A Big Day in Crap Publishing

Robert Greene.

The short shelf life of published crap is on our minds today, with HarperCollins signing up two books by His Highness the Prince of Wales (a groundbreaking call to protect the environment, plus a picture-book adaptation) while at the same time reportedly rejecting the first draft of Jerry Hall’s tell-nothing memoir. And on our desk arrives a galley of the insightful 50th Law, by 48 Laws of Power guru Robert Greene — this time in collaboration with 50 Cent, whose brave accomplishments in brand building and crack dealing are stacked up alongside those of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Abraham Lincoln.

The publisher of The 50th Law is Robert Miller’s HarperStudio, the pioneering little HarperCollins imprint that’s meant to do an end run around sky-high advances without, apparently, improving the overall quality of published books. Witness their plan to publish two of the highlights of Friday’s New York Times article on user-generated blogs turned books (linked to by Publishers Lunch under the headline “Timesworthy: Lazy Humor Books Based on Blogs of User-Generated Nonsense.”) Postcards From Yo Momma and This Is Why You’re Fat make The 50th Law look like The Prince (which is basically Greene’s hope). [Correction: Postcards is actually published by Hyperion, not HarperStudio.]

Into this glut steps Jonathan Karp, publisher of Twelve — which only puts out twelve books a year on the assumption that too many publishers publish too much garbage. He’s been flogging this mantra for a while, and today his column in Publishers Weekly offers “12 Steps to Better Book Publishing.” Though he makes some sense — advocating for more decentralized control over marketing and acquisition and more streamlining elsewhere — he’s a bit maniacal in his quest to tame the wild beast of unpredictable publishing. In his world, a small book of short stories by a major novelist would be consigned to Print-on-Demand, and even more people in publishing would be unemployed.

What’s more, Karp is an imperfect messenger. He begins his column with a stroll through his neighborhood bookstore, unearthing such horrors as a probing history of the potato, a coffee-table book on vibrators, and The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women. (“Who exactly is the audience for this book? Self-hating virgins?”) Left out of the story are his own carefully curated books, including a collection of essays on women’s first periods (My Little Red Book), The Liar in Your Life, and Seven: The Number for Happiness, Love, and Success. These books may or may not be less disposable than a history of the potato. It’s easy to put down the competition, but the truth is that one man’s gold is another man’s crap. Karp is right in the sense that both commodities lose value when there’s too much of it around.

A Big Day in Crap Publishing