In This High-Stakes Game, The (Publishing) House Doesn’t Always Win

By Neal Comment


Yesterday’s warnings in the New York Observer about the seemingly inevitable publishing crunch prompted a counter-argument from a reader named Luke Myers, who says his experiences as a book editor lead him to an unsettling conclusion:

“The idea that in the near future there will be fewer books and publishers will have to compete for them is probably true, but the article did not answer one question: Will those books earn out? Answer: No.”

For Myers, the logic is simple: “The number of books published per year has nothing to do with the likelihood that readers will buy a specific title,” he explains. “On the other hand, the number of books published per year will affect the amount paid for the work as the Observer so rightly states.” So what happens if publishing becomes an environment where only “brand-name” figures can get book deals? “Most of the books by cultural figures today do not earn out,” Myers asserts, “so more money paid for so-called big names means more red ink for publishers. Publishers are going to find themselves in a no-win situation if they publish fewer books. They are all going to be like blackjack players who place big, Hail Mary bets on the table only to have their chips taken away by a passionless dealer.”

Wait: Aren’t we supposed to be approaching the end of “the gambling spirit that has kept book publishing exciting,” according to the Observer? Sounds to us like Leon Neyfakh might be depicting a future where publishers sweat bullets over just about every single new release, praying they’ve found the right celebrity this season and that their franchise “literary novelist” doesn’t accidentally hand them the next Thirteen Moons.

(UPDATE: Neyfakh emails to clarify that he and Myers aren’t so far apart on this issue: “Everyone’s going to crowd around the high-stakes table making plays for Michelle Obama‘s memoir etc., and they’re going to be willing to spend more there than they were back when they had some wiggle room to sometimes do just OK,” he tells us. “The ‘gambling spirit’ was a poorly chosen phrase—I was referring to the heart it requires for a publisher to go out on a limb for something, not the blind luck approach to acquisition that so many editors think is the only way to make a career.”)