Twice in recent weeks I 've given speeches to groups on the state of publishing. Although each (coincidentally) took place in California, the two audiences were significantly different—one of writers, the other students. Since my standard speech calls for an opening question, both groups got the same one.
"Can you give me an adjective to complete the sentence, 'The publishing business is... blank....' "
There's always a show of hands, and over the years I have come to expect certain answers. "Low paying" is one I always, always hear (and never, never disavow). So is "competitive." (Ditto.) But on these two occasions I heard a lot of other words, too, eerily similar in both locations.
"Publishing is depressing," someone said. "Dying," said another. "Going nowhere," said a third, who'd obviously skipped the parts of speech section of Strunk and White.
The first group comprised a dozen or so would-be authors who'd paid $200 for a seminar on how to get published. I wasn't surprised to hear their well-earned anxiety turn darkly on the publishing business. But in the second group, the students weren't your everyday college kids, but adults enrolled in the Stanford Professional Publishing Course, and most had already worked in publishing for a couple of years. Why so glum?
Could it be that even our elite institutes are grooming down-hearted pessimists?
Obviously there's no scientific way to address that question, and from where I sit, for the most part, people tell me happy stories about their work, probably because they want those happy stories published in PW, and, in fact, resort to poor-mouthing the state of the industry only when we happen to be looking to them for cash. Nonetheless, our recent salary survey (July 11), showed a slight downturn (59% to 56%) in respondents who declared themselves extremely or very satisfied with their publishing jobs. There's no arguing that business is tough today, especially for booksellers and small publishers, many, I suspect, the employers of my not-so-happy Stanford students. But there's also good news: the continuing Harry Potter craze and its successful imitators; the important role that books played in last year's presidential election; this week's numbers showing that bellwether HarperCollins had another solid year.
Still, my suspicion is that even if the industry were to sport better numbers—fewer returns, lower advances, higher salaries, greater retailer stability—the needle might not move much on the next salary survey, nor would the responses to my question change. Why? Because publishing is a hard business, and always has been. In some way, perhaps, in a kind of Darwinian selection process, publishing attracts those smart enough to care about books and smart enough to know just how hard it is to make them. Or maybe there's just something characterological about us book types, something embedded in our DNA, that makes us suspicious and negative and worried. But if publishing is so awful, why were those rooms full of young people who wanted to learn about it?
Maybe life just imitates the literature we love, the stories of willing figures engaged in dire struggles. Job, of course, or Sisyphus. Joseph Heller's Yossarian knew a thing or two about Catch 22s. And then, of course, there's Eeyore, perhaps the most lovable naysayer in literary history. Whine, anyone?