Thursday, December 13, 2012

Too Big to Fail All But the Little Guys

     Those of us who last October had followed the merger of Random House and Penguin's trade divisions, especially those of us who are pragmatic enough to know what mergers inevitably result in, the news wasn't good whether you were a reader/consumer, "real"/indie author or even a literary agent. By the same token, industry professionals, namely executives who directly had a stake in the merger, could be heard all the way from Avenue of the Americas licking their chops and rubbing their hands.
     It's not as if we haven't seen the same thing over and over again in Corporate America even in this age of so-called, increasingly elastic antitrust laws. And mergers mean only one thing for the rank and vile: Many people will lose their jobs and their office space getting turned into storage rooms or devoted to digital media.
     Screamingly obvious are the reasons this merger that turned the Big 6 into the Big 5 and enabled Random-Penguin to corner about a quarter of the book market, will work to the benefit of that new publishing behemoth's executives and their shareholders. People will get laid off under the guise of making the transition to digital media (although publishers, the most conservative and least agile executives tried for as long as they could to strenuously ignore the digital revolution as staunchly as oil executives today strenuously ignore clean, renewable, alternative energy that will surely need to replace oil). Another piece of good news for them is that their much more muscular bulk will mean Jeff Bezos and his fascist thugs at Amazon will have to think twice before axing their next catalog if they don't get the deep-cutting discounts they're accustomed to demand, and get, from smaller publishers.
     Fewer titles in their catalog, less office space to worry about maintaining and fewer people on the payroll is classic, tried-and-true scumbaggery designed to do one thing: Drive up market share, make their shareholders and top executives happy. Approximately 3-5% of a publishing company's revenue goes into publicity and advertising and out of that relatively slender amount, the lion's share of that money will get dedicated more than ever to pimping the books of their proven bestsellers written by people who already have household name recognition.
     And that dovetails beautifully into how this will affect agents and authors. Far be it for me to take the side of a largely unnecessary and incompetent faction that's treated me with horrendous disrespect for going on two decades but in this case, I have to play Devil's Advocate here and pluck a violin string or two for literary agents.
     Since it's obvious that Random-Penguin will ruthlessly edit more than a few pages from their catalogs and provide authors with fewer publishing opportunities, this inevitably will result in fewer selling opportunities for literary agents as well as having fewer acquisitions editors to whom to send their pitches. Agents, as I'd alluded earlier, already have a dreadful time selling even excellent properties. This, as I'd gone into elsewhere, is largely because they are simply stupid and wouldn't know a true bestseller if it crawled up their fat asses and gave birth to flaming pamphlets. Some agents even admit on their websites, as if they're trying to discourage the unwashed rabble from approaching their forbidding moat, that 90-95% of the adult fiction they take doesn't sell. This is because they are solipsistic and have deluded themselves into thinking they can't sell a book or make at least make an impassioned pitch for a promising property if it doesn't personally tickle their fancy. All too often in form rejection letters I hear about "how subjective the business is." Well, considering how well subjectivity is working for them, I might suggest in my less diplomatic moments that what's called for is some objectivity, since their subjectivity results in a 5-10% sell rate.
     Still, there are some decent, hardworking, honest literary agents out there who are legitimately seeking new talent and exciting new properties and who will rep even books they ordinarily wouldn't read or buy. My first literary agent who'd worked at the time for Reece Halsey, was one such example. She hated serial killer novels yet repped my first novel about Jack the Ripper and in the beginning of the submission process had placed it in the hands of the biggest publishers and editors in the business.
     Fewer spaces in the catalogs simply means fewer selling opportunities, which in turn neatly seques into how this affects the author.
     Starting about a generation ago, publishers decided to stop doing their jobs and to use literary agencies as their free slush pile readers. In return for this added workload, publishers collectively struck a collusive deal with agents without telling authors: "Read the shit we get, wade through the slush pile and we'll make sure not a single author will breach our front door unless they're repped by one of you."
     Agencies, now being made official and primary gatekeepers, jumped at this chance with alacrity. The problem with this scenario, aside from the obvious, is that the agents who'd originally struck this scummy deal with equally scummy publishing executives have since retired or died off and the younger agents just coming up are now shrugging off their end of the bargain. Their job, and the original idea was, to keep their doors open to give unrepresented authors a place to go to while publishers concentrated on their market shares and lowering the literacy IQ of the American reading public.
