John Updike’s obituary made the front page in his country’s paper of record late last month, and that master-architect of sensuous American sentences in English deserved no less. Who else would thought of saying that ‘the average book fits the human hand like a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture,’ and that ‘even an indifferently designed book feels like a better companion in bed than a humming, wire-trailing laptop’?
Higher on the same page on that day – only separated from the New York Times masthead by a picture of the new president – was this :
Bright Passage in Publishing: Authors Who Pay Their Way
. . . Booksellers, hobbled by the economic crisis, are struggling to lure readers. Almost all of the New York publishing houses are laying off editors and pinching pennies. Small bookstores are closing. Big chains are laying people off or exploring bankruptcy.
Meanwhile,there is one segment of the industry that is actually flourishing: capitalizing on the dream of would-be authors to see their work between covers, companies that charge writers and photographers to publish are growing rapidly at a time when many mainstream publishers are losing ground.
As traditional publishers look to prune their booklists and rely increasingly on blockbuster best sellers, self-publishing companies are ramping up their title counts and making money on books that sell as few as five copies, in part because the author, rather than the publisher, pays for things like cover design and printing costs.
In 2008, Author Solutions, which is based in Bloomington, Ind., and operates iUniverse as well as other print-on-demand imprints including AuthorHouse and Wordclay, published 13,000 titles, up 12 percent from the previous year.
This month, the company, which is owned by Bertram Capital, a private equity firm, bought a rival, Xlibris, expanding its profile in the fast-growing market. The combined company represented 19,000 titles in 2008, nearly six times more than Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer books, released last year.
The suitably worshipful obituary led me to take down from a clippings board in this study a yellowing page of the same newspaper in which, in ‘The End of Authorship‘, Updike growled about writers being turned into shallow thinkers and wordsmiths forced to give up writing time to make public appearances – to become a ‘kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book.’ The book, in its turn, is becoming just a ‘ticket to the lecture platform, or […] series of one-on-one orgies of personal access.’
He blamed the digital revolution for these evils – though presumably, for the magnification and acceleration of developments that began earlier, with the corporatisation of book publishing. But the publishing article that shared a page with his life story made me wonder whether a younger and less tired version of himself mightn’t have spotted more opportunities than cracks of doom in the changes blasting through writing and journalism.
Surely he would have realised that the digitisation of texts has strikingly different facets – among the most positive of these, the possibility – if it is still only that — that writers can use it to take control of their own literary destinies?
One of the best-known scraps of Manhattan literary lore is that Updike was that strangest animal among literary scribes – someone actually interested and exceptionally shrewd in financial negotiations. In his long career, he is said to have never needed an agent’s help.
If he were twenty-five years old in 2006, the year he wrote his fine anti-electronic rant, I’d guess that he might be a trailblazer for writers like this model of independence – or is she self-confidence and wildness run enviably amok? – in the music business:
[Neko] Case courts surprises in her music but not in the commerce behind it. She was cast on — and then cast herself on — her own devices for so long that when it comes to business, she has insisted on complete independence.
She has recently turned down major-label overtures (“And I’m so glad that Elektra, for example, didn’t come to me early on with an offer,” she says), retains all the rights to her songs and has never made a publishing deal. She does share revenues with Rigby, the guitarist. “Paul really helps me compose my music,” she says, “he always knows which chords to use when.” Otherwise she retains artistic and financial control of her productions. What are those revenues? Well, in her best year, 2006, when “Fox Confessor” was released and she had an extensive tour to go along with it, she had gross revenues of about $360,000. Of that figure, she says, about $320,000 went for professional expenses — equipment, transportation, the band’s pay and so forth.
Whatever she has, I hope it’s something like a virus that writers can catch. ‘We’re a collection of whipped dogs,’ said one novelist, scanning the glum, hopeless faces around him in a meeting of a California branch of the American Authors Guild that I heard about, not long ago.