Editors Confuse Books with Websites and Art

I mentioned in correspondence with an editor the other day that established (or establishment) publishers confuse websites with books. For that matter, they also confuse books with art, a title to which most books don't even pretend to aspire. At the risk of oversimplifying, the long, expensive book editorial process practiced by trade publishers is a legacy of offset printing, and nothing else. Editors believe that the process was introduced to produce a work of art, but publishing is a commercial venture, not a starving artist in an attic. The offset printing model is all about producing a large number of books at a low cost and then warehousing them until they can be sold. If errors in the editorial process result in a warehouse full of books that can't be sold, woe unto the ex-editor who slipped up.

Websites are inherently flexible. There is no incremental cost to changing a web page after it's been published, other than the time to make the change and click the mouse. Editors moving from the book world to the online world labor under the basic confusion that their job is to produce art online. Given the fact that even in their book publishing days, producing art was rarely part of the business plan, this internal contradiction is likely to produce a lot of neurosis. Ironically, the flexibility of online publishing means it has a greater chance of producing art in most cases than the traditional editorial process. Performance artists have always known that preparation and practice (analogous to the editorial and production processes) are no substitute for live performances. That's why so many plays and musicals start their journey in the sticks and work their way up to off-Broadway before landing a top theatre engagement. Film and music festivals exist in part as a live fire trial for new artwork and artists, since art can't exist without an audience. TV comedians want joke writers who work in stand-up because it's the only reliable way to find out if the jokes are really funny. For a small group of editors at a publishing house to believe that they can stand in for a general audience to guide the development of new work is at best a folly and at worst a vanity.

It's important for editors trying to transition from publishing on paper to publishing online to choose the right business model to emulate. For better or worse, that model is the software industry. Whether you're a veteran of or a refuge from the established trade industry, you'll do better to emulate Microsoft than McGraw-Hill, Oracle than O'Reilly, SAP than Simon and Schuster. The key to winning in the software marketplace has always been to get there the "Firstest with the mostest" and to deal with problems as they arise. In fact, the most shocking difference between the software publishing industry and the book publishing industry is that with software, the publishers often profit from their mistakes! Just take a look at the version number of whatever software you use around the office, and try to remember how many times you've paid for "improvements" over the years. Andy Warhol would have loved software.

Since most of the editors I've know in my life are actually very intelligent people, I don't think they are missing the boat because they haven't figured this out, they're missing the boat because they've been conditioned to be snobs.

"Oh, look at those mistakes. Nobody will ever see those on our website!"

That's right, because nobody will ever visit your website.


Benjamin Lukoff said...

For the most part, I agree with you. However, commercial ventures and art aren't mutually exclusive. (The Beatles are a great example.) There's plenty of art that isn't produced by the starving. Yes, I would have to say that Alyssa Milano's "Safe at Home: Confessions of a Baseball Fanatic" isn't exactly art. But I'd argue that "The Complete Peanuts" is.

Yes, publishing is doomed if it doesn't take into account commercial realities, and if that means stripping away much of the process, all the better. More process does not necessarily produce better art. (See Jackson Pollock.) But I think many people got into the business precisely TO produce art.

Then again, if you're strictly speaking of the large trade publishers, maybe it really is all dollars and cents. I think keeping both the commercial and artistic perspectives in mind is the real way to go here.

Morris Rosenthal said...


Trade publishers (and self publishers) do produce plenty of art, it's just a very small percentage of their overall title count. What I was trying to get at here is that the publishing process for books doesn't translate well to the Internet.

Likewise, there is plenty of art on the Internet, but the model for Internet art is much closer to live performance art than to literary art.

It's not an either/or question if you happen to be supported by government subsidies or a trust fund, but publishers trying to grow their business online need to stop posing and start posting:-)


Arthur said...

Thanks, Morris, excellent point about the effects of offset on the publishing process. To nitpick: it's actually not a bad idea to copy O'Reilly, who themselves often follow the software model, especially in their Rough Cuts service (

Morris Rosenthal said...


It looks to me like O'Reilly is hiding their Rough Cuts behind a wall and selling early access. That's no way to build traffic or draw the maximum feedback.

There's no question that O'Reilly comes closer to getting it than many other publishers, but they still fall way short of what they should be doing. I specifically included them, and then picked a software company starting with an "O" as opposed to the other way around:-)