Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Commerce and Art, Art and Commerce

Schadenfreude lives! In the comments section of yesterday's post there were several people only too happy to urge the publishing industry to look in the dang mirror already in the face of a (ahem largely universal) retail downturn that is leading to all sorts of chaos. This has led me to believe that all we need to do to cure the recession is bottle up the schadenfreude going around and sell it at a profit, because schadenfreude is a booming market. Get it while it's hot!

I want to address a few things that have been discussed here and elsewhere around the internet expressing antipathy toward the publishing industry. Now, I try and sort out the sorts of comments that are thinly veiled variations of "the publishing industry would be making money if only they published MY book" vs. actual constructive criticisms that should very well be absorbed and can be learned from. Tomorrow we'll have a big ole You Tell Me about all this, but in the meantime I thought I'd frame the coming debate a bit.

A lot of people feel that the publishing industry needs to publish new and varied voices rather than the supposed same old stuff that you see on bestseller lists. No more same old same old! The publishing industry would make more money if only it didn't publish commercial schlock.

Or to distill it still further to show precisely what I'm getting at: the publishing industry would make more money if only it didn't publish and promote the books that sell really well.

Uh... QED?

Now, let me say that investing in new, talented voices and sticking with them is something I can really truly get behind. As the industry moves to a blockbuster model, it risks missing people who don't break out in a major way on the first try. That's a shame. Jason Kaufman at Doubleday stuck with a little author named Dan Brown, who then wrote THE DA VINCI CODE, and now he owns like seven countries.

But it seems to me that if you think the publishing industry should publish more books with artistic merit... that isn't exactly a sure route to a better bottom line. Either the publishing industry should focus on the bottom line and it should publish what sells, or it should cast profit to the wind and publish what it feels are the best books period.

Or, better yet, a mixture of the two. Which is basically the industry you have now. Is it perfect? Nuh uh. Could the publishing industry be smarter? Yuh huh. But better commerce through lack of commerce is not a very appealing path to restoring the health of the industry.






64 comments:

Dave F. said...

Sometimes I think that too many journals and magazines and publishers demand "quality literate writing" that is just plain boring or obscure to the neglect of an interesting story. But that could just be me.

Writing should be enjoyed by the reader. Some publishing professionals forget that. Look at Abe Lincoln scholars, a prolific body of written work that keeps growing. That's a fan base.

Erik said...

It's not an either-or kind of proposition.

All manufacturers have to generate excitement even as they keep the old. For example, cars are re-designed but keep the same brand name.

The problem with the industry, IMHO, is one of scale - that everything has to be done on a large, national scale that feed the large, national media. It's unreasonable to take a chance on something completely new with that constraint.

There has to be a system where new authors have a chance to be tried out, generating excitement. Then you have a larger pool of "tried and true" to draw from. It takes a lot of time and investment to do this, but it's what is necessary.

So to me, it comes down to long term versus short term thinking. Nearly every industry that's found itself at this kind of crossroads has gotten there by short term thinking, so publishing isn't any different from your basic manufacturer of widgets. That means there's probably something to learn from those that survived this kind of situation.

Corked Wine and Cigarettes said...

It's funny you should bring this up. In light of what looks like the blossoming of my publishing career, the mrs. and I have been disagreeing on what exactly it is I do.

She says it's art. I don't feel that way. I also don't think my writing holds up to the likes of those writers that do amount to artists.

But I do think I'm a decent enough storyteller. So, a publishing industry that refocuses on those books that have greater artistic value, to put it bluntly, screws me.

So I'm okay with the blockbuster model. But I also agree that the publishers need to invest in their new talent. Give them the chance to find their foundation and confidence to write.

Wow. Could I be any more self-serving?

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Nathan,

Great post! I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s "You Tell Me" debate. I try to follow publishing trends by reading news articles about changes in the publishing industry as they occur. For some time now, I’ve felt that the not-so-well-written-but-really-hot-topic books help keep the publishing industry afloat while it continues to publish other incredibly well-written books, in the same way that both really bad and wonderfully artistic movies are made by the film industry. There are a lot of fantastic books out there; and, to the great credit of readers, many of those make the New York Times Best-Seller List. My concern in recent years has been that, across so many industries, so many mergers and acquisitions took place that only a handful of businesses now remain in many fields. It surprised me when publishing began using the same business model. Last I read about it, there were only five major publishing houses in the entire world after all the mergers and acquisitions, and one of the big U.S. bookstore chains actually bought up a major distribution source for POD books. Some people feel that consolidation like that is a good thing because huge companies have more financial resources to create products; other people feel that the variety in types of products (books, in the case of publishing companies) become severely limited when the number of companies is limited. Personally, I don’t think I have enough information to make a definitive statement about all of it. I do think, though, that exorbitantly huge consolidation of wealth in only a handful of companies is problematic in many ways, both during times of success and times of failure. What do you think about those trends, or is that a better topic for tomorrow?

