The History of Publishing and how it Impacts us Today


I often feel that I have run out of things to blog about. Run out of things to rant about. Run out of things to share. After all, even someone as verbose and chatty and loquacious (don’t you love that word?) as I, must, at some point, run out of things to say.


Nope. Hasn’t happened. Sorry. I got more to yack on about.


A new friend and wannabe published writer “Lou” asks:

>>“Is the fate of an author strongly dependent upon the editor and agent?”


Wow, Lou. Ummm…

Yes and no.

Which does you no good at all. *Thinks hard.*

Okay here it is. 19 years ago (when I was just starting in this biz) there were 113 +- major publishing companies. About four years later there were 83+-. Now there are 5. Or 3. Depends on who you talk to. What happened? Big companies gobbled up little companies and other little companies went out of business because they couldn’t compete with the bigger companies. It happened *fast!*


Before it happened, the fate of a writer was in the hands of an editor who could push a writer’s career like crazy, allocate a certain amount of the promo budget to an author, and make or break his/her name in the biz. Back then, an author was given five books to build an audience. Then, book number 6 was the *big* book, *break out* book, *become a star or crash and burn* book. An author who had played his/her cards right and built a readership and a relationship with the editor, went on to bigger and better things. Most of the time. Well… Sometimes. Sometimes a writer had to write a few more books. But they didn’t usually have to give up a penname. They could keep on writing, building a name and fans. If their readership and fans grew by 5% year, the publisher was happy.


Also… Back then, publishing houses made about 4% profit per year. It wasn’t big bucks, but it was considered “sexy” to own a publishing house. Guys did it to get girls, not to make money. I’m dead serious here. I actually heard a publisher say that once.


Then, about 18 years ago, the buyouts and merges began, companies began dropping like flies. Black Friday occurred when about 50 of the best and most experienced editors in the US were canned, across the board, in several companies. Which totally sucked, let me tell you. The publishing world went into mourning, a grief eclipsed only by 9-11. Which is another story.


By then the bookstore chains had gained in strength. Their buying power was so great, that they started dictating to the publishers what size books they would carry, how they would advertise them, all sorts of stuff. BTW: There are three people who determine what readers in the US will be reading. Yep, three. Let that sink into your creative heart. These powerful people are the buyers for each big chain. Three people…. Sigh….


Anyway, about 15 years ago, during the mergers into mega media companies, the dickh—…um…the money crunchers took over.


Now, all new author purchases, book covers, titles, author names, promo budget (*hear me laughing like a madwoman over that one*) are run by the money boys—CPA’s and business majors. Most of whom do not read books, but who do study the market and see what is selling today, then rush out and tell their editors to buy the same thing *TODAY* because it’s *HOT*! And who cut lines of genre books because they are making only 3% profit and the big bosses want every single book to sell like Harry Potter books or like Dan Brown’s biggie, and screw the building of writer’s careers for future big sales.


Oiy. But onward and upward. Or downward…


Now, writers are in the hands of people who do not read books. They play with money, own publishing houses, own bookstores, and yet don’t read. (Ever been in bookstore and hear an employee say, “Oh, I don’t read books. I just work here.”) All this is a sad comment on the state of publishing today. That said, yes, the relationship between editor and agent and writer are very important. If a writer is willing to change his/her author name/penname. If the money-boys will let that happen. If. And *if*. And *IF*.


“Lou” also asks: <<If an editor/agent pair find an author extremely likable, and the product is of better than average quality, won’t they try hard, promote the heck out of the story and get it moving?


Short answer, Lou – no.

Long answer, Lou – um – no, sorta. The di—…um…the money-boys run the publishing business now, to the detriment of readers. The promo money is in the hands of others, not the editors. Expect no promo money unless you are one of the less-than-one-percent of new writers who actually get big upfront advances and are allotted a smidgen of promo money. That said, the relationship between editor and agent and writer can make a difference. Can push a career. Can give a writer a second chance, though often under another penname. And promo money. *Hear me giggling*


Of course, all this is…IMHO. And I am frankly and unashamedly a cynic about the biz.


Hmmm. This turned into a rant, didn’t it.






5 comments to The History of Publishing and how it Impacts us Today

  • Lou Berger


    Thanks for this insight! I knew that the world of publishing had shrunk…but not to this extent!

    Thank you for your dedication and your patience with us “newbies.” You inspire me.


  • “All this is a sad comment on the state of publishing today.”

    Do you think all these changes have anything to do with the increase in e-publishers and vanity presses? Is that just a response to many would-be authors’ general impatience? 😀

  • Thanks, Lou.

    Misty, I think the e-pubs are a response to the electronic/information age. I think the number of vanity POD presses (as opposed to commercial POD presses) is a response to the fewer number of books being published in the commercial market. And yes, the time from mscpt purchase to print time has increased overall, though a few companies are still doing it fast.

  • I think that it’s natural and expected for us writers to rant about this stuff — it is eminently rantable (TM — yes, I just trademarked that word…). I think it’s particularly hard for those of us (like Faith and me) whose careers have, to one degree or another, straddled the changes that Faith describes here. I came into the business in the middle of the shakeups, and I remember hearing about these editorial purges at so many of the big spec fic imprints. It was frightening — turns out I was very lucky that I ended up at Tor, which was relatively immune to the problems other houses were having. The point is though, that it has become a very difficult business — fewer imprints, fewer markets, fewer short fiction outlets, fewer slots for writers, fewer people making decisions about what will and will not be published. That said, it’s a difficult business but it’s not impossible, and in many ways I think the worst of the contraction is over. More imprints are opening up, and small presses are taking advantage of the fact that it has gotten cheaper and easier to produce books. Not all is doom and gloom. Thanks for a terrific post, Faith.

  • Totally agree, David. My rant wasn’t intended to be against everything in the *new* market, so much, as to respond to parts of it. LIke the part where editors used to have power and now have so little.

    If a writer is flexible and reasonable and willing to try new things and new directions and even new publishers, the writing life could even be said to be improving in some ways. It is certainly possible to keep writing in today’s market. But the security a writer once could feel in the direction of a career, is much less today. That said, it is what it is…