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Making the Future Up As We Go Along

michael-murphy-headshot.jpgThis weekend, the Writers’ League of Texas is holding its annual agents conference in Austin—we spoke there last year, and it’s good stuff. (Frankly, we wish we were going back!) This year’s keynote speaker is former William Morrow publisher Michael Murphy, who’s been running a literary agency called Max & Co. for the last two years. When we heard that the title of his talk would be “Sitting in a Cardboard Box, Saying Voom Vroom and Pretending It’s a Car,” we wondered if it meant Murphy believed that some folks were playing at being publishing companies, but his take on the phrase was much more benevolent: “It was really meant to covey that we are all pretty much making-it-up as we go through this period of fundamental change in the book business,” Murphy emailed us. “There are many rather smart people issuing completely divergent opinions about The Future of Publishing.”

Those perspectives run from Barry Eisler‘s assertion that “the only thing keeping paper books going… is inertia,” which was itself a response to a claim from NY Times tech columnist David Pogue that “in Technoland, nothing ever replaces anything,” to Columbia University Press CFO David Hetherington‘s counterargument that “there’s a fine line between vision and hallucination” when it comes to the digital publishing movement.

“[It's] sounding like The X Files: The Truth is Out There,” Murphy continued. “But what that truth is is anyone’s guess. I am very interested to watch experiments like Richard Nash‘s new venture, The Round Table. I am equally excited, but yet reserved, by all the enthusiasm being expressed by excellent small & mid-sized publishers like Counterpoint and b>MacAdam/Cage. It’s clear they are beginning to feel in the new model, where as HarperCollinsMichael Morrison said ‘$35,000 is the new $75,000,’ they have a chance to compete for the very best projects with the large trade houses.”


“This could be a wonderful new era where some people much smarter than me figure out how to effectively use the opportunities of the internet to establish like minded viral communities and give many more writers much greater access to their core readers than was ever afforded when a buyer in Ann Arbor or on Fifth Avenue in New York were the primary deciders of what readers were presented as New & Noteworthy,” Murphy added. “On the other hand, a new era could be even more restrictive as The Era of The Ampersand Wielding Book Barons (Barnes & Noble/Simon & Schuster) gives way to The Dot.Com Book Baron and Amazon becomes the all-powerful voice of book consumption… I use Amazon; I love their speed, ease, & efficiency. But I don’t trust them to serve my reading needs over their quarterly profits as far as I can next-day deliver them.”

After three decades in the book business, Murphy says he’s never seen this level of “passionate debate about where we’re headed and what we’re doing wrong,” and he’s the first to admit there are some serious problems—and, like Jon Karp earlier this year, he cites a glut of new product as one of the industry’s biggest missteps. “But what I find most ‘wrong’ about our current state of affairs,” he concludes, “is that our conversations have become so dominated about the bottles and so little about the wine. I’d much rather be talking about my writers, like Tony O’Neill and Barb Johnson, who are so talented they bring tears to me eyes…on a back lit screen as well as the printed page.”

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