Lake Wobegon Daze

So Garrison Keillor, who of late has been working overtime to redefine “Minnesota Nice“, recently trained his sights on book publishing, which he declared dead.

Starting a food fight on the eve of BookExpo makes for great theater. Reactions came quickly from most parts of the publishing industry. How could Garrison Keillor say such things, after all we have done for him?

Well, at least it wasn’t Oprah Winfrey.

Typically, I refrain from broader assessments of the health of publishing. There’s usually not enough data to do it, and in any event predictions are not something I do easily or well.

But the reaction to Garrison Keillor’s remarks, and our comfort with having Oprah Winfrey validate our work, actually are data points. They’re telling us something about what matters in book publishing.

At a BookExpo panel on the future of book packaging, Mel Parker acknowledged that new authors increasingly had to come to publishers with a clearly defined “platform” if they expected to get published.

His was a moment of stark and refreshing honesty. I’m not arguing for platforms, but Parker’s assessment underscored the degree to which big-time publishing focuses on scale and risk aversion.

The shift has been in the works for some time. An S&S executive claimed (in 2005!) that self-publishing is his industry’s farm team. He may not have imagined a time when the farm teams could decide to form a league of their own.

We all want to believe in the spirit of publishing evoked in the better moments of Jonathan Galassi’s late lament. But Max Perkins would not have cared if Garrison Keillor thought his work was irrelevant.

If the value of traditional publishing was truly apparent, Keillor’s words would be at worst a glancing blow. But we protest too much. Our collective reaction suggests strongly that the era of independent, brave thinking in publishing really is over.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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