Sunday Salon 2009-03-22: It’s not publishing that’s broken folks

Michelle Gagnon, who writes the Kelly Jones thrillers and is one of the authors responsible for The Kill Zone, this week blogged about publishing being broken. She used as her evidence the recent $3.2 million two-book deal for the pilot who landed a jet in the Hudson in January and turned what would have been a disaster into the feel-good story of the year.  She argued that not only is that a surprisingly large amount of dosh for any book in these financially strapped times but the inclusion of a book of poetry by Captain Sullenberger in the mix is…unexpected to say the least and went on to suggest that publishers should get back to ‘supporting good books by people who have devoted their lives to the craft of writing them’.

I take issue with this sentiment.

Do I think it’s daft that such a large amount of money is being thrown at someone who this time last year would have had a snowball’s chance in hell of garnering $3, 200 for a book deal based on his life let alone a book of poetry? Of course I do. Where I disagree with Ms Gagnon is that she blames publishers and I blame you.

There are, roughly, several gazillion of these books published each each year. Biographies and/or ‘life’ stories of near-nobodies and 15-minutes-of-fame ‘celebrities’ who cannot possibly have enough interesting things to say to fill a pamphlet let alone a whole book. But regardless of the worth, or lack of it, of a person’s story a lot of you are buying this rubbish otherwise publishers, a species not known for their philanthropy, wouldn’t be rushing quite so hard and paying quite so much for the rights to sell it.

A quick look at the biography section of a few online stores demonstrates my point:

I could go on. And on. And on. But my doctors have warned against elevating my blood pressure above a certain level. My point is that publishers are only paying silly amounts of money for non-stories because they believe someone will buy them. Given the rise and rise of reality television, the continued success of celebrity gossip shows and websites and the fact that Britney Spears has (at time of writing) 492,282 followers on twitter they can be forgiven for thinking that way. Much as I might wish it weren’t so, celebrities are ‘in’ and publishers are just looking for their slice of the pie. Supporting writers devoted to their craft doesn’t, apprently, pay the bills.

On a positive note we can all be grateful for the small mercy that it was Captain ‘Sully’ who scored the poetry book as part of his deal and not the week’s other big book-deal winner: George W Bush.

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8 Responses to Sunday Salon 2009-03-22: It’s not publishing that’s broken folks

  1. Maxine says:

    I’ve posted and ranted quite a bit in the past about celeb bios and autobios. As you say, someone is paying to read them (even at half marked price!). One aspect is that the actual book is not all of the deal. A “celeb” publishing deal usually involves, eg, newspaper syndication, so the paper will pay a lot to “serialise” aspects of the book before it is published. Sometimes these are deals of mutual interest, eg if the same conglomorate owns the paper and the publisher (eg R. Murdoch). Hence, actual people don’t always need to buy the book (or not many of them) as large advances and publishers’ costs can be recouped via newspaper/magazine and other related commercial deals. Grumpy Old Bookman was a great blog which had many very well-informed posts about all of this. Sadly, the blog is now defunct but is available as an archive.

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  2. bernadetteinoz says:

    Excellent point about the newspapers etc Maxine. I’ve deliberately stopped buying our city’s one daily paper (a Murdoch one) because there’s little of what I call news in it. If you look at the most popular stories at most of the online papers it’s generally the celebrity and sports content getting the most hits. Sigh.

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  3. It was my understanding that royalties from book excerpts published before the book is published are paid to the author, while only excerpts published after the book is published are shared with the publishing house. Maybe celebrities make a different deal? Or maybe it varies by country.

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  4. Barbara says:

    There was a bottom-line analysis of this at Wall Street Journal making the case that the reason these ridiculous advances are paid is that they are books that sell ridiculously well. Bleh. Too bad publishing colludes with our own brokennness, but it is a for profit business.

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  5. bernadetteinoz says:

    Thanks Barbara that’s a great article. Depressing but informative. I must be in the minority: the word blockbuster makes me less likely to read a book.

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  6. Debbie Nance says:

    It may be our fault, but it is not my fault. I’m doing everything I can to show children how wonderful books are not necessarily those books that are populated with television characters. If I had a dollar for every time a child, when shown a good book in the library, said, “I saw that MOVIE!” Eek. I’d give anything to have a few children say, “My mom read that book to me!” That’s what I want to happen.

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  7. Maxine says:

    I think if children see their parents (or carers) spending their spare time reading, then they will grow up to be readers. If the parents have the TV on all the time….well……;-)

    Celeb books are a bit like blockbuster movies, where the profits do not come from the number of people who actually went to the cinema to see the film because they thought it would be good or heard it was good from other people. The profits come from the merchandising and post-movie house deals. So decisions about what movies are made stop being about the actual story and become corporate deals. Thank heaven for independent film makers. And thank heaven for independent publishers.

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  8. coffee maker says:

    despite her personal flaws, it is tragic that Goody passed on at such a young age, and on Mother’s day

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