PUBLISHING is in trouble. Prices are high, costs are higher, sales are low -- so low, in fact, that Leonard Shatzkin, who's pushing his formula for the industry's recovery in In Cold Type, says that "approximately one out of every four new books manufactured never gets to the bookstore, but goes directly from the publisher's warehouse (together with the returned copies from bookstores) to the remainder dealer." That's a pretty brutal statistic, since it means, for those of you unfamiliar with book economics, no revenue for the authors on those remaindered copies and precious little for the publishers themselves.
Publishers may seem perfidious in this regard, abandoning a book that they once courted, but you must remember it's not actually the immediate financial gain they seek when consigning a book to the remainder tables and the author to a diminished royalty check. Rather it's the possibility of future gain, in the shape of warehouse space reclaimed for upcoming and, they hope, more profitable titles. Though it seems as if the public benefits from this process, because of remainders' reduced prices, in truth the resulting harm to the industry from such a cycle of seemingly "planned" (it isn't, but it has become built in) obsolescence simply drives prices continually up. What's more, according to Shatzkin, the situation gives rise to what he believes is the erroneous notion that what's wrong with the book business is too many books.
Bucking the conventional wisdom, Shatzkin, a former publishing executive, refuses to agree with those who would attempt to reduce the number of titles on their lists. Instead, he outlines here a plan -- unfortunately somewhat unevenly detailed and curiously inconsistent in spots -- that he promises will result in more streamlined print orders and fewer "abandoned" books. There will be, he says, the same (or an even greater) variety of titles and yet because fewer of them (at a time) will be printed, paradoxically more will be sold. Or so he claims. Disdaining what he calls "distribution-by-negotiation," the practice of salesmen calling on bookstores seasonally to sell their lists, Shatzkin proposes the institution of "merchandising plans" which will, in large measure, make publishers, not retailers, responsible for what sits on the bookstore shelves. If such a system works for greeting card vendors and grocers then why can't it be adapted for the book business?
Sputters of protest from his former colleagues are not going to faze Shatzkin; they're what he expects. He's a man with a mission, obsessively paddling a lifeboat towards a slowly sinking industry. Only practically no one is prepared to jump in with him, since, as far as they're concerned, his rescue vessel has got some holes of its own. But everyone's toes are already wet in varying degrees, and nobody's going to argue with Shatzkin's litany of what's wrong with publishing: bookstore chains are problematic, editorial decisions are too often wishful thinking, books should be in stores when reviews appear and authors tour, too many titles die prematurely, sales reps sell new books selectively and often neglect backlists, etc., etc. It's just that his solution, reduced to its simplest, has a Candide-ish air.
Publishers, Shatzkin seems to be telling us, should only publish books that would sell and booksellers should only stock books their customers would buy. In the best of all possible worlds, maybe, but there are other factors at work contributing to publishing's woes. Those two all-purpose villains, the economy and television, play large roles in the publishing melodrama, along with the inefficiency and stodginess of the industry itself.
The hand-wringing that's going on now has been around in one form or another for years; probably it began when there started to be middlemen between the storytellers and their audience. However, Shatzkin is right to feel a sense of urgency about the fate of the business with which he's had such a long association: things are no doubt going to get worse -- prices higher, publishing houses merging or folding, authors squeezed in the middle -- before there's a chance of their getting better. Despite his stated reservations about O. H. Cheney's 1930-31 Economic Survey of the Book Industry, Shatzkin points out that most of the counterproductive practices described in that wide-ranging study of half-a-century ago still exist today, some of them "even more destructive." Cheney said it all when he wrote "Illiteracy is of no importance to the industry compared to the economic illiteracy of those in it."
