1998: The State of Publishing

by Eleanor Wood

Julius Epstein, who co-wrote the screenplay for Casablanca and has not received a cent of royalties over the past 54 years, recalls something the producer Irving Thalberg is purported to have said. Writers, confided Thalberg, are the most important people in film, “and we must do everything to keep them from finding out.”

As decisions that affect writers and editors increasingly seem to be made at remote corporate levels, it’s no wonder that many authors, including some science fiction and fantasy writers, suffer from a sense of helplessness. A publisher’s freeze on buying new books, decisions on whether to keep your backlist titles in print, the size of your next book’s print run, or — given the recent cancellation of over 100 books by a major publisher — whether your novel under contract will even be published: these variables can leave writers feeling like very small cogs in a very big and intimidating machine.

This state of affairs is, of course, one of the big reasons for an organization such as SFWA. For all the legal paperwork, a publishing house or corporation is essentially a collection of people whose power comes from working in a cohesive fashion towards certain commercial goals. So too can SFWA derive power from working collectively. It was through this “collective power” of SFWA, for example, that we were able to persuade Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books to pay each author a compensation fee on English language export copies of past Star Trek titles and to insure that the publisher will pay a percentage on English language export sales for future Star Trek books. The agreement was worked out in an amicable fashion, to the benefit of all parties involved.

And it is precisely because the voice of a collective body carries weight that I agreed with those who thought it important to raise objections with the publisher when Star Wars royalties were threatened.

But let’s return to the “State of Publishing” theme: what’s the book market like these days? For me, the short answer is: better in ’98 than it was in ’97 — and surprisingly healthy, considering 1) the staggering devastation of the wholesale market for paperback books; 2) the mergers which have led to downsizing lists as well as people; and 3) foolish financial and marketing decisions made by publishing managers who focused on celebrity books and ignored both midlist and backlist, which in truth represent the backbone of American publishing.

Well, the short answer isn’t much fun, but now I get to give the long answer.

If the question is, are people still reading in large quantities, still buying books, my answer is yes. According to The Wall Street Journal, from 1991 through 1996 annual book purchases rose to $26.1 billion from $20.1 billion, an increase of about 30%; Barnes & Noble sales for October ’97 were up over October ’96. It’s a natural tendency for people to recall the past as a Golden Age, to mourn that publishing isn’t what it was 6 or 7 years ago. Has the market for books declined? according to the publisher-supported Book Industry Study Group, the annual number of book units sold peaked in 1994 and has declined since then. Still, the number of book units sold in ’96 is higher than that sold in 1991 (substantially higher for paperbacks, about the same for hardcovers). Book unit sales were highest in 1994, but the paperback revenue in 1997 (actual dollars received from paperback sales annually) climbed a slight 1.8% (excluding children’s books) from ’96 to ’97. Hardcover sales revenue for ’97 fell 4.4%. Let’s consider these two figures separately, first the mass market paperback’s slight revenue increase, then the hardcover revenue decline.

The paperback market’s revenue increase is reassuring if a bit surprising, when you factor in the damage done to wholesale distribution by consolidation: over 250 small distributors, who knew their local markets (e.g. where to stock romances, where to stock science fiction) were thrown out of work. Solid writers who are not regular NY Times bestsellers — which would include many sf and fantasy authors — saw their print runs cut in half. This way of introducing an author to new readers has been severely curtailed, as supermarkets, drug stores, one-stop shopping stores and the like now carry less variety and display books by fewer authors. I’d mentioned the ID consolidation in last year’s Nebula speech: now here are a few specifics from a recent Wall Street Journal article to bring home the human cost in terms of lost jobs: “During the past couple of years, Kroger Co., a Cincinnati-based chain of roughly 1300 stores, has gone to 5 distributors from 95; Albertson’s Inc., a Boise, Idaho chain of 800 supermarkets, to 7 from about 100, and Walgreen Co., a Deerfield, Illinois company that has more than 2,000 drugstores, to 6 from more than 100.” The fact that mass market revenue climbed at all during this period of upheavals shows the strength of American readership, the success of well-run bookstores, and the success of online ordering.