David said...

I don't know if the publishing industry would make lots of money if they published my book, but it would certainly be nice of them to do so, and isn't the publishing industry all about being nice?

Anonymous said...

Actually, the problem is consignment versus wholesale.

The publishers and booksellers are going to have to bottom out before they get to doing business like the rest of retail.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Yeah, definitely. Not necessarily the only problem, but definitely a really big one.

Erik said...

Anonymous, you're spot on about consignment. Publishing is a lot like many other industries - until you get to that weird problem. And it's gonna take a concerted action to put a stop to that - likely followed by an anti-trust suit. Ug.

David said...

People have been complaining about returns for ages, but the system hasn't changed. Is it really likely to, just because of the current economic mess?

David said...

Hmm. Maybe I skepticismed too soon:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6613172.html?rssid=192

David said...

Sorry. Here's a clickable version of that link:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6613172.html?rssid=192

MoJo said...

Sorry about that anon above. It wasn't letting me put my login in for some reason.

Is it really likely to, just because of the current economic mess?

I think so. It'll take a long time and a lot of people are going to go out of business before it happens.

Think about this factoid that's been going around the 'net for the last week about Borders not paying its distributors for 2 months and could they please send more product.

Here.

C'mon. Show me another product pipeline that operates that way and succeeds.

This is the fulcrum on which this distribution model is going to break.

PUBLISHING will live. People have books to write and people need books to read. Books will not suffer. They will survive some way, somehow.

Wholesale.

Learn it, live it, love it.

Adaora A. said...

Great post. I think it should be a mix of the two. If you have just a few great books making a killing, it's putting too much on too little. If you spread it out a little bit and release books that would appeal to people who aren't big readers (and wouldn't otherwise be interested) then I think the industry would make more money. I think it would be better for everyone. This discussion reminds me of the NBA players (who shall remain nameless) who wanted to vote for McCain because they felt President Elect Obama (!!) would tax them too much. And as I was making french toast and sausages this morning for my family I discussed this with my sister. I said, "You know, I love my NBA boys but sometimes some of them are not seeing the big picture. When you have few people worth billions of dollars and other people waiting in the wings (living below, just at, or a little above the poverty line), then it's just not good for buisness. Those chaps need to understand that if the economy continues to tank their millions in bills become nothing more then toilet paper and thick doodle pads." And my twin sister agreed.

Basically what I'm saying is that when you spread things around it's better for everyone. Prosperity and variety go hand in hand.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Yeah, I'd say the Borders going under isn't a problem with PUBLISHING---it's a problem with how Borders was running their business...

Which will hurt publishers, but shouldn't make them rethink their line-ups.

What I'd like to see is more publishers selling direct from their websites, with deals that actually make them competative with Amazon (And maybe some browsability features?)

---
Also, I think publishers should try to publish debut authors who will go on to be dazzlingly popular. Like Naomi Novik! I want another writer as much fun as she is, but whose books come out in the fall instead of the spring, so I have cool books all year!

--

Oh, and, of course, the publishing industry would be miraculously healed if only it were to publish my nearly finished novel! =)

Anonymous said...

This is a quote from the wikipedia article on Elvis regarding his movies:
"In 1964, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole had starred in Hal Wallis' acclaimed Becket. Wallis admitted to the press that the financing of such quality productions was only possible by making a series of profitable B-movies starring Presley."

Like marilyn peake said, the publishing industry seems to be doing the same thing, esp. re: celebrity authors (and their ghostwriters).

Mark Terry said...

Things I would like to see the publishing industry do differently, but YES, I do understand that it's difficult to make changes.

1. Scrap the current returns policy. No, I don't think it's going to happen, but I think it's anachronistic and hurting the industry now.

