HarperCollins occupies floors 1 through 22 of a giant steel-and-glass box on 53rd Street. But up on 26, the receptionist for a tiny offshoot of the company sits alone, gatekeeper to a few drab rows of empty cubicles. A glass container on a table holds a mysterious pile of bright-yellow lightbulbs.
“Welcome to our temporary home,” says 51-year-old publisher Bob Miller, ushering me into a colleague’s more inviting office. Inside, he and his staffers prepare to impart a cheery message: They’re going to fix publishing!
But first, a horror story. Debbie Stier, Miller’s No. 2 at HarperStudio (as this little imprint is called), has been collecting videos for their blog. “You want to see what happens to books after they go to book heaven?” she asks. On the screen of her MacBook, a giant steel shredder disgorges a ragged mess of paper and cardboard onto a conveyor belt. This is the fate of up to 25 percent of the product churned out by New York’s publishing machine.
Everyone’s eyes widen, as though watching some viral YouTube gross-out. “It’s like Wall-E,” says marketing director Sarah Burningham. “It’s depressing,” Miller adds. They had sent in a Flip camera with a warehouse worker. “You can see our books go through there,” says Stier. “The Crichton, the Ann Patchett.”
Miller recently left Hyperion, which he founded seventeen years ago, to start his own imprint at the urging of HarperCollins’s then-CEO, Jane Friedman. She was replaced in June, but HarperStudio lives on. For all its ambitions, it’s a modest outfit: Miller and three women, two of them in their twenties, hope to publish two books a month starting next May, having convinced 25 authors to forgo big advances in return for half of their books’ eventual profit. The books they’ll be doing aren’t particularly outré—Emeril Lagasse on grilling, 50 Cent is collaborating with The 48 Laws of Power author Robert Greene—but they’re hoping that their process will be revolutionary.
Over the past few weeks, Stier has turned her own Flip camera on friends and colleagues, asking them to hold up those yellow lightbulbs and share their “bright ideas” on publishing. She plays us a few of the clips, including one of a publicist who delivers Stier’s intended punch line, tentatively: “Have fewer authors and sell more books?” But the suggestion that gets the biggest laugh in the office is from Stier’s 12-year-old son, who says, “So maybe you have to turn all the books into movies so nobody has to waste their time.”
“It is a very trying time. I’m kind of down about it myself.” —JONATHAN GALASSI, PRESIDENT OF FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX
The demise of publishing has been predicted since the days of Gutenberg. But for most of the past century—through wars and depressions—the business of books has jogged along at a steady pace. It’s one of the main (some would say only) advantages of working in a “mature” industry: no unsustainable highs, no devastating lows. A stoic calm, peppered with a bit of gallows humor, prevailed in the industry.
Survey New York’s oldest culture industry this season, however, and you won’t find many stoics. What you will find are prophets of doom, Cassandras in blazers and black dresses arguing at elegant lunches over What Is to Be Done. Even best-selling publishers and agents fresh from seven-figure deals worry about what’s coming next. Two, five years from now—who knows? Life moves fast in the waning era of print; publishing doesn’t.
So what’s causing this, exactly—this inchoate dread that’s suddenly turned “choate,” as one insider puts it? The anxiety would be endurable if it was just a function of the late-Bush economy: Sales at the five big publishers were up 0.5 percent in the first half of this year, bookstore sales tanked in June, and a full-year decline is expected. But pretty much every aspect of the business seems to be in turmoil. There’s the floundering of the few remaining semi-independent midsize publishers; the ouster of two powerful CEOs—one who inspired editors and one who at least let them be; the desperate race to evolve into e-book producers; the dire state of Borders, the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble; the feeling that outrageous money is being wasted on mediocre books; and Amazon .com, which many publishers look upon as a power-hungry monster bent on cornering the whole business.
One by one, these would be difficult problems to solve. But as a series of interrelated challenges, they constitute a full-blown crisis—a climate change as unpredictable as it is inevitable. And like global warming, it elicits reactions ranging from denial to Darwinian survivalism to determined stabs at warding off disaster—attempts not to recapture some long-lost era but to harness new, untapped sources of power. That is, if it’s not too late.