Remainders in Light

Writing in the Washington Post, Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp—no, Twelve doesn’t put out a lot of fiction, though it’s Christopher Buckley‘s home—indulges himself in a revenge fantasy held by editors worried about the coming tyranny of the commons. Most books are too junky, too designed to capitalize on short-term trends, and written all too quickly, he writes, but he has an idea for a fix:

The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively…. Consequently, publishers will be forced to invest in works of quality to maintain their niche. These books will be the one product that only they can deliver better than anyone else. Those same corporate executives who dictate annual returns may begin to proclaim the virtues of research and development, the great engine of growth for business. For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books — works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.

Arguments like this swirl around in journalism on occasion—once people recognize the inherent crappiness/unthoughtfulness/unjournalisticness of most blogs, the thinking goes, they’ll see the value of actual reported stories, and as a result newspapers will (somehow!) monetize the distinction. There are distinctions: The Post has people in Iraq, and most (all?) political/military/policy blogs don’t. But much of the small-press/POD culture that Karp speaks of is already happening, and the response from the larger publishing industry doesn’t appear to be a greater investment in quality; forced to choose between letting a pretty good book marinate for another year or two to become a great one or simply upping distribution and promotion, I suspect that most publishers will choose the latter. After all, book that’s not available for purchase makes no money, and more time on each individual book means few books for a house to work on. And when a company is mindful of the quarterly returns—very mindful if the owner is publicly traded—it knows that “we’re investing in quality” won’t cut it with creditors.

(Via Henry Kisor, who nicely weaves Karp’s story into a smirking commentary about what gas prices are doing to the road novel. Also, the print version of the story notes that a “Jessica” Crispin will respond to Karp’s piece on the Post‘s Web site later in the week.)

Update: Crispin’s response is now online.

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