Friday, November 14, 2008


By John Gilstrap

I’m not making this up:

About seven or eight years ago, a former business colleague of mine called to tell me that his twenty-something son wanted to write a novel, and to ask if I would be willing to show him the ropes. I said yes, of course, and we all gathered at a Northern Virginia restaurant for dinner.

His son—we’ll call him Mark because I can’t remember his name—sat quietly through most of the meal while his father, Lloyd, explained this lavish plan he had put together to make his son a fortune by writing a hit book. Writing is a business, Lloyd explained, and since Mark wants to write full time, Lloyd pulled some strings to assemble a board of directors to fund the start-up costs (folding money for Mark) and to provide quality control for the product (the book). Mark would submit each new chapter to the board for approval, and then together they would determine the plot points that would generate the most revenue, based on market analyses of what sold well. With proper business oversight, they would have a product that they could all be proud of.

As this presentation ground on, complete with market charts, I watch Mark sink further and further into his chair. When Lloyd was done, he got to the reason I was there: to give some tips on what plot points sell the best. I was also offered a seat on the board, but I refused. Instead, I told him that if torturing his son was really the point of this exercise, then pulling out his toenails with pliers would be more merciful. Toenails grow back with time; that kind of assault to self-esteem lasts forever.

The meeting ended shortly after that. We didn’t even have dessert.

I think about that meeting often, especially when I talk to my writing colleagues who are losing their publishing contracts and editors who are losing their jobs because the suits at the top of the corporate chart decided that we need more of X, and that Y just doesn’t sell the way it used to.

I believe that if the publishing industry as we know it dies (and I don’t think it will, even though I think painful times lie ahead), it will be at its own hand; under the weight of the business model it has chosen. Gone are the days when art producing businesses were run mainly by lovers of the art form. Now those art businesses are run as profit centers of behemoth companies. It’s not enough to turn a profit at the end of the year; you have to hit target goals.

Hey, I’m a free market guy, a great believer in capitalism, so at face value, the model makes sense. After all, a publicly-owned company has responsibilities to its stockholders. I’m all over that. If cinnamon toothpaste doesn’t sell, it makes no sense to keep the cinnamon toothpaste division in business. You gotta go for mint toothpaste. People like mint toothpaste. You build your market share by differentiating your product in other ways, but you start by acknowledging that everybody’s doing mint.

Thing is, art is not toothpaste, and it defies market analysis. Sure, we can declare Painter X to be the best gol-durned artist on the planet and talk people into buying his mass-produced canvases at ridiculous prices, and in the process we can have success. With enough success, we can push the independent art gallery on the corner out of business and flood the market not just with Painter X’s work, but with knock-offs of his work.

But what about people who want something else—people who dare to like what others don’t? They might try a Painter X just so they can talk about it with their friends, but they’re not going to buy another one. In fact, maybe they’re going to move away from galleries altogether and just paint murals on their walls. A few years down the line, people will wonder why the art market is shrinking.

The big publishers today anoint “lead titles” on which all the “co-op” money is spent to “package” the book in a way that will give it the best “placement” in the store. The idea is to hit a home run every time. If the ball falls inside the park instead of blasting over the wall, then it will of course be the author’s fault, and we all know how many more of those are out there to take his place.

To hedge the bet, the B-school graduates at the top look at what people have bought in the past, and they push writers to create more stuff just like that. That’s what they buy, and that’s what they push. There’s very little future for a writer these days who merely earns out his advance. It’s The List or nothing, baby.

And then we wonder why the public prefers the fresh, unlimited (even occasionally awful) content on the Internet over plunking down $25 for a rehashed version of a book they’ve read a dozen times already.
I’ve vastly over-simplified here, and I of course exempt myself and my Killzone colleagues from any of the above. What do you think?


  1. Delete Comment From: The Kill Zone

    Kathryn Lilley said...
    I feel sorry for that son who had to endure his father's business plans. I hope he escaped to NY or LA and became a best-selling writer! Probably of a story about a son who overcame an overbearing ogre of a father. I think the business model of the publishing industry suffers because it's profit-driven, not product driven. Good product will eventually find profit, but profit driving at formulas for bottom dollars will find only cynical, copycat writers at its core.

  2. John, perhaps you should have suggested to Lloyd that he adopt for his own business the model that we writers use everyday: go into work and make shit up. Maybe that would have put his plans for his son into perspective. Or, maybe not.

  3. God bless the small publishers and hopes that they survive the hard econmic times. They bring those fresh voices and ideas to the public.

  4. In the first place, nobody knows what works in this business. Did the father ever consider that his son may not actually have any talent? Or that the creative process can't be channeled by a committee of people with different tastes and life experiences? There is a business side of our business, and that side is dictating more and more what the publisher puts out and gets behind. Makes one want to refer aspiring authors to raise chickens or something.

  5. John

    Flashback to Magna and the shuttle van. My first extended chicken discussion.

  6. Good post John and I totally agree that the current model sucks. Sometimes I feel a pang for the golden age when talent was to be nurtured and the great editors ruled the publishing houses (rather than the bean counters!)

  7. Mr. Miller, you wrote, "Did the father ever consider that his son may not actually have any talent?"

    And I have to ask, without being TOO much of an're kidding, right? As a high school teacher, I can tell you without hesitation, HELL NO the father didn't consider that, and I've never met either of them.

    There are a great deal of parents who are willing to consider that fact about their child. They don't put together ludicrous business plans like this guy.

    And the ones who DO things like this? Yeah, try and tell them that the reason their son isn't doing well is the SON'S lack of motivation (flat out laziness, utter stupidity, whatever you like)...just try it. I'll give you the number of the school system's attorney when they accuse you of libel, slander, discrimination, or whatever else they can come up with, because you're the teacher, and it's YOUR fault their child chose not to do an assignment that your dog could have completed in 15-20 minutes.

    Sorry, soapbox is getting a workout today. Let's just say I can introduce you to fifty people I've met in the last year, ALL just like this particular joker that Mr. Gilstrap mentioned.

  8. You nailed it. I think the primary reason we have economic uncertainty on so many levels is the rise of the MBA degree over the part thirty years. Their theories defy common sense, which is why the financial services industry is in the dumper. Selling things that don't exist in any sphere of reality is not a sound long-term business plan.

    Publishing is analagous. Everyone wants the blockbuster, and will pay a million dollar advance if they think they have it. That's great this year; next year you have to find the new blockbuster. Long-term, it's better to issue ten $100,000 advances (or even twenty at $50,000) to find maybe three sustainable authors. Even if seven don't earn out, you have somehting to build on down the road.

    I don't think they're going to do it, though, not until there's a publishing crash and the industry is picking itself out of its own rubble.

    I'm not always this cheery, but it's Friday.