Stop us if you’ve heard this “news” before: Publishing is dead. We know, we know. You’ve read variations on this theme in the mainstream media for decades. But now, Garrison Keillor is saying it! Which means the New York Times is listening. In his op ed, timed to coincide with annual publishing industry mega-conference Book Expo America, the Prairie Home Companion star forecasts a bleak future comprised of “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”
While he’s free to correct us if we’re wrong, we’re pretty sure Keillor is no expert on the industry. And, call us crazy, but when we want to know about the future of publishing, we’d prefer to hear from people who know what they’re talking about. That’s why we’ve gotten in touch with some of our favorite book editors, publicists, critics, and agents to see what they thought of Keillor’s piece. Read their insightful, funny, and sometimes scathing responses after the jump.
“Keillor’s jeremiad is wrong on so many levels, and proceeds from a place of such monumental self-regard and fundamental misinformation, that a proper rebuttal would require an entire afternoon and a minimum of ten double-spaced pages. That, or one satirical essay by Mark Twain or Colson Whitehead.
“But let’s start with some basic fact-checking. Books published through Exlibris and Lulu.com, et. al., are not ebooks. Aspiring writers’ sense of martyrdom is alive and well online, where entire blogs are devoted to the reproduction and decoding of rejection letters. The myriad kinds of informal communication possible on the Internet do not preclude more formal kinds. Nor is everything that appears online created equal. Nor is all of it unedited. Nor is all of it free. Many magazines that have published the “book people” whose demise Keillor is so busy lamenting have spent the last few years beefing up their sites, putting their archives online for subscribers to search and to read. It is not only possible, but increasingly common, for people to read the New York Times on the smartphones Keillor disdains. Nicholson Baker, who fought so hard against the destruction of libraries’ print collections, reads books on his iPhone. Toni Morrison has a Kindle. Reading novels, she has said, is like entering another world; once they’re lost in the story, many readers don’t care whether the delivery mechanism is a piece of paper or a screen.
“Writers of books will always need good editors. Self-publishing is not a new phenomenon. Cf. Benjamin Franklin. Yes, publishing will change, but it will also continue to exist. And so, unfortunately, will ll-informed kids-these-days rants like this one.” — Maud Newton, writer, editor, and book critic
“Culture doesn’t need publishing. Culture needs writers and readers connecting with one another. Publishing’s alleged demise is a problem only to the extent that publishing was doing a good job connecting writers and readers. But recent and current publishing was mostly in the bookstore supply business, only tangentially the writer-reader connection business. If the demise of the bookstore supply business pushes more talented editors, curators, and taste-matchers into the reader-writer connection business, our culture will be vastly improved by the demise of publishing as we had known it.” — Richard Nash, former Soft Skull publisher, currently at work on social publishing startup Cursor
“If your approach to book publishing is in the past, then it’s good that it is dying. But I think this kind of pessimism is really detrimental to the books you love — because why do you want to stop what you love from evolving?” — Dana Trombley, Senior Publicist, Grand Central
“It is his snobbery that got publishing into this mess. He talks about the coveted New York Times, but the Times doesn’t review the books that keep publishing alive. He is afraid of genre fiction. Publishing isn’t dying, it is evolving, and evolution hurts… Werewolf and vampire porn saved publishing.” — Colleen Lindsay, Literary Agent, FinePrint
“I’ve been listening to Garrison Keillor my entire life — I learned how to tell a story listening to his show on the weekends. I, like thousands of other readers, discovered his books through his show. He carefully built a loyal audience through his radio show. We ‘anointed’ him by listening to his show week after week, which in turn, inspired publishers to write him big advances for his books.
“‘In the New Era, writers will be self-anointed,’ he writes in his op-ed, which is nonsense. In this new world, many more writers will self-publish, it’s true. But every one of them will have to build an audience just like he did. These new writers will use Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, blogs, book clubs, and all the 21st Century community-building tools at an author’s disposal, just like he used the radio.” —Jason Boog, Publishing Editor, Mediabistro.com
“Garrison Keillor is just the latest in a line of prominent Chicken Littles rushing to declare the sky is falling; at least this version has the added twist of ‘And the sky was so much better in my day, let me tell you, sonny.’
“The fallacy in all these apocalyptic pronouncements is to confuse ‘publishing companies,’ especially the New York ones, with ‘the publishing industry.’ Some companies are absolutely ill-equiped to deal with the ways the marketplace of reading has changed, some are fumbling toward a solution, and some are laying the foundations for enduring success. There will always be readers; the question is: Who is ready to put in the work of reaching them?” — Ron Hogan, former director of e-marketing strategy at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and current curator of literary website Beatrice.com
“With all due respect to a well-published man with a nice voice my parents love (love!) to listen to do fake noir… Why do people keep writing the same boring article about the myth dying? Authors have self-published tracts and manifestos and chapbooks for years. For centuries! And this is a new writing and reading in the Internet age, yes. But decrying without a sense of precedent is false nostalgia. And honestly, now I’ve been a professional in publishing for ten years and this article was out of a date a decade ago. I do want to add my thanks for his gracious words re: editors. I aspire to that role. It breaks my heart that he is declaring us vanished. We have to walk ahead and not fade behind. I can’t imagine a funeral, it’s too tempting and sentimental. The way ahead is to work and read. Also, there’s nothing like commuting on the A train to see so many readers of books and Kindles and iPads. I think if more famous writers took the subway, they’d be heartened.” — Meg Lemke, Acquisitions Editor, Teachers College Press
“I’m not sure if this is something to get riled up about. It’s Keillor couching some nostalgic musings in his affected gee-gosh wistful tone. (Garrison, I don’t care how much irony you bring to it, don’t start sentences with ‘children.’) Let’s not get caught up in nostalgia for RIGHT NOW. Book publishing is going to change, and drastically, but it won’t explode into a million fragmented pieces any more than YouTube has utterly destroyed network television. People still watched the Lost finale in addition to sending around the video of that cat standing up on its hind legs. People will still read the next blockbuster book on the beach or the subway in addition to reading their friends’ blogs. Just as a big-budget TV drama needs support and crew, many great books need the work and care that a publishing house brings. Your uncle’s diatribe on how things should be isn’t going to replace the next Dan Brown anytime soon.” — Anonymous Random House editorial staffer
“I wasn’t around during the good old times that Keillor writes about in his editorial, so I can’t say if they were better. But I love publishing, and I love books, and after a day spent on the floor at BEA I know I’m not the only one. Maybe today’s authors crave the praise of book bloggers as much as that fateful crowning from the New York Times, and maybe they spend more time on twitter than on typewriters, but that’s not a bad thing.” &mdash Erica Barmash , Marketing Manager, Harper Perennial
“Publishing takes a lot of work, but at the end of the day, I’m in an industry of story.” — Roseanne Wells, Marianne Strong Literary Agency