Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Can I Get a Ruling?: Are We In A Golden Age for Books or Not?

It's time once again for that semi-regular blog feature that I actually didn't forget about (at least this time): Can I Get a Ruling?

Today's Can I Get a Ruling? involves our favorite schizoid industry, which somehow manages to be seen as being in decline while growing at 3%, and where 400,000 books were published in the last year but (seemingly) fewer of them are published by mainstream houses who are (seemingly) focus on a narrowing slate of blockbusters.

My question to you: is this a good time for books?

Garth Hallberg sums up the irony of the industry's current predicament with an insightful breakdown of some of the complaints about publishing and the current "crisis of reading" balanced against the fact that the supposedly money-driven and monolithic publishing industry is comprised of, wouldn't you know, people who love books, including small presses who are more interested in producing beautiful books than becoming billionaires.

So which is it?

Pros: more choice than ever, more opportunities outside mainstream publishing, more possibility for non-mainstream authors to find audiences via the Internet, e-retailing breaking down geographic boundaries for people who before didn't have access to bookstores, online communities to discuss books, insert your own here

Cons: fewer, bigger bestsellers, competition from other media, decline of newspaper book pages, too much choice, fewer authors able to support themselves writing, possible dilution of quality as more books are self-published, insert your own here


gwen said...

It depends on what you mean. Are you speaking in terms of quality? Or are you speaking in terms of general public success?

Sure, a great many books get published these days, and I think it is wonderful that aspiring authors seem to have more avenues open to them than ever before. However... sometimes, I just cannot believe how much junk gets published.

Even the "junk" from poets like Percy Shelley and authors like Jane Austen are not as awful as the stuff I often see on the shelves.

But I'm just a bit of a lit snob. I didn't invest my time in six years of university for nothing. ;)

gerriwritinglog said...

*bites back swear words*

What do they mean by literary? That word is LOADED with meaning, and if they're trying to use it as "everything published", then that's not clear at all.

Damn straight it's a good time for books, esp. if you're a genre reader. More books are available through not only store-fronts, but and help people find those valuable out-of-print books of yesteryear that people want to get their hands on again.

Mainstream means exactly what, also? And why does mainstream define the whole of the reading audience? What about those people who devour media tie-ins? Are they not readers? Since when?

*snort* Snobbery. Ya find it in every profession. Still irritating to those of us who consider a book a book and will devour words just because they're in front of our faces.

Anonymous said...


I see on blog after blog that anything YA is booming. With so many 'young adults' reading, might we not assume that as these YAs grow older they will continue to read (and buy books). Particularly if the books interest them.

I'm far from an expert on marketing, but I'd be surprised if the major publishers haven't already figured this out and are trying as hard as they can to figure out what 'older' YAs want to read.

Heidi the Hick said...

I think some people just like to complain, whine and fearmonger.

Seriously. We've been in the music biz for 20 years. Everything in that time has changed, from the medium to the distribution. Here's the thing: people are still making -and enjoying- music. My husband has been working 14 hour days in the studio for... ever, basically.

But apparently the whole biz is in the toilet.

Technology changes things, that is for sure, but after the growing pains, there is a new normal. If the book biz changes, which obviously it will, it doesn't mean we'll all have to stop reading.

I won't. Are you kidding? SO MANY BOOKS! SO LITTLE TIME!

I read over 100 books last year. There were only two I could not finish. Some weren't awesome. Many were. I have about 20 waiting to be read right now. Every week another one comes out that I can't wait to read! The bookstore almost makes my cry because I just can't read it all.

Howard Shirley said...

I'm an optimist; I think the demand and the market are continuing to grow. We're seeing more topics and themes embraced by the reading public than ever before.

Which isn't to say there aren't problems. The number of truly horrid books being published remains astonishing; but as someone once observed, 90% of everything is garbage, and sadly modern literature is no exception to that rule.

We can take heart, though, in that however much schlock gets pumped out by publishers in their over eager race to follow trends (are we about done with vampires and fairy gangs yet?)*, great old books continue to be reissued again and again (case in point, Rosemary Sutcliff's wonderful historical fiction novels, now being released by Front Street), while new works of exceptional merit find their way to shelves as well.

So I'll say, yes, the Age is Golden. (And hopefully will soon be golden for me! ;-) )

--- Howard

*Not that I think that either vampires or fairy gangs are necessarily schlock ideas; just that there seems to be a glut of these on shelves today— and the 90% rule applies.

Icarus said...

". . . fewer authors able to support themselves writing . . ."

