Madness In The Penguin House


I’VE LOOKED INTO it, and the publishing business is insane. Random House just gave all of its employees—many thousands of people (from the forklift operators in the warehouse to the accountants)—a bonus of $5000 because a lot of sexually comatose Americans read 50 Shades of Gray. Reminds me of that time George W. Bush sent every American a $300 check just ’cause he could, and then for some reason the government went broke all of a sudden.

Needless to say, these new mergers don’t inspire a lot of confidence. Last month we got the Random Penguin House, and now—according to rumor, at least—we’re going to get the gloriously ungainly Simon & Schuster & HarperCollins (hopefully they’ll abbreviate to “SSHC,” which is also, incidentally, the utterance of a drunk person dropping keys). The publisher of my first novel Houghton Mifflin Harcourt arrived at its own unwieldy moniker through a desperate merger between two polysyllabic companies. This whole process looks like a bunch of sinking boats lashing their masts together.

The idea, apparently, is to lower overhead by combining distribution and warehousing and so on. The idea, more bluntly, is to act more like Amazon. That’s all fine and good, but who are they kidding? Amazon already ate their lunch and dinner.

The notoriously ferocious literary agent Andrew Wylie has said that he wants all the publishers he works with to lose money on their deals with him. His job, as he sees it, is to make them overpay his authors. More often than not, he succeeds. But any literary agent with a pulse could make that claim. That’s just the nature of trade publishing.

You might think that as a writer I would love the idea of these large corporations overpaying writers, and I did love it for a while, but it’s getting sad now. The companies are strangling themselves, and as a person who likes to read and write books, I want them to be less dysfunctional, less self-destructive.

I want to sit down with the trade publishers and give them a nice cup of tea and let them unload their woes. When they’re done, I’ll give them a long hug and say that everyone knows they’ve been struggling for a while, it’s not exactly a secret, but they shouldn’t abandon hope. Then I’ll gently suggest that maybe they need to change some bad habits that they picked up over the years. Plus, please no more $5000 checks for everyone.

One particularly egregious method of losing money seems the practice of getting into bidding wars over debut novels. Debuts have, at best, an uncertain commercial outlook—even the most nakedly commercial dystopian vampire thriller with YA crossover potential will probably bomb.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying trade publishers should avoid debuts or the other hobgoblins of publishing, namely “midlist” authors and literary fiction. Quite the opposite, actually. Being fearful backfires so often for publishers that it’s become a cliché. Instead, I propose that they publish as many, or even a few more “hard to sell” books, and give much smaller advances to those authors.

If you browse Publisher’s Marketplace, you’ll see that these companies are still periodically forking out big money for some recent Iowa Workshop graduate’s artful novelization of that summer he worked in an Alaskan salmon cannery. That his book—they’re usually men—reeks fishily of Steinbeck is actually considered a plus (imagine if the art world were so retrograde that they erupted in rowdy applause every time someone did a decent job of imitating Pollack). Now, to be fair, I’m sure this cannery novel is good. Maybe it’s even great! Either way—unless Oprah intervenes, or something equally improbable occurs—it’s almost certainly not going to sell enough copies to recoup that advance. People just don’t dig good literature that much. (Indeed, I just glanced at Publisher’s Marketplace, and so far this month there’s been at least one $100,000+ deal for a literary debut by a recent grad of an MFA program.)

Once in a while, one of these books does quite well (hello Justin Torres!), or even phenomenally well (hats off, Tea Obreht!), but those are just the exceptions that prove the rule.

On the other hand, Jonathan Evison’s excellent debut All About Lulu was published by an indie publisher Sasquatch Books, presumably after all the biggies passed. Sasquatch gave him a paltry $4500 upfront, but they also gave him an excellent rate on royalties, so he ended up making nearly $50,000 on the book, and Sasquatch did well on it, too.

