from Song of the Open Road
by Walt Whitman
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticism,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
What we now call traditional publishing (it wasn’t too long ago that it was just “publishing”) started to coagulate around the time that Charles Dickens was penning: “It was the worst of time; it was the best of times.”
Yep, somewhere in the 18750s–1860s, a bunch of venture capitalists (that’s what a traditional publisher is, after all) started underwriting the costs of producing and distributing books for writers—in return for a portion of the income from sales.
There were lots of publishers in 1900, lots more by 1950 and thousands of publishers great and small by the 1970s. So even though authors faced a gated world, there were at least a lot of choices, a lot of places to query.
But over time, publishing contracted with midsized houses buying smaller ones, small ones going out of business entirely, and huge publishers (now called media groups) chewing up the large houses.
Now we only need one hand to count the number of big publishers left, and they are under threat from Amazon who’s avowed goal is to “put everyone selling physical books out of a job,” according to an article in the February 17, 2014 New Yorker.
What happens if all of the publishing houses and all of the publishing avenues that now litter the landscape all disappear, and all we’re left with is Amazon?
There’s a great article about Amazon’s conquest of the book publishing world in the February 17th issue of the New Yorker. It’s truly nourishment for the “little gray cells,” as Hercule Poirot used to call his brain in Agatha Christie’s mysteries.
Since I was just one-half of a recent panel on traditional vs. independent publishing, I had to chuckle over this description of Amazon’s view of traditional publishing ascribed to former employee James Marcus.
There was “general feeling that the New York publishing business was just this cloistered, Gilded Age antique just barely getting by in a sort of Colonial Williamsburg of commerce.”
Indeed, one of the other observations is so spot-on about the inner workings of traditional publishing, I laughed out loud. Traditional publishing, Amazon observed, makes its bets on books as a matter of instinct.
As anyone who’s ever sat in a sales meeting where the future of book projects is decided will tell you, that is so true, it almost hurts to read it.
But is Amazon’s way a better way?
The fear of marketing has several moving parts. One is “not doing it right.” Another is the idea that marketing is akin to selling vacuum cleaners door to door. (Does anyone do that any more?)
Part of this anxiety has to do with the overwhelming nature of marketing, the fact that with the web, we all have more chances than ever to tout what we do.
It is hard—don’t underestimate this—to get to the bottom of a marketing to-do list. In the years I spent as the marketing manager of a traditional publishing company, I reached the bottom of that infamous list only once—and that was the day before the whole company shut down for the Christmas holidays and no one was calling us for anything.
So kind of an organization system will help you harness this stampede of possibilities?