book publishing

3 posts

The Pandemic Strikes Publishing, Too


A pandemic wreaks havoc in both obvious and less obvious ways. The obvious ways appear, depressingly enough, on the homepages of our online newspapers and as “breaking news” on our televisions. Less obvious are the effects of being holed up at home, especially if you’re an extrovert or someone in a bad marriage or a kid who relies on schools for breakfast and lunch.

Less obvious than these less obvious items? Covid-19’s effects on publishing. This past week brought two interesting emails to my inbox. One was from a print magazine publisher that had already accepted one of my poems. They said the printing press that usually brought out their publication was not considered “essential,” therefore the magazine would not appear as scheduled. Instead, the editors were working on their first electronic version of the magazine ever.

Be patient, was their bottom line. And pray for us, because we’ve never done this before. I did not reply but my subconscious did: “Uh-oh.”

Another email came from a journal still entertaining a poetry submission I’d sent. They apologized (as if they had to, given the circumstances!) and said the whole pandemic thing had sent their efforts into disarray and that everything would be backed up, with the chance that said “everything” might even be backed up over a cliff like Wiley E. Coyote or something, so don’t expect to hear back from them soon, or at least as soon as they had promised.

Oh. OK.

So if you’re noticing little action on your Submittable page, now you know why. Granted, “action” is a misnomer when it comes to submitting to poetry journals because things move like sludge even in the best of times, but this is sludge in a stubborn mood we’re talking now!

I imagine this chaos extends to book publishing, too. My third manuscript, already seatbelted in and preparing for takeoff next week, is in for a long ride. Perhaps it will see Jupiter outside the window before I hear anything about its fate, good or bad. I’m packing extra sandwiches for the 57 poems, just in case.

Go ahead. Call me a helicopter author. But these are strange times, and all the old rules are going out the window. Like everything else, the publishing industry is either sick or in hiding. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


When you utter the word “amazon” as in “dot com,” you get varied reactions. Many consumers love the behemoth for its convenience and price. They are loud in their praise and often in their clicks-to-cart. Many others are “closet amazon” fans. They talk the good talk about supporting small independent booksellers, but if they want a specific book (and they do) at the best price available (and they do), they order it from the privacy of their amazon-prime homes.

Of course, amazon is more than just books now. It hawks just about dot-com everything. And if you get into a problem with a delivery like I did a few weeks back, you get the best horrible customer service correspondence in the world. Long letters in need of an editor. Cookie-cutter apologies that sound as sincere and as empty of humanity as a Donald Trump rally.

In fact, when my 2-day delivery never showed up and I asked why, amazon customer service assured me it would arrive on Day 3. Then Day 4. Would you believe Day 5? Uh, no. So the amazon solution was this: To show they care and to assuage my alarm, they offered me a one-month extension of our amazon prime membership (retail value: $8.43).

I replied, “Button up your shirt because your heart’s falling out!” but they didn’t get the idiom and probably considered me an idiot. A brief glimpse of human irritation slipped out when the long-winded response (an amazon staple) included a reference to concern about my “precious time.” Sarcasm dot com. Even amazon customer service reps in need of an editor and a Strunk & White lesson on succinct writing are subject to it.

Which brings me to Barnes & Noble, the step-child in the behemoth bookselling world. I did the usual irate customer act and took my business elsewhere, elsewhere meaning Barnes & Ignoble. My amazon grudge order will arrive in a week or so, depending on pony changes (they ship Pony Express, apparently).

Still, these days, you can’t take behemoth booksellers for granted, just like you can’t take successful deliveries for granted. In an article in the New Republic, culture news editor Alex Shephard writes that the impending demise of B&N will hurt writers. No, not the rich-get-richer writers referenced  in my last post. The little guys (includes 99.3% of poets). The rising stars. The literary outsiders. Here’s Shephard on what will happen if B&N goes the way of Borders:

“…Big-name authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or James Patterson, will probably be fine. So too will writers who specialize in romance, science fiction, manga, and commercial fiction—genres with devoted audiences, who have already gravitated to Amazon’s low prices. But Barnes & Noble is essential to publishers of literary fiction—the so-called “serious” works that get nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. Without the initial orders Barnes & Noble places, and the visibility its shelves provide, breakout hits by relative unknowns—books like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—will suffer.