2. I would like to see the publishing industry put aside larger portions of their budgets for marketing; you know, the way every other industry does. I understand that, for instance, people do not go, "Ooooh, a new Bantam book, let's go out and see what Bantam's selling these days." No, people say, "OOoooh, a new Mitch Albom, gotta get it." Nonetheless, the publishing industry really only seems to market a few of their top authors and treats the rest of their list like spaghetti they toss against the wall to see if it's ready.

We were watching the beginning of "Saving Private Ryan" and explaining the essential philosophy of the invasion of Normandy to my 15-year-old, which was: throw as many men as possible at it with the sure knowledge the casualties were going to be absolutely shocking. In retrospect, that strikes me as being the publishing industry's strategy as well. Throw a ton of books at the reader with the sure knowledge that only a couple of them will take off. And once we figure out which ones take off, we'll support them with money and marketing, etc. Until then, try not to die.

3. I wonder, with publishing moving toward a blockbuster model, why publishers haven't moved to focus groups the way movies, TVs and everyone else has. (I have a friend who runs a consumer research company and you'd be amazed how much money there is in this field for all sorts of companies--car companies, toy stores, resorts, newspapers, hospitals, banks--all wanting to figure out how the consumer views their services. But I don't sense that publishing does this. Their focus groups are all internal--the sales department, the editors, the editorial board--and it makes the publishers rather isolated from their own consumers.

4. Editors must read for pleasure, the types of books they publish, including several bestsellers they despise. I'm just sayin...

Tim said...

Good post, Nathan. In the face of our Schadenfreude Uber Alles theme song everyone seems to be singing at the top of their lungs, a little balance is much appreciated. I've had to start supplying tissues to catch the tears falling from my Publishers Weekly email subject lines every day. The economy just isn't looking bright these days. And since the book biz is part of that economy, I think we all need to *inhale, exhale, repeat* until we get things in focus. Thanks for being the voice of reason once again!

Crimogenic said...

I agree with Mary Tery about scrapping the current returns policy. It doesn't make good business sense. Maybe bookstore chains will push back, but really in this situation, who has the power: I'm thinking mostly the publisher. Also this is why I think the ability to purchase online is a good answer because there is that ol' movement toward POD. In a way, perhaps, the publishing industry has slowly started toward fixing some of it's problem with POD.

Crimogenic said...

Oops, I meant Mark Terry :)

bryan russell said...

It strikes me that the biggest problem is something that everybody seems to know about, the whole consignment versus wholesale distribution format. Everywhere I look everybody seems to agree that this is an inefficient and poor way for an industry to function. So I guess the question is, what's the reasonable likelihood of something being done about it? And I mean on a large scale, an industry wide scale, rather than merely dappling in change here and there. Or, maybe a better question, what's stopping something from being done? This sort of change obviously seems good for the publishing industry... but what about the bookstore business? You look at Borders and see how they're struggling... and that's with the current system, which seems to favour the stores over the publishers. Can they survive a change? How hard will they fight it? And what sort of changes in the bookstores would be created by a shift from consignment to wholesale purchasing?

I started wondering if book prices might drop, as publishers would no longer have to write off so much for returns and pulped books. Or perhaps that extra money could be shared with the stores to offset the risks of wholesale purchases. Or perhaps it could be invested in POD capabilities for the major publishers, allowing a more efficient way to distribute products to the bookstores in a timely fashion.

I also started wondering what a wholesale bookstore might be like. If they can't return books they will likely buy less initially, being more cautious. And then they will still have lots of books that won't sell as well as hoped, and these will take up shelf space. Do they pulp the books themselves and accept the loss? Or do they have seasonal clearance sales, like you see at a Gap. Whole sections of books with prices slashed... Deals to be had! And writers and publishers will have already made confirmed (and unreturnable) sales, keeping them consistently afloat. It would be up to the bookstores, perhaps, to then manage their stock, balancing sales figures against time and shelf space to determine what stays and what goes. Would they be motivated to sell books across the spectrum, as they've already made the investment? Writers would be safe, at first, as publishers wouldn't drop them on account of piles of returned books and a poor sell through rate... but bookstores would then determine whether or not to buy in the future based on the sales (and the losses incurred) by a particular writer.

So, as much as publishers might like a new model for the industry, how much will bookstores resist? What kind of showdown would this be?

