Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 23, 2009

On the Move and Industry Article

Tamra Tuller has been promoted to Editor at Philomel. Congratulations! Tamra.

It seems like everyone is asking about the state of the Book Publishing Industry. Well, Jonathan Karp wrote a very interesting article for Publishers Weekly this week. The beginning is very funny. As an author, I don’t I like some of his suggestions to book publishers, like publishing less books, but still a good read.

This Is Your Wake-up Call: 12 Steps to Better Book Publishing
By Jonathan Karp — Publishers Weekly, 4/20/2009

For all of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the publishing industry—from the poor economy to the painful layoffs and restructurings in the wake of the digital transformation—to understand what’s really hurting us, all you have to do is visit your neighborhood bookstore.

Here are some of the titles I saw displayed at my local bookshop recently: in new nonfiction, I came across Speaking of Freedom: The Collected Speeches of George H.W. Bush. Any collection is suspect, but you really have to question the need for a volume of political speeches two decades old.

In the sociology section: The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women. Who exactly is the audience for this book? Self-hating virgins? Those seeking to deflower them?

On sale now: A History of Cannibalism. Illustrated! A gift book! The subtitle is stupendously, kaleidoscopically all-encompassing: From Ancient Cultures to Survival Stories and Modern Psychopaths.

Just a few shelves away: Jesus, Life Coach, with the subtitle: Learn from the Best, a companion to the bestselling Jesus CEO, not to be confused with Jesus, Entrepreneur; Jesus on Leadership; or Jesus in Blue Jeans.

Then there are the arcane books, the ones that dare to be obscure on the assumption that if people will read about cod, or oranges, anything is possible. Who could resist a history of the potato, titled, of course, Potato. Amazingly, this wasn’t the only work available on the subject. There’s also The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World. Wasn’t it intellectually responsible of the publisher to limit the scope of the subtitle to the Western world?

The best-packaged sex book portrayed a scantily clad woman perched on a saddle—Ride ‘Em Cowgirl: Sex Position Secrets for Better Bucking. The most unusual was Vibrators, featuring 100 of the best devices in the world, all artily photographed. I had assumed this was published by some outré left coast indie house, but when I looked on the spine, I found the HarperCollins logo. My wish for this book is that Oprah will name it one of her favorite things, and NewsCorp will be compelled to print illustrations of vibrators in its next annual report.

We all know that a good book should make a promise. But some of those promises have gone outrageously over the-top: How to Make Anyone Fall in Love with You… How to Make Someone Fall in Love With You In 90 Minutes or Less…The 4-Day Diet… The 3-Hour Diet… I Can Make You Thin…Stay Rich for Life…Have a New Kid by Friday.

On the new release table sat two instant Bernie Madoff books, issued in trade paperback, presumably because the people he swindled can’t pay hardcover prices. Within two weeks of the Madoff scandal, I received queries about seven different Bernie-related projects, all from well-regarded literary agents. All of this brings me to a point I have made relentlessly for the past four years: publishers must control themselves!

We are acquiring and publishing too many books. We buy them opportunistically, and at times thoughtlessly. We edit and launch them too quickly. We market them carelessly and ephemerally. Too often, we abdicate our responsibility to be filters, guides, guardians and gatekeepers. And now, as in many other industries, we are suffering the effects. Anyone in a bookstore can see that.

The underlying problem facing the industry is twofold: there are too many books, and too many of them are derivative of each other. You’ve heard of Gresham’s Law—the idea that bad money drives out good. Our industry has long suffered from Grisham’s Law, where opportunistic authors and publishers try to imitate John Grisham and other category leaders with books modeled on someone else’s commercial success. That strategy might make sense if there were great demand for these imitators, but in today’s overcrowded, competitive marketplace, this kind of thinking is dangerous, because it devalues the environment into which we present our work.

It seems likely that the influence and cultural centrality of major publishers, as well as other producers of information and entertainment, will diminish as digital technology enables more and more people to create and share their work. This is exactly why publishers must distinguish themselves by doing better what they’ve always done best: champion books that offer carefully conceived context, style and authority.

Other mediums may be faster to market, but publishers will always be the ones best situated to invest time and resources into major works and to market them with overwhelming force. Whether it’s Robert Caro on LBJ, or What to Expect When You’re Expecting, masterly works will continue to stand out. No technology or competing enterprise is likely to pose a serious threat to that endeavor.

Our world and our industry are firmly in the midst of a transition in the way entertainment, information and ideas are delivered. There will be more upheaval to come. The essential things that attracted us to publishing, however, the love of a good story, the quest for meaning and illumination will go on. But we must change our ways.

Here’s some specific advice for coping with the upheaval now facing us. Some of these 12 suggestions will be obvious—and not all of them immediately feasible. My hope is that they will at least start some conversations.

Click here to read.


  1. Okay, I confess: I actually bought A History of Cannibalism. (No, I haven’t run out of ideas on what to cook for dinner. It was a gag gift–no pun intended–for my brother-in-law.) As to whether I bought any of the other titles… well, I’m not tellin’!


    • You are so funny. Some editor or agent is going to snap you up soon. Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to know you are reading my blog.



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