by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson
Not long ago on one of my eloops there was a discussion on the recent Harlequin line closings. One of the group asked if we didn’t think the business was getting more brutal these days.
I'm a cynic, but I believe the industry started getting brutal in the 80s, when the 'acquisition mania' began and the bean counters took over. Before the 80s publishing was still a kind of gentlemen's game - a strict game, with rules about agents and royalties and the superiority of publishers over mere authors - but although sometimes harsh still a place more friendly to authors than it is now. You could submit a book over the transom (does anyone still use that phrase any more?) and actually have it looked at. Publishers would take a chance on something new. They would work to build an author's career. It was a working symbiosis - a somewhat lopsided one, but not too bad for the authors.
Then in the 80s the financial world went mad in every field. Big publishers gobbled up small houses and were in turn gobbled up by bigger publishers. Books were no longer regarded as books and keepers of the culture, but as items to be marketed, just in the same way as shoes and handbags and other retail objects. ("Hey, design 617 is selling well, so let's do it in green and purple and puce too.") As time went on the publishers began to tighten the niches and if a niche didn't pay off enough to suit them, it was marginalized if not eradicated altogether. Everyone wanted something exactly the same as the current bestseller... but different. Writers who did not write (and re-write) exactly what the publisher wanted eventually disappeared from the company's rolls. The bean counters had taken over. People were expected to read what they made available and the market began to slide, which made the bean counters tighten things up to a stranglehold.
Then came the digital revolution and the phenomenon of self-publishing. This is a mixed blessing, as there is so much dreck out there it's startling, but there is also a lot of good stuff, stuff that had been marginalized by the traditional publishers. Readers could once again find whatever kind of genre and sub-genre they wanted. Self-publishing authors were getting - finally! - a fair share of the money and not being treated as if they were nothing but a supporting cog who would be replaced if they didn't behave.
The big publishers still don't understand this phenomenon. Yes, they utilize it by putting out ebooks and clinging ferociously to ebook rights, but I honestly believe they don't understand the basic standards at work here. Writers write what they want to write, and readers read what they want to read - all without the dictatorial hand of big publishers controlling what is available. It is the free market in microcosm. And the big publishers don't get it, so they still act as they always have. A sub-genre doesn't pay off the way they expect, so axe it. We as readers shouldn't worry - self-publishers will soon fill the gap.
I know there are writers who are well treated by their publishers, whether big or small, and will probably read this post with astonishment or anger. I rejoice that you are happy, but there are lots, lots more of us who have seen the other side and understand.
Has the industry turned brutal lately? Lately? It always has been.