The People Aren’t the Problem

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 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.

51 responses to “The People Aren’t the Problem”

  1. Fair points but in the Stanford experiment it never got to the point of switching roles as it was abandoned less than a week in due to the severity of the abuse.

    1. You’re right. I fixed that. I think it was a follow-up experiment in Australia where they reversed roles.

      1. There were a few spinoffs and I’m pretty sure at least one reversed the roles.
        The Milgram experiment, the Third Wave experiment and the BBC prison experiment all show the same as well.
        Off your point though which is very valid

  2. It would be worth it just for the sales and customer data.

    I suspect that real data on customers would motivate a lot of change. Unfortunately, your average self-pub author has more data on their readers than the biggest publishers seem to.

    Which do you think is more difficult: a big publisher moving to Iowa or a startup in Iowa becoming a major player in publishing?

    1. I think it would be easier for an existing publisher to move. Backlist and tenured authors still account for a majority of sales (it could be around 65%). Existing relationships and deals with printers, sales reps, and retail outlets could be maintained. And agents only send out to the publishers that can provide the biggest brick & mortar splash. That’s why small presses can’t get the top manuscripts.

  3. Baen books, a mid-sized SF publisher, has been based in Wake Forest, NC, for decades when Jim Baen decided he wanted to move there. (At one time, they maintained a nominal “headquarters” office in NYC for appearance’s sake, but they dropped that facade a while back.)

    I wonder if it’s no coincidence that they were at the forefront of e-books, offering DRM-free e-books for years before the Kindle even existed, and making a habit of including CD’s packed with free e-books with some of their flagship hardcovers. (Some of them included the ENTIRE series so far, bundled with your purchase of the latest book in the series.) They also offer the first book in several series (along with a selection of other books) for free on their website.

    1. Great points. I knew about the CDs and DRM-free, but not about first works in a series being offered for free. I almost suggested that in my blog post, but thought no one besides self-published authors would be crazy and ingenious enough to do that. :)

      1. Hugh – Go check out the Baen Free Library. It’s been there for forever. Back when ebooks were relatively new, they were offering them. I used to have a Webscription with them for deployments because it was so hard to get books. Awesome service.

        I remember an explanation on one of their pages — might still be there — that said they believed in the power of trying before you buy. All of their authors used to have to offer one book at least in the Free Library of ebooks. DRM free. Most of them offered the first book in every series free.

        They were the true pioneers of perma-free and it won brand loyalty. I know I favor Baen.

        1. Yes, according to that post in which Eric Flint explains why they were having such an extended free library , they have been doing that since end of 2000… more than 13 years ago !

          They were the true pioneers of perma-free, and of DRM-Free too.

          And little known is that they (used to ? need to check that) offer also their catalog for free to disabled people :

  4. Heck, a few of these guys could move to Cleveland ohio ( Just twenty minutes from me)
    Lower costs- huge diversity- less traffic
    I feel there is a huge shift coming to publishing. And it isn’t a mater of IF- its a matter of WHEN
    After the dust settles the changes Hugh talks about will begin and authors should begin to see some changes that have been long over due.
    Hang in there everyone— we’re about to move forward!

    1. I’m worried we’ll be down to 3 major publishers within a few years. That’s what happened in the music industry. Why a publisher like S&S or HC would rather be acquired than take a chance and grab market share is beyond me. I guess it’s like movie studios. You get so big that you can’t innovate anymore.

      Personally, I’m pulling for them. I’d love to see them do what no other entertainment industry has done, and that’s fully embrace the transition.

      1. Fiction publishers may have a very good understanding of the transition, and have decided they can’t make money in fiction. I don’t have reason to think we are smarter than they are, and more capable of studying and analyzing the market..

  5. This has already happened to an extent via indie authors and small publishers. I’m in TN and my business partner is upstate (anything north of the City is upstate). We keep overhead to a minimum because we pay off of gross, not net. No one should get paid off of net.