I can't help puzzling over the story on the mass October returns by bookstores, so that they could gain credit to buy new books for the Christmas season... while at the same time railroading all the publishers (and particularly the small ones, it seems). Were they unaware what this would do? Surely not? Or were they simply uncaring? Us versus them? Except these are not competitors, but their own suppliers. How can they see it as healthy, in the long run, to knock down their own supply system? And then kick the poor supine fellows when they're down? It seems sort of cracked, at least to my thinking. It makes enemies out of allies (or at least those who should be allies).

So, is it at all reasonable to expect any change on this front? What are the practical stumbling blocks to such a transformation, beyond the simple shift in mindset needed?



Word verification: gracaine. I don't know what that is, but I need me some.

clindsay said...

Hi Marilyn -

Trust me, there are far more than five big publishing houses. I know it may look like there are only a handful of publishers in the United States because the general public usually only hears about a handful of them, and usually only when they have A.) paid an extraordinary sum of money for something, B.) banned or censored something or C.) laid off employees.

But there are hundreds of healthy mid-sized publishers in the United States, and even more small publishers that still manage to produce good books. There are also quite a number of large textbook publishers still thriving. (And I'm not counting vanity presses.)

Best,

Colleen

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

Thanks for that thorough analysis of the returns model. Bob Miller at HarperStudio has announced that he's trying a no-return model -- we'll see what it happens. If there is a change it's probably going to start on an experimental/trial basis, everyone will see how it goes, and then proceed from there.

Either that or a major shock to the system will lead to someone trying to break the model.

It's not something I personally have much (er, any) influence over, as we agents have to work with the industry we're given, but I'm as curious as all of you to see how things will change.

Shawn S. Deggans said...

I was once told by an author that publishers will not capture, act on, or report any type of demographic marketing data. Do you know if this is true or not? If it is, do you think this could be part of the losses the industry is facing?

heather said...

I'm thankful for the big names with big sales. Those big sales may help someone like little ole me get her foot in the door (jam it through the door is more like it).

bryan russell said...

Thanks Nathan,

I think one of my worries about the wholesale system might be that slowdown of turnover. No returns means the books stay on the shelves... stores have to sell them (or pulp and take the big hit themselves). I can envision mass sales, clearance style, but I can also envision a slower turnover rate... which means less purchases, less titles being taken on, and maybe then less titles being published, less new writers being picked up. It's a concern. I'm curious as to how it will all play out, both as a writer and a bookstore owner (used, mostly... the enemy! Hang me from the yardarm! Well, if you have a yardarm. Which is unlikely, so I might be safe...)

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

Yeah, that's the concern. Bookstores could grow more conservative with their ordering, there could be further downward pressure on prices (and therefore royalties) because bookstores would be slashing prices in order to clear inventory. What HarperStudio wants is a scenario where the publisher and bookstore share in the risk of an unsold book a bit more evenly. But it's still somewhat uncharted territory for the business.

Anonymous said...

Mark Terry just made my point that I tried but failed to make in Nathan's last post...

...2. I would like to see the publishing industry put aside larger portions of their budgets for marketing; you know, the way every other industry does. I understand that, for instance, people do not go, "Ooooh, a new Bantam book, let's go out and see what Bantam's selling these days." No, people say, "OOoooh, a new Mitch Albom, gotta get it." Nonetheless, the publishing industry really only seems to market a few of their top authors and treats the rest of their list like spaghetti they toss against the wall to see if it's ready...


After getting a huge shove as a lead title, I read Frank Portman's, KING DORK. LOVED it. I shudder to think of all the other books I'd love if only they stayed on a shelf for more than five minutes so I could buy them. Too few lead titles. Too many so-called mid-list books that never get a chance. Yes, I call that the publisher's fault

Furious D said...

I do a blog about the business behind the movie business and there's a little commandment that I say that studio bosses do not follow: DON'T FORGET THE AUDIENCE.

I say one of the biggest problems with Hollywood is that it's a very isolated community with very little connection to the audience. So you get obscure, often grating "art" films, oversized, oversimplistic blockbusters, and very little in between that can be both challenging and entertaining.

Some could say that the publishing business has a similar problem, but I'm not an expert on publishing.

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Colleen,

I was referring to the really huge conglomerates, e.g. Bertelsmann which has owned a huge number of the largest book publishing houses. By 1999, these are the comanies owned by Bertelsmann:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/giants/bertelsmann.html
A while back, Publishers Weekly published an article reporting that five publishing companies made most of the book-related income worldwide.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

This might be a question better suited for tomorrow's discussion, but does the publishing industry do market research beyond considering what sold well in the recent past (ie names and genres)? And if they don't then who out there is a marketing genius who can work that angle.