In case you were wondering, I was not the recipient of a monster advance for my debut. Still, it was a bit of an optimistic sum for a book called A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism; a title that’s kryptonite to book groups, which are traditionally full of not young women who don’t want to meditate on capitalism, late or otherwise. Since publication, the book has sold a small but pleasant—pleasant to my mind, at least—number of copies (more than 5000, less than 10,000, according to my most recent royalty statement). A lot of debut novels by unknown authors sell half as many copies, so I’m rather pleased with the results. Still, I’m sure HMH lost money—I wish they hadn’t, especially because the people there who worked on the book were passionate about it and did an amazing job.

My second novel, The Dismal Science, is due out in 2014 from Tin House Books.

For those not hip to the publishing biz, HMH is a large international corporation (4000+ employees), whereas Tin House has about 19 employees and most of them work on the magazine or conference, not books. Tin House releases about 12 books a year, whereas HMH has thousands of books in print. Not surprisingly, my Tin House advance was considerably smaller than my HMH advance (less than 1/3 as much).

Most authors want a big publisher because big publishers give larger advances, but the counter-argument, which may or may not be true, is that you’ll be valued more by a smaller publisher. Smaller publishers have more time to focus on each book on their list, and each book represents more to them, and there tends to be less of a clear corporate ethos. It used to be common for editors in large publishing companies to want to publish a book, but encounter resistance from the sales and/or marketing departments, and then the editor would reluctantly reject the book, citing opposition from more business-minded colleagues. Now, editors have internalized those objections.

My favorite rejection for my first novel came from an editor at one of the esteemed branches of pre-Penguin Random, who said she wanted the main character to be more like James Bond. The same people who brought us David Foster Wallace 25 years ago now have an aesthetic radar tuned to the frequency of Jerry Bruckheimer.

Meanwhile, smaller publishers like Tin House and Graywolf and Counterpoint are, by all accounts, doing well. More often than not, the small publishers are growing (Evison’s publisher Algonquin would have been on my list of small publishers ten years ago, but they’re just publishing too many best-sellers now, so they’re been pushed into the large press realm). Small presses aren’t just capturing more and more of the market, they’re capturing more of the review and award attention.  Last year’s Nobel Laureate in literature Tomas Tranströmer is published by Graywolf, of Minneapolis, and the last few years have seen Pulitzers and National Book Awards also go to books from small presses.

And so, in the interest of making a lot of enemies, I propose that no first or second time novelist with an artful literary book gets more than $50,000 upfront. It’s been fun, but the madness has to stop.

I wish I couldn’t, but I can see why Tom Clancy gets a million dollars for his latest CIA turd. I even understand when a literary author like Jennifer Egan or Jonathan Franzen gets a heap of money, since a certain baseline of sales is inevitable. But the rest us—with books whose potential profitability is more or less unknown—should get $5,000-15,000 and superb percentages on the royalties. That is, publishers should be more adventurous in terms of what they publish, and have less money riding on each decision. Maybe they can spend some of their savings on additional marketing.

While I’m making enemies, I’d also suggest that a lot of the book business—especially when it comes to writing that deliberately and clearly prioritizes its artistic value over its commercial value—resembles the non-profit sector. If you’re a publisher and you’re not cool with that, maybe you should just stick with James Bond and glittering vampires.

If my second novel sells as many copies as my first novel did, I’ll earn out my advance from Tin House and start making royalties within a year. It’s true that Tin House wouldn’t get rich off my book, and it’s also true that I wouldn’t get rich off the book. But from what I can tell, neither one of us is in this to get rich. If we were trying to get rich, we’d be doing something else.


About Peter Mountford

Peter Mountford's debut novel A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism won a 2012 Washington State Book Award, and his second novel The Dismal Science, out in 2014 from Tin House Books, was a New York Times editor's choice. His work has appeared in Boston Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Southern Review, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, and elsewhere. He's currently on faculty at Sierra Nevada College's MFA program, and he's the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle's writing center.
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