Turning the Page on The Disposable Book

By Jonathan Karp
Sunday, June 29, 2008

M any years ago, as a new editorial assistant at a venerable publishing house, I was warned by a senior colleague never to use a certain word when telling authors what would happen to their unsold books. The forbidden word was: mulched. My colleague, a compassionate sort, worried that the word might shatter the fragile psyches of authors who had toiled for years on their manuscripts. It was better to let them believe their work was being discounted, or perhaps donated to some inner-city literacy program. Today a tactful publisher might simply invoke environmental concerns and emphasize the global imperative of recycling to prevent the melting of polar ice caps, in effect telling authors: Destroying your book will save coastal cities!

Amazingly, authors rarely ask what happens to their unsold books; perhaps they don't want to know. What seems abundantly true to me, however, after almost 20 years in the publishing business, is that an increasing number of their books will be -- and should be -- mulched. We are living in the age of the disposable book.

Visit your neighborhood superstore, and you will be overwhelmed with ephemera: self-aggrandizing memoirs by recovering addicts; poignant portraits of heroic pets; hyperbolic ideological tracts by insufferable cable TV pundits; guides to staying wrinkle- and toxin-free; odes to Warren Buffett and Jesus Christ; manifestos for fixing America in 12 easy steps; manly accounts of the best athlete/season/team ever; and glittery novels about British royalty, love-starved shoppers, mournful cops and ingenious serial killers. (There are more novels about serial killers than there are actual serial killers.)

Popular formulas repeat themselves for a reason: They have visceral, even mythic, appeal. A talented author can bring new vision to the most tired subject, so there's nothing wrong with trying. Nor is there anything new about the syndrome. But what does seem more pronounced today is the relentless, indiscriminate proliferation of these books -- and the underlying cynicism of the people acquiring, publishing and selling them.

I am, of course, mindful that people who work in glass publishing houses should not throw stones. I too have sinned. In weaker moments, I've been seduced by tales of celebrity, money, gossip and scandal. Among my crimes: I volunteered to edit a White House memoir by a self-serving egomaniac because I wanted to learn about presidential politics. (Hint: The author's name was Dick Morris.) I worked on a book by Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega because we thought he might be able to provide an illuminating perspective on how the United States wields power in Latin America. And, in an effort to bolster the company's bottom line, I acquired and edited an inspirational autobiography by the pop singer Clay Aiken, written and published in about four months. (For the record, Noriega was a lot more pleasant to deal with than Aiken.)

Like most publishers, I want multitudes of readers to buy our books. Moreover, authors prefer publishers who believe in the broad appeal of their work and are committed to selling as many copies as possible. Most authors want their work to be accessible to a typical educated reader, so the question really isn't whether the work is highbrow or lowbrow or appeals to the masses or the elites; the question is whether the book is expedient or built to last. Are we going for the quick score or enduring value? Too often, we (publishers and authors) are driven by the same concerns as any commercial enterprise: We are manufacturing products for the moment.

Among major publishing houses, the impetus to meet annual profit targets is a fact of life -- the basis of budgets, salaries and bonuses. Publishers do what typical executives do: They plan. They forecast. They develop strategies for growth. Unfortunately, these attempts at producing consistent results don't work particularly well in an endeavor that is only slightly more predictable than a game of blackjack.

A publisher expected to produce annual growth has several options:

1. Add more titles to augment sales. But no one knows whether the books will sell! When a new project is acquired, we base our sales projections on the way similar books have performed in the marketplace -- an assumption based fundamentally in blind hope. Often, these financial projections turn out to be more fictional than the novels we publish.

2. Sell more copies of existing authors and titles. A worthwhile endeavor, but also a difficult one in a retail environment that is essentially flat.

3. Ask popular authors to "increase output." Which can result in twice as many of those ingenious serial-killer books per year.

4. Diversify your "product line." Which is why there are six new diet books and presidential biographies every season: Publishers are engaged in an endless war for market share in the same limited categories, despite the fact that there's not much demand for new books in many of them.

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