But Shatzkin's solution of applying the proven profitable methods of other industries, something Cheney recommended, to books seems to have in its favor only his enormous zeal and the fact that on paper, with no actual warehouses, sales reps and so forth, he can juggle the figures (what he elsewhere derides as "the mystique of numbers which pervades publishing") to make it seem workable. Shatzkin, more than anything, wants publishing to be predictable, but can it be? Toothpaste and birthday cards don't get reviewed, their creators aren't part of the visible process. It might be desirable, in terms of the bottom line, to get the emotional factor out of publishing, the underlying sentiment that books are different from other products (although this belief has kept salaries low and thus helped overhead), but it would be a mixed blessing, if not a downright curse. Publishing has already felt some of due effects of this thinking, and not always to its benefit, when cadres of MBAs have been hired to turn things around, tyrannizing leather-elbowed English majors.
One senses Shatzkin's own difficulties with this issue yet must concur with his conviction that reforms are necessary if there are to continue to be books at all. "Society needs a healthy book publishing industry." Once more, civilization as we know it hinges on a tricky ends-and-means situation. Speaking as both a former bookseller and editor, I have to say that Shatzkin-type reform would take a lot of the joy out of the book business and readers would eventually sense the slight chill of the changed climate. To praise uncertainty is a luxury one can't afford, I suppose, in these straitened times, but to put publishers' computers (fed "selling profiles" for each title) in charge of what bookstore should get which books and how many seems a short step away from the elimination of those books with uncertain pedigrees. It's true that publishing, like most industries, is wed to tradition and habits, some of those bad, but the visceral involvement of publishers and booksellers alike is a quality the business would suffer by losing. And that is something that would be diminished by the "merchandising plan" approach.
I have other, more specific and less "romantic" quarrels with Shatzkin's proposals, many of which, by the way, he says are now being put into practice by a small Cleveland, Ohio, bookstore chain for a test run. I can understand, for example, how a grocery store is the territory of the suppliers -- there has to be mustard somewhere -- but the nature of the demand has got to make browsing in a bookstore different than cruising the supermarket aisles. And far fewer new food products come along, in comparison with books. That same mustard has been there in large quantity for as long as I can remember; people use it up and buy it again. But acknowledging that there is "limited replenishment" in the book business, as Shatzkin does, severely reduces my faith in his using such a model.
How can you calibrate print orders to the smallest book shop for each and every title? That seems to me to be substituting one type of hoodoo for another. How, under Shatzkin's ideal merchandising plan, can bookstore personnel familiarize themselves with their stock, if it's coming in pre-sold, with no selling seasons, and being manipulated outside the store's control? That last may already be the case in chains, but not for the smaller, "personal" book shops. The physical floor plan of many such shops alone seems to mitigate against publishers stepping in to claim, through the offices of their computerized data, their share of limited space. Truth and justice will out, Shatzkin implies. What will sell will be there and what won't (eventually) will not. One must put one's trust in the computer programs, even though they're liable to be as individual as the current distribution channels. One system, handling all books, might work, but it shouldn't happen; many systems, processing many books, using Shatzkin's guidelines, seems liable to produce simply a different kind of chaos than that which exists today.
Not surprisingly, Bill Adler, agent and author and fellow industry veteran, agrees with some of Shatzkin's opinions of the book industry's efficiency. But Inside Publishing as a book is much more part of the problem than it is part of the solution. Full of conflicting advice, repetitious maxims, simplistic thinking and bulging at the seems with dropped names (from Buster Crabbe to William French Smith), it's practically a textbook example of what an unedited manuscript might read like. Adler is a non-book author (The Kennedy Wit and others) turned non-book entrepreneur turned literary agent, although "literary" is a bit of a misnomer since Adler, by his own admission, specializes in ideas and titles and deals.A regular at New York's Four Seasons restaurant, Adler doesn't even list himself in Literary Market Place, the publishing industry's indispensable directory, and brags about it.
Both of these books are ostensibly aimed at those outside the book business, Shatzkin's to explain and proselytize, Adler's to explain, settle some scores and do a little self-promoting. In Cold Type, despite my disagreements with it, is an honorable work and a provocative one; Inside Publishing is an embarrassment. Neither, however, succeeds in being other than parochial. As O. H. Cheney said, in 1932, "The love of books is the industry's strength," but the love of books about the industry is a weakness it has to itself.