    It’s very, very difficult for large organizations to make a fundamental change. I saw it in the Army when I was at the front edge of the transition from the Cold War army to the Special Ops body fighting the war on terror. We were red-headed step-children for decades, but reality won out.

    1. Good point. Our booth at BEA was full of CEOs of multi-million-dollar corporations, all of which are spread out across the country. Market share isn’t just moving to a different set of people, it’s moving to a different geography.

      And keeping my living expenses low was a key to investing in my writing. All of these ideas are scalable. It’s just so hard for large institutions, as you say, to change. But I believe it’s possible. It would be so revolutionary. And I think it would inject a lot of excitement into whichever house made the move.

  6. I love this post. Can’t think of a way to improve on that statement so I will leave it at that!

  7. Another powerful post. We can hardly keep up with all your ideas, Hugh!

    As a self-published author and a teeny tiny publisher (I call myself an indie publisher, if having 3 writers in my stable counts), I keep my eyes and ears open for changes in the market and ways to take advantage of what’s new every DAY…which is decidedly more nimble than Big Pub. When free days don’t seem to work but permafree does, and $1.99 isn’t selling but $2.99-$5.99 is, I’m on it. Sometimes the very same day. That ability to to pivot, and to experiment (and fail) is something that can never be approached by an organization with dozens to hundreds of employees and overseers from elsewhere.

    We are the cutting edge, and it’s a grand way to do business.

    Keep on blasting out these ideas!

  8. Sounds neat, but doesn’t take into account the “Kitchen Party Factor.”

    At every great house party, people cram themselves into the kitchen, even when there’s space elsewhere. Why? They want to be in the kitchen. They know that’s where it’s at.

    NY is the kitchen. Why work your butt off your whole life only to get invited to the fanciest cocktail parties… in Iowa? May as well sell farming equipment.

    Money is not the sole motivator of humans. :-)

    1. The kitchen is now online.

      1. Oh, sure, I’m in your kitchen… but I can’t take a selfie of us standing together on the internet.

        The virtual space is more than enough for many people. Me, I didn’t get into writing to see my name in lights.

        But everyone is not like me. For some, publishing is a means to the ends of rubbing shoulders with giants, achieving greatness. You can’t take the narcissism out of an entire industry; everyone has it to some degree.

        On the internet, like this, nobody knows I’m actually a stack of squirrels in a trenchcoat. :-)

        1. I knew that, Mimi. And you should see Hugh Howey. Very handsome, but only three feet tall. Who knew?

          1. Mimi’s really a stack of squirrels in a trenchcoat? That’s the great thing about being indie — publishing is a true meritocracy.

            I’m actually the Toucan.

  9. Just to be clear, systemic problems like this don’t go away easily no matter what business you’re talking about, because once these assumptions are baked into the processes of a business they’ll fight like hell to keep them there. Publicly traded companies are especially sensitive to anything that makes it difficult to forecast nice fat future profits.

    The Publishers have compounded these problems because they see themselves as institutions as well as businesses. (I worked as in intern at Putnam in the late 80s, so I saw this in action in its heyday.) They’re not just protecting a business model, they’re protecting a culture, and an ideal. That’s a big part of the “special snowflake syndrome” that you’re seeing as the justifications crumble underneath them in the face of deep disruption in the marketplace.

    To do the things you’ve suggested means that they would have to get through their corporate grief and accept that things have changed and they’re not going back. I think there’s going a lot more anger, denial, bargaining, and depression they need to work through first before they can work through that kind of grief.

  10. Puts me in mind of what happened when Tor, way back when, tried to sell some e-book titles DRM-free via Baen, back before Amazon Kindle was even a thing. They got all the way up to launch day, it launched, the titles were available…for about a day before someone at Holtzbrinck shat his pants and demanded they be pulled immediately.

    It took several more years before Tor was finally able to go DRM-free and make it stick.

