It Is Not Dying, It Is Not Dying

By Neal Comment

In today’s New York Observer, Leon Neyfakh scales back the doom and gloom that has permeated recent discussion of the publishing industry’s future, a little bit anyway:

“A frost is coming to publishing. And while the much ballyhooed death of the industry this is not, the ecosystem to which our book makers are accustomed is about to be unmistakably disrupted. At hand is the twilight of an era most did not expect to miss, but will.”

What huge transformations are we about to witness? “Only the most established agents will be able to convince publishers to take a chance on an unknown novelist or a historian whose chosen topic does not have the backing of a news peg,” Neyfakh predicts. “The swollen advances that have come to represent all that is reckless and sinful about the way the business is run will grow, not shrink.” The idea being that when people start buying fewer books, the bookstores will start carrying fewer books, and the ones they’ll be most likely to carry are the ones written by people “everybody” recognizes, so “publishers” (which of course is shorthand for “the New York-based publishing divisions of a few multinational conglomerates”) will spend more money than ever before to land those books, and then they won’t have much money left for mid-list or debut writers—”the talented young nobodies whom [one prominent agent] loves so much to bring out of obscurity,” as Neyfakh puts it.

Which, he adds, will also make it that much harder for new agents to break into the business, because who’s going to return their calls if they don’t have the megastar proposals ready to go?

Neyfakh sees “a necessary scaling back of ambition” on the horizon, “an age in which the gambling spirit that has kept book publishing exciting gives way to a shabby, predictable environment that cows its participants into avoiding all things adventurous and allowing only the proven few a seat at the table.” Some might say “Good riddance” in response—as in, if you want excitement, take a skydiving class. Sure, the hypercautious conservatism Neyfakh describes is one likely scenario, perhaps the most likely scenario for the corporate behemoths. We’re wondering, though, if what Neyfakh portrays as a twilight of the idols isn’t perhaps the dawn of a new golden age. As he notes in the middle of his article, smaller houses may now have a better shot at getting certain types of books—and when you consider how many independent publishers have managed to parlay tighter financial constraints into their own “adventurous” discoveries, Neyfakh’s dystopian fever may not be contagious. (Watch Jason’s interview with the Two Dollar Radio crew and see what we mean!)