Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In Other News, the Sky is Falling

Do you like books? Reading? The publishing industry? Well then, my friend, the line starts here to throw yourself off a cliff because the world as we know it is coming to an end. So says the gloom and doom "publishing veteran with more than a decade of experience" on GalleyCat. According to this anonymous insider, the ground will shake, the sky will turn to blood, fire will rain down, and Borders bookstores will all shut down. This will set off a horrifying chain of events:

Agents will either go out of business or severely cut their staffs. Fewer books means less money and many agents will not be able to make a living. Some might say that fewer books will mean more time and attention will be paid to individual titles—not so said the wise man. Why? Because publishers will have to reduce their head counts if they sell fewer books and the axe will cut across sales, marketing and editorial depts. The glory days of book publishing are gone.

Not that anonymous is all too sad to see it crumble, because apparently the whole business is full of vipers and rats trying to screw each other over. I'm sure my friends who work in the industry would have some choice rejoinders, but few could match the spice of literary agent Janet Reid:
Well I have more than a decade of experience in publishing. In fact I have almost two. And I've got one thing to say to this: shut the fuck up already. [...] If you've worked for ten years in an industry you don't value or respect, with people you find distasteful, that says more about you than it does about the industry.

Listen. Literature exists beyond publishing. Some of the greatest works in our canon found their ways to an audience before the existence of moveable type and literary agents. And while it's sad that John Kennedy Toole didn't get to reap the rewards of his posthumously-published A Confederacy of Dunces, the fact is that his work went on to find an audience and influence other writers long after he'd died. Times have been financially good for a while now, and as a result, most facets of media have gained some unnecessary bloat. Vanity books have been published, vanity imprints have been opened, vanity magazines have been launched, vanity web startups have come and gone. Some genius got the bright idea to relaunch Knight Rider. This recessidepression is simply going to cull some of the excess. Some genuinely good works of art will alas suffer as collateral, but ultimately I think each industry will come back healthier than before, having shed some dead weight. I saw a lot of the same distress in 2001, when I was working in theatre in New York City before and after 9/11. For a while there everyone was convinced the NYC theatre scene was doomed (once we stopped fearing the world itself was going to end, of course), and for a while things did look dire, sure. But here we are, seven years later and still kicking. Okay, Broadway is clogged with crappy jukebox musicals and movie-to-stage adaptations and more revivals than original plays because everyone's too financially scared to take a risk on something new, but cool things are happening Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. The theatre industry survived despite weathering something terrible, and I've no doubt the media industry will do the same.

Which isn't to say it won't be hard for some genuinely good works of art to get published in the coming days, weeks, months, years. But if you want to write - not be a writer with all the perceived trappings and fame that are available only to the lucky few in even the best of times, but to honestly just write - you will continue to do so in between your shifts at Starbucks, when you have downtime from answering phones, after your EMS shift, and you will do so even knowing your works might not reach anyone in your lifetime. If you're smart, you'll set up a literary will to make sure they have a solid chance of making it out even after you're toes up. Neil Gaiman has a good guide to setting one up.

I understand the impulse to run through the streets shrieking that the sky is falling, I do. I graduated college in May, and the awesome entry-level media position I thought I'd snag by now has yet to materialize. But I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet. In August, I went on a job interview for editorial assistant at a pretty awesome publishing company. I ultimately lost the job to someone who'd been working as an assistant editor at another company before she'd been laid off, and obviously someone whose B.A. ink hasn't yet dried can't compete against someone with 3+ years of real world experience. I now feel less bummed about losing out on the job because the company just did a major round of layoffs so chances are I would have been out on my ear by now even if they had picked me anyway. At the interview, the editor asked me whether I was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the industry. I told him I'm an optimist by nature, but a pragmatist by experience, and I know that the only sectors of the publishing industry that will survive the coming lean times are the ones who are willing to re-think the way they do business and adapt to our changing culture. For many sectors, this means embracing online media. And there may be hope on that front, as the annual Best American Short Stories compilation and the Pulitzer Prize will now start considering online entries, which nicely dovetails with several literary journals and magazines going digital-only. It's Darwinism at its finest - adapt or die. Adapting, soldiering on, these are all good ways to cope with our changing industry. Running around like a headless chicken is not an efficient way to cope. It does, however, give me a hilarious idea for a short story. One I'll work on in between temping gigs and job interviews.


Lindsay said...

THANK YOU for this post. People need to STFU and keep doing their damn jobs.

smd said...

Seriously! Well, okay, ONE of them can and should complain enough to get themselves fired so *I* can take their job...but everyone else needs to stop going all Chicken Little on our asses.

Sex Mahoney for President said...

There's no need to publish anything anymore. You can reach a wide audience with the internet, and sell your product for as much as you want. I read this really crappy e-book a few months back, but, in the forward, the authors said "enjoy this book for free and donate as much as you like."

Who becomes a writer to get famous? That's a terrible plan. It's much easier to commit some kind of awful, and depraved, crime.

smd said...

Yeah, but I wanna get something published so that my writing will survive the inevitable robot takeover / destruction of the internet. Not that books will necessarily fare much better, though, what with the bombs and all. I guess I could always break out the old chisel and hammer and carve something into a rock, Gilgamesh-style.