    1. Yup. I’ve seen this firsthand with a few of my dealings with publishers. Change and innovation very nearly happen, and then the failsafes at the very top kick in.

  11. Virginia Llorca Avatar
    Virginia Llorca

    Leave Iowa alone. Go to Cincinnati. They need you.

    Besides, with Ames a writer’s Mecca, it would be wartorn quickly. Imagine. Storming buildings, killing editors. . .

  12. This is why incumbents almost never cross the chasm to health during significant business disruptions by upstarts. Publishing is no different.

  13. There really isn’t a problem.

    There is a situation where the supply of fiction from authors is so large that prices paid to authors falls. This is played out over and over in all kinds of markets.

    In this case, the suppliers are fiction authors, and the customers are publishing houses. The money publishers pay, and the concessions they extract, net out to the price publishers pay the author. Publishers can get all the books they want.

    Decrease supply, and they will pay more and extract less in concessions. Increase supply and they will pay less and extract more in concessions.

    If there is a problem at the root of all the complaining, it is the large number of people who write fiction, want to make money doing it, and want to do it with a publisher. There are far too many to sustain the prices authors want from publishers.

    Moving to Iowa will not chage the supply.

    The market offers a very viable and robust alternative for fiction authors.

    1. It’s not a supply and demand issue. There is only one Stephen King, only one Hugh Howey, only one J. A. Konrath. The big five use their size and collusion to force writers into deals that a free market wouldn’t generate normally. They try to keep mid-list writers mid-list and they favor some writers over others regardless of the quality of their work or the demand for their stories. Not unlike the big sports franchises using collusion and draft deals with colleges to limit the amount athletes can demand for salaries. Lots of people play football, but some play it a lot better than others.

      Likewise with writers. Some write a lot better than others, and readers usually seek those individuals out. But natural market forces have been trumped by publishers who can determine who gets shelf space and if you want shelf space you have to play by their rules, which usually means signing long term contracts that put you under their thumb for long periods of time.

      That’s why self-publishing is so important, and that’s why the Big Five are so scared of it. It’s a real free market. Hugh emerged without the help of a big publisher and proved there was a unique market for his stories regardless of all the other writers out there who are promoted more than him (and have better shelf space). J. A. Konath was on his way to having his career destroyed by traditional publishers, who saddled him with lousy covers and lousy promotion. When he escaped their contracts, he soon proved on his own that there was a unique market for his work, despite all the other writers out there.

      1. Those unique books are all competing with each other for a limited number of publishing slots. The number of slots is far less than the number of books competing for them. Unique things compete with other unique things all the time.

        The publishing terms we see are exactly what one would expect with the supply and demand situation. For publishing house fiction, it is a buyer’s market.

        1. No, by your argument Picasso’s would cost the same as velvet paintings. There are tons of people who like to paint. Some paintings go for more than others. Of course, if someone could control the entire market for art sales, they could force prices paid to artists down.

          The reason the big publishers keep buying smaller publishers is to make sure there aren’t other buyers for writers to go to. It’s worked for a long time, but Amazon changed all that. Now writers have other options, and guess what? Many, many who were traditionally published are fleeing to self-publishing and ending up with more money.

          And many writers aren’t even considering traditional publishing at all. Have you checked out Hugh’s report?

          1. No. I haven’t argued that.

            What I have said it all books submitted into the traditional publishing system compete for a limited number of publishing slots.

            There are many books submitted to the traditional system. There are few slots. That is what gives the publishers the ability to pay less and extract more in concessions. Authors and books compete for those few slots.

            I agree writers have other options today, and do not have to use the publishers. I applaud that and encourage writers to hit the Amazon KDP upload button. But those who do choose to submit to the traditional system make up a supply far in excess of the traditional publishing system’s demand.

  14. Hugh,

    You move to Iowa and start a house, I’ll be happy to sign with for a print-only deal:) I can’t see anyone other than a start-up doing this, despite it being a great idea. You could’ve written your previous article about publishers needing to invent Amazon back when they still could’ve, and it wouldn’t have made much difference. Large companies rarely change until they’re forced to.

