Tuesday, September 19, 2017

An Insider's View of the Publishing Business

Random House: 1745 Broadway, NYC
A while ago, I ran across an article in New York Magazine by Daniel Menaker, a senior literary editor at Random House. The title caught my eye: What Does the Book Business Look Like on the Inside?

This is a question every aspiring author wants answered, especially if they are trying to make a choice between traditional and self-publishing. But as I read the article, I realized that it clarified my own experience with Random House, and it bolstered my decision to abandon the traditional publishing route with my subsequent books.

In order to get the full sense of what Menaker had to say about his experiences with the New Yorker, followed by Random House and HarperCollins, I ended up reading his entire book. It turned out to be quite enlightening, not just in terms of what publishers do, but how they manage to exist in an environment that is, to use Menaker's term, "insane."

What Editors Do

For twenty-six years, Menaker was an editor at the New Yorker, where he received and edited fiction by some of the outstanding writers of our time. When the New Yorker was purchased by Newhouse, and a new chief editor was appointed, fiction was moved to the rear, and Menaker was "offered" a job at Random House. (He says he was "recycled.") Before leaving he got this warning from John Sterling, an agent and publisher:
"You do realize that what you will be doing is essentially a sales job. If seventy-five per cent of what you do now is editing and reading and writing opinions about fiction and twenty-five is office stuff and meetings and so on, that percentage will be reversed." (p 143)
Nothing could be more true. We think editors at publishing houses edit. The truth is they spend most of their time responding to memos, developing profit-and-loss statements, figuring out advances, supplementing publicity efforts, fielding calls from agents, attending meetings, and so on. They edit on weekends and evenings, and on the train as they are commuting. As Menaker puts it, "You have to give up reading for pleasure." (p 168)

Insane Publishing

At one point, Menaker realized that most books published by Random House (and other publishers) are privished, rather than published (p 152). By "privished" Menaker means the publisher quietly suppresses books, whether intentionally or not. A book is privished when it is not promoted, when few copies are printed, and when the publisher essentially buries it.

Privishing has become the norm for publishers for various reasons, the first of which is that there are limitations on budgets. The second is that editors compete for those budgets.
"Now I have been senior literary editor at Random House for six months. I remain in many ways ignorant of the realities of book publishing. But it begins to dawn on me that if a company publishes a hundred original hardcover books a year, it publishes about two per week, on average. And given the limitations on budgets, personnel, and time, many of those books will receive a kind of “basic” publication. Every list—spring, summer, and fall—has its lead titles. Then there are three or four hopefuls trailing along just behind the books that the publisher is investing most heavily in. Then comes a field of also-rans, hoping for the surge of energy provided by an ecstatic front-page review in The New York Times Book Review or by being selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Approximately four out of every five books published lose money. Or five out of six, or six out of seven. Estimates vary, depending on how gloomy the CFO is the day you ask him and what kinds of shell games are being played in Accounting." 
A No-Can-Do Attitude

The negative attitude that editors develop about manuscripts and proposals is in part because budgets are limited, and is in part driven by competition. But mindless rejection is also an inherent feature of publishing. (Just look at these idiotic rejections of famous authors here, here, and here.) Menaker attributes the negativity of editors to the harsh realities of publishing, but you will notice there is a bit a glee in these comments. Editors are not only competing for budgets, they are engaged in what may be described as a pissing contest in snark.
"Publishing is an often incredibly frustrating culture. If you want to buy a project—let’s say a nonfiction proposal for a book about the history of Sicily—some of your colleagues will say, “The proposal is too dry” or “Cletis Trebuchet did a book for Grendel Books five years ago about Sardinia and it sold, like, eight copies,” or, airily, “I don’t think many people want to read about little islands.” When Seabiscuit first came up for discussion at an editorial meeting at Random House, some skeptic muttered, “Talk about beating a dead horse!” 
You're more likely to be "right" if you express doubts about a proposal's or manuscript's prospects than if you support it with enthusiasm." (p 164)
Putting the Random in Random House

