Last night, the long-time scifi writer Norman Spinrad (who earlier this year was diagnosed with stomach cancer) published the second of a three-part series on “THE PUBLISHING DEATH SPIRAL.” It’s amazing! In it, he trashes his relationship with Knopf, who sank one of his books, trashes book designer Chip Kidd (for having more power than the editors) and trashes his Knopf editor for being useless, spineless and not so bright. It’s a great read; I don’t agree with all of it but it’s illuminating. One thing that really stands out is the way the U.S. book publishing system is an entirely different animal than that of other countries. In the U.S., publishers will buy books and then, shortly thereafter, not care about them in the slightest, and on some level, Spinrad can’t quite accept that this is a systematic thing. He’s looking for a reason from Knopf honcho Sonny Mehta of why books like his get thrown on the pyre, and actually, there is no reason, and Sonny Mehta doesn’t care about your book! It’s expediency, it’s capitalism, it’s people who don’t have time, it’s because there’s no incentive in American publishing to care. Last week, actually, Spinrad did a pretty good job of explaining the diminishing returns of orders and expectations for writers.
Let’s say that some chain has ordered 10,000 copies of a novel, sold 8000 copies, and returned 2000, a really excellent sell-through of 80%. So they order to net on the author’s next novel, meaning 8000 copies. And let’s even say they still have an 80% sell-through of 6400 books, so they order 6400 copies of the next book, and sell 5120….
You see where this mathematical regression is going, don’t you? Sooner or later right down the willy-hole to an unpublishablity that has nothing at all to do with the literary quality of a writer’s work, or the loyalty of a reasonable body of would-be readers, or even the passionate support of an editor below the very top of the corporate pyramid.
And there’s a further wrinkle to it because what significant independent bookstores that still survive and the non-speciality outlets like WalMart subscribe to BookScan and have access to the Death Spiral numbers too and act accordingly. If there’s a book to order at all, because in many cases if the chains’ order to net equation zeros out and they don’t order at all, the book in question doesn’t get published. Back in the day, I knew of novels that were commissioned, accepted, and paid for but never published because the chains didn’t order. Today BookScan prevents such expensive mistakes from happening by aborting them at the acquisition stage.
And how does that play out for the author? As he wrote last night:
Without BookScan, order to net, near monopolies on the retailing end, and a conglomeritized industry where the great idioyncratic independents like Scribners, Random House, and yes Knopf, have become mere brand names owned by a scant handful of multinational corporations, a Sonny Mehta, running on whatever motivation, would still be able to assassinate a single novel by publishing it badly, but not the author’s ongoing career.
Or not for sure, anyway. Back in the day, you could write your way out of it if you were good enough by writing a novel great enough to be recognized as a great novel by a single editor with the passion and the leeway to ignore the previous strike-out at bat and swing for the fences. Back in the day, there were many more editors like that because there were many more independent major publishers, hence much more real competition on the acquisition end, hence as much reliance on analog editorial judgement as digital Nielsen numbers.