A Volatile Industry

Yesterday’s blog linked you to some fascinating articles about the publishing industry. One friend wrote an insightful comment on the blog and cited the article where Boris Kachka proclaimed “The End” on September 14, 2008 in New York Magazine.

To illustrate how volatile this industry is, let’s look at two of the people featured in the article.  Jane Friedman is no longer the CEO of HarperCollins (which she was at the time of the original meeting) and Bob Miller resigned today as the head of HarperStudio. HarperStudio was creative with a unique financial model (see the article for the gist of it). But on a web site set up to answer questions about this development HarperStudio wrote this:

“Of our ORIGINAL goals, I’d give us a 6 [out of 10]. But there were other goals that cropped up along the way that were unintended benefits.”

Founded in April 2008, it has already changed in less than two years. Their first year was developmental as it takes time to acquire and produce new book titles. 2009 was a tough year for the economy in general and publishing was not immune. Thus the changes. They stop short of saying it didn’t work very well, but the tone of their answer page is very much a “let’s wait and see what the future holds.”

From my perspective I continue to remain upbeat and positive. A year ago the industry “puckered.” Layoffs and reorganization had hit most publishers in late 2008 and early 2009, the carnage was visible. Today, we literary agents are working with the survivors. The difference is that, out of necessity, most publishers are now in the business of risk management. They must be careful with their publishing decisions. Few can afford to “experiment.”

But this is a cycle we’ve seen before, with many nuances that make this era quite unique.

And yet we continue to work in an industry that is like no other. The words we write, the ideas we conceive, the truth we impart can make a difference.

Let me leave you with something Ursula LeGuin once wrote:
“In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.  Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find–if it’s a good novel–that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before.  But it’s very hard to ‘say’ just what we learned, how we were changed.”
(Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, second edition, Putnam, 1979. Page 158. Available on Google Books.)

4 Responses to A Volatile Industry

  1. Avatar
    Jessica March 18, 2010 at 5:21 am #

    What a good quote! So true. Thanks for the industry update. I’m curious as to where publishing is headed too.

  2. Avatar
    Annette M. Irby March 18, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    As a Christian writer, I’ve had to answer to the skeptics who question “Christian fiction, isn’t that an oxymoron? A lie?” But Jesus told “stories.” And they still impact hearts today, bringing people to a decision point. To believe, or not. Words change lives. That’s the goal and aspiration of Christian fiction. So, we ride this cycle through.

  3. Avatar
    Lynnda Ell March 18, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    I agree, Steve, the publishing industry is in a volatile stage, right now. Big companies typically take a long time to change direction, but they have the benefit of diversivied assets to keep them going when transitions come. Literary agents, however – in my opinion – must be much more nimble is finding a profitable direction for their clients. If publishing houses are trying to think outside the box, I believe it would be even more of an imperative for literary agents, no matter how risk adverse either group is.


  1. Rumor Control | Steve Laube - April 8, 2010

    […] let me set the record straight. While there is no question that the publishing industry is in a mode of risk management, our agency is very healthy. We have the privilege of representing a large number of highly […]

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