     Now all the largest literary agencies (some of them being folded into talent agencies in Hollywood, such as ICM) have long since closed their doors to the unwashed rabble just as publishers had in the late 70's-early 80's and have archly sniffed they now work exclusively by referral or invitation only. You'd have to have 100 pounds of brain damage to think that by that business model of talent recruitment that seems to depend upon blind serendipity your day in the sun will come if you but be patient and wait. As with publishers, the wealthiest and biggest agencies look down their nose at unpublished or independent authors. When you have 100 or more clients and are siphoning 15% of all their royalties, you could easily find yourself wealthier than any of your clients and that kind of pelf buys a lot of hubris. One can practically hear the self-satisfied belch echoing in from Beverly Hills.
     Ergo, with no one to hold them accountable, literary agents had long since closed their doors to tiresome little doorknockers and refuse to accumulate the slush piles that publishers had foisted off on them 30 years ago. The smaller agencies, with fewer resources, are telling unrepped authors much the same thing: "We're such a small agency, we have to be VERY selective in who we take on, therefore we regret we're not seeking new talent."
     And if you're a genre author, that effectively rules out all but maybe a few dozen literary agencies that represent your genre of fiction, don't charge reading fees and that aren't either too big or too small to put out a welcome mat. And good luck pleading this case to an agency that has no interest in hearing about you drawing breath.
     Logically, this in turn brings us to how this will affect the reader/consumer: Obviously, this Random House-Penguin merger, as with all prior publishing mergers in years past, means that you, the reader, will have fewer titles from which to select while they blare more loudly than ever about the latest book by Stephen King, John Grisham or, God save our souls, Stephanie Meyer. As with manufacturing companies in this outsourcing-happy day and age who refuse to hire people they'll need to train, publishers seem to think the "right" authors will live forever and never die and that they can sustain this absurd business model with the same people indefinitely.
     In recent years, Michael Crichton, Olivia Goldsmith, Nora Ephron and other bestselling authors proved they, too, are mere mortals. Hell, even Phillip Roth got sick of the rat race and called it quits.
     I don't give a shit where this leaves literary agents, who are little more than necessary evils. Their parochial mommy mentalities (many agents won't ever rep anything that places children in danger, which would effectively rule out every other book written by Stephen King and everything by Jonathan Kellerman and Andrew Vachss). But I do care about where this leaves unpublished, unrepresented authors and readers.
     So where does that leave the ones that really do matter, the ones who really do define this once-great nation's level of literacy?
     Plainly, this untenable and unsustainable business model that would make any pragmatic person shake their head, is largely if not entirely resulting in a self-publishing industry led by Kindle, Nook and CreateSpace. Perfectly good authors (and quite a few wouldbes and wannabes), sick and tired of getting disrespected by idiotic and self-absorbed literary agents and their low-paid flunkies are striking out on their own and leaving out the middle men completely. Without having to worry about forking over to agents 15% of the 7-10% they would get trickled down to them by traditional publishers, independent authors are finding a new, untapped readership through POD and digital publishing.
     For no money whatsoever, CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon.com, will print a physical copy of your book and give you near-total creative control over the content and cover, something of which firsttime or midlist authors can only dream. Plus, with Kindle, your royalty rate can be set as high as 70%. Nook is very comparable to Kindle (and, in some aspects, even more attractive).
     Media consolidation, if you're a reader or author, has been the bane of our existence since time immemorial. Corporate mergers have only one intent in mind, one goal and elevating the literacy of what used to be one of the most literate nations on the planet has nothing to do with it. Mergers are designed to maximize profits for a select group of shareholders and interested executives and the rest of us, from the workers, authors, readers and agents, have no choice but to somehow deal with and adjust to the inevitable fallout.
     Back in the 90's, Borders, Inc, Ingram and German media behemoth Bertelsmann AG attempted to form a super company that would've done more than its fair share to corner the publishing, distribution and selling of books. The deal was scotched at the last minute only when the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, said they would violate existing antitrust laws. But, if the merger between Random House and Penguin, which shrunk the number of traditional book publishers from 6 to 5, is any indication, then we have a lot of mergers to look forward to, especially since the Obama administration like the one before it seems to have no problem with gigantic corporations like Facebook forming near total monopolies.

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