Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair? You all alone on the ground, me in the air…
The news that Simon & Schuster is pairing with a self-publishing company, to create a new publishing company, calls to mind the lyrics from the 1973 Stephen Sondheim song, Send In The Clowns.
And what a pair they are. S&S, one of the most storied book publishers in history, now lends its esteemed name, sort of, to a formerly disrespectful side of the publishing industry where all you need to get a book deal is a credit card and a pulse.
Major publishers justify their existence with the haughty description of “curating information,” as if data were ancient Greek vases or 18th century French tapestries. But now you can claim rough connection to Simon & Schuster, the vaunted information curation station, simply by sending your manuscript, and your Visa card. You, too, can be an author who’s been blessed by S&S.
Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve?
Honestly, no. Mainstream publishing had a mission—to provide accountability to those in power, in government, the military, or business; to bring great writing to the world; to grow new authors and their audiences; and to shape the culture of a nation. All that’s clearly out the window.
There’s something tawdry about a great name like S&S attaching itself to the world of independent publishing, where there are no standards aside from standard fees. It’s like discovering a Shakespearean actress falling on hard times and appearing as a saucy mother figure in an American Pie sequel. You wince at the sight of it.
One who keeps tearing around. One who can’t move.
Self-publishing, or independent publishing, to use the more attractive term, isn’t just the wave of the future; it’s the wave of the present. The process democratizes book publishing just when the major publishers have lost their way. Fifty Shades of Grey started off as a self-published book. So did The One-Minute Manager, The Celestine Prophecy, Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, and even A Time To Kill by John Grisham – according to self-publishing guru Dan Poynter, the legal thriller writer started his career selling that novel out of the back of his car.
And yet, ninety nine percent of the independently published books in America are unreadable, poorly written, and lacking the social usefulness of even 50 Shades. For example, when Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita, first came to prominence, an arm of S&S, Pocket Books, published her memoirs. A decade later, when she had fallen out of the national consciousness and presumably couldn’t get a book deal from a major house, she self-published.
That about sums up the quality, or legitimacy, of most self-published books.
Don’t you love farce? My fault I fear.
It really is farcical: the same company that published Amy Fisher and then turned its back on her, presumably because her information was no longer worth curating, is in bed with her once more.
But just because the bastard child spawned from the union of S&S and a self-publishing company intends to charge an enormous premium to the aspiring Amy Fishers out there, those authors can’t really claim to be published by S&S. The press release makes clear: no Simon staffers will be involved in the venture. Simon won’t be distributing Archway Books. The whole messy enterprise won’t take place anywhere near S&S’s august offices in Rockefeller Center.
So what’s in it for S&S, to tie itself, however distantly, to its country cousins in the world of self-publishing?
Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer, losing my timing this late in my career?
Money. S&S didn’t start off as an information curator. It didn’t even start off publishing actual books. S&S began by publishing crossword puzzles back in the 1920s, when such puzzles were the rage, the Rubik’s Cubes of their day. Messrs. Simon and Schuster made so much money selling collections of crosswords that they figured they would try their hand at selling books.
Alas, New York publishing has fallen on hard times, now that the industry has lost its hammerlocks on the marketing and distribution of books. Selling information in any form – books, newspapers, news magazines — has gotten exponentially difficult. So like that Shakespearean actress grateful to be doing Porky’s remakes, S&S is crassly (and unwisely) further undermining the value of its brand by luring in the literarily unwashed with the false promise of a connection to publishing splendor.
Sic transit gloria mundi: thus passes worldly glory.
Actually, why not let Sondheim sum it up:
But where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.
New York Times best selling author (and three-time Simon & Schuster novelist) Michael Levin runs BusinessGhost, Inc., America’s leading provider of ghostwritten books.