Mike Shatzkin, founder and CEO of publishing consultancy The Idea Logical Company and ” widely-acknowledged thought leader about digital change in the book publishing industry,” has just run a blog post entitled “Marketing will replace editorial as the driving force behind publishing houses”—so at least there’s no doubt about what his thesis is.
He says, quoting his father Leonard Shatzkin, that whereas the traditional position was that “all publishing houses are started with an editorial inspiration,” which under the pressure of economic realities mutated into sales-driven structures focused on getting books into stores, nowadays “marketing has largely usurped the sales function. It will probably before long usurp the editorial function too.”
Well, I’ll buy that to some degree, in that publishing sales has far less value in a digital publishing environment where Amazon et al. have next to zero inventory cost for all the titles they “warehouse” online, and that “the tools for the sales department—primarily the catalog, the book’s jacket, and a summary of sales points and endorsements that might be on a ‘title information sheet’ that the sales reps used” are no longer “critical factors in a book’s success.” But what publishing house hasn’t been marketing-driven for a long time already? In other words, what major publisher doesn’t have an editorial policy dictated by what it thinks the market wants, rather than what it thinks is worth bringing into the world?
Yes, of course there are myriad niche publishers, small culturally-focused houses, specialist and minority interest presses that are editorially driven—though note that in these cases they’re playing to a defined market that they know well, where their positioning already takes care of a lot of their marketing needs. But the idea of what constitutes the “right book” for a publisher—”the single most critical set of decisions influencing the success of publishers,” in Shatzkin’s thesis—has surely been determined for Big Five publishing groups and other similar major houses for a long time now by issues such as product lines, genres, print runs, series, marketing categories, not editorial excellence. What publisher wouldn’t scout out a borderline-acceptable addition to its holiday season chick lit lineup when it needs to buttress that category a little? Who isn’t ploughing out the Christmas books in time for the festive season? What big house won’t commission a pot-boiler or celebrity bio to pick up on a fad or a trend?
And what, above all, about the book packaging industry? These entities often serve as outsourced editorial departments, providing entire books for publishers who want to pursue a theme or a trend—or who have been sold the idea by the packager—but don’t have the resources or the commitment to do it themselves. The publishing house, meanwhile, can focus on speccing out its lineup with the same mentality as a mass-market fashion chain selecting designs to fill each style and niche.
Isn’t that how publishing houses have functioned for decades now? Isn’t the question of marketing versus editorial far more of a function of size and reach than cutting-edge versus traditional? What Big Five head of commissioning hasn’t long been a marketing maven first and an editorial savant second, if at all?
To my mind, the veneration that most of the publishing industry pays to the editorial function is largely cosmetic. It makes publishing houses look better and feel better about themselves. In fact, they’re all about marketing. And writers now have a choice whether they want to buy into that process or do it themselves. I don’t expect major publishers, meanwhile, to be any more honest and realistic about their own attitudes and priorities than they ever have been.