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Fantasist Ursula Le Guin harsh words for the system that has made her famous during her address at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York earlier in November. Ursula K. Le Guin attends 2014 National Book Awards on November 19, 2014 in New York City. (Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
Fantasist Ursula Le Guin harsh words for the system that has made her famous during her address at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York earlier in November. Ursula K. Le Guin attends 2014 National Book Awards on November 19, 2014 in New York City. (Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Are book publishers blockbustering themselves into oblivion? Add to ...

Publishers Weekly, the U.S. trade magazine, recently ran an article confirming that the number of seven-figure advances for novels is actually on the rise. It lists several recent acquisitions by big American publishing houses, mostly for debut novels, that involved payouts of more than $1-million. That’s right – debut novels.

You might be wondering if you read that right, given what else you have heard recently about the demise of book publishing and the alleged poverty of respected authors. You likely have read that a famous writer was contemplating working in coal mines to make ends meet, and that, in this country at least, several foreign-owned publishing companies have been flailing about in a kind of budgetary panic, having fired, laid off or rearranged senior staff. This after a decade of decline in the book-selling business, with bookstore chains in decline and a near-universal sense that Amazon is the Eye of Sauron. It looks, from the inside, like turmoil.

So what on earth is going on? Are the publishers actually rich?

There are a few other things in the Publishers Weekly article that don’t make any sense. The story claims that the fierce competition for new novels stems from “a dearth of great material.” One anonymous publishing insider is quoted as saying, “The whole pool of talent is shrinking.” He or she even claims that there are “fewer submissions” nowadays.

Come again? A shrinking talent pool? In the middle of the greatest explosion of writing in human history? At a moment when online literary magazines can be created almost for free? When every third university has a Master of Fine Arts creative writing program that churns out carefully edited and workshopped novels wholesale every term? When phone apps are being developed to access and distribute the millions of pages of new fiction, essays and memoirs being published by previously disenfranchised amateurs? Whatever they mean, they certainly cannot mean a shrinking talent pool.

So they must mean that they are not, in fact, interested in the real talent pool, or in a wide variety of literature. What they are looking for are bestsellers, which tend to be particularly narrow kinds of books. Most of the gargantuan advances that have made headlines in the U.S. recently are for science-fiction and fantasy books. Every publisher is looking for exactly the same book – basically, they are looking for The Hunger Games again and again. When they say “quality,” they mean “mass appeal.”

The debut-author thing is also not representative of any effort to seek out the new and innovative. It’s simply a reflection of the fact that previously published authors have their sales figures already against them. Any writers without previous sales figures are actually at an advantage. They represent unblemished potential (or as some might call it, pure fantasy).

The publishers admit that they are making less money from their mid-list (the unpromoted space where challenging literary novels tend to find themselves) and from their back-list (the books from previous seasons that are still in print). So, instead of trying to promote those books, they are abandoning them. It’s an all-the-eggs-in-one-basket strategy. They guess at which handful of books are going to be blockbusters and blow their yearly acquisition budgets on a couple of them.

Needless to say, things can get a little bit frantic in the process. When a buzz about a potential success begins, particularly at a booze- and caffeine-fuelled book fair in a foreign city, editors occasionally make large bids on books they haven’t even read. These bidding frenzies reflect a sort of modern-day tulip mania, and don’t always pay off.

But in concentrating on bestsellers to the detriment of other literature, the publishers are simply following the model of all the entertainment industries. Providing an eclectic variety of entertainments to please a diverse audience, as the free Internet can do, just hasn’t been lucrative for the conglomerates that own film studios and recording labels. They are in constant search of blockbusters.

As they grow larger and concentrate their efforts and investments on massive, sure-fire hits – the next Marvel movie, the next Taylor Swift album – the cultural landscape seems paradoxically smaller. It becomes even more difficult to get an indie film made – the huge projects suck the oxygen (financing, distribution, media coverage) out of the biosphere.

In following this larger trend, book publishers are shortsighted. By reducing their involvement in original and challenging art, they relinquish literary fiction to the tiny presses and online magazines, and so become artistically irrelevant and, in the long run, uninteresting even as suppliers of entertainment. Pursuing mainstream popularity with ever-larger sums of money is ultimately self-destructive.

Don’t take it from me – take it from a blockbuster author. The great fantasist Ursula Le Guin addressed the National Book Awards ceremony in New York earlier in November, and she had harsh words for the system that has made her famous. In a speech, after graciously accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Le Guin attacked the tendency of publishers to pursue quick profit, making an unpopular distinction between “production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.” She wisely singled out the practice of letting sales departments make editorial decisions (something that also afflicts Canadian publishers). She concluded, “The name of our beautiful reward is not profit; its name is freedom.”

Yes, such high-mindedness is all very well for someone who doesn’t have to keep a money-losing, employment-providing company afloat. And Le Guin’s vague rejection of capitalism is not a solution to the immediate problems facing publishers. But her point about taking the long view – about concentrating on valuable literature for the sake of the industry’s general health – is surely a practical one as well.

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