May 6, 2011
From Andrew Laties’s article, “Don’t Shoot the Middleman”, in the May/June issue of the Horn Book:
The slings and arrows of a thousand bloggers assail me with the prophecy that the age of disintermediation is nigh. Bookstores, libraries, publishing companies, and printed books are destined to disappear, swept away by the tide of eBooks and eReaders.
Now that authors can transmit writing directly to readers, money-grubbing middlemen are history.
I demur. Professional middlemen in the book world are integral to the presence and significance of books in society. The relative anonymity of those who work in publishing — editors, sales and marketing people, reviewers — contributes to bloggers’ misunderstanding of the critical nature of their roles, but these intermediaries are essential to the development and success of the marvelous books we want. And the new technology, far from killing us or them, is making everybody stronger.
Here at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where I run the bookstore, we frequently greet members of the publishing fraternity. These professionals are powerfully attracted to the question of why The Very Hungry Caterpillar is so successful. Why does this particular title, forty-one years post-publication, sell a copy somewhere worldwide every thirty seconds? How can this outcome be replicated with other titles? Striving for this kind of success is at the heart of the publishing business.
Why is The Very Hungry Caterpillar so successful? Were it not for the brilliant and experienced editor Ann Beneduce, the book might have been published the way Eric Carle first developed it, as A Week with Willi Worm. With no transformation to butterfly at story’s end, would Eric’s book have sold millions of copies? And how much credit is due to the persistence of the publishing house, Philomel (formerly World), which, through the patient strategy of the marketing and sales staff, reprinted the book in small batches during its first several years in print, when it was selling only a few thousand copies per year?
Just so, every book produced by a publishing company emerges from a multivalent collaboration. Even post-publication, every book is a collaboration, with the original participants in the book’s creation continuing to play roles as promoters and defenders. Intermediaries are, and will remain, a critical part of the book business because a “book” is different than an author’s manuscript or an illustrator’s portfolio. A book’s power inheres to a significant degree in its having gone through a hazing process; an elaborate vetting; a concerted effort by co-creators to offer a worthy contribution to society (and the bottom line). Publishing people have welcomed the interactive opportunities offered by the internet because these have facilitated the most positive aspects of this corrective process.