09 February 2004

There was an interesting essay in the Washington Post Book World yesterday on inconsistent and unrealistic expectations in the publishing industry. The most telling comment demonstrates exactly who is really in control of the editorial and acquisitions processes.

If publishing is to save itself from being a mere arm of the movie industry, executives must realize that they cannot divine a book's success through money tendered at contract time. Similarly, management consultants must appreciate that the way to ensure a publishing house's viability is not to cut a list in half. I have repeatedly learned that the American public likes to speak for itself and that it is an editor's responsibility to raise, if ever so slightly, the level of public discourse. I seriously doubt that Jessica Lynch's as-told-to memoir or Pete Rose's tell-all will become a staple among reading groups or will be assigned in literature courses, but this will not prevent overzealous publishers from feverishly bidding on Paris Hilton's adolescent confessional, should such a project appear. As dire as the situation may be, I disagree with industry consultants who maintain that quality publishing can no longer survive. I continue to stumble across dozens of projects each year -- from gifted stylists, devoted academics and, yes, a multitude of very dedicated agents -- that, when published, will garner fine reviews, attract wide audiences and actually make money. The neglected markets beyond the often rigid coastal sensibilities that guide many publishing professionals will surprise those houses that choose to look, as will the acknowledgment that there is a national literary sensibility that eagerly embraces Billy Collins's poetry and Patrick O'Brian's sea novels, to take just two recent examples.

Robert Weil, "Making Books" (08 Feb 04).

The essay is well worth reading; unlike most screeds against industry consolidation (or, for that matter, in favor of it), Mr. Weil provides hard numbers to support some of his most damning assertions. Legal ethics prevents me from doing so here, even if I thought it was the right forum; but I can certainly approve of Mr. Weil's essay.