It is far too easy to blame people for what are really problems with systems. You see this fallacy everywhere, and it leads to unnecessary heartache and divisions. We like to think that if we take out one enemy leader, we’ll win a war and prevent some future one. We like to think that if we fire one corrupt CEO, we’ll right a ship. Or if we elect a new leader, everything will change.
It’s true that very powerful people can sometimes influence the systems they rule, but it’s far more often that systems rule the people within them. The Stanford prison experiments are a great example. Research volunteers were chosen to play either prisoner or guard. The guards were immediately abusive to their prisoners, and the prisoners acted helpless and meek, even though the participants were assigned at random. The power differential and the lack of checks and balances were the problem, not who was placed where.
This is why the people in major publishing houses can be awesome, even as their system operates poorly. I have mad respect for the people I’ve worked with at major publishing houses. Most of them are fighting internally for the same things I complain about. I know editors who want to get rid of DRM on all their books right now and offer free e-books with hardbacks, but the system they operate in won’t let them. I’ve had situations where editorial and sales wanted to go forward with a project, but the legal department squashed it. I’ve even had an editor at one of the Big 5 come up and apologize to me for the way the system handled one of my deals. And every publishing house I’ve worked with grumbles about their bean counters getting in the way of innovation.
We have to remember that parent companies own many of the largest publishers. My agent and I have had incredible offers pulled once the details of those offers trickled up one more level, much to the consternation of the editors involved. I have had conversations with my overseas publishers about all they would love to do, but price laws in their countries and relationships with bookstores prevent them from trying. Despite these obstacles, many publishers are pushing boundaries and trying new things. Two New York publishers have announced moves to less expensive real estate, though I would argue that New Jersey and Lower Manhattan aren’t nearly far enough.
The economic reality for publishers isn’t pretty. They have thin margins, and many of the things they need to do will cost money in the short term. The solutions to these problems require drastic actions, but the systems currently in place make those actions extremely difficult. There is a camaraderie among publishers that harms them all. Social pressure prevents them from taking the steps necessary to truly compete. In this culture, daring to compete is considered “selfish.” But I would argue that persisting in a system that is easy for its practitioners but does not provide the best service to customers, contributors, and culture is far more selfish.
The only way to finance the changes needed is to drastically cut costs. The best way to do this is to move out of Manhattan, but no publisher wants to take that hit in its perceived respectability (or give up the awesomeness of living in New York). Well imagine what would happen if a major publisher announced a move that increased their reputation while dramatically slashing the cost of doing business. This is what might happen if a publisher moved to Iowa City, Iowa:
1) By setting up near one of the top (most agree it is the top) MFA programs in the country, this publisher could tap into a rich vein of editorial and authorial talent. Over time, they could establish deep ties with the program, with scholarships, guest lectures from staff, and an integrated and paying internship program.
2) This publisher could renovate an industrial space into a swank startup-type culture for far less than they are currently paying in Manhattan rent. They would actually own the building they improve, reversing a recent trend of having to sell off property and lease it back in order to stay put. And property value would shoot up the moment they opened their doors.
3) Existing salaries would become enormous raises due to the lower cost of living. Including rent, the COL index for New York, NY is nearly double that of Iowa City. $6,562.27 in New York equals $3,400 in Iowa City. Every employee in this publishing house would be twice as wealthy on the same pay. They would own houses instead of renting closets.
4) The business culture would improve rather than stagnate. All of the innovation I’ve seen in the book trade has come from those as far removed as possible from the monoculture of New York publishing. The most innovative agent in the business is based in Denver. The best bookstore chain is based in Portland. The best online retailers are based on the west coast or in Canada. The best contracts come from overseas. The future of publishing would soon be based in the heart of Iowa.
5) Concurrent with the announcement of the move, this publisher could announce a doubling of author royalties on e-books, higher advances, and lower prices to consumers. That is, they could take a page from Amazon’s handbook and pass along every ounce of savings to their customers and their contributors. Why give up all those potential extra profits? To gain market share and prestige. Every agent in the country would scramble to place their work with this publishing house. The quality of the house’s catalog would skyrocket. The goal would be to create a reputation and a lead that could never be surpassed by another publishing house, even as others scrambled to set up offices in Iowa.
6) A new culture could be fostered. The house could scratch every single imprint and create real brands that are recognizable and useful. To use HarperCollins as an example, you could have HarperCollins Literary. HarperCollins Romance. HarperCollins Mystery. Simple and clear, so that the brand you build is the parent brand, not some obscure name that only insiders recognize. Readers would quickly notice something: HarperCollins books cost less, are more enjoyable, don’t employ DRM, and a free e-book comes with every hardback. “You got anything new from HarperCollins Fantasy?” a store shopper might ask.
7) This publisher could also learn to deal with Amazon rationally. That is, they would see Amazon Publishing as a competitor, and hope to put them out of business, while seeing Amazon.com as their best retail outlet, looking to partner with them in every way possible, and they could view the Amazon parent company not as an end to bookstores, but an end to discount mega-bookstores and the rescuer of indie shops.
8) They could set up their own testbed bookstore in Iowa, where they carried works from every publisher, in order to understand what works and what doesn’t. It would be worth it just for the sales and customer data. Likewise, the store’s online shop could grow into a real resource for reaching readers directly. This would be the launch store for debuting works.
9) This publisher could also realize that price tiers do not compete as much as they think by offering a mix of free titles, low-priced backlist, and fiction e-books that never cost more than $8.99. Non-fiction e-books never cost more than $12.99. None of their competitors in New York can hope to compete. They gobble market share; their authors are paid more; their customers love them; their employees are enjoying a better (if less hip) lifestyle.
10) The best part is that the advantages are immediate. The day the move is announced, stock prices shoot up. The quality of submissions changes overnight. The level of talent they can afford to hire improves just due to cost of living. And all the employees that don’t want to move and don’t embrace the new cultural identity would quit, allowing themselves to be replaced.
The first publisher who did this would trounce their competition. The problem is, this has never been a goal for the current publishing system. As much as the great people within publishing would love to make these moves, they aren’t free to do so. But it’s fun to think about what would be possible. A handful of passionate people can launch a brilliant startup these days because of the size of the system they create and the lack of institutional baggage. Flexibility and creativity are rewarded. Publishing is full of similarly passionate people, and the first company that unleashes this energy will truly contribute to our literary heritage. Rather than fight the progress being made on the other coast, some publishing house should move halfway there and emulate them.