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Don't Bemoan the Passing of Traditional Publishing

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Tuesday, 16 Jun 2015 03:43 PM Current | Bio | Archive

During the recent skirmish between Amazon and Hachette over e-book pricing, I heard my fellow baby boomers decry the slow, seemingly inexorable passing of traditional publishing. These older folks own autographed first editions of real, physical books.

They cherish oddities such as the 1880 first printing of the first edition of “Ben Hur” with a misprint on page 11. (One sentence ends with the word “be-,” the next begins with “became.”) These are the sort of people who read in places such as the bathtub and in bright sunlight, enemies of every e-reader.

As for those boomers with the good luck to be published authors, many feel secure in the knowledge that, in return for a measly 15 percent (or less) royalty, a large company will handle marketing, sales and distribution of their book, and sometimes the writing too — people in the industry say that between 40 and 60 percent of high-profile books by major publishers are the work of ghostwriters.

Even so, yours truly was never an admirer of traditional publishing, for many reasons.
Back in the 1980s, some college acquaintances of mine got together and wrote what could be described as a “fun” travel guidebook. They chose their publisher simply because it was the one offering the largest advance against royalties, $10,000.

The book was popular and, in the early 1990s, a second edition appeared. As an invitee to the book’s publication party, I accompanied the authors to a large disco bar on Manhattan’s 43rd street, a site that’s now the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.

Upon arrival, the party hadn’t started yet, and authors went off to see how preparations were going. They had not been satisfied with the publisher’s publicity on the first edition — indeed, the authors had done a cross-country campaign on their own — but they were assured that this time things would be different with a “new team” in place.

I had heard rumors that executives of old-line publishers tended to give lower-level book publicity jobs to their children. Perhaps coincidentally, I saw a rather young lady attempting to get a handle on the chaotic pre-party situation, standing with a confused look on her face as other young workers stood around her in a circle, all talking at once, peppering her with questions about music, appetizers, and other refreshments — questions for which she had no answer.

I turned and looked up at the mirrored disco ball, suspended high above the dance floor, illuminated by spotlights. Suddenly, a voice told me to “please stay away from the bar before the party!” A facility employee apparently thought I was standing too close to the unmanned bar situated to my left. No doubt I might have filched a drink before the festivities had begun.

The party was mildly amusing, though the only people present were the authors, myself, the bar workers, and the publisher’s employees. Many of the latter eventually heard that there was a better party for a bigger author across town and quickly left the premises.

Strangely, although many book critics/reviewers were invited to the party, not a single one appeared. Sensing something amiss, one of the authors went downstairs to the doorman, who was never given the list of invitees! Any of them venturing to the party had been turned away.

A few years later I checked with the authors. After nearly ten years, two editions and sales of 80,000 copies, they had yet to receive a royalty check! (Fortunately, they eventually did, minus the cost of the party, of course.)

In another instance, a friend of mine, one of the great sports photographers of the last century, got together with a famous sportswriter to write a book about a popular sport. Following some friend-of-a-friend’s recommendation, they met with a “book executive” in an office at a major publisher, signed contracts, gave him the book manuscript and photos, and went home to wait for the royalties to roll in.

And they waited, and waited. The book was in bookstores but there was no news about sales. Finally, they went to the publisher, who, amazingly, had never heard of the “book executive.”

Finally, after some investigation, it was determined that the book executive had his own imprint that was distributed by the major publisher and had somehow commandeered an office for the occasion.

The authors tracked down the executive, who when cornered said there were no royalties. An audit ensued, and royalties — minus the cost of the audit — were produced.

I won’t get into my own experiences with conventional publishers. Let’s just say that I’m glad that the stigma of self-publishing is gone, enabling an author to be master of his/her own fate.

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.

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RichardGrigonis
Yours truly was never an admirer of traditional publishing, for many reasons. Let’s just say that I’m glad that the stigma of self-publishing is gone, enabling an author to be master of his/her own fate.
Media Bias
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2015-43-16
Tuesday, 16 Jun 2015 03:43 PM
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