- Welcome to the Machine:Self-Publishing in America III
Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
Roger Waters’s classic lyrics could serve as words of welcome for new or aspiring writers. Maybe not words of comfort, but few are more appropriate to describe the cold soul of today’s publishing world. Hear the synthesized machine sounds played against the lyrics as they are repeated.
In the previous millennium, these words might have been nothing more than a cynical warning to aspiring writers regarding the world of corporate publishing. The rise of neoliberalism in publishing in the latter half of the twentieth-century turned the writer’s life from an aesthetic endeavor to a market-driven one. This was particularly true of the largest and most powerful global publishing corporations—companies like Random House and Hachette, each with more subsidiary presses than books published annually by the overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of small presses in America.
Entering the machine of the neoliberal global publishing industry in the twentieth-century became less about the dreams of writers than the drone of accountants. It is a machine that has continuously been refined ever since the day Random House sold to RCA. Now that Random House and Penguin have merged—and one in four books sold worldwide is the product of their joint operation—few companies worldwide have a higher global market-share for their product.
Corporate publishing is big business, and growing every year. To enter into it as a new author or aspiring writer is both an honor and a horror. The honor comes with knowing that your writing is part of a lineage that goes back to the great writers of your press. Publishing with Random House, for example, places you in the prestigious company of Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Truman Capote, John O’Hara and James Joyce.
The honor of being part of an illustrious lineage though quickly gives way to horror if the sales of your first book are poor. Don’t expect the corporate publisher to wait around five to ten years to see how your book fares over an extended period of time, let alone give you a second chance to publish another with them. Not only are books that don’t sell well taken out of print quickly by the big boys, the new emphasis on “pre-sales” as determining the success or failure of your book makes the task even more daunting for the first time author.
The corporate publishing machine is geared toward low risk and high sales. The handmaiden to corporate publishing is not the perfumed hand of aesthetics or the golden arm of literature, rather it is the calculating brain of the marketing and accounting departments. Big Data drawn not only from sales figures and market analysis, but now also individual digital reading habits and social media activity are the key predictors of whether your book will succeed—and when it will fail. The publishing industry today is about providing immediate and maximal gratification to its consumers not testing the limits of literary taste or aesthetic innovation.
The story of the corporate publishing machine is not a new one. Most writers today know the conditions for entry into the market, and are aware at how these conditions have intensified as the machine has grown in size and power. Publishing for Penguin Random House is first and foremost about selling books and making a profit for the global publishing corporation, not about the longevity of literature. Who has time to evaluate an author or book’s contributions to culture or impact on broader social discussion? Rather, the global publishing machine privileges the immediacy of fiction—a world judged solely by balance sheets and units moved.
The safehouse for literature is not the global publishing machine, especially not the literature that was produced since the last quarter of the twentieth-century. Take for example one of greatest writers of the twentieth-century, William Gaddis. His first novel, The Recognitions was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1955, and his second, J R, was published in 1975 by Alfred A. Knopf. In...