Last week (or thereabouts), I opined regarding my impressions of what the industry is doing wrong. This week, I want to talk about what we are doing right.
1. The quality of submissions has gone up. In general, I would say that the quality of what I'm seeing is higher than it was, say, ten years ago. A lot of writers have become much more savvy and informed about not only the basics of manuscript preparation, but also the art of the query letter. A lot of the credit, I think, goes to groups like Sisters in Crime and writers' support/critique groups, as well as the Internet, which makes more networking possible.
2. Writers are more savvy about what it takes to get published. This is an extension of number 1 above. The best query letters talk about the writer's ability to get media coverage, reviews, and attention for the book, and I'm seeing more and more of this in the queries I receive. A lot of writers are also comparing their work to X or Y best-selling author as a way of establishing who the market is, not by saying that their books are better than X's or Y's (a wise move). A writer who understands the challenges of bringing a book to the public's attention is an editor's dream.
3. eBooks are helping us deliver our materials in formats desired by the reading public. Even though I'm a traditionalist and love the printed book, I know that a growing number of consumers like the convenience of ebooks. From the publisher's side of the equation, it can be cost-effective to do e-versions of books - lower printing/inventory costs allow for lower cost to the consumer. The concern, and a huge one at that, is the almost unbelievable amount of piracy that occurs the second a book gets into digital format. A friend of mine is the editor for a much-beloved science fiction author, and he tells me that within a week of publication thousands of illegal ebooks have been downloaded from "File Sharing" sites that should more properly be thought of as "File Stealing" sites.
It's never been cost-effective to make physical copies of a novel - at 10 cents a page, a 300-page paperback would cost $30, much more than the price of a new book. But these eBooks make piracy as simple as a couple of clicks. It's a major, major problem that we need to address.
The dark side of eBooks, of course, is the ability for anyone to upload their work and sell it via credible sites like Amazon and even Barnes & Noble. I can't fault either company; they see an opportunity for profit, and that's what businesses are there to do. The airwaves are getting jammed by people trying to get attention for eBooks that haven't been edited, proofread, or undergone any sort of quality control. And all those 99 cent books are adding to the already distressing perception that books have limited or almost no value, which translates into a consumer's desire to get all intellectual property for free. All of us are watching this with great interest; the next decade or so will be one to watch as new business models come into play. When people are unwilling to pay more for a book than they will for a beer, a cup of coffee, a diet Coke, or a grapefruit, we get to a place where books are interchangeable commodities, with any single title having no value greater than any other one of a million books. And I think we can all say that a book by Minette Walters (for example) has a great deal more value than one "published" electronically by a teenager.
4. We can still launch blockbusters. Though it doesn't happen as often as we'd like, we can still launch new writers who are immediately embraced by the public. A good example is Louise Penny, who seems to get more and more fans with each book; others might include Lisa Unger and Stephanie Pintoff. If these authors keep going the way they're going, the revenue they bring in will allow us to take chances on other unknowns and give them a shot at hitting the big time.
5. People still love to read, and they still turn to publishers to provide education, entertainment, and excitement. I know, there are dire prognostications about young people not reading, adults spending all their time on the Internet, and so on. I think these observations are overblown. A lot can be made of the closing of Borders and the troubles at Barnes & Noble, but remember that these are/were retail businesses, not publishers. My sense of the problem with these physical bookstores was their inability to use their space effectively. At a gargantuan B&N near my house, nearly half the place is empty. It could be used for writers' groups, musical performances, lectures and talks; instead it sits empty. Borders always had an awful selection - my wife calls it the "Mary Higgins Clark - James Patterson" store. In short, booksellers aren't merchandising the way other retailers are. In contrast, Amazon markets to me every single day, and I don't hate it because they've pegged me well and often send me announcements about books and other things that I am indeed interested in.
6. We're still reaching libraries. With the aid of wonderful publications like Library Journal, traditional publishers are still able to get the attention of librarians, who are opinion leaders as well as book purchasers. I see libraries and librarians walking both sides of the line with panache, balancing the traditional with the desire to meet the wants and needs of a technological generation. I think B&N and Borders needs to get a bunch of librarians on their boards of directors - they could then sit back and watch things get better.
7. We still have devoted staff. People in publishing don't usually do it for the money - because the big money just isn't there. There is a certain joy in spending one's days around people who love reading, manuscripts, the printed word, the book cover. I for one am simply delighted that I don't have to wear a suit and tie every day of my life, even if it means we live in the smallest house in the neighborhood. Good editors and publicists care about the work the acquire and represent; we're not selling widgets or brokering deals that cost people their jobs and livelihoods. I do wonder, though, where the young people - those who attend the NYU publishing institute and other training grounds for future editors - will end up in the next decade or so. I suspect many publishing companies are going to become more "virtual," giving up costly office space in trendy locations and allowing workers to work at home while working out distribution arrangements that minimize inventory carrying costs. Time will tell...