Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Simon Says: Don't Say "Too Many Books"

Here's the second half of Simon Lipskar's essay on the dangers of proclaiming "too many books" as the core problem facing publishing today. For the first half, see "Too Many Books"

On the topic of "too many books, " I'm struck by the fact that the authors preaching the gospel of the sheer overabundance of titles seem to take for granted that they'll be exempted from this new ethos. It’s those other undeserving books that would get snipped – not their own, nor those of authors they like and admire.

Another thing that bears serious consideration is that the business consequences of this would go beyond what authors expect. Were publishers actually to publish significantly fewer titles, the likely result would be an even greater focus than is currently the case on existing brands, as they would look to amplify what already works rather than try to mount new authors. We’d see more spin-off series using a branded author’s name (written by underpaid and/or uncredited ghosts), because with fewer slots to fill, it would make sense to try to build on already existing readerships rather than try to create new ones—it’s simply easier to do. You’d see more titles by non-book celebrities, as publishers tried to borrow existing brand identities to sell product. We’d see publishers give up much earlier on titles that didn’t get significant preorders, focusing even a great percentage of marketing and promotional dollars on the thing that looks like it’s going to work, or the thing that worked last time, or the thing “written” by the most recent winner or host of that year’s reality TV phenomenon.

Is this really what we want?

And what’s the consequence of publishers focusing in an even more pronounced way on existing brands and trends? Undoubtedly, it means that the business as a whole would grow stagnant and increasingly unhealthy. Readers’ tastes change with time, and one advantage to the (admittedly great) number of books published today is that it helps provide publishers with hints about which direction those tastes might be headed next. This Boy’s Life was a harbinger of the explosion of interest in memoir during the nineties, in the same way that The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air exposed a hunger for perilous true-life narrative. The fact that publishers have the space to take chances on many different kinds of books means that the success of one of the many unlikely candidates might illuminate a previously untapped niche in the market – one that both makes for lots of good business and many happy readers.

Who’s to say whether, faced with fewer slots for new material, Scholastic would have taken a chance on Harry? At the time, it was common wisdom that the market for children’s fantasy was moribund. The extraordinarily vibrant landscape for fantasy that has emerged, both in children’s and adult publishing, was precipitated by the phenomenal success of everyone’s favorite student wizard; imagine if his stories had never found their way into print. Who’s to say that Viking would have published Bridget’s obsessive scribblings about cigarettes, dieting and the search for Mr. Right if they had agreed that there were just too many books? A new and commercially lucrative category, chick lit, might not have come into being. These categories may appear overexposed or unexciting to us today—but at the time those books came out, their respective publishers were, in fact, taking a leap into the great unknown.

We need this natural ebb and flow, the rise and fall of categories and mega-authors. Twenty years ago, the kind of commercial fiction that dominated the bestseller lists looked remarkably different than today’s. But if publishers began calcifying their lists, hoping to extend existing brands rather than taking chances on new ones, what would the results be? Similarly, are you confident that, with so many less slots to fill, publishers would have bought your own favorite unexpected treasure of recent vintage? Would they have published The Lovely Bones, Bee Season, The Nanny Diaries, Running with Scissors, Fight Club, or [insert your favorite book that didn’t sell for six-figures here]? I think we can safely say that fewer books would make for a smaller market for new material, and a particularly reduced market for books that aren’t high profile acquisitions.

I’m not saying NONE of these books would have been acquired. But I am saying that, in a world in which publishers took heed of the “too many books” decree, it’s conceivable that few if any would have made the cut.

All this notwithstanding, I’m very much in your camp regarding the reasons that I’m guessing spawned Max’s blogging in the first place: we’re all frustrated by today’s publishing game, and we’re all having a hard time explaining/understanding why so many good authors are not getting readers at all (never mind the readers they deserve), why so many books get returned in the blink of an eye by booksellers [did they even open the boxes?], are ignored by critics, forgotten by their publishers and unknown to readers. And I hate it. When it happens to one of my own, I don’t sleep. I get depressed. I get angry. That it’s happened before (and so frequently) doesn’t lessen the blow. Like most agents and editors I know, I take it very, very, very personally.

This is what I do for a living: someone I probably don’t know, an author who’s maybe written her first novel, sends me her manuscript. I read it. It makes me laugh, or cry. It moves me, scares me silly, or transports me. And I think to myself, other readers might like to have this same experience. I’ve got nothing to go on other than my own taste – and faith. Faith is the key word here. It’s the sacred contract. I have to have faith that at least one editor at one publishing house will see what I’ve seen, that he’ll convince his publisher to make some space on an already crowded list for this new novel. And then we’ll all have to have faith that readers will find our beloved book. But, ultimately, we all know, deep down, that it’s a lottery.

