How Publishing Companies Die

Postapocalyptic New York

Over at Jeffro's blog, veteran author, editor, and publisher Jeff Duntemann delivers his own Blood in the Streets prediction for the Big Five New York publishing houses.
Ebooks have *not* plateaued. Perhaps ebooks published with an ISBN–something of less and less usefulness as time goes on–but you can sell ebooks without an ISBN. Those numbers are what traditional publishers are using to try to convince the world that they’re still relevant. Once B&N goes under, there won’t be enough retail shelf space to support the Big 5, and there will be blood in the streets of Manhattan. I know how publishing companies die. I’ve seen it up close and a little too personal. It won’t be pretty.
I say this as one who has worked in publishing for a long time (30 years in various capacities) and recently retired. The business model is corrupt and much too dependent on a set of conditions–primarily ubiquitous large chain booksellers where store positioning can be bought–that no longer apply. The cultural left has hitched its wagon to a dying business model. My primary point here follows from that: The cultural left is increasingly irrelevant in publishing, especially in genre fiction.
I’ve made a sort of second career of teaching aspiring writers that they don’t have to be afraid of traditional publishers, nor of the cultural left. I tell them to write what people want to read, publish it themselves, and laugh at anyone who calls them names or says they can’t do it. I know a fair number of people in several genres who are making a solid living at indie publishing. Their number grows all the time. Most don’t say much. They’re too busy writing books and selling them.
Indie writers who look to all those Old Dead White Authors do so for a reason: Those guys wrote what people wanted to read, and they’re still being read decades after their deaths. We want to look closely at what they did and how they did it so that we can learn from their success. Brian Niemeier pretty much figured it out, and he (and a host of other young-ish men and women writers) are the future of genre fiction. It’s kind of obvious for a secret: Write what people want to read. Is that so hard to understand?
It is for the cultural left, who (to borrow a venerable piece of snark) sold their birthright for a pot of message. People won’t pay for message. They’ll pay for something to make a commute or an airplane ride pass more quickly. They’ll pay to be shown something that makes them gasp in astonishment, or shiver, or realize that there is hope and a future.
We’re playing a long game. It will still be going on decades after I’m dead. Culture is the second derivative of entertainment. You don’t get there if you don’t entertain, and our goal is to entertain. Eventually the culture will belong to neither right nor left, but to creators of all sorts who think for themselves, obey no tribe, and provide what consumers want. Full stop.
The Left hijacked the culture by taking over the institutions that manufactured and curated entertainment. Their strategy worked while deconstructing the genre fiction canon was still novel and edgy. But the Left can only destroy. They cannot create new cultural touchstones, and now at the end of their tyrannical regime, they cannot even entertain.

Hollywood churns out remake after reboot after reimagining of properties created by better men. The Big Five publishers obsess over onanistic "X Destroys Y" anthologies. Marvel and DC Comics hire artists, writers, and editors not for their creativity, but to check the right ideological boxes.

Meanwhile, an army of creators who've been banished from--or never allowed into--the rotting ivory towers of New York and Hollywood have been busy mastering our craft. And that craft is entertaining audiences.

While they lived life on the easiest setting, we wore weighted training clothes.

While they got magic carpet rides, we trained in 10x gravity.

While their benefactors whisked them from one cushy low-work, high-pay gig to the next, we sweated it out int he Hyperbolic Time Chamber.

They've never been hungry. They don't know how to build an audience, and when B&N's collapse hits their Manhattan sugar daddies like an asteroid impact, the borrowed audience they have will disappear.

We're winning, and when it finally comes down to who can out-compete TV, video games, and beer for Kindle readers' hard-earned money, the paths of the Algorithm will run knee-deep with the Morlocks' digital ichor.

NB: I will take the Pepsi Challenge any day of the week against the usual crowd of Hugo darlings. Unlike many of them, I can actually finish a series.

The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier


  1. "They've never been hungry." Hoo-boy, is this the truth or what? Walk out of Harvard into Random House and you're set for life, with NO concept of what it's like at the bottom, or out where the books meet the readers. This is no longer a formula for success.

    1. The fact that the same story has been repeated for years, not just with Random House, but with all our corporate and government institutions, is the cause of what ails us.

  2. Oh yeah...somebody when I finally meet you in person, I'll buy us both a drink and tell you a long and ugly story about a certain...grudge...that I hold.

    1. Weren't you both at LibertyCon last year?

    2. I was. And much enjoyed it. Met some damned fine people, like Laura Montgomery, as well as saw people I'd known online but never encountered in meatspace.

  3. The whole thing is good-weird.

    Losses of bigtime bookstores allowing the resurgence of smaller and smarter bookstores.

    They're actually drawing me BACK into reading physical novels.

  4. MegaBusterShepard here....

    The bit about Hollywood reimagining works of better men reminds me of how Hollywood has always gotten Tarzan wrong. Sure they'll take inspiration from the first book and ignore the twenty four other novels. A pity too since they are some of the most imaginative novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I mean why can't we see an adaptation of the book where he fights the Roman Empire, in the congo; and is thrown into a gladiatorial arena?

  5. Brian and Jeff
    A fantastic post and gives me hope. You know what a subversive series is?
    Geronimo Stilton. I particularly like the Kingdom of fantasy series. A good primer for wannabe writers.
    I totally agree that write what people want. We seek truth beauty and good in our stories. The publishers have such an easy life they suffer from ennui. So of course the message(tm) substitutes the joy of entertainment.

    I'm really curious what happens next after Barnes and Noble disappears?

    We need to liberate the European readers from the same oppression and free the entertainment!

  6. Good riddance. I haven't been in a B&N or a Booksamillion in years, between Amazon showing up and SciFi and Fantasy novels on the shelves being weird, leftist message fiction, I looked elsewhere (the library and archive sites of the good old stuff) and never went back.

  7. Have any agents out there jumped on the Indie train? Or are they initial message fiction gate keepers?

    With Amazon and Indie, they've got to be hurting.

    1. Literary agents have been a value-stealing parasite class at least since the wave of mergers in the 80s prompted publishers to cut editorial staff and make agents the de facto front line gatekeepers. I don't know what they're doing now, and I don't care.

    2. Eating out of trash cans, if there's any cosmic justice. Yet for some reason, some new writers think they need an agent "because it's the agent who looks out for the writer's interests!"

      One guy in my writer's group got an agent, who told him (without reading a synopsis) to have it professionally edited by This Editor twice, then send him the first 50 pages.

      Sure, sounds like the agent is really looking out for the writer, and not sending his editor buddies business.

    3. "...it's the agent who looks out for the writer's interests!"

      Who does he think the agent is interceding with on the writer's behalf? Amazon?

      Any clout an agent has comes from contacts cultivated while working in NY publishing. That kind of pull draws precisely zero water at Amazon, which is now the only market that matters.

    4. Brian
      Perhaps in the English speaking world. I'm pretty sure that agents in Europe and Latin America still have q lot of clout.
      Again because the publishers have convinced the govts to protect their oligopolies under the guise of protecting culture, saving the bookstores and piracy.
      There are independent publishers but they publish paper books and it maddening that ebooks are still tough to get. Audio is practically unheard of. The Spanish publishers are just starting audiobooks.
      In Europe a lot of publishers are monopolistic guild choking off innovation and acting as barriar for new innovations