Trade hardcovers had a decrease in sales, and returns were 35% (up from 32% the previous year). One recent article commented, “It has been a bad year overall for book publishers, which have paid multimillion-dollar advances to star authors, many of whose books have not sold well.” A film studio executive who became chairman of a major publishing conglomerate stated categorically, “You don’t build books anymore.” As one reporter noted, “That Hollywood-style approach — in which books that don’t ‘open’ big are quickly abandoned — is whipsawing publishers and wreaking havoc on their finances.” I am hopeful that after so many financial baths, with heavy hardcover returns, those publishing houses who have strayed from long-term nurturing of talent and supporting their midlist, will return to their core business.

Publishing has always required flexibility, and the role of imaginative publishers and editors is often overlooked. The force of the personalities involved, not just national economic indicators, tell us how healthy the publishing market really is. Bookselling can flourish in hard times, as it did during the 1930’s Depression, when Bennett Cerf was building his Modern Library list and founded a new line called Random House.

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to take a moment to note and to honor the first printer and publisher of books in the English Language: William Caxton.

Caxton was born in Kent around 1422, studied and apprenticed in London, where he rose in the merchant’s guild and became a successful wool merchant. Appointed by the guild to a governorship in Bruges, Caxton traveled to several European cities where he learned about the movable type developed by Gutenberg. Caxton bought a printing press and published the first book printed in the English language: his translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye in 1474, followed shortly thereafter by his translation of The Game and Play of Chess.

Caxton returned to England with his printing press and soon set up shop near Westminster Abbey under the heraldic banner “The Sign of the Red Pale” — the closest we can come to the name for the first English language publishing house. There he published the first books printed in England, including the first dated book (1477), The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers, translated from the French by his friend and patron Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, brother-in-law to Edward IV. The next year Caxton published another translation by Woodville, as well as Christine de Pisan’s The Moral Proverbs, the first printed book in the English language by a woman author. That year he started publishing works by his favorite English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer — the first printed edition of The Canterbury Tales. Caxton had a passion for books. Oral language, he noted in one of his Prologues, is “perishing, vain and forgettable,” but “writings dwell and abide permanently.”

This was a time of horrendous bloodshed in England. Caxton’s patron Anthony Woodville was beheaded at the order of Richard III for trying to secure the crown for the late Edward IV’s son. To have survived these violent times with his printing press unharmed and his head still attached to his shoulders, was a feat in itself. In an age that had not yet evolved the novel but enjoyed French “romances,” Caxton published a large amount of fiction, including The Chronicles of England in 1480. Filled with fantastical stories of Merlin and King Arthur, of Albion and her wicked sisters, the Chronicles falls largely into what we would call the fantasy genre. Caxton reprinted both the Play of Chess and the Chronicles in 1482 — meaning that a fantasy genre work is likely the first English language book — and certainly the first English language book of fiction — ever to go back for a second printing.

What an exhilarating time for that first English-speaking generation able to buy and read stories, poems, histories, books on medicine, etiquette, philosophy! Thanks to William Caxton, English language publishing was set on its fiery course.

Every so often, writing styles and publishing undergo rapid changes, and the connection with adventurous publishers is no coincidence. Skipping ahead about 400 years, we find a colorful group: the publishers, editors and tramp printers of the Old West. There were successful ones like the pistol-packin’ editor Colonel Dan Anthony (brother of Susan B. Anthony), interesting failures like the tramp printer Alfred Runyon (father of Damon Runyon). These printer/publishers/editors delighted in tall tales, sentimental stories and, most assuredly, the hyperbolic insult. Their insults make some of the recent skirmishes in the Forum regarding Star Wars royalties look positively civil. For example, an 1889 Kansas newspaper called the editor of a competing paper a “lop-eared, lantern-jawed, half-bred and half-born whisky-soaked, pox-eaten pup who pretends to edit that worthless wad of subdued paper known as the Ingalls Messenger.” A gubernatorial candidate lambasted his opponent in print as “a servile, self-asserting and stupid upstart,” and the editor of The Kansas Constitutionalist called his colleague at a rival paper “cross-eyed, crank-sided, peaked and long razor-nosed, blue-mouthed, … soft-headed, long-eared, crane-necked … squeaky-voiced, empty-headed, snaggle-toothed filthy-mouthed, box-ankled, pigeon-toed, hump-shouldered” — among other names.

