Richard Curtis, a forty-year veteran of the book publishing biz, and one of its most savvy and successful literary agents, has, on commission from Backspace, perhaps the Web's most valuable writer's resource site, written a three-part series of articles on the state of the biz (here, here, and here), and for wannabe authors of fiction at least, it at present appears bleak.
We regret [says Mr. Curtis in the submission guidelines posted on Richard Curtis Associates, his agency's website] that at this time we are only considering non-fiction submissions from new authors. Due to unfavorable market conditions, the agency no longer reads fiction submissions by authors who have not been previously published by a bona fide publisher.
Considering that, today, almost no bona fide publisher of substance will even look at a fiction ms by a new, unknown-to-them author except when submitted by a bona fide literary agent, that's about as bleak as things can be. And I'd bet (although I don't really know) Mr. Curtis's firm is not alone in such restriction among major literary agencies.
And what are those "unfavorable market conditions" above referred to?
Says Mr. Curtis in Part II of the above referenced commissioned series:
As the publishing industry entered the twenty-first century, book industry executives began requiring editors to produce elaborate profit and loss projections and other corporate-style analyses of the potential viability of books and authors. What was the sales performance of previous books? Did they “sell through” satisfactorily or did returns cross the threshold of unprofitability according to the latest formulas devised by bookstore chain number-crunchers? The mantra of “The Bottom Line” was invoked ad nauseam at every editorial committee, and editors were constantly reminded, “We can only afford to publish hits. If you can’t project a big profit on a book, turn it down.”
And what about the author? Was he or she attractive and mediagenic? Did he or she have a “platform” – an organizational base such as a hit television series or chain of fitness centers capable of promoting the sale of books? Was the author willing to buy large quantities of books for giveaway or resale by his or her franchise?
More and more, the importance of traditional literary criteria took a back seat to “The Numbers” and “The Platform.” Promising but modestly successful novelists discovered they could not get their second or third books published, and aspiring newcomers could not sell their books at all. As for nonfiction, no matter how compelling the memoir or business guide or social commentary might be, publishers were disposed to reject it because the author was not “branded.”
Pretty depressing stuff, for authors and readers alike.
Or is it?
For now ... printed books are still the reading devices of choice [says Mr. Curtis in Part III of the series]. But for each generation that succeeds ours, the definition will continue to shift to the virtual spectrum.
This is not some futuristic reverie. The medium exists now. It’s called blogging,
Say what? Blogging? Has this man suffered a premature Senior Moment?
Unlike conventional diaries, blogs are dynamic, multimedia, and public. Indeed, it is their public aspect that provokes fascinating speculation about their potential to become the 21st century’s answer to the book. They satisfy the classic criteria for books: they are printed, distributed, and publicized. But they are not printed on paper, they are not distributed in stores, and they are not publicized in traditional ways.
Best of all ... bloggers come with two guarantees that publishers crave: built-in sales numbers and built-in platforms. Their popularity is not a matter of speculation. It is a function of virally infectious appreciation, an audience voting with clicks of its mouse. It can be measured precisely and analyzed by the number, concentration, and demographics of “hits” on their sites.
Even with advances in market analysis such as BookScan, traditional book publishing is at best a speculative venture. Publishers can compile information about readers ‘til the cows come home, but when the time comes to decide how many copies of a book to print, the best they can do is an educated guess. By the very nature of blogs, however, precise and real-time market research is embedded in the medium, research that can be used to create pinpoint-targeted advertising campaigns.
Beyond my thinking Mr. Curtis dead wrong in his understanding of the nature of blogs and blogging's future, What's wrong with this picture?
This, that's what, as is Mr. Curtis's summing up of the just-around-the-corner Brave New World of virtual books; not the much-in-the-past-touted eBook (in which I think the future of the book does lie), but ... but ... the blog!
As authors assume the roles traditionally performed by publishers such as distribution and publicity, the laws of disintermediation - the elimination of middlemen or agencies of any kind - render publishers less and less relevant. And that goes for editors, reviewers, critics, bookstores and libraries. “Gatekeepers” - the priestly class that tends the holy flame of literary taste and tells us what is gold and what is dross - may have little place in a world where the best judges of taste are readers themselves.
As Big Publishing becomes more and more dysfunctional and authors grasp the capabilities of the new paradigm [i.e., the blog], the transformation of the book from a three-dimensional object to a dematerialized but richly sensory experience will accelerate. And so will the redefinition, the reinvention, the repurposing of the author, as we progress - reluctantly but inexorably - on the road to virtual.
O tempora! O mores!