The original impetus for Random House came from Bennet Cerf, who suggested publishing "a few random books on the side." Randomness has continued to be one of the publisher's defining features.
"[F]inancial success in frontlist publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big best seller. But the best-­seller lists paint nothing remotely like the full financial picture of any publication, because that picture’s most important color is the size of the advance. But let’s say you publish a fluky blockbuster one year, the corporation will see a spike in your profits and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. This is close to clinically insane institutional behavior." (p 166, 167).
There is, in short, very little that is sensible about the decisions made by publishers. The question that comes to mind is: How can they continue to exist in the corporate world? (The answer to that question leads to yet another disturbing question: How can any corporation continue to exist given their counter-intuitive practices?)

Insiders and Outsiders

Menaker expresses his frustration with publishing, and with the seemingly contrary roles that editors hold, poignantly in this passage:
"I think it’s impossible to do an editor-in-chief’s job very well for any length of time. If I belong anywhere, it probably isn’t in publishing. But, then, I keep forgetting that this sense of dissatisfaction explains why work is called “work.”  ... When it comes to corporate life, especially at its higher altitudes, factors of all kinds tend to get tangled up with each other. And it’s impossible to untangle them, and pointless, and fruitless, to try." 
Publishing is a complicated affair, but unlike Menaker, I don't think it is "impossible, pointless, or fruitless" to try to untangle the factors that drive the insane world of publishing.

Underneath the ubiquitous background noise of runaway capitalist insanity, there is a counter-productive and equally insane attitude that publishers share with most professions. This can be summed up as "us against them."

Humans form groups - it's what we do as a species, and we wouldn't survive without the drive to congregate. One of the things groups do is identify insiders and outsiders. This can lead to some unfortunate consequences in societies that lack a broader concept of belonging. Police, whose function is to protect and serve, come to identify "their own" as insiders, and civilians (i.e. the public) as outsiders, and potential enemies. Medical professionals end up treating patients as outsiders, people who do not share the rights, or respect, offered to their own group. Politicians end up treating their constituents as opponents, as people they need to manipulate, dominate, or avoid, rather than represent.

Following right along, publishers identify writers as "outsiders," as "them," even though their income depends on the people they publish. This, I believe, is a significant component of the attitude that is shared almost universally among publishers, and which Menaker so eloquently describes in his book. The drawback to this adversarial attitude, particularly as it relates to publishing, is one I attempted to explain in my first meeting with my editor at Random House.

"You sell ideas," I said. "And that is what makes publishing different."

I don't think she understood what I was trying to say. But, there is a good chance Menaker does.

Excerpts are from My Mistake: A Memoir, ­published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. © 2013 by Daniel Menaker.


  1. Well said. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  2. I think I am glad I didn't know any of this when I got started. Once I began to dive into the publishing world, I began to find these things out on my own in addition to hearing them from career-long authors who have seen a huge change in publishing in the last 30 years. It's no wonder that it's a tough world for new writers to break into. Seasoned and career writers who have been able to make a living doing what they love are finding the whole business nearly impossible with no stability. Thanks for the article. Sharing.

  3. Thank you for the eye-opening insight into this frustrating industry.

  4. Wow...great information!
    Thanks for sharing
    Good luck and God's blessings

  5. Thanks for the pixels. I do indeed think the business could and should be run less corporately.Good luck with that.

  6. A fantastic article even though a depressing read. It seems a massive waste of talent both inside and 'outside' the publishing industry. You really succeeded in highlighting the way businesses, of most sorts, act in a form of knee jerk reaction - despite spending millions of hours and probably dollars on strategy and planning -and on the squeaky wheel (or perhaps the squeaky big wheel?) getting the oil. I remember post Harry Potter (book 2or 3) you could not move in bookshops for books about kids in wizard schools. Hollywood will make similar movies at the same time (i.e. the two Truman Capote movies: two(one TV) about Hitchcock- to be fair all of these 4 were excellent but its not always the case). I don't know if there are solutions but one could certainly spend years analysing the problems


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