Break Up the Publishing Industry

May 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The sad fact for all aspiring writers is that every form of writing falls under the monstrously broad professional purview of the publishing industry. Whatever your form, topic, aim, or dream, your writing is subject to the same apparatus and the same attitudes — queries, agents, audiences, marketability, conglomerate publishing houses, etc.

Imagine if the restaurant business were like this — if a single overarching food industry controlled the rentable restaurant spaces in cities and towns, and aspiring cooks had to submit their menus and their marketing “angles” to a conglomerate board that would approve or reject a restaurant according to well-honed professional dictates. The upshot would be that there’d be no five-star restaurants, no challenging cuisine, nothing foreign except congenially “foreign” as an established genre… And so the prestige of food as an out-there, fancy-pants endeavor (and I mean that in the nicest way) would be lost. There’d be nothing for eaters to aspire to, and there’d be no consciousness of some faraway Paris or New York that holds tastes utterly new to the intrepid palate.

(Or look at the music industry, if you’d like another comparison. We’ve reached a point of such deep corporatization that nobody on earth even pretends that the product of the music industry has anything to do with the art form of the same name.)

Madness and adventurousness and novelty thrive in the restaurant industry precisely because it’s not consolidated and because there are significant commercial avenues available to the adventurous. The beautiful thing is that no corporate consolidation can touch a new restaurant that’s sprung up on a corner on your walk home. Among restaurants there is an acknowledged and non-institutionalized variety of endeavors.

Now contrast that with the publishing industry, where there are few places to go — Barnes & Noble, Amazon — few publishers — half-a-dozen big ones — and (here’s the big one) few outlets for discovery. Self-publishing certainly gets more voices out there, but it doesn’t help organize the worthwhile ones.

The fact is, we do need market forces to keep creativity and greak books alive, but we need separate market segments for the art form and its lovers. Right now, the publishing industry is effectively one gigantic market segment. Why do I say this? Well, ask yourself — who’s the publisher you’d go to for the next great American writer? In fact, all the major publishers’ products are interchangeable. And the small imprints are so obscure, and ask so much time and dirt-digging of readers, that no effective countercultural antidote to corporate publishing can coalesce around them.

The ideal I’m trying to describe is a world where there is a market for real writing — not necessarily a financial one, but a place you can go to for real talent. The same way Ben & Jerry’s became a symbol of real, and good, ice cream done right, or the way Vera Wang gave popular heft to an aesthetic notion — elegant simplicity — I think talent needs an imprint, a go-to name or names, in the market. If a single publishing house could somehow rise up and establish itself as an industry unto itself — a marketplace for good writers and good readers — then that would constitute a fundamental blow to the current publishing industry’s implicit dictatorship over what constitutes publishable writing.

The problem is that writers, and the kinds of readers who’d start an independent press, are not the organizing type, and certainly not the type to try to wrest market control from the professionals. But just imagine a world where writing has a counterculture with its own heroes, its own terms, its own products, where the people calling the shots are getting off not on their sales figures, but on the artistic prestige of the talent they’ve discovered.

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