One thing the Bush years really showed me is how much government policies can change a country -- I never really got that before, even though I knew it abstractly.
Once, publishers made a steady income-- in fact, most of their money --from their back lists, books that sold a few hundred or thousand copies a year. Sometime in the late 1970s I think, laws changed and publishers had to pay taxes on those backlists. Backlists became less profitable, and publishers began counting more on bestsellers, less on midlist books, for their profits. There were other reasons for this, too -- more chain stores, fewer independent book stores; changes in the ownership and management of publishing companies due to mergers -- but the change in the tax law was definitely one factor.
Of course every house (and let's face it, probably every author, too, including this one) hopes to publish a big book. Although sometimes well-written, literary books make it big, most of the books publishers pay large advances for are commercial books, sometimes at the expense or even to the exclusion of other kinds of books. It's just arithmetic: when one author gets a $250,000 advance (which, by the way, may or may not be earned by its royalties!), twenty-five other authors can't get $10,000 advances.
What bothers me about this is that some of those not-signed books may be stories that smaller numbers of people would have passionately loved. And I don't think there is any way to predict what will or will not become a best-seller -- or even what will appeal to anyone! It's hard to even predict whether or not someone you know well will like a particular book! But it's probably safe to say that the fewer kinds of books there are, the less likely some children (especially those with unusual tastes) are to discover new books they passionately love. Obviously, some big books have passionate followings; but not universal followings. So for readers as well as authors I hope well-written books with good stories and real characters that don't scream Next Big Thing keep getting published. But I'll get to the action item.
While Obama and Congress are still trying to change the economy, why don't all of us write to our Congress people and suggest a simple way to support the arts AND education, as well as create jobs and bail out an industry that in my opinion anyway is a lot more worthy of government help than Wall Street or the auto industry? One simple way: reverse this law taxing backlists. Let publishers keep backlists without paying taxes -- and while they're at it, exclude books from the Child Safety Act, and give schools special book-buying subsidies.
And if anyone wants to know where the publishing history in this post comes from: a long article that appeared in the old, pre-Tina-Brown New Yorker.