Aye, that's the one I care about.

". . . as someone once observed, 90% of everything is garbage . . ."

Theodore Sturgeon, IIRC.

The Grump said...

You need a third choice to cover the gray area.

Ulysses said...

I've been thinking about this, and it's still a tough call. If you accept the premise that fewer published books means higher quality, then we're entering a golden age. If you believe that fewer published books means restricted choice and that some great, quirky, age-defining works are going to be passed over because of their limited appeal, then this is a dark age indeed.

I prefer to think that restricting lists raises the bar, forcing writers to be "better" in order to qualify for publication. Of course, when it comes time to define "better," we'll have to have a whole new poll...

Furious D said...

I think we may be leaving the era of the mega-publishing-conglomerate and moving into a new era of many more smaller, more aggressive, more efficient, and faster responding publishers.

The smaller people don't have to fight for shelf-space with the big boys thanks to internet sales, and they're more capable to respond quickly to changing trends.

I think in the end it could be a healthier business model than the top heavy corporations dominating publishing today.

Ulysses said...

An unrelated question, Nathan:
An agent tries to "fill their list," which I believe means take on all the authors they believe they can represent effectively.

Idle curiosity leads me to wonder: how many is that? (I realize it's an individual thing, but what do you think is an average/ballpark/educated guess?)

Gail said...

It is the golden age of books. It is also the beginning of the end for mega publishers who have controlled the market for so long.

The publishing industry is changing in painful ways for those who do not want to grasp the future. The internet and e-book explosion is changing how books are produced and distributed.

More books are available to consumers but fewer of them come from the old, big press publishing industries.

Josephine Damian said...

I think it's the mega-selling nonfiction titles like YOU ON A DIET, THE SECRET, and EAT, PRAY, LOVE that are driving sales up.

I think the future is bleak for fiction writers, especially mid-list fiction writers.

I'm with Gwen. I just cannot believe how much junk gets published.

Conduit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Other Lisa said...

It's a golden age if my book sells.

Er, otherwise, I think what I find most worrisome is the decline of the midlist. At a certain point, writers should be able to make a decent living writing. If the disparity between blockbusters and everything else continues to widen, this is not a good sign. Writers need time to write, and while if you're driven to write, you'll keep writing, I don't see how you can write as much, or tackle a lot of projects that are time-intensive.

In terms of quality, it's a mixed bag, same as it ever was. I'll admit to not getting a lot of stuff that's been well-reviewed in the last few years - I won't name names but it strikes me as sort of in-bred and terminally self-absorbed. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of good stuff out there too.

Conduit said...

There was an excellent interview with veteran agent Nat Sobel at the Poets & Writers website a couple of weeks ago, and he had this interesting insight to share:

" know, when I got started in publishing, I can remember an old salesman telling me, "You should have been here in the forties and the fifties, Nat. That was the great period! Now it's all gone to hell." I think every generation probably feels like, Geez, you should've been here twenty years ago, kid. Where were you twenty years ago when it was really great? I think there's always going to be that element—that it's not as good as it used to be. But it is tougher today."

I studied popular music at college, and one day one of our tutors led a debate on the quality of chart music twenty years ago, compared to then - so we'd be talking early 70s versus early 90s. Of course, everyone in the class argued that the Top 10 was sooooo much better back in the seventies, what with today's manufactured crap. The tutor pulled out a Top 10 list from exactly twenty years prior - and it was full of crap and drivel.

I bet if you directly compared this week's NYT bestseller lists with those of twenty years ago, you'd be surprised.

Emily said...

I agree with gwen.

Conduit said...

Another quick point:

There was a great deal of controversy here in the UK a few weeks back when celebrities like Katie Price (model, big bazongas) and Geri Halliwell (ginger, Spice Girl) attended the British Book Awards, the former as a nominee. There was much consternation that literature was being pimped out to celebrity, that the awards were cheapened by such baubles as tabloid stars who got book deals purely on their ability to grab headlines.

My reaction? Get over yourselves, you elitist snobs. So, Katie Price sells a truckload of books someone else wrote for her. It wasn't the first time a ghost writer got a big payday. And here's the crux of it - it gets people who don't normally read into book shops and libraries. Even in one in a hundred of those people picked up a book by a 'real' author on their way to the checkout, it can only be a good thing. Those of us who see ourselves as being above such drivel (me included, admittedly) won't take any hurt; serious fiction writers will not lose a single sale. But some books that might not have found a new reader before, now will.