In this century, of course, the Western frontier gave way to the frontier of space, and those of us who have followed the ups and downs of the science fiction and fantasy market can marvel at the way a few energetic editors and publishers have made a profound impression on the sf market. Any crystal ball gaze at what publishing will be like in the near future must acknowledge that the direction and scope can be altered unexpectedly and dramatically by individuals: how could you predict ahead of time the influence of John W. Campbell or the founders of Del Rey, Baen or Tor Books?

So, barring the unexpected, what will publishing be like as we slouch towards the millennium? Well, I think we’re seeing a lot of shifting of roles in publishing and changes in bookstores. On-line author and publisher links to stores — both to giants like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or to the specialty stores — facilitate the process of buying books and are creating a brand new kind of book browsing experience in cyberspace, not to mention chat rooms, clubs, and hangouts like Callahan’s Bar. Random House currently offers on-line ordering, and Bertelsmann has been touting its soon-to-be-unveiled cybermall. For out-of-print backlist titles, a few stores have stepped into the breach. The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona has published worthy out-of-print mystery books. Recently the owners of Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul, Minn. have started publishing books they’d like to sell. Another bookseller who has also turned printer is The Rue Morgue Bookstore in Boulder, Colorado. The number is doubtless increasing.

In the science fiction and fantasy fields, I’d like to see the large publishers pay more attention to specialty stores. I’ve heard grumbles from publishers that half these stores are behind in paying their accounts. Well, that means half are not behind: the glass is half-full, not just half-empty. These specialty store owners for the most part have the kind of dedication that helps keep this business alive. In the long run, no bookstore or publisher can be truly successful if run by an accountant whose only oracle is his computer’s sales data. Our business needs practical folk but also booksellers fired with a love of books, people who recognize the profound cultural need served by good stories. The proliferation of printer booksellers, small presses, specialty bookstores and online marketing by the giants are all good signs for a diverse and flourishing book business.

A glance at recent fiction hardcover bestseller lists show you that just about half the titles involve historical themes. Scratch the surface of almost any science fiction or fantasy writer, and you’ll find a history buff or even a full-fledged historian. Science fiction, of course, is history — future history, alternate history, a futuristic story based on an historical analog or a fantasy that evokes a bygone age — which is one reason why the sf backlist has always been strong. Popular demand for your stories, your histories and worlds, makes you, as individuals and as a group, the dynamic repository of historical perspectives: past, future and, if you will, sideways.

I hope SFWA, in the year ahead, can help achieve more general recognition of science fiction and fantasy and will continue to benefit its members. For example, the SFWA-inspired project of the Grand Masters volumes, edited by Fred Pohl, that Tor Books will be publishing, should attract significant attention and bring together in these volumes the legacy of this SFWA achievement award. A portion of the royalties goes to SFWA’s emergency medical fund.

In one of his epilogues where he justifies printing so much fiction, William Caxton wrote, “The terrible feigned fables of poets have much stirred and moved men to pity and conserving of justice.” Your stories provide pathways to empathy with different, sometimes alien views, perspectives that weigh the moral balance — William Caxton’s pity and justice. That is part of what — collectively and as individuals — you offer the world, and it is no small thing.

[Special thanks to Penninger’s Caxton’s Chronicle Histories, Edmund Child’s William Caxton: A Portrait in a Background, and David Dary’s Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West.]