Thursday, February 5, 2009

In search of editors

In 2008, I read today, nearly 480,000 books were published in the USA.

480,000? No wonder the publishing industry is in a bad state. There cannot possibly be 480,000 books worth publishing, maybe ever, much less annually. My understanding is that 10% of these, about 50,000 or so, are novels. 50,000 works of fiction a year.

The mind boggles.

I have spent my entire adult career in publishing. The first thing I learned, long before I came to Select Editions, was that most books aren’t very good, and that part of my job was to weed out the bad ones and to publish only the good ones. The second thing I learned was that quality was no guarantee of quantity: just because a book was good didn’t mean it was going to sell. Which translated into the truth that publishing can be a very frustrating business, for writers and publishers and booksellers alike, even when all you’re talking about is good books.

So now publishers are suffering in the weak economy, but if you ask me, they are merely paying the price of publishing way more books than deserve to be published. Unfortunately, nowadays anyone can self-publish a book, good or bad, and promote it on the internet, and maybe sell a lot of copies. So while traditional publishing might dwindle, probably the number of books will not lessen, but could even increase. One thing traditional publishing was supposed to do, but probably wasn’t doing all that well given the number of books being published, was to separate the good from the bad. Take away that gate-keeping aspect of publishing, and I’m not quite sure how you’ll be able to tell the good from the bad anymore. But of course, 480,000 books a year meant that publishing has long ago abdicated its role as gatekeeper. That’s not publishing, that’s printing. And that’s a different business altogether.

Gatekeepers are not perfect, of course. No one is the absolute judge of good and bad, the perfect arbiter of what someone else will enjoy. But skilled editors, trained to work with writers and to identify good writing, and with good instincts of their own, do serve some purpose. After all, reading a book is a pretty big commitment, not of money (books remain a relatively inexpensive entertainment) but of time. How long does it take to read the average book. Four hours straight? Eight hours? A week, a little bit every day? That’s a lot of time, a lot of investment. So that investment better pay off. Part of that small initial money investment was for someone to have worked on your behalf so that your time investment will be worth it. Mostly that’s the writer, of course, but editors need to fit in there too. Not all writers are worth reading: there’s that 480,000 books a year again. Editors help the rest of us find the good books. Reviewers (fewer and fewer all the time, at least in traditional media) do likewise. And word of mouth. But the editors come first. They’re the ones who find a manuscript and say, Let’s publish this. And they haven’t been doing their job as well as they should. As a result, their business is going through a dark transition, and no one knows how things will end up.

Maybe we’ll all be saved by the internet and peer reviews and a system of new gatekeepers. It could happen. Netflix is a good example of how it’s happened successfully with movies. But let’s face it. There’s only a few hundred new movies a year. All the available cinematographic technology doesn’t really place the ability to make a movie into everyone’s hands, whereas today’s available writing technology potentially makes each and every one of us a publisher of our own work. And roughly half a million of us, in the USA alone, are already pumping out a book a year. As I said, the mind boggles.

We are in for tough times on the reading front. I don’t know what’s going to happen. One thing I can guess though is that it will be harder and harder to find new authors worth reading in the forest of all that will be coming out. Let’s hope that we can find some way to keep separate the good from the bad. I don’t know about you, but when I commit to spending a week reading a book, I want it to be a good one.

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