It seems the movie industry has it figured out a little better than publishing. They have 2-4 year lead times on production and yet film after film after film sells millions of tickets. If publishers could duplicate that success just think where we could end up.

Granted, they aren't the same business, but film is a competitor for entertainment dollars and a paperback costs roughly the same as a movie ticket.

Thoughts, Nathan or anyone?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

And yeah, I agree, Furious D, that the film industry does forget the audience--however, no one can deny they're making a bundle, either. So how can the book biz do it better and more profitably?

Marilyn Peake said...

Colleen -

Ooops, I guess the link was too long. I'll try breaking it up into separate lines:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/
frontline/shows/cool/giants/
bertelsmann.html

I don't know how to make a link clickable here. :(

lotusloq said...

Wow! Some serious opinions on this one. Bodes well for your "You Tell Me" tomorrow.

I think there has to be a balance between commerce and art. A lot of writers want to push the art side, and in some ways I think we have to in order to get those published, but not everyone is equipped to handle the complexities of art and those who are equipped don't want to read art all the time.

The vast majority of readers just want an escape when they read. Is that so wrong?

This makes me think of how in a high school (and probably college too) the money made from football supports all the other sports and yet those who play the other sports resent it and all the support and money that the football team gets. I'm just saying...

Stacey said...

My frustration with book stores, is sometimes I hear of a book years later, and I go to find it and they don't have anymore. I know it wouldn't be profitable for them to have every book in stock, but if they did have it at one point, and then return it...they just lost money.

I also agree with the first comment by dave f. "Writing should be enjoyed by the reader." And the truth of the matter is, most readers like commercial fiction. So I say keep publishing it and we will keep reading.

Great post. It really made me think about some stuff.

Jeanne said...

Something about the discussion on yesterdays post reminded me a bit of the discussion whirling about the Auto Industry.

As I've mentioned before, my husband, manages a BMW dealership. BMW is NOT leading the way in electric cars or cars that run on french fry grease and yet, they are one of the few auto makers still making a profit. Even though that profit was very tiny last month, they still came out ahead while GM and Chrysler are on life support.

People often ask my husband when BMW is coming out with an enviro- friendly auto? And while, he doesn't know everything they are up to, as of now, BMW isn't promoting any new invention to the wheel to their U.S. dealers.

My husband says that the problem is that everyone these days says they want an auto that doesn't use foreign oil, and they want to save the environment, but the vast majority of Americans do not really want to own one. Not unless it is exactly like their tride and true favorite gas guzzling models. A lot of people just don't understand that an enviro-friendly car that runs like, looks like, endures like, their favorite high line auto, just doesn't exist. The great hybrids that are out there are not going to be engineered exactly like Mercedes and BMW. And few people grow up dreaming of making a ton of money and owning a hybrid auto. But, teenagers today are still salivating at the idea of making it big and buying a BMW, or other high line car.

So, my long winded point is that until people (and I don't mean trend setting, smart, folks) are truly ready to put their money where their good intentions are- no industry is going to change to suit. All industry is about money. And even if industries are tanking financially, they aren't going to cast off their earners for newer/better/smarter plans until they know for certain the majority of spenders/mainstream people are really going to be satisfied.

In hard times, they are more likely to cling to what pays - like the blockbuster book- than EVER.

Just a thought.

Just_Me said...

Not so much new voices or books that don't sell, but a wider variety needs to be on the shelves. That isn't the fault of the publishing industry, that's the the sellers fault.

When I go to a store and find six new titles in the genre I want to read, and all six titles have the same theme, I wind up going and looking back a few years for a used out-of-print book that suits my mood.

Maybe it is the fault of the publishers to some extent. But I don't think they intentionally buy trends. They buy good books. Over the years they buy and sell thousands of wonderful books. But if the full selection isn't available what is the reader to do?

Am I expected to buy extra copies of a book that I already own because nothing new is coming out? I might, if my older copy is torn past the point of use (or a friend stole it). But when I hit a bookstore it's to find something new to fall in love with. If I find an author I love I stock up on their books. I own them all.

Going to the store to find my collection at home is better than what Borders, B&N, or the Indie bookstore offer is disappointing.

I guess it boils down to this: If you want my money, give me something worth my investment. Give me a good book. Not a book the critics acclaim. Not a look Oprah waxes poetic about. Give me a book that I want to read.

