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Veteran Editor Makes a Case for Publishing's Pros

Daniel Menaker - peoplewhowrite

Daniel Menaker

UPDATE: Chris Hughes is selling The New Republic. Four years after buying the magazine’s majority stake, followed by a mass exodus of key staffers, Hughes admitted in a open letter to staffers on Medium.com that he “underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate.”

Random House’s onetime Editor-in-Chief Daniel Menaker has written a strong argument in support of publishing’s need for professionals on Slate.com. In the piece, Menaker goes straight after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and New Republic‘s Chris Hughes, writing:

I can’t help suspecting that whether they consciously know it or not, people like Jeff Bezos and the New Republic’s Chris Hughes want some of that [cultural hero status ascribed to those who, by good bets and good luck in the casino that is publishing, have somehow survived the grinding—tectonic—friction between creativity and business and made a go of both]. Well, they can’t have it.

Likening them to “patrons of old”, Menaker adds: 

…they can stand back and support it, sponsor it, admire it. They can give it parties at retreats in New Mexico. They can even sort of own it. But they can’t have it. Because they need to make a lot of money. And because they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.

(More darkly and Freudianly still, since they can’t have it, maybe they want to kill it.)

Menaker also deals with those who argue that publishing’s elite (publishers, editors, traditionally published bestselling authors, and some readers) are the only ones mad at Amazon’s perceived efforts to open the industry gates to include more aspiring writers and offer readers a greater breadth of choice:

They are often writers who have failed to get published by mainstream publishers, even good independent presses. Or readers who decry “snobby,” difficult books. One of the loudest voices in this group denunciation belongs to Barry Eisler, a self-published author who told the Guardian that the signatories of the Authors United letter to Amazon were in “the top 1 percent” who “have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.”

This is simply not true. Publishers are of course always looking for something new, different, better. Like the record producers of the ’50s and ’60s—Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, Jerry Wexler—they want nothing more than to find the next extremely important or highly profitable artist. If they’re one and the same, even better.

Menaker’s points are well-taken, and true to a large extent.

In spite of Amazon’s work to woo writers from publishers via their agents with transparency through easy to read sales dashboards and big advances / monthly royalty checks, there has never been any indication that they truly care about good literature or know what it is. They’ve hired the right people, published some high profile names, and launched a contest, but their “everything store” branding and democratic ratings and reviews-based algorithm never felt congruent with the sadomasochistic nature of the publishing business in which, for most writers, an editor’s validating (and exclusive) pat is the only salve that can staunch the steady drip of literary insecurity. The irony is, many scribes like the exclusionary model of the current publishing industry because, if they are able to squeeze through the needle’s eye of publisher approval, they feel good enough, smart enough, like, gosh darn it, people like their work.

That desperate truth in mind, Amazon was still able to unsettle this Stockholm syndrome relationship by looking ahead.

Every industry was slow to understand the role social and digital media, and the internet would/could play in extending businesses and individual brands, but traditional publishing was among the slowest — ceding ground to start-ups and other entrepreneurial players as a result. While publishing personnel had become content with the painful poetry of life in the industry of letters — Menaker recounts “email after email studded with forlornly cheerful exclamation marks, years between signed contracts and on-sale dates, almost funereal editorial and marketing meetings, book fairs held in hangars filled with unbounded enthusiasm almost indistinguishable from desperation…” and “endless chicken-salad-and-Diet-Coke lunches that end with almost-sure-to-go-unread books being exchanged” — inventors and investors were introducing and funding social reading and writing platforms like Goodreads and Wattpad, recommendation apps like BookShout, ereaders like the Kindle and iPad, and subscription services like Oyster and Scribd. Many of these upstarts, crashed and burned (R.I.P Sony Reader), but they acted as breadcrumbs, opening readers up to new experiences and possibilities — and leaving traditional publishing scrambling to compete.

Obviously, technological innovation, in and of itself is not enough. For example, algorithms have yet to take the place of a friend’s book recommendation. Amazon alum Jason Merkoski, who was part of the team that built the first Kindle, admitted: “When it comes to book recommendations, retailers have the literary sensibilities of a spreadsheet — they’ll just recommend the most popular books to me, or books that other people also bought, but they know nothing of the soul and sparkle of a great book.”

Rather, what’s clear is a need for synergy between online capacities and on-the-ground efforts. Case in point: without the brick and mortar support of Barnes and Noble, Amazon Publishing titles have failed to break through. Innovation, together with the passion Menaker ascribes to publishing’s soldiers, is necessary to the industry’s survival.

Menaker sums up his salvo by asserting the need for professionals to guide the publishing industry — no matter what incarnation the in flux industry ultimately takes. “It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves,” he says, “to explain what, if anything, will replace them.”

I would argue that addition, not necessarily replacement, is the way forward. Publishing companies need strong business development teams devoted to seeking out innovators and partnership opportunities that place and keep them in the position to lead industry conversation and evolution. Editors, marketers, sales staff and others need to be empowered to nimbly experiment. Authors need to be brought to the table, rather than coddled and cosseted like talent. And all the players, from publishing companies to bookstores to literary prizes need to be working together to mutual benefit. In other words, the gatekeepers need to tear down the gate themselves, and, with the help of some that might have been peeking in from the outside, rebuild it.

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