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The Problem With Print


Struggling to extract maximum return on investment, print media are now the paper equivalent of Reality TV.

Cheap content fills the space between ads, but often doesn't meet readers' needs, and rarely meets writers'.

Newspapers & Magazines
In the 1950s, professional magazine writers could earn US$1 a word for their work—and a decent house could be bought for $5000.

In the 1990s, writers were still looking at $1 a word as the standard, but the same house cost $350,000—70 times as much!


What went wrong?
In the 1950s print media—newspapers, magazines and books—ruled supreme, challenged only by radio as a communications medium.

Then came television, increased literacy, decreased publication costs, and a flood of new magazines.

Independent magazines were bought up by publishing conglomerates, and the tenor of the editorial office took on a more hard-nosed business-like note.

By the end of the century, the traditional print media marketplace was highly competitive, and keeping costs low and the bottom line high was the rule. Business managers kept intense pressure on editors to produce best-sellers at the lowest possible cost.

Writers, unable or unwilling to publish their work themselves, worked ever harder for decreasing returns.

Books
The old joke goes:

"How do you make a small fortune in publishing?"

"You start with a large fortune."

The joke is from the first half of the 20th century, when gentlemen of means founded publishing houses for the public good and their own amusement. They didn't need to make a lot of money, they enjoyed their work, and they contributed to culture. Great!

After World War II, the baby boom, and increased literacy and education, readership expanded and suddenly it was possible to make a great deal of money with blockbuster best-sellers. Soon the refined gentlemen publishers were selling out to conglomerates where the bottom line ruled. Soon the conglomerates discovered that best-selling authors were goldmines, and other authors would often write just to be published, even if they made little money at it. Such a deal!

Now publishers market and sell books literally like supermarket products: a book gets a certain shelf-life of exposure and if it doesn't sell a large minimum number of "units" (copies) in that short period of a few months, the book is quickly remaindered. Good backlist titles need not apply.

Travel Guidebooks
Eugene Fodor, Temple Fielding, Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, Tony and Maureen Wheeler (Lonely Planet), Harvard Student Agencies (Let's Go): they all started by publishing their own guidebooks to destinations they loved, and those initial books grew into world-renowned guidebook series.

Publishing your own guidebook profitably can still be done today, but it's far more difficult. These well-known series grew up with world tourism, expanding the load on bookshelves in tandem with the increase in the number of travelers. Now the bookshelves are stuffed with good titles, the long post-oil-crisis economic boom is over, terrorism threats are crimping world tourism, and competition for readers is fierce.

Until the 1990s, many of these series paid royalties to authors, who could make a good living from their work. But with increased competition and the acquisition of these series by publishing conglomerates, the same bottom-line pressures put on magazines, newspapers and general trade books have come to guidebooks.

Freelance authors, not being part of editorial-office culture, are seen as the easiest targets for cost-cutting.

Royalty contracts, which provided powerful incentive to writers, are almost a thing of the past (and the ones now signed are often disadvantageous for the writer). In place of lucrative royalty contracts, publishers now demand restrictive work-for-hire contracts prescribing low fees and high liability for the writer.

As the Let's Go series proved, talented young tyro authors will work for virtually nothing in exchange for the opportunity to travel and to see their words in print. Given the choice between paying an experienced professional author a lot and paying a tyro little, an editor is constrained to choose the latter.

Here's how to predict if a guidebook writing job will make or lose money.

Here's a lot more on guidebooks and contracts.

Bright Future?
One door closes, another opens: the Internet offers publication and worldwide distribution costs so low as to be unimaginable in the world of print media. Internet self-publication of your work is now easier than it ever has been.


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Tom Brosnahan