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Monopoly of Words: Big Media and the Publishing Industry
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Several years ago when I began teaching a publishing industry course for one of the MFA programs I work for, I started subscribing to the Publisher’s Lunch and Publisher’s Marketplace newsletters. Their weekday emails include a summary of recent book deals, a list of open jobs in the industry, book buzz links, and other publishing-related news of note.
In the deal emails, I’ve noticed a couple of trends, especially in the last few years. For fiction, many of the new books acquired are by debut authors or celebrities and celebrity-adjacent influencers, not books by authors whose primary profession is writing. Nonfiction sales have also been encroached on by proverbial influencers—more and more titles seem to be penned by people (or their ghost writers) with some sort of brand or lifestyle they’re hawking in other economic sectors.
Here are deals from Publisher’s Lunch Weekly that came in on May 22 (boldface below is mine):
- Chief Content & Partnerships Officer for YouVersion Nona Jones’s untitled first book delving into the transformative power of being overlooked and unwanted, guiding readers on a journey to harness resilience and unlocking their untapped potential…
- Owner of HausWitch in Salem, Massachusetts, and author of HAUSMAGICK Erica Feldmann’s INTENTION OBSESSION! EMPOWERING DOMESTIC RITUALS FOR EVERY SEASON, a celebration of the domestic realm as a place of enchantment where a radical reimagining of how to shape a life can take place...
- Positive psychology expert and longtime personal coach Jodi Wellman’s YOU ONLY DIE ONCE, a guide to embracing the concept of memento mori—the awareness that we all will die one day—as a tool to awaken the liveliest versions of ourselves.
Notice the buzzwords, which are frequently invoked in book acquisitions blurbs now: transformative power, harness resilience, untapped potential, enchantment, embrace, empower, radical, expert, positive psychology.
- Romance: TikTok influencer and author of FAMOUS FOR A LIVING Melissa Ferguson’s THE PERFECT ROMCOM, in which an aspiring author finds herself as the ghostwriter for the biggest name in rom-coms, and everybody, including her playboy literary agent, is thrilled, except her…
- Debut: Amy Neff’s THE DAYS I LOVED YOU MOST, pitched as THE NOTEBOOK meets THE PAPER PALACE, about what happens when a long-married couple face a tragic diagnosis…posing questions about devotion versus sacrifice, fate versus choice, grief, family dynamics, and what it means to live fully.
Some observers of the industry claim presses need to publish celebrity and influencer titles to keep the lights on, but I don’t buy it for a second. They don’t have to do a lot of the things they do, such as allow auctions to vault well past the threshold of good sense and accountability, resulting in the absurdity of an eight-figure advance for a celebrity memoir (allegedly, Prince Harry’s Spare—which the target audience bought within the first few weeks of its release. It’s not the kind of book that has a long shelf life, and it’ll be a miracle if it ever earns out. But that’s a topic for another time).
Nor do publishers have to pay huge advances to anyone—debut author, celebrity, god, goddess, or well-groomed space alien. The practice of wantonly overpaying for books that rarely earn out is one of the factors that have destabilized the industry.
Nor do presses have to cannibalize the other books they’re publishing in a given season by putting the lion’s share of their marketing and publicity resources behind the lead title, thus setting up the authors of these less expensive books for failure, i.e. low sales, but they do. If they spend high six-figures or a million+ dollars on a book, the press desperately needs it to succeed, and whatever is in the sales and marketing budget will mostly go toward this title’s promotion—many more thousands of dollars on top of the enormous advance (in addition to the cost of printing, distribution, author travel expenses, and storage.)
You might have noted a parallel trend in Hollywood over the last twenty or thirty years—few original features are being produced in L.A. other than by indie filmmakers—and on a shoestring, in most cases. Hollywood studios are focusing almost exclusively on franchises like John Wick, Fast & Furious, and IP-driven films based on video games and Marvel and DC comics—with the sole objective to earn billion-dollar profits, a business model which relies in no small part on these tent-pole films showing in China’s theaters (which has never been a given and is less frequent now that the Chinese film industry is making more of its own pictures & censoring more aggressively the Hollywood films they do consent to show).
I understand these tent-pole movies’ escapist appeal, but they’re one of the reasons the New York Times’s primary film critic, A.O. Scott, has stopped reviewing films. TV has picked up some of the artistic slack, but as the WGA strike underscores, only a few people—CEOs of streaming platforms and their closest associates—are raking in most of the industry’s profits. Screenwriters are selling original feature and pilot scripts less and less frequently, but from what I can tell, they’re still stubbornly trying, myself included. (It’s kind of mind-boggling how many—more than 1.1 million people are a part of Reddit’s screenwriting community.)
The same media conglomerates running the Hollywood studios own most of the corporate publishing industry. Over the last few decades, these conglomerates bought up dozens of unique, editorial-led presses and were able to report annual gains to their shareholders because they’d acquired each new imprint’s assets. They weren’t selling more books, only buying up publishers and their entire backlists (which an agent once told me is where the real profits lie).
John B. Thompson’s excellent book Merchants of Culture covers more of this subject in depth, if you’re interested in learning more.
I know I’m only one of many voices in this frustrated cacophony, but I started this Substack in part to examine these subjects. I have no solution other than to keep finding and reading (and writing) books (and scripts) we hope will prove valuable to our literary culture—as time and energy permit (also dwindling in supply for many as we chase smaller and smaller gig-economy paychecks).
The big book prizes, the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, do still privilege literary titles and authorial scholarship and expertise over commercial success. I don’t see that stopping, but with corporate publishers acquiring more and more books that they hope will be short-term profit engines rather than cultural objects of lasting value, who will have the resources to publish worthy titles written by committed writers and pay a generous but not outrageous sum for them?
The argument that corporate presses are giving readers what they want doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, either. Readers are being marketed to. They’re being taught to want certain things—which is of course how advertising works. Who needed a Beanie Baby or a pet rock? No one. Ever. But they were bought by large numbers of people, and they made their purveyors millions of dollars because successful ad campaigns were mounted to flog these silly products.
Small presses are publishing new books by erstwhile corporate press authors, but it’s difficult to get small press books into bookstores, other than those stores where the author has a pre-existing relationship.
It’s also very difficult to obtain reviews. With fewer and fewer newspapers and magazines reviewing books, and pre-pub periodicals like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal saying they won’t review print-on-demand books (a printing option corporate presses also make use of—which makes this ban even more dubious and balkanizing), and with publicists whose fees range from $30K-50K per book being hired by corporate presses to mount a relentless campaign for a lucky few authors’ books, it’s hard for many experienced writers not to wonder if we should be doing something else with our lives.
We are a chronically (witlessly?) hopeful species, however. Some of us write because we can’t imagine our lives without this creative act. We keep hoping the next book will earn us at least enough to cover what we’ve spent promoting it, with a few bucks left over to buy our friends’ new books and take them out to dinner. We also write (and read) to find our community of likeminded souls, to find someone to have a laugh or a (long) cry with.
Taste is inherently subjective, I know, and mine skews toward writers aspiring to…well, literary greatness. As novelist, poet, and essayist Jim Harrison once said, “If you want to become a better writer, read books from minds greater than your own.” (Or it might have been John Updike - they both probably said this at some point.)
I also think often of something British novelist/literary genius Martin Amis (RIP) wrote in his extremely enjoyable and beautifully written memoir Experience. The books on his study’s bookshelves were more than books, he said. They were his friends, and at any time of the day or night, he could go into his study and be with them.
1. Writing-related services, including ghost-writing and editing: Ann Tinkham
3. Laura Durnell’s Substack, Bluestocking Bombshells