Can you really say that's a bad thing?

*steps off soapbox*

Guy Stewart said...

I voted no today because the comment made me laugh -- and I always vote for what makes me laugh. (That's why I'm having such a hard time picking a presidential candidate this year. ;-))

Dennis Cass is . . . said...

Regarding the "no" answer in Nathan's poll, last time I checked Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner were still in print. I'll start worrying when new readers stop finding the "classics" relevant. But they always do, even if it's not in as many numbers as you'd like. As for the current crop, there's a new Richard Price book out that I hear is pretty good.

Gwen said...

It is true, Conduit; I must concede. I am a student of the bygone eras - Victorian, mainly. The advent of the post-modern era often leaves me feeling so confounded. With the rise of popular culture, the literary world was inevitably changed - now, it is not so much about didacticism, or clever allegories, or tongue-in-cheek social commentaries as it is often about reading for entertainment.

We cannot expect the masses to be literary geniuses. Our literary history only consists of the lions who fought the battle and came out on top. If anything, those authors who simply wanted to write for the sake of entertainment now definitely have a shot. And in terms of readership... more people are certainly reading avidly now, especially since there is so much material available in any number of genres.

I still cannot believe, however, that a certain popular romance author has written over 70 novels by recycling and reworking the same sort of plot again and again. I think that is what gets me. Though it has been said that there are only something like seven stories to be told, I just cannot believe the continued success in areas like that.

But you're right. At least people are reading, whatever the cause.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

Great writing still gives me chills. My very favorite book is "Night of the Grizzlies" by Jack Olson. Not because of the subject matter, but because of his way with words. Just beautiful. Of course he made a great living writing true crime and was Editor of either Time or another like it -- no, not Time. He married the first bathing suit model for the magazine... can not remember the name. Any way, I just want my name on a good read in the library. I don't have to make a living at it.

Lynne said...

If we do not continue to have books, and good books at that, the world will come to an end.

JES said...

What Gail (3:08pm) said.

It's not doom & gloom to say that the publishing world seems to be on the brink of fracturing into a thousand pieces, each catering to a slightly different audience. It's the way the world works anymore.

'Course, it's going to be a b!tch to be a writer under those circumstances! :)

tys said...

It's not clear cut to me.

The one thing that I see, however is that with the increase in self-published works we have two effects. The first is that there will be a lot more ms published that are rubbish due to the fact that they haven't been through as rigorous a process (competition, editing, professionalism), as they would if they had gone through a trad publishing path.

With so much to choose from, and 90% garbage this makes it harder for readers to tell what is worth buying, and what is not. My thought is that readers will turn more and more to the Best Seller lists in order to buy something that is more or less interesting/entertaining/decent writing. In which case the decision to back fewer, bigger books by trad publishing houses probably makes sense (although I don't agree with it).

The second thing I see is that many great literary works that are not "financially viable" for the big players will get their time in the sun through the smaller publishing houses. Which is the silver lining.

To be honest, I think that with more choice, it will be harder for readers. The internet causes "data smog" as it is. How will we effectively choose a book to read online (I want to stand in an aisle and read the first few pages, and some random middle pages before I buy a book)

"200 channels and nothing to watch..." becomes "500 books and nothing to read..."

Reviewer X said...

I'm part of the many, MANY blogger book reviewers out on the web, and we get exposed to a lot of stuff (granted, the chain I'm in focuses on YA). I'm one of those lost souls who doesn't find virtue in loving everything, and I try to save my high ratings for books I thought were groundbreaking sensational and worthy of them. Which is to say, this is very, very hard; good books are spawning everywhere! I think YA in particular is surprisingly increasing in quality books. This doesn't go to say that crappy stuff's been obliterated, because it hasn't. I find I'm loving loads of books--which is always a great thing!

So sad to see the industry becoming...tighter? Hopefully it comes back up fuller and stronger soon.

Tom Burchfield said...

I voted yes, though times have definitely changed as the clause you added after the "no" vote would indicate. Writers as major arbiters of society ala Hemingway, Faulkner,et al. yes, that *is* dead for better and worse; unless all other forms of media disappear, those days won't come by again. But their books are still around to inspire writers of today and good books are still being written as old ones--right now, I'm reading "True Grit" by Charles Portis--are being rediscovered.

Right on, writing on!

beth said...

Last time I checked, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner are still dead

Isn't that a GOOD thing? I mean, if they weren't, then they'd be zombies. Literary zombies, true, but still. Zombies.