Simon Haynes said...

Nobody can blame the publishers. They print exactly what booksellers are asking for, and they're asking for more of what sells.

What sells? Blockbuster titles by well-known authors.

If you want to change the system you have to get the book-buying public to buck the trend of the past 100 years and take a risk on unknown books by authors they've never heard of.

Good luck with that.

(I'm posting as an unknown author with four novels in print. I know the score, and while I may not like it I believe it's just the way the system works. ie s-l-o-w-l-y. Keep writing, keep hoping my publisher doesn't drop me, steadily build a readership.)

Orange Slushie said...

i work in publishing and it's a fact that the books we love to publish (and do publish, usually after big long fight with the men in suits who report to the shareholders) are not the ones that pay our overheads and keep us employed. a couple of famous backlist titles outsell everything new we publish, year after year. that's the reality. books we think have oodles of 'literary merit' sink without a trace. it must be remembered in this kind of discussion about blockbuster vs literary publishing that what has 'literary merit' is a SUBJECTIVE assessment. oh, and that most of the book-buying public prefer commercial genre fiction. let's not get precious, and let's remember that there is room on the bookshelves of the world for all sorts of books.
Nathan, why don't you run this You Tell Me: you go down to the crossroads and make a pact to have your novel and future novels published. you are given a conditional choice. either you can receive the highest literary acclaim for your work, but a guarantee that you will never earn enough to give up your day job. or you can always be considered a terrible hack, but make bucketloads of cash. which do you choose?

jo said...

Schaedenfreude is my favorite word. Does that make me a bad person?

Gay said...

Am I the only one who is ga-ga about the KINDLE??? In this world of vanishing rainforests, I personally don't want to own hardcopies of most books again...

I think they're good things for authors. While I can't share my books with friends, at the low prices I pay, I don't really much care--and there's something to be said for carrying around 40 books in my purse without looking like a Sumo wrestler. It's also great for exchanging chapters with my critique buddy.

BUT it's going to change the industry, especially the brick and mortar booksellers, the warehouse people, the folks who run the presses and the ones who make the ink.

Publishers won't fare too badly because productions costs go down; in fact, it will become less risky for them to bring new authors like me (still looking for that break) into the fold. Amazon's happy because they've still got their online sales. The author gets his/her royalty payments, and the agent gets paid, too--so I don't expect they're crying, either. And America can read more conveniently than ever before (no glare, no book trying to close when you read one-handed). Lots of reasons why we need them in the rough times ahead, I think, but there are definitely some folks who are going to be hit hard if this new way of reading takes off the way I think it will.

I thought I would hate eReaders (I hate reading on my computer) but I was wrong. They're the only way to go for me, now.

Janet said...

It's the returns policy that's nuts. There is no other industry I know of that works this way. I think the publishers should all get together and refuse en masse to accept it anymore. It's up to a local bookstore to know its clientele better.

And I am of the heretical opinion (seeing as I'm an aspiring writer) that publishing fewer books and getting behind them more would also probably be beneficial to the publishing industry.

benwah said...

I don't often comment here, but I'd like to commend Nathan for using schadenfreude, easily one of my favorite words.

The publishing industry (like a representative democracy; like the healthcare system; like nearly any other human endeavor) is flawed. Could it be better? Sure. But it also does a remarkable job of doing what it does, which is to provide commercial works and literary works -- as well as those that span the gap. There's cost shifting going on; people may whine about Stephen King or Grisham (or before them, Dickens) being authors who pander to the populace. But it's the money they generate that allows much of literary fiction to be published. A simplified model, to be sure. But let's not toss the baby out with the bathwater.

Particularly because that's impossible.

Court said...

Gay, Here, here. The Kindle (and ebook in general) is where I think the future lies.

AstonWest said...

One day, my concept for a new state-of-the-art bookstore will come to fruition...and revolutionize publishing as we know it.

Until that point, we'll just have to watch publishing fall apart for a while, and then come back, then fall apart again, and then...

Suzan Harden said...

An agent during a pitch session once asked me a variant of orange slushie's question - do I write literary or commercial fiction?

To answer o.s.'s question, I'd rather be considered a hack. I write for entertainment. If I can make a c.p. snort coffee out their nose and ruin a keyboard, then I've accomplished my mission. I want the opportunity to do the same for J.Q. Public.

