Saturday, February 21, 2009

Congress, publishing, and us

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.


Elaine Magliaro said...


One of those laws that really hurt publishing--and other companies as well--was the one that required the taxing of a company's inventory. Crazy if you ask me!

Libby Koponen said...

Elaine, that's what I meant by "had to pay taxes on the backlist." I should have said "inventory," or "books in their warehouses"? Sorry everyone that this was unclear and thanks for commenting Elaine. I didn't know other industries had to do it too.


Elaine Magliaro said...


This taxing of the inventory is most likely the reason one of our laptop computers hasn't been fixed yet--after several months. It needs a certain part that the manufacturer won't produce until it has enough orders for it. I'm assuming that parts aren't kept in stock because they'd be taxed. It's very frustrating.

Laurie said...

Have you ever signed one of those pre-written letters to a congressman and mailed it off?

I wonder if the writing community could make a serious impact about these issues if a letter like was available.

After all, writers / writing. It could work.

If a law savvy person writes one of those letters up, I will print it, sign it, and send it off to my congressman.

And I will make it available to every other registered voter I know.

Laurie said...


I meant "if a letter like this was available"

Clearly I am NOT the person to write such a letter.

Libby Koponen said...

Wow, Laurie, thanks! That's a great idea. I will write the letter and post a link to it on the blog, so people who want to can print it out. (I have heard that printed letters have more impact than those emailed things.)

ANd as for your typo: I read your comment the way you meant it. I had to reread it three times to "see" the missing word.

Anyway, thanks, Laurie!

Laurie said...

Great! I'll be watching for the link :-)

I'm so glad you thought it was a good idea!

Laurie, the happy activist