This article originally appeared on Five Thôt.
There’s a famous story about Dick Rowe and Mike Smith, two well-respected “A&R” (Artists and Repertoire) men for Decca Records, a major British label. In London on New Years Day of 1962, Rowe and Smith auditioned two talented bands. Rowe later recalled, “I told Mike he’d have to decide between them. It was up to him. He said, ‘They’re both good, but one’s a local group, the other comes from Liverpool.’ We decided it was better to take the local group. We could work with them more easily and stay closer in touch as they came from Dagenham [a large suburb of east London].”*
So Rowe and Smith offered the contract to the local boys, the Tremeloes. It wasn’t a completely foolish choice. The Tremeloes were quite popular at the time and in fact are still performing today, 50-plus years later, to enthusiastic audiences.
On the other hand, the band from Liverpool, The Beatles, went on to noticeably greater success. Rowe tried to justify the decision at the time, saying “Guitar groups are on the way out. The Beatles have no future in show business.” Thereby making himself notorious in music history.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but this story is recalled far more often than it is analyzed. Why did these two men, who were the best in the business at spotting talent and predicting trends, get it so wrong? Why couldn’t they distinguish between a moderately talented bar-band and the greatest group of the century?
Let’s look at an example from another industry. Last year, Walt Disney Studios released The Lone Ranger. There was every reason to expect the movie to do well. The characters, the masked man and his faithful Indian companion, had been popular since their debut on the radio in 1933. The director, Gore Verbinski, had already received great critical and commercial success with The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean. The star of the film was the fantastically talented and popular Johnny Depp. They couldn’t lose.
Except they could. The movie lost more than $150 million, eclipsing Disney’s previous worst loss ever, John Carter, which squandered $100 million only 15 months earlier.
Again, why did this happen? How was a quarter of a billion dollars wasted? Why couldn’t Disney, a company that has been making movies for 90 years, make a movie that people would see?
In 1979, a frustrated writer named Chuck Ross retyped Jerzy Kosiński’s prize-winning novel Steps and under the pseudonym Erik Demos (“hero of the people”), submitted it to every major publisher and to 26 literary agents. Some bright reader at Houghton Mifflin actually mentioned that the book reminded him of Kosiński’s work, only not as good. All in all, the book was rejected 44 times. No one offered to print the book or to represent Mr. Demos. Obviously, publishers are no better at winnowing the wheat from the chaff than Decca Records or Disney was.
What is going on here?
The answer has to be, this stuff is hard. However cynical you are, you still have to admit movie making, music-making, and writing are ultimately creative acts, and creativity is inherently risky. Even if the finished product manages to please the artist and his business partners, that does not mean it will find an audience.
However inept movie studios and record labels might be though, they are necessary institutions. A feature motion picture is unavoidably an enormous undertaking, requiring hundreds of people and millions of dollars. An album or a tour might be a little less complex, but not much. It takes a large organization to achieve something this expensive and complicated.
The Beatles and Johnny Depp may be immensely talented and famous and rich, but they needed a small army of technicians – directors, producers, editors, roadies, grips – to deliver their performances to the public.
Publishing used to be like that too. Charles Dickens wrote with a quill pen: he needed a typesetter, a printer with a dozen assistants, delivery men, booksellers and “newsies” — a whole industry.
Technology marches on. I am a writer. Unlike Dickens, Depp, and Lennon, I am neither rich nor famous – and even my talent is up for debate – but I can work entirely alone. The novel I am writing will go from my word-processor, through a type-setting program I downloaded for free off the net. There will be an e-book sold through Amazon and a hardcover book from a print-on-demand company. All of their processes are automated and run at my discretion. I’m even doing the marketing myself. The novel (The Missionaries, available in August) will be untouched by any human hands save for my own, the copy editor, and cover designer I hired, who, combined, cost me less than a day’s pay at my regular job. The actual writing took maybe 800 hours of my evenings and weekends. My book is really mine.
It is no secret that the practical aspects of publishing are all being disintermediated away. Publishers never did any real marketing, they just went to book fairs and schmoozed with buyers from bookstore chains. “Editors” never did that much in the way of editing, and advertising is too expensive for any books but the ones that don’t really need it. Expensive offset printing, the mainstay of commercial publishing for 150 years, is disappearing, and being replaced by e-books and print-on-demand, and neither of those need the financial resources of a publishing company.
Among people who are seriously interested in music, record companies are widely despised. Movie buffs are little more tolerant of studios but regard them mostly as incompetent hacks and would-be monopolists. But publishers remain oddly popular. Somehow, the literary world retains a sentimental fondness for the old-school publishers. Lately I have been reading passionate defenses of traditional publishers, and their retail partners, the bookstores, but they have mostly been more passionate (and defensive) than sensible.
The defenses revolve around the word “gatekeeper”. The publishers are gatekeepers, the argument goes, they exist to keep the shoddy works, the unreadable, illegible trash, from passing through the sacred gate that guard the holy precincts of the Published Word. If a book cannot be published by a traditional publisher, no sensible reader would want to read it. Indeed, no sensible writer would even want to go forward with his obviously inferior work.
The argument is all arrant nonsense.
First, as we’ve seen, it is almost impossible to distinguish the good from the average, to tell the next Beatles from the next Tremeloes, the next Kosiński’s from the last Chuck Ross.
But it doesn’t matter. Publishers aren’t even looking for good books. Yes, I’m sure a lot of publishing-industry employees, when they are on their third glass of chardonnay, like to grouse about “quality literature”, but once they stagger back to their desks, the job is about selling books, good books, bad books, any books. Publishers publish books that they think they can sell.
So it isn’t a surprise that self-publishing is overtaking traditional publishing. Nowadays, the average traditionally published title will still outsell the average self-published book, by two or three times. That gatekeeping, together with whatever pull the publisher has with the bookstores and reviewers, apparently is not worth nothing, but arithmetically it is worth far less than the huge chunk of the proceeds that the publisher will take. Authors have a powerful financial incentive to switch to self-publishing.
And not just a financial incentive. Publishers and bookstores are conservative; they need “product” they can sell. They have an irresistible urge to distort a writer’s artistic vision in an effort to extract a book they can sell. The improvement in sales is notional, but the distortion is real. The freedom, the purity really, of self-publishing, is at least as attractive as the money.
About 18 years ago, I had a heart-to-heart with a friend of mine, who was a travel agent. He had heard about “this Internet thing” and he was curious how it would affect his business. I felt bad for him, but the writing was on the wall and he needed to read it. The Internet was going to put him out of a job sooner or later, and he should get while the getting was good. A year later, he sold out to a larger rival; that rival shut its own doors a few years later.
The bookstores are already almost gone: Crown Books, Walden Books, Borders, B. Dalton — all gone. Barnes & Noble is one of the few bookstore chains left, and it is doing its best to get into the e-book business. Hardcover books are becoming somewhat dated. Amazon is systematically starving publishers of revenue while catering to self-published authors like me. The publishing industry is on the brink now the way that travel agencies were then.
Without bookstores, and with print-on-demand filling the dwindling market for non-electronic books, publishers will have only their fairly ridiculous “gatekeeper” pose left to justify their existence. That thin reed – basically “we will tell people how good we think your book is, in return for 80% of the money” – won’t keep them afloat for long.