Communion Of Dreams

It’s broken, part 2.
August 4, 2008, 8:36 am
Filed under: Marketing, MetaFilter, Publishing, Science Fiction, Society, Writing stuff

Almost a year ago I noted that the publishing industry is essentially broken, saying this:

I’d argue that when an industry is so disfunctional as to need to pull these kinds of stunts to select content, the system is broken. Completely. How is it possible that the publishing industry is in an “unending search for new talent” but is so swamped by submissions that they can’t deal with it all? They’re not looking for talent – they’re looking for name recognition, whether by existing celebrities or by ones created by this kind of gimmick. It is an aspect of our celebrity/sensationalist culture.  And a $25,000 advance is considered “small”?

This morning I found an interesting discussion over on MeFi about another aspect of this: short (science) fiction.  That discussion was prompted by this post from Warren Ellis, in which Ellis says regarding the few remaining major SF magazines:

As was stated over and over last year, any number of things could be done to help these magazines. But, naturally enough, the magazines’ various teams appear not to consider anything to be wrong. They’ll provide what their remaining audience would seem to want, until they all finally die of old age, and then they’ll turn out the lights. And that’ll be it for the short-fiction sf print magazine as we know it.

It’s time now, I think, to turn attention to the online sf magazines. I personally live in hope that, one day, some of them move from net to print, and create a new generation of paper magazines. But, regardless, it’s time to focus on them — on what they do, how they generate revenue, and what their own future is.

In the MeFi discussion there are a lot of good points made about the current state of the magazine industry and publishing in general, several such made by published SF authors.  But a comment by one poster in particular stands out:

The problem is with modern consumer culture, not with the publishing companies. They’re doing the best they can. I mean, look at this little press release: Based on preliminary figures from U.S. publishers, Bowker is projecting that U.S. title output in 2007 increased slightly to 276,649 new titles and editions, up from the 274,416 that were published in 2006. That’s a complaint. The business folks are upset that there wasn’t more growth.

Now think about that for a second. That’s… a lot of fucking books. Sure, the majority of those are non-fiction titles of various sorts, but there’s a ton of fiction titles in that number. That number every year. Of new titles. You say “I just have to wonder how many other books are out there, moldering like mine was for so long because there simply isn’t any entryway into the industry any more.” I guarantee you that there are more than you think, that the number of books actually being published is a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of books that people want to publish. So try to, just for a moment, imagine the pressure of try to sort through the chaff to find the wheat, something that will both sell (because that’s what your bosses want) and also something that is awesome (because that’s what you want; not that you don’t want it to sell, too, because what good is it if it’s awesome if no one reads it). Then think about how to get your book, or you handful of books, into the readers hands, instead of one of the 274,415 other books being published this year. And then think about how many people in America don’t read at all; I bet you can find numbers. I bet you are acquainted with more people who don’t read, or at least don’t read more than a handful of books each year, than you are with people who read voraciously.

Yeah, the industry is broken, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Jim Downey

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