In all seriousness, I think that we're in a new golden age in part because there are so many resources for new writers that makes them better new writers. Which, ahem at least one of those literary zombies could have used. coughFAULKNERcough.

Caitlin said...

I would love to be convinced by the argument that we are in a golden age for books, but I feel awfully discouraged by the fact that there are so many people writing and not enough people reading.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time fantasizing about living in a different era, when the literary "scene" might have been a little more concrete and easier to break into.

As a reader, I know there is a lot of great stuff out there, but it's so hard to narrow it down. I rarely read contemporary fiction because there are just so many classics that I KNOW are good and that I didn't get around to reading in college.

Adaora A. said...

A lot of great books come out, but they might be dwarfed by commerical blockbuster (i.e. celebrity tells all books circa Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and now Miley Cyrus -- who my little brother and other little boys and girls everywhere love). I think there just needs to be more attention on the great books that do come out.

Linda said...

I voted yes because I just finished reading an amazing and provocative self-published book (Resolution 786) that would probably never find agent representation because the subject matter is so esoteric (God is put on trial). And if not for CreateSpace, I never would've found the book. The writing was quite good, but probably could have been improved with professional editing afforded a traditional publishing house. Which is a shame...

On the other hand, I agree the consolidation of the industry is a dangerous quagmire for mid-list books and for new authors. At a recent conference, my manuscript (lit fic) was reviewed by an agent. Interesting response: well-written story that runs the danger of being a really nice novel without the 'wow' factor needed for a debut book. When asked for clarfication, the agent, tops in her field, said this would be a great 2nd or 3rd novel to follow the 'big' debut novel.

In essence, she said, it's worse to be 'poorly' published (ie, without STELLAR sales and/or reviews) than to be published at all.

So while it's validating to know I have a completed 2nd or 3rd book incubating in the pipeline, it's breaking through to the market that still remains elusive.

Peace, Linda

Taylor K. said...

I voted yes. Partially, because I like to look at everything and think "what will people think of this 100 years from now?" I guess it's part of having a degree in history, and when I look at the publishing biz I think that the effect of HARRY POTTER cannot be overemphasized. I think in 100 years people will look back and say that J.K. Rowling created one of the biggest and best eras the book business has ever known.

Simon Haynes said...

Yes - but I think the internet has led to the hunt for the next mega bestseller. People love to read what everyone else is reading, so they can talk about it at work. Now, with the internet, that desire to join the crowd has become even more powerful.

(Personally, and I'm sure I speak for many, I don't give a stuff what everyone else is reading and I don't seek out discussions about books. I work from home, too, so there's no pressure to keep up with the latest garbage on TV.)

AC Gaughen said...

It's a wonderful time to be a reader, especially a young adult reader. More selection is being offered than ever before and more attention to the genre as well--as a very weak indicator, the amount of shelf space that Barnes and Nobles dedicates to my fav department has exploded in the past decade (let's say since Harry Potter).

Additionally because teachers are seriously pushing reading at a much younger level these days (according to my former kindergarten teacher) and the availability of eBooks leaves young readers to develop into a virtual wonderland of literary choice.

The only con in my eyes is the fact that the diamonds are harder to see in all the rough, but really, as a reader I've seen very little writing that I haven't been able to take something away from.

After all, isn't a writer a person on whom nothing is wasted?


Anonymous said...

Too many diet and self-help books. Good fiction could probably take the place of both. Who can eat a doughnut while reading Thomas Ligotti? And who doesn't feel better after Bentley Little?

Kirsten said...

Well, from what I can ascertain, it's not a good time for novellas, which makes me crotchety.

The industry's over-emphasis on marketing can mean good but different books have a hard time finding a home.

However, it's still very possible to find new and interesting books to read.

Nick Travers said...

Nathan, the good times are just round the corner. This is especially true for fiction.

At the moment retailers are driven by the best seller lists and the best seller lists are driven by corporate marketing budgets. This means that what publishers take from agents and what new writers agents take on is basically dictated by corporate marketing managers. For all the protests of publishers/agents loving books, corporate money is still king.

All it would take to blow this whole industry apart are for official best seller lists to include downloads and self-published sales.

When will this happen? When a really good, affordable, e-reader hits the market and an online review/best seller/POD/download site emerges with a reputation for offering better reads than in-store best seller lists. Serious readers will flock to it and the customer will once again be king.

Agents/publishers will take on writers who can hit the new best seller lists and anyone who hits it on their own efforts will be pursued by a flock, or is that a herd, of agents/publishers.


Just_Me said...

