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Turning the Page on The Disposable Book

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5. Cut costs, pray to the gods of movie tie-in paperback editions or hope that one of your authors gets his or her own talk show.

Given those pressures, I understand why a conscientious publisher would choose the first option -- to add titles fast and hope to catch some cultural wave. Think of Hannah Montana, Obama-mania, entrepreneurial self-promoters with a brand to build or political provocateurs such as Jonah Goldberg, whose pointless thought exercise "Liberal Fascism" is just the latest example of what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once termed "boob bait for the bubbas." Authors such as Goldberg serve up red meat for their constituencies while cable broadcasters fill airtime with their extreme, quasi-entertaining notions -- in this case, the "parallels" between Nazi policies and those of such Democratic leaders as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Books of this ilk have always existed. But in the past, they've been balanced by substantive books, crafted by monomaniacal authors who devoted years to the work. I can't prove it empirically, but when I talk to literary agents and fellow publishers, they acknowledge an unarticulated truth about our business: Fewer authors are devoting more than two years to their projects. The system demands more, faster. Conventional wisdom holds that popular novelists should deliver one or two books per year. Nonfiction authors often aren't paid enough to work full-time on a book for more than a year or two.

There's no guarantee that a book will be better if an author spends more time writing it, but years of research and reflection often provide a perspective that offers readers a kind of wisdom and authority they can't get anywhere else. Many of my favorite contemporary books were years in the making: "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen, "The Emperor's Children" by Claire Messud, "Titan" by Ron Chernow, "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright, "No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Good to Great" by Jim Collins and one I had the privilege of editing, "Seabiscuit" by Laura Hillenbrand. As she was crafting "Seabiscuit," Laura envisioned specific sentences in her head, word by word, before writing them down. That kind of careful, methodical writing contributed to the power of her prose.

Book publishers might be able to compete with news media, but we're foolish to try. Newspapers, magazines and electronic media can fulfill the needs of the moment far more effectively than a publishing company ever can or will. Journalism has long been regarded as the first rough draft of history; lately, however, books have too easily been thought of as the second rough draft, rather than the final word.

There might be good news on the horizon, though. Perhaps the age of disposable books won't last much longer than the books themselves. Here's one scenario:

The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively. Those who publish generic books for expedient purposes will face new competitors. Like the music companies, some of those publishers may shrink or die.

Many categories of books will be subsumed by digital media. Reference publishing has already migrated online. Practical nonfiction will be next, winding up on Web sites that can easily update and disseminate visual and textual information. Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off, and the next generation will have so many different entertainment options that it's hard to envision the same level of loyalty to brand-name formula fiction coming off the conveyor belt every year. The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle.

Consequently, publishers will be forced to invest in works of quality to maintain their niche. These books will be the one product that only they can deliver better than anyone else. Those same corporate executives who dictate annual returns may begin to proclaim the virtues of research and development, the great engine of growth for business. For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books -- works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.

That's my hope, at least. As I said, publishing is a business based primarily on blind hope.

Jonathan Karp is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, an imprint within the Hachette Book Group.


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