    I know of a smaller publisher near me in fly-over country and many bookstores and other outlets treat them like an indie author. Their books aren’t in Wall-mart and they have to be ordered through Barnes and Noble. The owner complains about not being treated like a “real publisher” due to the lack of NY address.

      1. No, it’s Wall-Mart. Its selection of walls is second to none.

        Unless he really IS talking about Walmart. In which case… oh, dear.

  15. Phyllis Humphrey Avatar
    Phyllis Humphrey

    Once again, your ideas are awesome. But will someone listen? The reason publishers are in New York is because, back in the days when the U.S. had no Copyright laws, publishers crossed the pond to Europe by boat, bought local authors’ work, republished and sold them and paid the authors nothing. Charles Dickens came here to protest the practice which finally ended. But today? I’d love to see a bidding war among cities hoping to be chosen. Meanwhile, I’m choosing self-publishing instead of the Big-5. (or 4, or 3)

  16. Or, for that matter, they could come to Indianapolis. There are several Amazon distribution centers here. Great way to inject their books right into the heart of Amazon’s distribution stream, and the cost of living’s not all that bad relatively speaking.

  17. Hugh,

    Mike Shatzkin just did a blog post saying you’re wrong about almost everything :)

    Last time I tried to post on his blog, he chased away everyone who disagreed with him, leaving me to wonder if he simply preferred an echo chamber: It’s always comfortable to talk only to those who agree with you and pretend nobody else exist. We saw what happened to Mitt Romney when he and his advisors did just that. They were left wonder what the heck happened when they were blindsided by election results they convinced themselves would never happen.

    This time I wonder who he is trying to convince.

    Is he trying to convince big publishers and industry insiders not to worry about those wrong-headed folks like Hugh Howey?

    Is he trying to convince traditionally published authors to stay where they are?

    Is he trying to convince newbies to query agents and go that route?

    What makes a publishing insider think he can advise writers about what is best for them?

    His view of authors is just as skewed as that Hachette report: A few writers matter. A few writers are successful. The other writers don’t matter. He doesn’t even see them.

    What I find most offensive is he keeps talking about how many writers get more than 25% royalties on ebooks because they have contracts that aren’t expected to earn out.

    basically, he is pointing out how a few top sellers get better terms than the mid list. Which means the mid list is being fleeced to support the top sellers.

    How does he think this will reassure writers that the system is a good one?

    1. Mike surprises me. He expressed shock and disbelief when I mentioned the 50% return rate many bookstores have with their titles. And he admits to knowing nothing about self-publishing. It’s odd that you can be a pundit without knowing much about the industry. I think all of his info comes from talking to the same five publishers, and that’s becoming a smaller and smaller part of the market.

      1. I find it a little offensive that he thinks he can/should give advice to writers.

        He is a consultant to publishing executives. I’m a lawyer, so as I see it, writers and publishers are parties to a contract. The publishing executives presuming to tell writers what they should do or what is in their best interests is bizarre.

        Writers should look to other writers for advice — not publishing execs.

        I think I figured out who he is trying to convince: He’s trying to convince the mega-best-sellers. When he think of “author” that’s who he thinks of. Everyone else – the vast mid list with their 10K – 20K advances are invisible to him, as they are to the authors of that Hachette report.

        What matters are authors like Stephanie Meyer. The Hachette report said as much.

        Mike knows he can’t convince the Indies. He doesn’t care about convincing the mid list because who cares about them? He doesn’t need to convince the publishing execs.

        It’s the mega bestsellers he’s worried about. He’s worried they’ll start reading your blog and doing the math :)

        1. He has pointed out to me privately more than once that not everyone can have my level of success. As if I’ve ever suggested that. But the fact that this is important to him tells me two things:

          1) Mike has no clue how many indie authors are earning real money. There are more self-published authors earning a full-time living writing fiction than traditionally published authors, and Mike doesn’t understand this.