I've stumbled across some excellent books recently. Most are a year or two old, but I don't buy hardcovers so this isn't a surprise. This is why I voted for the first option.... but then again I don't like Hemingway so....

For anyone who's looking for a decent brain-candy read go try "The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam" by Chris Ewan. It's good, although he has someone holding a "congealed fork" ... I'm still trying to shake the image of a dripping gelatinous fork...

Kristi said...

I think that the book market bears a striking resemblance to many other commercial market these days. There are two trends going on at once: one towards big-name bookstores carrying big-name books, with a Walmart effect. The Borders, Amazon, and B&N are knocking the mom and pop bookstores out of the market.

At the same time, there's a sort of undertow effect where readers crave that customized, very small-market feeling. It's not enough to read the same Grisham, Rowling, and Roberts books that "everyone else" is reading, so they're seeking the small presses who speciaize in Regency were-ducks horrors or whatnot.

I think that both trends are good, as books are abundant and there is something for everyone. But in 5 or 10 years we will be in a completely different place. The successful small presses will make a larger presence. The megabookstores will right-size themselves.

There's nothing like an economic crisis to force everyone to clean out their financial basements and attics, and to force market stragglers to re-invent themselves.

Travis Erwin said...

Viva La Books!

Jana L said...

I'm so glad you asked this.

Personally, I'm tired of hearing about this mythical Golden Era of literature from years gone by compared to our supposedly dour current state of affairs.

I mean give me a break!

Now, if we could do something to curb the amount of crap being published...

Kate H said...

I think standards have gone way down--standards of what constitutes good writing, standards of content, standards of editing and proofreading, standards of design and manufacturing, you name it. I'd rather see fewer books published and know that all of them were actually worth reading.

C.J. said...

the golden age for books began and ended the moment this photo was taken:

LoveMakeda said...

Regardless of whether it’s self published or published by a big house, this is a great time for a Purple Cow.

No, I’m not losing it. Stay with me for a moment. In the business world, a Purple Cow is a product / service that is -- key word -- remarkable. We just have to create a remarkable product for a specific audience, and then make it impossible for our product to go unnoticed by that audience.

The state of the publishing industry forces us to strengthen our writing and brainstorm ways to get our product into the hands of our readers.

I wouldn’t classify the increasingly competitive market as a problem. It’s just a hurdle that pushes us to write and market our products better. Think Apple. It all starts with a quality product. (Side note: Any product that doesn’t stand up to the hype will quickly deflate credibility.)

And let's not forget personal preference (see Nathan B.'s recent post). Everything is subjective, which is why understanding and reaching our target audience is so important.

In terms of marketing, how many billboard ads do you actually notice in relation to how many are plastered along the highways? They get old, and boring, and we stop seeing them. It's kind of the same with books.

There are probably tons of books on the shelves that I would LOVE to read, but if I don’t have time to sort through them, how do I know those books are the right fit for me? And do I even see them as I peruse less than 10% of the square footage in the ridiculously large Borders that I frequent?

It all comes down to a book that is impossible for the right reader to turn down. How do we find the right readers for our books? Rhetorical.

Mind you, this is just the humble opinion of an un-published and un-agented newbie :o) with a strong background in Marketing. I highly recommend the business book, Purple Cow by Seth Godin if any of my rambling made sense.

Julia said...

You know who outsold Hemingway and Fitzgerald?

Harold Bell Wright. E. Phillips Oppenheim. Kathleen Norris. And a lot of other pot-boiler writers we don't read anymore.

And you don't even want to know who outsold Melville, because it will make you cry.

Of course I voted "If you haven't read a great book lately, it's because you're not looking." But perhaps I am made overly optimistic by the great Megan Abbott's Edgar Award for Queenpin, which is as good as Chandler or Hammett or anyone else you care to name.

Wes said...

I doubt we are in a golden age. How many books published now, even the blockbusters, will stand the test of time? THE DA VINCI CODE? I doubt it. HARRY POTTER? I doubt it. I'd like to know what books readers think will be read and admired in fifty years.

Nathan Bransford said...


We beat you to that topic.

Wes said...

So you did. Sorry I missed that day's question and sorry for the clutter.

But there is a small difference in my question. My question is qualified by how many books published TODAY will be read and highly valued fifty years from now. Quite a few of the titles mentioned in the post from April have been in print many years.

While there is no doubt many contemporary books are very entertaining and have large sales, I doubt we are in a Golden Age in terms of quality.

Related Posts with Thumbnails