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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.

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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