The Young and the Profitable

It’s a two-way street for young writers in today’s book biz, contends Marian Wood, vp at Putnam and publisher of Marian Wood Books. Here’s an excerpt from her essay, “Is Publishing Dead?”, which appeared in the LA Times Book Review.

It is easier today to publish a first novel than ever before. Armed with the necessary endorsements from their famous writer teachers, these young novelists are gaining lucrative contracts. That’s because they come with no track records: There are no bad reviews, no mediocre sales. They are tabula rasa. It’s also because there have been enough success stories of “literary” first novels becoming commercial blockbusters to make management hungry for more. Many of these books disappear without leaving much more than a remainder sale (if they get that) as a trace, but the fact remains that the doors have never been so open. The real question is why is it so hard to publish second or third novels, and the answer is obvious. Too little return for too much money on the first: There is no incentive for the publisher to continue the relationship. And every publisher knows what those sales were. It’s all in the computer. Once upon a time, publishers paid rotten advances, nurtured their writers regardless of sales, and waited for the book that broke the writer out. Today, the cash nexus of publishing — begun, I would add, by agents seeking as much money up front as they could get (and that is their job today) — makes such touching loyalties a thing of the past. (That is an overstatement: There are still editors and houses who fight to keep the connection going.)

Writing is hard, lonely work. Great writing calls for resources few very young writers have. It’s a rare young writer who has the freedom from his past, the originality of voice, the independence of mind, and the iconoclastic spirit needed to make a contribution. Publishers always knew this and made space for young writers to grow and learn. The game has changed, but the fault isn’t that of publishers alone. Publishers may prefer short-term profits, but writers lust for instant fame. These are perhaps the most telling and destructive factors to emerge in the last 30 years.