Oct 12, 2008

Books gone bust?

I’ve been hearing lately that unless you’re Tina Fey, it’s not a good time to be selling a book.

You may have seen the New York Post report that one publisher right off the bat offered our beloved Sarah Palin look-a-like a $5 million advance (and that the subsequent bidding war likely raised that to $6 million). Hmmm… Hardly seems like a sign that the financial crisis has hit the book business. Unless you view it from the perspective that publishing houses aren’t gambling on anything but the sure bestseller.

So how is this global financial crisis affecting publishing?

Here’s an anecdote I can offer: Last week a writer friend lost a book deal. After two years of perfecting a book proposal and securing a publisher, this writer was sent back to the drawing board. No more deal.

I’ve also recently talked to other authors who shared concerns about their chances of securing their next contracts. These aren’t folks looking to break into the industry. These are proven, multi-book authors.

Beyond the anecdotal, what’s the word from industry insiders?

I haven’t seen too much yet.

Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins UK, told thebookseller.com this week: "People always say books are the last thing to be affected by an economic slowdown, but the magnitude of this crisis is surely making everyone nervous. However, publishing is a gambling business and, as usual, I’m sure we’ll see a couple of fairly insane offers being made next week—if they haven’t already been made."

Would the Fey book deal be one of those insane offers?

But as media fellow Peter Osnos pointed out in a Sept. 30th column for The Century Foundation, people have been proclaiming for decades that the end of the publishing is nigh. And many have said for years that it’s an industry that ought to die. For example, The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan recently decried, “If any industry deserves oblivion, it’s book publishing.”

Yet somehow books and publishers remain. How? Why?

Lauren Kessler recently took a closer look at the question of the death of books (which was written before the stock market tanked). Her piece, called “R.I.P” was published this summer in Etude. Here’s how it starts:

"The book is dead.

That’s the title of the book I’m currently reading. Of course the fact that this book was written and published, that I bought it and am reading it would seem a powerful argument against its main premise.

In fact, 172,000 books were published in the U.S. last year. If you count vanity press and print-on-demand, a new book of fiction is right now being published every 30 minutes in America. How can the book be dead?"

So dear readers, can any of you offer any evidence of the health of the publishing industry? Or thoughts on the future of books? Or advice on how an author who doesn’t have her own TV show gets a book deal?

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