Over the past two decade I have produced and printed books for The Los Angeles Times, Simon & Schusterand Random House. I am therefore well aware of the horror stories on the street about what is being called “Black Wednesday” about two years ago three-dozen people on the editorial staff were handed their pink slips at Simon & Schuster after decades of loyal service. Like most avalanches the process continues to bury hundreds of employees as the head-rolling process of downsizing took its toll. This was the beginning of another major industry in this country headed for bankruptcy, hard times or a Washington bailout.
The week before Black Wednesday, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a publishing house made up of two previously independent publishers, including the very successful Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, decided to “freeze” acquisitions and told it editors to “stop buying books.” The staff at Houghton Mifflin was decimated as their publisher resigned … surely in protest, you think? I have been in the printing and publishing industries for over 40 years and I have never heard of such an edict. There were always those temporary “cut backs” but never a public policy of NO MORE BOOKS. Such events at major publishers should give the readers of this article great pause, especially if you are thinking your manuscript has a prayer today of being published by a major publishing house. Self-publishing may be your only alternative.
The days of the bloated and over extended conglomerate are over which can be said of hundreds of American companies in this economic melt-down. It is not merely a fact that books are not selling; bookstores across the country are returning books to the publishers at an alarming rate. Barns & Noble closed more than 400 bookstores nationwide. On the Affluent Westside of Los Angeles Border’s closed its flagship store in Westwood Village next to UCLA, then proceeded to close the bookstores in Century City, Beverly Hills and Brentwood in communities know for spending their money on books for their children. In my earlier blog I wrote about the return policy of every bookstores in the country and the lack of obligation to the publisher and their authors of returned copies without penalties. Last year 26.3% of the billion or more books sold in the U.S. were returned to bookstores, many badly damaged and could not be resold. The phrase “Let them eat cake” attributed to Marie Antoinette, seems fitting here, I hope the publishers choke on them as these returned books come right out of the royalties these publishers pay to their authors who have been promised a golden dream that quickly turned into a financial nightmare.
A few years back I produced and printed Witness to War: Images of the Persian Gulf War for the Los Angeles Times, a book which won a Pulitzer. I produced a number of books for the Times including ConArtist, the 30-year anniversary book for the late political cartoonist, Paul Conrad, Dining Out in Orange County by Max Jacobson, The Los Angeles Riots, The Los Angeles Earthquake, and 30 Years of Recipe Request by Rose Dosti. While active as a supplier for the Times in 2001, I began to suspect that all was not well in the newspaper business when the Times cut off nearly half of its staff and enticed another 10% to take early retirement with handsome bonuses—but that proved inadequate as its parent company filed for bankruptcy. Dorothy Chandler, who built the Times-Mirror Empire is surely rolling over in her grave.
But let us take a close look at how major publishers treat authors. If you are fortunate enough to get your manuscript accepted and even more fortunate to receive an advance on your royalties, the publisher most likely will demand that you use that advance to hire a publicist or public relations firm to promote your title before it hits the bookstores. It takes a major publisher 12 to 14 months to get a book to market and if they feel you have not gotten enough interest in your title they may decide at the 12th hour not to publish, placing you, the author, in a catch-22. If you have spent the advance and cannot return the money the publisher then maintains the rights to your manuscript preventing you from taking your book to another publisher.
Since the word “depression” creeps into many conversations these days I am reminded that books did very well during that economic crisis of the 1930s as did the ten cent movie and the sleazy dime novel; these were about the only escapism available at the time. Last week my wife and I decided to go to the movies. The tickets cost $12 each and popcorn and a Coke another $14, I wonder how many Americans will be able to afford the luxury of $38 for an evening at the movies?
So polish up that manuscript … there is still hope for that book you want to write and publish. Looks like reading may come back in style? For more on Collaborative or co-Publishing: www.gmbooks.com