Garrison Keillor Says The Publishing Industry is Cooked

Well-written, fun piece about going to a swanky industry party in Tribeca; feeling the end.

"I ran into my daughter's favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, in New York the other night, whose Magic Tree House books I've read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of Obama.

Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume. It was a rooftop party in Tribeca that I got invited to via a well-connected pal, wall-to-wall authors and agents and editors and elegant young women in little black dresses, standing, white wine in hand, looking out across the Hudson at the lights of Hoboken and Jersey City, eating shrimp and scallops and spanikopita on toothpicks, all talking at once the way New Yorkers do."

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We have publishing people on this site. I'd love for one of them to stop by and tell us why this is the way it is. They want to make money, right? There must be a good reason, right? Damned if I can think of what it is.
Reminds meof a famous story in Canadian publishing, Dave. Years ago Mordechai Richler won the Governor General's Award for one of his novels (the award is a big deal in Canada).

So, he called his publisher and asked if they were going to put a sticker on the front and maybe run ads in some newspapers or something and his publisher told him, "That would make it look like we're trying to sell books." Apparently they thought of publishing as a "gentleman's endeavor," and looking like they were trying to sell books was vulgar.
Dana--as I say, too many books, not enough staff, basically. It's bottom-line publishing. SM/M actually had a great year last year when half the publishing industry was laying people off. They know how to run their business, even if from my point of view they could do a lot more with my particular books. But what author doesn't think that? It's just that in my case it happens to be true. Heh.
John: that's a great story, though of course the scenario's a bit different these days (and maybe always has been in the US vs Canada). Here they'd sell the cover with no book inside if they could figure out how to market it (and in fact that's essentially what they do with some big-name best-seller cranker-outers). The problem in my case, and maybe Dave's although of course I can't speak for him, is a combination of risk-aversion and under-budgeting/staffing mostly, with a whiff of lack of imagination and of course a skosh of wrong-headed resistance to the author's great ideas.
Nope--seasoned professionals with too many books too promote and not enough money/time. They see me as an intractable problem, as I understand it, because I'm writing about New England but living in the Midwest--so they can't sell me in New England as a native son, or something. Oh well! WTF that has to do with it is beyond me, but they apparently have a bag of Marketing Schemes That Work, and anything that doesn't fit one of those schemes is too risky to spend any money on. It's too bad--a bit of informed gambling on the first one in particular might have really made a difference.
If I had your reviews and talent, I would have been inside every one of those Cape Cod bookstores, met the owners, offered free posters, bookmarks, talks, and signed every piece of stock. I would've showed them the title, told them a one-graph story about the locality angle, and tried to encourage them to read it.

Unless you're a mean ol' cuss (a possibility), bet you would have gotten at least a third of them to read, like the book, and see the inherent promotional opportunity. 20,000 seems like a big number, but half of that would have made your publisher cheer, right? Your cash-back in book sales might not pay for all your time, money, and effort. But every one of those readers would be waiting and drooling on the next one.

Not many bookstores wanted me, but I got into the Jersey library system by doing talks, getting them to read my book. I kept getting invited back to bigger and bigger library events, and finally asked to speak as one of five writers at a state conference. I talked to 50 librarians than run book clubs. Sometimes it feels like NJ libraries are the only people rooting for another Austin Carr.

Getting people to read your work is the hardest but most important thing we can do for marketing. JMHO.
If you had my teaching job and my two young kids, you wouldn't have had time. In fact, I'm pretty well represented in Cape bookstores as far as I know--but none of the book covers in either HC or MMPB so far have really said Cape Cod as definitively as I'd like. Kudos to SM/M's sales staff for getting books in stores--given how tough it is these days, they've done a fine job, IMO. It's the basic design and marketing decisions I sometimes have trouble with.

On edit: and hell, yes I'm a mean ol' cuss. Can't you tell?
Okay, Jon. Can't argue with that. I'm a semi-retired house-husband and my kids have their own kids.

And if it doesn't suit your sensibilities as an artist, that too I understand and appreciate. Walking into strange bookstores was as humbling as cold calling for bond clients back in the 80s, maybe worse.

But I could have done those Cape Cod bookstores in a few days or a week (How many?) with a budget of three to four thousand, depending how fancy I got with bookmarks (which you probably wouldn't have to pay for) and the posters. Airfare, cabs, and hotels, and a few meals.
Jack--that's $3-5k I'd probably never earn back in royalties, though. I talked to my editor about this early on and she advised me against exactly that strategy, even if I had time and the cash to lay out, which I truly don't ($5k is a lot of groceries, as my wife would say). My complaint isn't with placement--the books are in stores, or were when they first came out. It's with the management-level decision-making about stuff like book design, and what to do if the book catches a wave from reviewers, say, or national radio exposure. The book designs have been okay, but not really thoughtful in terms of helping to sell books (the MMPB of HIGH SEASON came closest to getting it right, IMO). The plan-in-case-of-free-national-media-exposure has been pretty much to allow the print run to sell out and the momentum to fizzle. Oh well!

Actually, that's unfair. The plan has been to come out shortly thereafter with another book! But of course I can't do that, because I have a full-time job. So I'm basically screwed.
Here's why I don't thing novels are on their way out - no matter what happens to the industry.

A few years ago, marketing studies showed a shift in who bought DVDs. They always thought the main audience was the 18-24 year old male, but suddenly they found it was middle-aged women who bought the most. But they found that the women didn't like going to the theaters as much. Those numbers have shifted again by now, I'm sure, but it lead to another interesting study about what people prefer to watch where.

And what they found was that for extravaganzas - whether it was a disaster movie, or one of the new musicals - people liked to go to the theater. But for smaller pictures, they preferred the intimate setting of home. And furthermore, for many pictures, they preferred to be alone. Privacy is important to the experience for many people.

The truth is, people like to be alone with their imaginations. Text is private. Why do you think that texting - rather than talking - is so attractive? It's passing notes.

The nature of novels will change. They may become shorter. I wonder if serials will return. The soap opera leaves television only to be reborn on smartphones in text form. Who knows. But I think the privacy and intimacy of text as a form of imaginative experience is primal.
Garrison Keillor reminds me of a dinosaur looking up at the sky and, upon seeing a meteor end the Cretaceous Period, says, "There will never, ever be life on this planet again."
From the dinosaur's perspective, though, the dinosaur would be right. Life as we know it is coming to an end. Now, it could be something better and smarter will take its place (mammals, say, in the form of a bright new world filled with high-royalty ebook sales), or it could be that the void will be filled by more and more hastily produced cookie-cutter "blockbusters" from the top down publishing world, and more and more unedited, amateur, self-published, free ebooks from the bottom up, DIY end of the spectrum. So, gigantic stinging jellyfish, maybe, and/or millions of carnivorous rabbits. But I suppose there's hope--maybe the whole ebooks thing will really take off, and the 50% author royalty will become the standard, and even those of us who suck the midlist tit will be able to make a living.


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