          2) Mike doesn’t seem to understand that the books on endcaps are the top 0.1% of books in the bookstore among the already top 0.1% of manuscripts that were submitted to agents. You hear about the outliers when people diss self-publishing, but then they hold up Stephanie Meyer as what one can expect if they just hire an agent. Like agents can just be hired and books can just be published.

          I don’t expect Mike will ever grasp these two ideas.

  18. As someone who’s had employees come to the midwest from the coasts, it doesn’t seem like they ever want to stay. I have several opinions on why that is, but I don’t imagine a publisher would be able to keep their current employees after the move (assuming the employees even moved in the first place). Certainly, they’d have all this new talent from the local university, but businesses don’t usually survive when they lose most of their current staff all at once.

    All in all, though, the rest of the points all make sense…which is why publishers won’t do it.

  19. Remember that scene in Citizen Kane when he goes over all his assets and decides that running a newspaper sounds like fun?

    And remember that scene where he decides he’s going to use his power and money to promote an actress that can’t sing?

    That’s pretty much what’s going on with the Big 5. Servicing readers, or finding the best writers, is not what they are up to. They are interested in controlling the market so they can control what books get sold and what books get talked about. They want people to buy the books they want to sell. They want to control the shelves and control distribution so if they want to push particular books they can’t.

    The last thing they want is for readers to control what they publish. These are big playgrounds for the 1%. They have to be based in New York because that’s where the literary crowd hangs out (not to mention political and financial players). It’s not a problem if Senator Wilson’s book gets shoved onto shelves and then 50% of them have to be thrown out. The point is Senator Wilson wants his book published by a major publisher. (Or his daughter, or mistress, or old business partner.) Yale, Harvard and Princeton make a lot of money teaching the sons of rich kids how to be the next Hemingway. Books written by those kids need to be published whether or not there is a market for them. Genre books aren’t “classy,” so they need to be buried in the back (most of the time). Money from genre fiction can be used to promote more “important” literary fiction of the type that the 1% like to write, even if no one reads them. You don’t want clear accounting or even clear tracking of book sales, because you want to be able to make it up as you go along. A clearly branded publisher of sci-fi can’t give an ex-president a $3,000,000 advance for his autobiography. If your sales team is focused on the real market, it becomes too obvious when you suddenly promote a book advocating some political philosophy you want to promote. Instead, if you just make sure a constant stream of books go in and out of bookstores, give advances instead of a percentage of sales, manipulate best seller lists, you can determine which books are perceived to be successful.

    People lower down the food chain can’t understand why the company is being run so ineffectually. But the people at the top are fine with the way it works for them. Of the big Five, Murdock controls one, Sumner Redstone another. Two big German companies control the others, and a big French company controls the other because they have to keep the Germans in check. Between them, they get to decide what ideas are important, what people are culturally important, and can financially reward whoever they choose. Lots of influence peddling going on, lots of big egos being stroked, and lots of political agendas being promoted. Oh, and sometimes they have to sell some Harry Potter books to make sure there is money for all this. But no business is perfect.

    Yes, it’s not always bad people, but when a big system is dysfunctional, it’s usually working for somebody. The big five are owned by big players who aren’t simply looking to make money. And they obviously don’t care so much about readers or writing either.

  20. Mackay,

    That’s one of the best summations of the business of publishing that I’ve ever read. And I stress the word “business.” The literati—authors, editors, critics, reviewers, all of the people who got into publishing because they care about the communication of ideas and culture—do not control what gets published. Some of them truly believe that they do have control, and truly believe that they can make a difference in this world by the writings that they work on and are a part of. But they truly don’t have ultimate control over what actually gets out there for the rest of the world to read. If you have read all of the comments here you will have heard of the experiences of people whose publishing decisions were countermanded by the executives upstairs for their own reasons (whatever they were or still are).

