Publisher Jonathan Karp’s essay from Sunday’s Washington Post argues for publishers to publish books not for the sake of selling them but for the quality they contain and embody. It’s a noble argument, one aligned with art over commerce and history over consumption. However, within its conclusion lurks the weakness of the business model he’s attempting to sustain:
“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.”
Unless he’s saying that writers should get advances truly in “advance” of writing a book I don’t see anything changing in any measurable way. The economic realities are harsh: I have to eat, my wife wants to eat, and my son wants to eat. I think my dog does too. That means food, which means money, which means a job. A job means I only get a handful of minutes per day to work on my writing. Unless Mr. Karp is urging publishers to start taking on projects with possible long term rewards, projects that don’t yet have an actual finished manuscript, something akin to how non-fiction works, I don’t see things changing anytime soon.