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.
"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."
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