In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.

The irony of the age of cultural abundance is that it still relies on old filters and distribution channels to highlight significant works. Barnes & Noble and corporate publishers still have enormous strides to make in fully reflecting America’s rich diversity. But without them, the kinds of books that challenge us, that spark intellectual debates, that push society to be better, will start to disappear. Without Barnes & Noble, we’ll be adrift in a sea of pulp.”  (The full article can be read here.)

Bad. Ugly, even. But amazon will just keep keeping on.

So maybe, in addition to supporting the little independent booksellers when you’re in their brick-and-mortar neighborhood, you can support one of the big guys on the ropes while you’re at it. For writers like us, the trickle-down economics of a Barnes & Noble implosion might just be the beginning of the end, also known as the end-of-publishing days.


The Rich Get Richer…


Yes, it’s simple math. The rich get richer and the poor remain poor. Economics? Nah. Publishing and sales.

People publishing their first books are schooled in this hard, Adam Smith-like fact of life more than any other. Their novels, short story collections, poetry collections, or collected essays may be good. They may even be very good. But they aren’t going to sell much outside the demographic known as family and friends comma very comma very close.

Here’s why:

  1. A first published book is like a first drunk. It goes to your head. Quickly. You feel dizzy with unreasonable delight. Your delusions become grandeur. Just as you once, as an adolescent, assumed you might be Death’s exception (after all, this is me we’re talking!), you assume that somehow, someway, your baby, your beautiful book will find a way to top the charts. Or at least assault them. Or at least give them a good scare.
  2. You don’t realize how crowded this field is. The competition is akin to New York City’s population. There are that many you’s out there. And none of them are saying, “Here’s looking at you and your beautiful work, kid.” Nope. They’re just walking on by, heads forward, hearts pumping me, myself, and I just as yours does.
  3. Marketing is easier said than done. Even if you make it a full-time job. Really.
  4. Internet “friends” (or “followers”) will pledge like furniture polish, but very few will buy. Fewer still will read. And fewer still will write a review. Investing in them is like chasing last year’s hot stock. Celebrate the few who come through! Don’t have such high expectations. Imagine if you yourself bought and read every “friend’s” or “follower’s” work (especially if you have thousands, you “popular” person, you). Repeat after me: “Adam Smith, Adam Smith, Adam Smith.”
  5. As you watch your friends buying and reading established names like Stephen King, Alice Munro, and Billy Collins (and not you, you, or you), don’t hold it against them. Established names have earned their establishment through talent or moxie or something Rubik’s cube-like you haven’t figured out yet. Even if those names are living on past reputations, they’ve earned as much. If it bothers you that the rich get richer, maybe it’s because you’re not one of them. Smile about that.
  6. Your writing may be better than the rich’s writing. Chances are, it’s not. But it may be. And if it is, you only have time and discipline and work ahead of you. Life may eventually reward you, making you rich in publication and sales. Or the frustration of posthumous riches may visit upon you. Or, most likely, your talent may go hiding with you to the grave. Prepare for that contingency. Celebrate quietly as you write wonderfully. Be appreciated and famous to yourself. Not everyone’s work earns a fair hearing. Life is the ultimate kangaroo court.
  7. Resentment and hard feelings are detrimental. Work on. Create positive sweat. Believe that talent will out and riches will someday be yours. Or, if that sounds way too capitalistic, focus on art for art’s sake. Creative riches are capital, too, earning interest–yours, if no one else’s.

Keep on keeping on, fellow writers! Art and economics may make strange bedfellows, but four feet are sticking out from under the sheets, so live with it and carry on!