Monday, February 14, 2005

"Too Many Books": Shots Across the Bow, Vol. IV

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.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let's give a warm Mad Max welcome to Mr. Simon Lipskar.

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]


Anonymous said...

I want Simon Lipskar to be my agent so bad I can't stand it. Sorry. Couldn't help myself.

Beyond that, how can there be too many books out there? Everybody who is a reader comes to it through love, I think. There is that first book that gets you going, and you're a reader. You may get away from it for some reason -- work, life, no time, who knows? And then it happens. Some book comes along, Harry Potter, The Hours, The Dream of Scipio -- or even that stupid DaVinci Code -- that reminds you READING IS WONDERFUL!! And once again, you are in the bookstores, cruising Amazon, keeping an hour here and here and here for the new book, remaking your routine for reading and it's all great.

All because you picked up that one book everybody was talking about or that obscure one that just seemed to grab you one day, told you to "pick up and read."

The way I see it, the more books there are, the more often that "pick up and read" event will happen for more people, with more opportunities to fall in love, or in love again, with reading more and more books.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Simon, though it seems to me that the authors generally lamenting "too many books" come from the crowd who wish that the business of authoring were enough to not only quit their full-time job, but also their part-time one, too.

In other words, they say "There are too many books sharing advances and sales and if there were fewer, I'd get more money."

While this argument may hold water at the top of the supply chain - with the publishers' advances - it holds none at the bottom, where the books are actually bought. I've yet to see a reader put a book back on the shelf because they had exceeded their literary budget for that store visit. And if fewer books wouldn't lead to additional per title sales (my theory), then it would only be a matter of time until the publishers realized this and re-adjusted advances accordingly.

Anonymous said...


You know I think your passion for addressing what ails this industry is terrific as well.

But, seriously, when someone says "too many books" is the problem, parsing out that this actually means something more complex is not realistic. I hear it over and over and over again. So do you. Even if we agree that the core issue is to accept that, if there are so many books, how do we do better by a larger percentage of them, by reducing the conversation to the level of "too many books," which we both know many people do, we're undermining our own positions. That's what I'm saying.

Actually, I'm saying something else as well, but we'll have to wait for me to finish Part II for tonight ...

-Simon Lipskar

Anonymous said...

Simon, I don’t know you but I love you.
Publishers: please don’t cut the number of books you publish; consider seriously increasing your editorial and marketing support to give your staff the help it obviously—desperately—needs. I want my one voice out of 170,000 voices (or whatever the number is—huge, I know) to count, too. If editors are overwhelmed, then hire more help. Hiring staff takes money, publishers say. Yes, of course, but investing wisely can generate greater profits. Invest more to make more. There’s an odd sort of depression mentality happening in publishing—rather than risking the harder task, that of coming up with creative ways to make each book earn back its advance and then some, the industry, it seems to me, is trimming the number of paper clips it buys, cutting back on electricity, and overloading its small fleet of apple carts. Take a risk and buy more carts and drivers— In the meanwhile, don’t be so wary of authors who want to be involved. If your public affairs staff is overworked and understaffed, then you need to welcome your authors who want to help out. We--your authors--are not the silent partners in this publishing endeavor. We need to know what’s going on so we can DO SOMETHING to help our books succeed. JBK

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, yes, MJ... Navigation. Once again, you are on the button. It's not about too many books, is it Simon? But that blasted spinning compass...

Not just marketing; not just clamoring for reviews; not just trying to play on an, at best, dysfunctional ball field where the peanut hawker calls the shots. No wonder everyone seems surprised when they manage to hit one out of the park.

I believe that technology, which the book biz has, let's face it, been slow to embrace, will offer many such opportunities at navigational refinement. I know there are lots of reasons to complain about Amazon's desire to pigeonhole our reading tastes with their cross-selling and read-alike lists... But, my $.02, there is some merit to the philosophy. And my pity to the reader who has so much time on their hands or so much confidence in their scrupulous taste as to adamantly refuse this kind of referral as an affront to their personal joy of discovery. Personally, I like a good hand-sell. Even if there is a piece of software holding out the hand.

But I think we can go beyond what Amazon does, cross-referencing reader purchases, to refine the read-alike. There exists some wonderful technology... been around forever... based on a statistical algorithm called multi-dimensional scaling. The premise: let readers tell us what author is like which, and other readers make new discoveries by finding authors that might resemble their existing favorites.

