Dan came into riverrun on Sunday. He talked about publishing. He thinks changes are coming.
“The age of corporate publishing preeminence may be drawing to a close. Small, independent publishers are already springing up and filling niches too small for the giant corporate machinery. It’s exciting. The orientation of a small publisher is completely different. They’re passionate about what they publish. They aren’t as passionate about bottom line considerations.”
This is how Dan Frank sees the development of big corporate publishing in the first place.
“Book clubs were very successful. Book of the Month Club and other mail order book clubs. People all over the country subscribed. This made bookstore corporations develop nationwide aspirations. Book retailing chains opened up, dotting the map. Now publishers jumped in. There was that glint in the eyes of the executives. They figured the distribution was in place. They could mainstream cultural items, publish in greater quantities and make bundles of money.
“They didn’t understand though. The book market is a niche market. People want to read history or poetry or fiction or mystery. Only very rarely is there crossover interest where all the different markets converge on the same book for gigantic sales.
“It does happen occasionally. There are a few golden success stories, like a John Le Carre spy novel, but the few breakthrough blockbusters only reinforce the unrealistic dream. Dream: If we can sell 10,000 copies of a book, why can’t we sell many multiples of 10,000? This business model is based on ever-increasing expansion but publishing is not really that kind of industry.
“People in publishing have torn themselves away from the corporate trough before. Atheneum, for instance, was founded in 1959. Michael Bessie was disgusted with Harper’s. Pat Knopf hated the idea of working with his father. Hiram Hayden left his post as editor in chief at Random House. They started Atheneum and published quality books without regard for mega-sales.
“There are other small, distinguished publishers, and I think more are coming.”
This is an interesting prediction for publishing. Dan Frank sees parallels with the movie industry. “You have the major studios producing pictures, and at the same time you have all these independent film makers.”
The 40 or 50 years of corporate publisher dominance have changed the nature of not only publishing, but writing too.
“The corporate publishers have created a class of writers that didn’t exist before. The publisher’s advance is the difference. Years ago, advances were a minor part of the pay package. A publisher would take on a worthy book even where they anticipated sales of just 5000 copies. The offer to the author might be something like $4000 advance against royalties. No one can live on that kind of money. The author kept his day job.
“Nowadays publishers look for the huge seller. Bidding is competitive. The advance is big, really big. Now the advances are big enough for the author to live on. He can leave his day job and write fulltime.
“The fulltime author is a creation of corporate publishing and the big advances.”
As Dan Frank sees it, this new class of author changed the dynamics of publishing in many ways.
“Twenty years ago, the most important relationship was still between author and editor. Now it’s between author and agent.”
The editor’s job is to get the best book possible out of the author. The agent’s job is to get the most money possible for the author. I’d heard that Dan Frank has very loyal authors.
“Not all,” he said. “More left than stayed.” I was skeptical.
“And editors move now too,” Frank told me. “It used to be that an editor spent his entire career at one publisher. Take Cass Canfield. He wasn’t going to leave Harper’s. He was doing what he wanted to do, publishing the books he wanted to publish. It used to be the only reason an editor left a publisher was if he couldn’t sign the authors he wanted. Bob Giroux, for instance, left Harcourt for Farrar, Straus because he wasn’t allowed to sign Catcher in the Rye. I mean, that was the last straw.”
“Now the editor’s job is more tenuous. Editors move around just like authors move around.”
Dan Frank talked about authors.
“A part-time author who writes around his schedule is, in a way, more even-keeled with his publisher. He’s happy to be published. He’s happy to be paid for his writing. The new fulltime writer, created by corporate publishing, is not in the same easy position. For him, publishing is his livelihood. And it’s a remarkably fickle livelihood. No wonder the author moves. When that day comes that his publisher doesn’t want the next book, or wants to pay less, or demands more revision work, the agent says ‘Come on. We’ll find some other publisher with deep pockets.’
“I think the hardest thing is for an author to stay true to what they are.”
Dan Frank offered more insights and anecdotes. It was a great conversation.