Should Major Publishers Change Their Core Mission?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Ed Nawotka

Ed Nawotka

In today’s provocative feature story, “As DBW Convenes: If Hugh Howey Ran HarperCollins” the self-publishing phenomenon Hugh Howey notes among his objections to the current state of the industry that:

“Part of the problem is that the major publishers ignore the genres that sell the best. This is a head-scratcher, and it nearly caused a bald spot when I was working in a bookstore. I knew where the demand was, and I wasn’t seeing it in the catalogs. Readers wanted romance, science fiction, mystery/thrillers, and young adult. We had catalogs full of literary fiction.”

Howey also talks about what he sees as a fundamental flaw: the industry’s expectations of reader behavior. “There’s a strong desire,” he says, “that starts with the editorial slush pile and goes right through to the bookstore buyer to will people to have different reading tastes than they actually do. The difference between what is supplied and what is demanded is the voltage across which self-publishing is being powered.”

I have to wonder about Howey’s characterization fits with the perception and acceptance of the role of bookstores in community and society, not to mention just how dated his comment about publishers’ catalogs appear to be.

Self-publishing has been empowered by the internet at all levels, from cheap distribution, to low prices, to disintermediation between the reader and writer. But 99% of self-publishing still exists exclusively online. The vast majority of bookstores simply don’t have the capacity – i.e. floor space, employees — to adequately handle or cater to the growing community of self-published authors.

Some do indeed try. I was in my local Barnes & Noble this past Saturday and the store had given a local self-published author the opportunity to set up a table right near the front entrance (a space, ironically, where there was usually a large NOOK display) to sell his fantasy titles, which he offered in trade paperback editions in multiple-languages.

He was doing what self-publishers are expert at doing: being a self-starter and taking his fate into his own hands. Clearly, by translating his books into both Spanish and Vietnamese, which are widely spoken in Houston where I live, he seemed to be putting in extra effort.

While I can’t say he looked to be moving many copies, that isn’t particularly unusual for any book signing. How many front list authors go on tour and report back about hosting events where a handful of people showed up and only a few copies of their books were sold? Plenty.

That is, of course, not to say that tours are useless. One of the most popular tour destinations in the country for genre writers is Houston’s Murder by the Book. The store excels at drawing a sizable audience for writers virtually each and every night and has built a business largely on the back of such appearances.

But, more to Howey’s point about the demand for more genre titles in bookstores, I’d like to point out that if this was the case, wouldn’t it follow that you would see more and more genre-specific bookstores popping up? After all, independent bookselling has had something of a resurgence; wouldn’t it make sense for a smart entrepreneur to take a chance on say, a romance-specific booksore? After all, romance is the single biggest selling category of fiction of any type.

Yet, genre-specific stores have been in decline for decades. Mystery bookstores are few and far between, art bookstores are rare, women’s bookstores are rarer still. I do remember one romance-specific bookstore on Newbury Street in Boston in the early 90s, but it is just that — a memory.

Bookselling is a business that caters to a broad demographic of readers, much in the same way that publishers do. The internet has allowed readers to focus in on increasingly specific sub-categories of genres (see our recent article about the emerging genre of dinosaur erotica.), many of them publishers are reticent to enter or pursue. But is that a negative?

The suggestion that publishers are trying to form readers’ tastes is true. They are, just in the same way that university professors try to form students taste. But in much the same way that a university offers a variety of majors, so do major publishers offer a variety of genres.

The best of these — Knopf is a perfect example — can excel at publishing all manner of books. At the same time Knopf was marketing E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy they busy promoting Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. And let’s not forget that it was them who brought us Stieg Larsson, as well. But it’s Knopf. A high percentage of what they do is serious stuff. And when they do genre pieces, one can (based on reputation) assume that is is going to be of high quality.

It’s not as if major publishers are self-flagellating or self-abnegating. They want to sell books; most are publicly listed companies that need to sell the books they publish. And they need to sell them in quantity. And let’s also be honest here: HarperCollins is a major publisher because it does sell books in quantity — and much of that is indeed the very type of book that Howey says is most in demand.

It’s also not as if publishers haven’t tried to pump out more and more bestsellers or followed other trends. When evangelical fiction and self-help books were the rage, major publishers started acquiring Christian publishing houses; when Regnery struck gold during the Bush years publishing polemical conservative screeds, publishers launched their own politically conservative imprints, to name just two examples. Today, many publishers are trying to mine the and more acceptable appetite readers have for mainstream erotica.

And on occasion, they can even shape tastes for the better: look at the “Big Think/TED Talk”  trend that has taken over every small town convention center at one time or another through the year. I think we can attribute some of that to the success of Malcolm Gladwell, much like Norman Vincent Peale did for the self-empowerment/enlightenment crowd with the publication of The Power of Positive Thinking.

Of course, it is, as Howey would agree, just as likely that Gladwell and especially Peale would be more that likely to self-publish today. And they just might.

The problem is ultimately about capacity. Bookstores have a limited square footage to sell books; publishers have a limited capacity and appetite for putting out genre books. The internet has created a publishing and bookselling ecosystem where capacity is virtually unlimited. Of course, this has introduced a new set of problems, not the least of which has been the discoverability issue that has been at the fore of industry discussions for the last year.

I also believe that to some extent that many major publishers may have indeed had the opportunity, but have chosen not to publish a majority of the books — or type of books — that have saturated the internet through self-publishing channels. Why? They don’t see that as their core mission or as their role, which to many prioritizes advancing the culture. Call it snobbery, call it self-respect, call it self-defeating, call it nonsense. But it is what it is.

Writing from his own silo of success, makes Howey susceptible to the belief that his own experience is scalable. But for every Hugh Howey there are tens or more likely hundreds of thousands of others who won’t sell 50,000 copies of their book, let alone millions. Howey writes quality work  and that his quality work has risen above the din of rabble. It has been his good fortune, but as anyone in publishing will tell you, it is easily replicated or scaled. After all, publishers are trying to do it each and every day with each and every book the publish.

The lack of high quality genre fiction coming from major publishers isn’t the problem. It’s everything else outlined in Howey’s article, and likely, much more.

And for the record, there are also literary novelists (some even alive) who have moved millions of copies. It doesn’t happen all that frequently or consistently, but it can and does happen — and when it happens, it is inspiring to those who readers — who are also legion — who love just that sort of book.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.