    That’s they way things have been for a long, long time.

    That’s the way things *used* to be.

    That has now changed. Millions of people now get exposed to information and ideas that have not been filtered or skewed by business executives. It’s even possible, now, for an author to widely publish and distribute works to his or her readers—not only by handing a single book to a single reader, as was always possible, but sending out thousands—millions—of copies of a book worldwide—without any intermediaries at all, not Amazon or Apple or Kobo or anyone. (I’m speaking of direct downloads from a website or even by using Twitter messages.) If that’s what you want to do, there are ways that you can do it.

    This is a fundamental cultural change in the way that information and ideas are spread, and considered, and acted upon by “the great unwashed.”

    And that has some people terrified.

  21. Hugh – While I agree with your cost-cutting concepts, I disagree with you that people aren’t the problem. The execs, lawyers, accountants, and consultants (like Shatzkin) are PRECISELY the reason the tradpub industry is in its’ current state. They make the decisions, and continue the status quo. If you also take into account the (reportedly) high percentage of over-worked editors with poor attitudes towards anyone who isn’t a bestseller, and you have to say it filters down through the rest of the ranks, too. The Big 5 are like that episode of the X-Files, “Home”; not even bringing in a pretty new bride is gonna fix the genetic disorders.

  22. I’m from the Midwest so I’m not loving the Iowa climate. Let’s just say it’s really cold and snow is a deterrent to relocating anywhere. That said, I could be talked into relocating a company to Iowa, maybe. Lots of these things hinge on the various incentives given by the locality if you provide jobs. However, I have a problem with the MFA program idea. I have never attended an MFA program, I did go to a very fine university and feel happy with my education. I have heard way too many negatives on the MFA, it’s deleterious effects on creativity, the homogeneity of the student body. You got a grad program at Iowa that costs 43K if you don’t have an assistantship; we are not exactly drawing from a multiplicity of backgrounds. In literature, the diversity of socio-economic experiences has been eroding for the last few decades. Good idea to have a good solid university/ies in the area, but MFA would not be a factor in the decision.

  23. The problem is at the top. The executives make so much money that living in NY is extremely comfortable to them. Who else could they show off their wealth to? Someone in Iowa? Not that there aren’t rich people in Iowa but you get the idea. The execs do not see the forest for the trees. They are so out of touch with the people that make things work they have no clue. These people generally only tell execs what they want to hear not what they really think. Everyone is looking to move up.

  24. I worked in Corporate America for about twenty years. One company I worked for was in the Fortune 500 & 100. To this day, I’m still not sure how they manage to stay in business. Although I am no longer there, I have close friends who are. These folks shake their heads regularly at the way they do business. The repeat the same mistakes over and over because no one is willing to change their business model. It truly boggles the mind.

    Another option said publisher could consider if they don’t want to go all the way to Iowa, is moving upstate to either Ithaca or Syracuse. Cornell and Syracuse University tie at number five in MFA rankings. Ithaca has a low cost of living and Syracuse a very low. This would also allow them to remain close to Manhattan. That change might be slightly more palatable than Iowa.

  25. Or the publishers could move into silos in Atlanta. I’m just sayin’ :)

  26. 1. With the exception of Justin Cronin no Iowa MFA would work in any of the non-lit genres that pay major publisher’s bills. And none stay in Iowa after getting their degrees.

    2. Are the agents moving to Iowa too? Lunch expenses would dramatically increase if not.

    3. Have you ever been to Iowa? They are a proud, good people. The ones who haven’t gotten out yet.

    4. And the above commenter is right: no one goes into publishing for the money. My starting salary as an editorial asst was $17,500. You do it for the culture. That can’t be airlifted elsewhere for cheaper square footage.

  27. If people used to the BIG CITY move to a small city, they’d alter the small city a bit. Such would improve the small city to become a place where people want to visit and allow the big city people to feel a bit more comfortable where they are.

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