I don’t work inside or report on publishing, but what limited exposure I do have suggests that there is indeed a crisis on the horizon. Anyone who’s ever wanted to see their name in print on the cover of a book — biography or novel, chapbook or memoir — ought to be thinking about that, about how to sustain the world of books. But the focus on the internet as the death of culture, which drones on in tired refrain on certain book sites, strikes me as bizarre, and overstated, not to mention creatively paralyzing.

I am not the kind of wide-eyed “digital evangelist” in eternal search of the next conference speaker’s fee Weinman blames — and that we mutually abhor, I should add — but I am not particularly afraid of the internet inhibiting my “serious work.” I mean, look at where I’m writing from.

Just as there are sites like The Rumpus that take a non-traditional approach to publishing fiction and essays and memoir (and heart-stoppingly beautiful advice columns), there are places that are take non-traditional approaches to publishing non-fiction, and produce beautiful work. One of them, for example, is The Atavist. They sell reported e-books that integrate multimedia into the text, so that as you read you can check footnotes and look at pictures and marvel at all the smaller details of the story. Which, I’d like to note, I do anyway when reading non-fiction; I’m always flipping back and forth between the pictures section and the rest of a book. I want to see the real thing. Moreover, the Atavist has an editor work with each writer on the book, and they pay an advance, and while it’s true that they publish things that are slightly shorter than your average book, they are not less “serious” because of it.

I am not sure where we got this idea that the only thing that really matters about a story, what makes it “real,” is that it must be printed on paper and edited by a person with a business card issued by a major corporation that says “editor” on it. But I think we’d best quick discard that. Like a lot of people, I prefer reading on paper, particularly if I’m trying to drift off to sleep at night, but I don’t know that it makes the book better. Like anyone who’s ever worked with any kind of editor, I know that a mutually-respectful, carefully-considered, back-and-forth tennis match will make even very good writing a lot better. But neither of those things require, necessarily, the publishing machine as it is currently wired and soldered together.

If it’s true, as Weinman says, that the machine is overly focussed on the underlying financials of a book, if it’s also true that the big houses have a taste for cheap best-seller non-fiction that is largely crap, then the problem is not the internet. The problem is that the big houses are following ludicrous business schemes, overall, and ones that will hasten, rather than forestall, their demise.

There’s only so much crap corporate overlords can force editors to acquire before all the good editors will start looking for other lines of work, and there’s only so many feeble advances they can hand out before everyone decides it’s quicker to start up a Kickstarter account and hire one of these newly-freelancing editors to work with them. And the people who want to be “serious” start finding other ways to do the work their souls demand that they must do.

I will not tell you that that alternate situation is the ideal, but I will say that the only people who have it within their power to stop it from happening are the publishers themselves, who have a choice to make. Either they’re in a business where the quick buck is the almighty, or they’re in this for the long haul and want to be known as a stable, quality company that consistently churns out quality work, if not always the best profit and loss statement. And that is not a decision the internet can make for them.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →