Here's a literary parable for the 21st century. Lisa Genova, 38, was a health-care-industry consultant in Belmont, Mass., who wanted to be a novelist, but she couldn't get her book published for love or money. She had a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, but she couldn't get an agent. "I did what you're supposed to do," she says. "I queried literary agents. I went to writers' conferences and tried to network. I e-mailed editors. Nobody wanted it." So Genova paid $450 to a company called iUniverse and published her book, Still Alice, herself.
That was in 2007. By 2008 people were reading Still Alice. Not a lot of people, but a few, and those few were liking it. Genova wound up getting an agent after all--and an offer from Simon & Schuster of just over half a million dollars. Borders and Target chose it for their book clubs. Barnes & Noble made it a Discover pick. On Jan. 25, Still Alice will make its debut on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 5. "So this is extreme to extreme, right?" Genova says. "This time last year, I was selling the book out of the trunk of my car." (See the top 10 non-fiction books of 2008.)
Something has changed, and it's not just the contents of Lisa Genova's trunk. We think of the novel as a transcendent, timeless thing, but it was shaped by the forces of money and technology just as much as by creative genius. Passing over a few classical and Far Eastern entries, the novel in its modern form really got rolling only in the early 18th century. This wasn't an accident, and it didn't happen because a bunch of writers like Defoe and Richardson and Fielding suddenly decided we should be reading long books about imaginary people. It happened as a result of an unprecedented configuration of financial and technological circumstances. New industrial printing techniques meant you could print lots of books cheaply; a modern capitalist marketplace had evolved in which you could sell them; and for the first time there was a large, increasingly literate, relatively well-off urban middle class to buy and read them. Once those conditions were in place, writers like Defoe and Richardson showed up to take advantage of them.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century: the publishing industry is in distress. Publishing houses--among them Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt--are laying off staff left and right. Random House is in the midst of a drastic reorganization. Salaries are frozen across the industry. Whispers of bankruptcy are fluttering around Borders; Barnes & Noble just cut 100 jobs at its headquarters, a measure unprecedented in the company's history. Publishers Weekly (PW) predicts that 2009 will be "the worst year for publishing in decades."
A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done. Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since--well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.
What's the Matter with Publishing?
It isn't the audience. People are still reading. According to a National Endowment for the Arts study released on Jan. 12, literary reading by adults has actually increased 3.5% since 2002, the first such increase in 26 years. So that's not the problem. What is?
The economy, obviously. Plenty of businesses are hurting. And it doesn't help that new media like video games (sales up 19% in 2008!) are now competing with books for our entertainment hours and dollars. But publishing has deeper, more systemic problems, like the fact that its business model evolved during an earlier fiscal era. It's an antique, a financial coelacanth that dates back to the Depression. (See the top 10 video games of 2008.)
Consider the advance system, whereby a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn't "earn out," in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost. Another example: publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. "They print way more than they know they can sell, to kind of create a buzz, and then they end up taking half those books back," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of PW. These systems were created to shift risk away from authors and bookstores and onto publishers. But risk is something the publishing industry is less and less able to bear.