Ladies and Gentlemen, let's give a warm Mad Max welcome to Mr. Simon Lipskar.
A number of readers here at BookAngst 101--enough, in fact, that I'd planned to cover the subject as Part 4 in my recent "Shots Across the Bow" recap--have said that the real problem w/ publishing today is that there are just too many books. Considered from the micro-level, it’s a seductive argument. I, for instance, am constantly frustrated by how much competition my books face for review attention, shelf-space, marketing dollars, etc. Surely all these things would be easier if there was less competition—so fewer books makes sense for me, no? One pen-pal who had a dissenting opinion was Simon Lipskar, a literary agent with Writers House. He explained to me why I was absolutely, categorically wrong. I was so impressed by his argument that I asked him if he’d share his views with the gang here at BookAngst. And so he has.
Too Many Books? Not So Fast…
Too many books. Among the laundry list of the problems afflicting publishing today one hears enumerated, none is so popular as the notion that too many titles are being published. It seems so logical, so transparently obvious, so quantifiable — just look at all the deals for first novels that were posted, just last week, on Publishers Marketplace — that nobody even gives it a second thought. In an industry where the results of what we do baffle virtually everyone involved – Why did this book succeed? Why not that one? Who knows?! – there’s comfort, perhaps, in being able to say one thing confidently. And so we say it, again and again, like a mantra. Too many damn books.
The various and sundry disseminators of this little maxim come from a variety of vantage points. Readers, bemoaning the veritable avalanche of books for sale, complain that they don’t know how to choose amongst the panoply of offerings. Reviewers, kvetching about the number of glossily bound ARCs the publishers send them, complain that publishers don’t even bother to try to understand what would motivate them to cover a particular book in a particular venue. Booksellers, caterwauling about the overwhelming number of titles on each publisher’s list, complain that they can’t possibly take a real position on more than a few at a time, resulting in a “my hands are tied” shrug and an “order to previous book’s net” mindset that kills authors’ careers, causes more unearned advances than any other single factor and drives publishers, agents and authors to the point of literal insanity.
From a certain perspective, of course, each of these constituencies have valid arguments. I could go on at some length debating them – for example, one could easily maintain that the number of books published represents a Garden of Earthly delights for the reader, with every possible taste and interest addressed and consummated – but I won’t. But there’s another constituency that I do want to take issue with; this group is the #1 proponent of the too many books school of thought. Oddly enough, it’s authors themselves.
Let’s start with the obvious question: what is it that you, as an author, hope to accomplish by complaining about there being too many books? Are you hoping, indeed praying, that publishers will start to listen, and that they’ll buy fewer first novels next year, maybe prune a few low-selling standbys, and thereby have the time and money to pour more attention and cash into promoting the books they publish (such as, and let’s cut to the case, your own)?
If that’s the case, I’ve got some bad news for you: it just might be your book that they’re going to trim off their lists. Do you think, somehow, that yours is going to be the last one through the door, after which your publisher is going to barricade the gates and proclaim, in loud, lusty tones, “These books and these books only shall pass”?
And then your book has entered into the Holy Kingdom of Books That Have Big Marketing Budgets—is that it? And thus it will find the readership that you and your spouse and your parents and your friends and your agent and your editor know you deserve? [And lest my tone be misread as solely mocking, please know that I empathize: I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t believe so strongly that all my authors really do deserve large and adoring audiences.]
Alas: I don’t think so. The more likely outcome is that, if you’re writing finishing your first novel, you might as well leave it unprinted or in the drawer. If you’re an author in mid-career, with nothing particularly inspiring to note on your sales record (despite the glowing reviews and acclaim from one and all), you should probably be thinking about that long-delayed return to full time employment. There is nothing – NOTHING – I find more terrifying than the idea that publishers stop buying lots of first novels, that they stop believing in the merits of sticking by their own authors if their careers haven’t hit pay-dirt by Book #2.
Be certain: it’s the first novel that I’m just about to submit that likely wouldn’t find a home under these circumstances; it’s the author whose work I adore who’ll be dropped because his last book underperformed, and for whom I would suddenly be unable to find a new publisher. And think of the terrible irony here—that publishers would have been encouraged to do so by the very constituency that has the most to lose: authors themselves.
This is a consummation devoutly not to be wished.
TOMORROW: Why Chick Lit Matters [sic]
"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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