There are things we can do to reduce the odds – publishing well and aggressively certainly increases the likelihood of success. But it’s only buying more lottery tickets; it’s not guaranteeing success. And that’s the rub. Nobody knows, really, what’s going to work. Nobody. Which of the many, many books published every year – which of the “too many books” – will be the one to reach out and touch an audience of more than just a handful of admirers is as unknowable as it gets. And so, publishers take chances, they acquire lots of first novels, they keep on publishing authors whose sales aren’t all that terrific.

Because despite everything, despite mergers and corporatization, despite the continuing decline of the American independent bookseller and the rise of non-book mass retailers who’d be just as happy to sell t-shirts or frozen chickens as books, publishers keep on publishing too many books. Because, well, because of faith. And because it’s good business.

We owe Max a debt of gratitude for providing a forum that we can use to brainstorm solutions to the real problems. But, for heaven’s sake, no more of this received wisdom about “too many books,” especially not from the authors out there! Because—and here’s what really keeps me awake at night, when the anxious hours are upon me: publishers just might start listening.


Angry Young Man said...

Booksellers contribute to the number of books that are published because publishers need a certain number of titles in a genre in a season just to see the buyer for that genre. For example, if you are publishing one history title, you aren't going to be able to pitch that buyer directly at the nationals.

It makes more sense to have a whole program, which builds trust in buyers and lets you pool marketing money. If buyers know that you bring in good earners in a genre and promote them all through joint marketing materials, they'll be more than happy to see you each season.

This, in turn, creates a need in publishers to defend the real estate they establish for themselves on a certain shelf, such as romance or mystery. If readers in a genre buy indiscriminately, then it's best to have a lot of books on that shelf so that you have a better of chance of your book being the one picked up, even if the individual titles themselves don't do as well as you, the publisher, do overall.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Entrepreneur said:

It seems we all like to paint an extremist picture. Either the picture shows a drastic cutting of debut and midlist books, or we keep things the way they are. Here's what I see happening...

I see a more moderate approach. The publishing industry will REDUCE the number of new titles that they publish each year. It's inevitable. At the rate the industry is going, equilibrium will take over. There won't be a major shift, where debut authors will give up hope of ever getting published. But the number of new titles will decline significantly. The industry simply cannot support so many titles, or an increase in the number of titles, unless it actively and aggressively markets to readers. Unless it increases the size of the market for books, the market will not support that many titles.

I believe that several things need to happen to change the way we do business:

1) The current book return policy between booksellers and publishers will need to be eliminated or drastically changed.

2) Authors and publishers will have to have realistic intentions regarding advances, such that a significant majority of advances earn out.

3) The industry as a whole -- to include publishers, agents, buyers, sellers, booksellers, distributors, and yes authors -- will need to devote more resources, including dollars, to promoting the activity of reading in general.

It all boils down to two things (IMO). Publisher costs are out of whack, so they are having a difficult time increasing their profit margin. In addition, consumers have no reason (because we haven't GIVEN them that reason) to spend more of their time reading.

So until we increase general readership and decrease costs, I believe the industry as a whole will struggle. It may continue to survive without these changes, but it will never thrive.

Scott Esposito said...

One quick item. Simon says "I'm struck by the fact that the authors preaching the gospel of the sheer overabundance of titles seem to take for granted that they'll be exempted from this new ethos."

Really, why wouldn’t authors think like that? Being an author is an inherently hopeless position. You are most often completely unknown. You may not even know if you do have the skill to be a writer. You are competing against thousands of others, and probably have enough rejections to paper your bedroom.

You spend months, maybe years, on a manuscript and all that time all you have are the hopes that one day it will be published. You don’t know if anyone will ever care, if it will ever see the light of day, but for years you continue to write with no regard and no reward, often integrating hours of work per week into a schedule that is already overpacked.

At the end of all that, you send your work off to a publisher or an agent which you may not hear back from for months. You have no idea what is happening and can only hope that your work is being regarded seriously and regarded well.

Knowing that authors must maintain their hope in the face of all that, plus numerous rejections, it should be no surprise to hear that they would also retain hope in the face of decreasing book production.

TLG said...

