As a lover of books, it is easy to forget that books, like so many beloved things, are also part of a business. The business of art is so often overlooked, frequently because it seems beside the point (and writers are not exempt from harping this tune).
However, after spending this summer interning at a literary agency in New York, I can assure all readers that the business of books is anything but beside the point. In fact, it seems all the more important as we get deeper into the ongoing conflict between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group, which has frightening implications for the entire book economy.
Over the course of this summer, I became increasingly aware that each book that reaches our shelves is the product of a complex and necessary business ecosystem. Moreover, I became intimately acquainted with many of the moving parts that make up this ecosystem and how they serve the interests of readers everywhere. As a result, I have a renewed appreciation for bookmaking, which goes well beyond just the written manuscript. I also have a clearer perspective on many of the changes and challenges currently affecting the book business.
The clearest example of this relates to the role of Amazon in book publishing. The recent controversy between Amazon and the publishing industry revolves around a contract dispute. The publisher Hachette has been avoiding concessions to Amazon on e-book pricing, failing to agree on pricing terms in Justice Department-mandated renegotiations, but this dispute is anything but simple. It represents an increasing centralization of the book market with Amazon, who sells 41 percent of all books in the United States. Furthermore, it represents a disempowerment of publishers and the system that publishing represents.
It is important to note here that this problem is not an isolated case; Hachette is merely the first publisher, in a line of many, who will have to renegotiate their e-book contracts in the next few years. Amazon and other e-book retailers at base want to reduce the price of e-books; while this may seem appealing to consumers, this desire exemplifies many misconceptions, including selection, money and development, about publishing that Amazon plays off.
This summer I spent a lot of time saying no.
As an agency intern, a large part of my job was reading and rejecting query letters. In the beginning, it was excruciating, particularly as someone who hopes to one day write a book or two, and it only got marginally better over the course of my internship. However, despite what internet horror stories and tales of classic novels being rejected repeatedly might suggest, I am here to tell you that this process is not only necessary but good. This process makes one pay the utmost attention to the challenge of selling books.
When I said yes to a book this summer, even if it was just to ask for more pages of a manuscript, I always thought of the months, if not years, in editing, marketing and financing that I was attaching to it. If I said yes enough, it meant a book would need to be passed along to more hands. It meant that a book was worthy of further consideration by other minds and that a book might be worth the risk of investing time and money to be put on a store shelf or online.
What people often forget is that all of this is true whether a book is to be made in print or digitally. The major cost of books is not in the physical object but the process of publishing itself.
Another constantly raging debate is the conflict between traditional publishing and self-publishing. I am a strong believer in the traditional publishing process, which edits and augments at every stage, producing better book quality, but there are reasons beyond this to support the traditional model. As a model, self-publishing provides fewer options for revenue. Your cut of sales may be larger if you self-publish, but you are also wholly reliant on sales and you are at the mercy of your own efforts to produce these sales.
By contrast, in traditional publishing an agent may not only try to secure a publisher (most publishers only work with writers who have agents) but can also help secure an advance, provide business guidance and assist in expanding the reach of the work, whether by getting major papers to review the piece or by organizing a film or television adaption.
Very few writers are their best advocates or representatives of their business interests. Moreover, the more time a writer spends handling their own business affairs, whether marketing or contracts, the less time they can devote to actually writing. Traditional publishing not only allows writers to focus on the actual act of writing, but it also gives them the best chance of profiting from their work.
When I went to New York this past summer, I had no idea what to expect — the publishing industry remains obscure to the popular imagination. Publishing is messy and sometimes it involves a lot of rejection and complication, but it is also one of our most vital industries. It protects readers and writers because it tries to sustain books as a necessary good — a good that deserves patience, care and persistence. As a reader, books are even more valuable now that I know how much it takes for them to come into being.
Jerrod MacFarlane is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.