Around the (Publishing) World in 100 Years

I personally took this photo of David Morrell....

Novelist David Morrell

I recently had the pleasure of hearing David Morrell (successful writer and “Rambo” creator) speak on his perspective on publishing’s history.  He began by reminding us

that just over 100 years ago books were a precious commodity that not everyone could claim – outside of the family Bible and a Farmer’s Almanac.

Those leather-bound volumes still hold an iconic picture in our mind’s eye as the quintessential idea of a BOOK.  The advent of paperback “dime store” novels soon swept away any financial barriers to book ownership – and ushered in a new era of writers and readers.  The decades to follow brought more adventure, mystery, romance, even pulp fiction, all available at general stores and pharmacies across the country.

By 1972 independent book stores, carrying mostly paperbacks, were the source of the majority of sales, with books sold as an additional item in drug stores, and the like.  There were no book signings or media hype related to new titles.

That all changed with Jacqueline Suzanne, author of “Valley of the Dolls”.  She was the first to contact stores and promote herself as an author.  She had conversations with the public, while her husband, Irving, wrote down the pertinent information discreetly off to the side.  They kept it all in files at home, then sent handwritten notes to those who had anniversaries, started little league, and so on, creating a fan club that was invested as much in the writer as in the book.

When the rise of malls and anchor stores came on the American scene, Waldens and similar entities became chain stores in these areas, driving out the independent stores and stands.  They were eventually eclipsed by book retailing giants like Barnes and Noble and Borders.

The interior of the Barnes & Noble located at ...

The interior of Barnes and Noble's Grove Store

By 1986 book tours had become common – but vastly expensive. (If you sold 200 books at a signing, the publisher made about $4 per book = $800.  A tour of 15 cities costs about $30,000.  Book tours do not make money – they only assist a book hitting the Best Seller List and driving future sales.)

In the 1990’s international companies bought up the 40+ independent publishers (mostly in New York) and only a few companies remain with multiple imprints.  The umbrella companies are often focused on selling other products ( such as cornflakes) and do not want to be innovative in the field of publishing.  Analysts see this as a deciding factor in the failure of the mega-stores to embrace electronic books, and in their ultimate decline.

“I have not seen a revolution like eBooks in my lifetime,” says David Morrell.  Thirty million iPads have sold in the U.S.  While Amazon does not reveal the sales of their eReader, “Amazon is smart because it is not in the Kindle business.  It is in the download business.  They recognize that the vehicle may change, but the method of transfer is the same.”

Industry prediction: by the end of 2011, 100 million electronic readers will be owned by the public.

So why the resistance by industry leaders?  Electronic publishing eliminates the “gatekeepers” – agents and editors – who may have kept good books out of the public eye in favor of trends.  E-books now present the opportunity for anyone to offer their book to readers.  However, authors have to be in business for themselves – they need cover design, editing services, and marketing, adding to the writer’s burden of work.

Forward-thinking individuals are evolving – just like books.  Agents are now becoming “lierary managers” who coordinate these services for a fee, usually 15%.  Publishers are now interested in electronic rights.  (Make sure these have an expiration date, based on a minimum sales figure within a specific time frame, or by set time period.)

Morrell’s prediction: in 2 years, hardbacks will be a specialty item, paperbacks will be gone, trade paperbacks will be the choice for print, and electronic downloads will be the majority of sales.  Others look forward to the renaissance of the independent book store and a return to localized offerings.

Book Loft

There is certainly a lot to think about for writers and readers, but one thing that history shows us is whatever the format, good writing stands the test of time.

The Space Marked “Other”

One of the highlights for October was the annual Ozark Creative Writers conference, held in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  It was an informative weekend filled with writers from as far away as Arizona and Oregon, and featured 39-year published author and creator of “Rambo”, David Morrell.

Commenting on his unusual longevity in the publishing world, Mr. Morrell stated, “The average author’s career lasts 15-20 years – largely because a writer often finds a format that works for them, and then does it over and over until both they and their readers tire of it.  He then went on to recap the last hundred years or so of book printing history (more about that later).

My favorite sentiment from Mr. Morrell was, “There are no inferior genres, only inferior authors.”  That was a refreshing point of view in an industry that often seeks to pigeonhole writers into an imagined hierarchy of what constitutes “good” writing.

Perhaps it struck a nerve with me because a typical question asked of a writer – especially at writers’ conferences – is “what do you write?”  My initial response, which I generally am able to keep to myself, is ‘whatever I can get away with’.  That’s because I enjoy writing a variety of things, and am generally so tickled that people actually pay for it.

So the next choice in responses is to consider who I’m speaking with and answer accordingly.  I’m an education writer.  I write non-fiction.  I love mysteries.  Sometimes the snobbier types are referring to what you’ve published, which may be entirely different from what you write, especially for those who have to pay the bills.  Of course, I understand that most people are just looking for a hook to hang your name on, a method of identifying this new face in a confusing sea of strangers.  Still…

Books - bookcase top shelf

I find the question similar to that insulting section of a form that asks if I am caucasian, african-american, asian, native american, or a purple-people-eater.  I’m human.  Isn’t that enough?  I’m a writer.  No further categorization required.

I’m also a fan of good books.  Period.  My favorites are filed under sci-fi, romance, western, contemporary, classic, biography, childrens, and memoir.  A story told well – in any genre – is a story that translates to everyone.  And that is something that transcends genre.

So I might be writing a children’s book…and a thriller…and a historical saga.  And I hope they will just be good stories – however Dewey decides to classify them.  So I’m not going to ask what you write.  I’d just like to know what are your writing NOW?

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