"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 February 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Vanity Unfair?


Publishing's a cruel, thankless business. You sell a product no one wants. Your biggest retailers would rather sell greeting cards or flavored coffee drinks. No one reads your trade magazines as signifiers of Cool and Connected. You're all ultimately working for Germans (or Oprah). It's understandable if the ink-stained wretches are feeling a trifle tetched.

What's worse, publishing is so behind the times that it was only last year that the industry began addressing the Web's capacity for, you know, completely restructuring the business or whatever it is the Web is supposed to do. With Stephen King pulling one of history's most daring breaches of promise with his web-only aborted novel and most of the big players finally sinking their money into some part of the great promise of e-books, book-watchers, that sad lot, agree that the Web is now in the process of altering publishing in an as-yet-to-be-determined way.

Another sure sign publishing's in trouble: The Deep Thinkers have come to rest their elbows on its corpse. Andre Schiffrin hits us with his The Business of Books, declaring the business mortally wounded by big conglomerates who've maliciously launched themselves on a money-losing path to ensure brave visionaries like Gunter Grass or Herbert Marcuse are barred from the best-seller list. Former Pantheon panjandrum Schiffrin flaunts all the devil-may-care bravery of the always-successful insider playing barbarian at the gate for the delectation of his cronies at Manhattan cocktail parties.

Jason Epstein is more chipper about publishing's future. He's revered in publishing circles for making paperbacks expensive and pretentious (when he launched the Anchor imprint) and for founding the world's most boring magazine, The New York Review of Books, when the 1962-1963 International Typographical Union strike temporarily deprived the world of the New York Times Sunday books supplement — the lamest idea inspired by a New York newspaper strike since LaGuardia mangled Gasoline Alley. In his new book, Book Business: Publishing, Past, Present and Future, Epstein impresses everyone with his shocking new idea for computerized single-copy publishing by demand — a concept that's only been old hat to techno-geeks for nigh on a decade.

Understandably, the idea of e-books spiking traditional publishing has got many industry watchers and workers bent out of shape. A town crier in AdWeek laments that soon, "all readers will have to become editors of Publisher's Weekly, slogging through an undifferentiated slush pile in search of something good to read." D.T. Max, a former publisher's assistant, cries in The New York Times about e-book vanity publishers: "Who will review, market, or recommend books to me? In a world this big, word of mouth will be nonexistent, bookstores useless." Author Scott Turow gripes to Newsweek, "What bothers me about the new frontier is that it's sort of a Wasteland ... I guess my concern is that if there are 2 million trees, people are only going to see a forest." Publisher's Weekly writes of generic "concern ... that an e-market will be flooded with worthless self-published materials."

But the harshest and most heartfelt lament from literate America's greatest defenders came in the December issue of Harper's. In an attack on Xlibris, the most prominent of the services that provide an almost costless means to allow anyone to buy anyone else's printed-to-order books, Tom Bissell and Webster Younce (both editors at traditional publishing houses) swear that Xlibris "will, in time, affect American publishing in every worst way and obliterate whatever remains of a genuine book culture." Leaving aside these editors' curious belief that there are multitudes of "worst ways," one has to be impressed with their cheeky wit. To prove that any ol' loser can publish any ol' shit on Xlibris, they wrote a deliberately bad book called The Bellybutton Fiasco: A Fictional Novel to place with the company. (The Suck reader would not be blamed for stopping right here, satisfied that his or her daily dose of insouciant wit has been provided, in spades.)

Younce and Bissell's sly donkeyshine is not quite as amusing a practice as "Napster bombing," where you prank the unsuspecting into actually listening to your absurdity by misnaming the file; alas, only people who want to buy or read something called The Bellybutton Fiasco will be victimized by their wry stunt. (Of course, they may be pulling a fast one on their editors, in that grand tradition of young journalists: They provide no sample of Fiasco's obvious shoddiness, and no book of that title can be found on Xlibris as of this writing.)

The authors are especially appalled at Random House's class betrayal — RH now owns 49 percent of Xlibris's attempt to bust the balls of Big Books. (Perhaps Xlibris is playing the game often attributed to many of Rockefeller's would-be competitors in the early oil industry: creating bogus "competition" merely to enjoy being bought out by desperate would-be monopolists.)

Indeed it is true that, as Bissell and Younce write, "without an editor, marketing or publicity, [a] book will enter the world with a silence that makes a tree falling in the woods sound like Chinese New Year in comparison." What they don't mention is that the great majority of books published by even Manhattan-based publishers with lovingly crafted colophons and well-situated offices face the same deafening disinterest. While these books don't qualify as "vanity publishing," the great majority of professional published authors will find their efforts to have been in vain.

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Next: Shhhhhhhh happens! Xlibris flapdoodle flusters the supersnoots!

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