Yes… data intensive, at least initially. So, you have to pay to play; contribute a few data points (it’s easy, really… and painless). Then: in the mood for a little narrative non-fiction? Enjoy Simon Winchester? May we, the reading collective, recommend a little Erik Larson (Devil in the White City)? Liked Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow? How about a little Michael Gruber then? Who gets the new product loaded in? Why those squillion ARCs could help; those advance “mom and pop” readers outreach programs Max talks about in particular.

Oh, but wait… what of the novelists that are so original as to defy comparison? Don’t be so absurd.

You said so yourself, Max darling:
“Discoveries? We make those at our local brick-and-mortar, or at Amazon, or on the recommendation of a good friend or librarian.”

Accessed kiosk style, in the bricks and mortar; on-line’s a no-brainer. Feeling really creative? You can put it on a touch screen and the map of comparables floats and changes as your finger moves around (seen it… and it’s lovely).

My fear... seems inevitable: the bookseller-types will learn to value it (monetarily), and the book biz marketing types will try to load it or co-opt it for their own purposes. I’m such a cynic.

Cornelia Read said...

As one of those people whose first novel deals were posted on Publisher's Marketplace last week, I have to say I'm pretty pleased with the number of books now "out there."

The too-many-books argument always reminds me of the snarky definition of a conservationist: someone who got their building permit in Aspen approved LAST year.

Anonymous said...

And so what, exactly, is Simon Lipskar's point? He writes a ton in that post, but argues or asserts very little.

He wants to argue that, no, there AREN'T too many books out there, there's no superabundance, and that authors, of all people, should not be the ones complain about it if there is.

So is there or isn't there a surplus?

He says that if fewer books were published, fewer of his clients would get deals. Well, sure, I guess that's circular enough, but where's the argument?

At the end of the day Lipskar might as well be saying, "There may indeed be too many books out there, but shhhh, nobody say anything, so I can keep earning commissions."

Max, your readers expect your featured analyses to be a little more incisive than that.

Anonymous said...


To above anon's credit... at least he is looking for some answers, or at a minimum some juicy discussion, instead of trying to schmooze an agent. Get over yourselves, folks.

Libertarian Girl said...

In response to ANONYMOUS, who writes:

"[Lipskar] says that if fewer books were published, fewer of his clients would get deals. Well, sure, I guess that's circular enough, but where's the argument?

"At the end of the day Lipskar might as well be saying, 'There may indeed be too many books out there, but shhhh, nobody say anything, so I can keep earning commissions.'"
To which I (respectfully) say, bullshit. Read his comments more carefully, my friend (and the 2nd half of his post, to follow), in which you will see that what he's fighting for in this argument is the opportunity for writers--midlist, first-timers, non-brand-names--to find venues for their work.

Calculate the commission on a book you sell for $7500; then factor in that "small" books require exactly the same amount of energy to ready for the marketplace as do "big" ones (and, given that they often take many many more submissions and legwork prior to finding a home, they often take more), I can assure you: this ain't about commissions.

That $7500 sale? When you factor in scores of hours in editing, revising, pitching, mailing, phone calls with the author (etc), a generous estimate suggests that the agency--as a whole--might have "earned" about $10/hour. After expenses and contribution to overhead (etc), Simon Lipskar probably takes home enough off that deal to fill up his car with a tank of gas.

Anonymous said...

As an author with my first book coming out next year, Mr. Lipskar's post was reassuring. Not only have I disagreed with the premise that there are "too many" books, I know that it would have been harder for me to sell if publishers were cutting their lists. Because why take on a new author with no sales history, no celebrity status, nothing external to draw readers in, when you can simply push your successful authors into writing more?

But, I agree with MJ that everyone needs to look at different ways to market, in light of the fact that there are so many choices that readers feel overwhelmed. I don't think these two thoughts are diametrically opposed.

s/Anon suspense writer

Anonymous said...

To s/anon suspense writer:
So true! re: MJ’s point and Simon’s: “I don't think these two thoughts are diametrically opposed.” And congratulations on getting to the starting gate. I’m willing to bet that your chances for success will be improved because of the info shared here (reread the archives) and in MJ’s blog/archives. JBK

Anonymous said...

The U.S. publishes roughly the same number of titles each year as the UK, despite having five times the population of that little island.

/Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

>>The U.S. publishes roughly the same number of titles each year as the UK, despite having five times the population of that little island.

Which leads directly to my thought as I scroll through this--there aren't too many books, there are obviously too few readers.

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Knox Karter said...

Thanks for sharing such a wonderful and interesting opinion.

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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."