Saturday, July 20, 2024

Book Publishing in Crisis as Self-Help, Airport Fiction Dominate Amazon, Literary Publishers Fired


UPDATED You have to go all the way down to number 81 on Amazon’s bestseller list to find a book by a “literary” writer.

That would be “All Fours,” by Miranda July, the writer-filmmaker-artist.

Otherwise most of the top 100 is taken up Father’s Day books, Mother’s Day books, self-help, and airport fiction. The latter comprises paperback reads by authors like Colleen Hoover and Sarah J. Maas.

There are a few oases: Griffin Dunne’s memoir about his family is at number 51. Stephen King, the rare commercial author who is also a writer, has a new title.

But things are so bad that Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” originally published in 1936, is at number 96.

What’s missing? What we used to call literary or quality books. There is no breakout hit. We used to read the bestseller list and count “real” books by Philip Roth, John Irving, Margaret Atwood, VS Naipaul, and so on. Even Amazon’s Literature and Fiction list is cluttered with pedestrian commercial fare, not the stuff that comes from the Iowa Writers Workshop, or Yaddo.

Again, on that list you have to go all the way down to number 43 to find “James,” by Percival Everett, the only literary work. Otherwise, it’s more Colleen Hoover, a posthumous Michael Crichton somehow constructed by James Patterson, movie tie-ins, and so on.

This shabby state of the business is definitely causing trouble in the book business. Three weeks ago, two major literary publishers were fired without notice. Reagan Arthur, the publisher of Alfred A. Knopf, and Lisa Lucas, the publisher of Pantheon and Schocken were dismissed. Lucas was so surprised that she freaked out a bit on social media and then headed off to Paris.

Last week, Little Brown laid off seven top editors including Tracy Sherrod, Pronoy Sarkar, Jean Garnett and Ben George. They were just as shocked.

All of this follows a huge exit of legacy editors last summer at Random House’s Alfred A. Knopf that included veteran star Victoria Wilson, plus Penguin’s Wendy Wolf, Rick Kot, and Paul Slovak. Some, like Wilson, took a retirement package. Others were simply laid off.

If you don’t think there’s a correlation between all these top people getting the axe, and real books disappearing, you’re wrong.

Meantime, publishers keep putting resources in books by personalities, only to see them backfire. Kristi Noem’s “No Way Back,” is already well below number 10,000 on amazon. Tom Selleck’s autobiography is number 598. Whoopi Goldberg’s memoir, which couldn’t have had more publicity, is at number 895. Michael Richards — Kramer from “Seinfeld” — has a memoir that expired within a week.

Meantime, Lorrie Moore’s “I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home,” which just won the National Books Critics Circle award for fiction, is at number 36,379 on the paperback list. Moore is an established author who’s won many prizes and publishes in the New Yorker. But it’s doubtful many people even know she has a book out, let alone an award winner.

What’s going on here? I recently responded to a Tweet from a frustrated author who was upset that she had to pay for her own publicity. But that’s been the case for decades. Publishers don’t care about creating legacies around important writers. If they ever did, that’s long over. They sell Colleen Hoover as if she was a vacuum, sucking up as much money as they can in the process.

Tomorrow would have been the birthday of the late, great author Laurie Colwin, whose novels and essays are still in print. When I was a book publicist in 1984, I was assigned the paperback of her novel, “Family Happiness.” The publisher, Ballantine, didn’t even want me to do publicity, just send out a postcard press release. They were more interested in Garfield the cat books.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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