It's not a perfect system, but there is no perfect system. Everybody gets agitated when talking about capitalism and "art." But that's just a fact of life. In order to have money to make more "art" SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE has to turn a profit. Neither ink or paper is free. Oil paint doesn't grow on trees. Marketability and audience go hand in hand. It doesn't matter if you've written the most brilliant fricking novel ever, if it's too "smart" for 99.9% of the population to appreciate or enjoy. People read, for the most part, for fun. Not to validate an author's ideas or intentions. Stores and publishers have to make decisions (sometimes educated guesses) as to how best market which book, where and when. It kind of strikes me as a '*shrug,* that's life, kid' sort of situation :) There seem to be three choices... deal with it, whine about it or create a publishing company that conforms to the rules you feel everyone else will follow. Who knows, you could be on to something. But don't feel like everyone's inclined to follow your ideas just because they're so fricking brilliant.

(the above isn't directed to anyone in particular, just the attitude in general. People who soapbox or lobby other people to do things that they themselves won't do or are incapable of doing burn my rubber. BTW, I did really enjoy both parts of this)

Soft Skull Press said...

Well, Soft Skull has gone from publishing 10 books a year, to 40-50 books a year, so one might say we've played our part in increasing the nuber of books in circulation...

I'll make this observation, one I've made elsewhere. A book takes, say, 20 hours to consume; a movie 3 hours max, a CD 70 minutes max, a TV show 25-55 minutes. Books demand the most time of a person, if not the most money. And they demand a greater level of attention and input, for the most part. I would submit that the odds of there being a finite numer of 20 hour demanding immersive expereinces that are equally satifying to a very large number of people are pretty damn small. (I'm sure Neilsen with do the math for a reasonable fee). Books, instrincially, are not mass-market.

However the cost structures in Western publishing are, for the most part, predicated on generating economies-of-scale...that probably don't really exist in any sustainable, long-term fashion.

Look at what goes on in the culture end of the fashion business, the design business, even the pharmaceutical business! Where's the money? The money isn't in economies-of-scale, the money is in tailoring, customizing, micro-branding... There was a wonderful article by Jim Surowiecki about the pharmacuetical business, oh maybe a year ago? He basically said that all the new drugs are coming from small bio-tech companies, that the R&D departemnts of Big Pharma are bureaucratic and risk-averse, and that Marketing is swallowing too much of their margins. Does this sound in any way analagous to the industry this blog discusses?

I've no idea why it takes a somewhat anti-capitalist publisher like Soft Skull to point out that publishing is operating against the grain of post-modern capitalism, following outmoded theories of corporate structure (Fordist, if not strictly Taylorist).

So from what I can see, the problem isn't with the books, or the number of books, but with the cost structure of the industry. And, as is so frequently true with large corporations, the topmost level management have no incentive whatsoever to change their approach. Indeed I imagine they've little incentive to even be reading this blog...

GGJ said...

I'm the author of four published book; three of them should not have been published. I'm not sure why it's surprising to hear authors say too many books are published, and I'm -really- not sure why we would assume authors consider their own work untouchable. Maybe authors merely care more about the health of the industry than we're giving them credit for.

Also not sure if the argument that there wouldn't be a Harry Potter or Lovely Bones without publishing too many books holds water. There's still room for breakouts. There's still room for risks. If, instead of 125,000 books published this year, there were 'only' 50,000, does that unduly limit risk? And maybe The Lovely Bones wouldn't have broken out, but three other wonderful books would have. There's some flaw in your reasoning, there.

Still, I'm not going to blame the publishers. I blame my fellow writers--at least those of us who act as if we're hobbyists. This industry is ours. Yes, the average assistant editor one year out of college gets paid better than a long-term novelist. Yes, the art department decides what cover to put on -our- book. Yes, we cringe and crawl to agents and editors. Yes, we have no stake at all in publishing ... except the words on the pages. When -we- act like hobbyists, we fuck the whole system. If we acted professional, you know what would happen? A whole lotta professionalism.

It's not the books getting $20,000 advances that are the 'too many books.' It's the books--the many, many, many books--getting $1,000 advances, or $2,000, or $5,000. That's hobbyist money. That's a pat on the head. That's less than they spend on the human resource department's 23-year-old assistant's dental plan. If writers stopped accepting that kind of shit, publishers -would- release fewer books--only the ones which excited them to the extent of $20,000.

You know Five Star Press? Per their website: "New, as of June 2004, four (4) titles shipped approximately every four weeks." That's just mystery, they list five (5!) other genres. How many books a year do they release? Too many. You know their average advance? $2,000. Check their online catalog and tell me there aren't too many books.

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."