Madison said...

I'll just let what comes come. I can't do a whole lot to help the pub industry right now to get out of its slump anymore than I can really help America, but I'll just continue to write the best stories I can. That's what really counts, anyway.

Polenth said...

A lot of the 'publish more books with artistic merit' arguments are really 'publish more books I enjoy and don't bother with books for everyone else'. If one of those people got to choose what was on the shelf, it would mean less diversity in books.

Ideas for promoting new authors are a good thing. I like finding new authors. But it should be for all new authors, not only the ones writing literary masterpieces. We need books for everyone, not just one group of readers.

Adaora A. said...

Hmm...after all this discussion I'm trying to think back and remember if Oprah's Book Club picks books that are already vice versa or whether she plucks a book from obsurity and makes it a massive (doubly more then if would be otherwise) bestseller.

Simon Haynes said...

"which do you choose?" (re hack or literary writer)

If hacks write books which entertain, then I'm a hack and proud of it.

I guess it's a bit like landscape artists vs house painters. The former can sometimes makes you go 'ooh', but the latter is in constant demand.

Must go - the paint roller is drying out.

Diana said...

I just want to express my appreciation for your use of the word schadenfreude.

Ulysses said...

It seems all the best words are German. Schadenfreude. Zeitgeist. Kindergarten...
And lets not forget Bratwurst and Lager.

Liz said...

Re what should publisher's publish, I'm a fan of voting with my pocketbook. I want to see more strong women in fiction - so I buy those stories. Sometimes it takes some hunting to find what's new and different. So much the better.

I think part of the motivation behind the call for a less commercial-success-driven publishing market is the desire to believe that what we all really want and appreciate is High Art if only someone would give us more of it. Come on. What we want is to be entertained. And sometimes that comes from lower places. Ahem.

On the pub industry business model - I'm just starting to learn about it, and Holy Cripes you mean it's all on consignment??? So that's how that little indy pub house just got wiped out by One Month's Worth of Returns??? Y'know, among my clients, I represent a vid game developer/publisher, and their products are relatively small and light - not so much shipping costs, and if something doesn't sell, they Don't Want It Back. Shred it, dance on it, build a hamster funland with it, but Don't Send It Back. It's not worth the cost. Sometimes a new developer (3 kids working in their mom's basement who just made their own game and it's good enough that we take a risk on it) doesn't get this and tries to negotiate hard to keep track of the inventory. It's kinda cute watching reality dawn on them.

I love this quote from Reidy in the linked article:

"Reidy urged publishers to do the hard work of making entire catalogues available as e-books for electronic reading devices, to create possibilities for print-on-demand when a title becomes slow selling, to design new work flow and supply chain practice systems, and to delineate new policies to address complicated issues such as international territories, pricing, the security of copyrights and royalty rates for those formats."

My only correction - making catalogues ready for e-distribution, at least technologically speaking, isn't "hard work". The hard work will come in when the pubs have to go back to review all of their contracts to see whether they got the rights they needed for e-publishing, and then go back to the authors to get those rights nailed down. What a nightmare. But for *new* acquisitions - hopefully the contracts are more forward-looking now. Not that I'd know, not having been offered a deal yet.

nona said...

Sex Scenes,

Interesting article in Slate about movie numbers:

http://www.slate.com/id/2118819/

Heather said...

It seems like a hard blend--the mix between the fact that publishing is an industry with shareholders and profit margins to consider and the fact that they're essentially tasked with producing art and knowledge. I think it happens in movies as well--the Oscars celebrate the cerebral and the box office champions the action (to over-simplify that industry).

If someone ever knew how to perfectly blend the art and it's commercial production, they'd be a genius.

shilohwalker said...

But it seems to me that if you think the publishing industry should publish more books with artistic merit... that isn't exactly a sure route to a better bottom line.

Nothing against books with artistic merit, but I read for enjoyment. I do enough expanding my brain trying to explain the world to an inquisitive 9 year old, an even more inquisitive 7 year old and whatever brain cells are left over from that are destroyed by the oh-so-rotten two year old.

I read to enjoy, and I read and buy a lot. So if the books take a trend towards artistic merit, there will be plenty of readers who just stop buying.

There's a market for both...for the commercial fiction and for more artistic fiction. But trying to load the market down with 'literature' for whatever reason isn't going to solve anything.

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Simon,

I don't think you qualify as a "hack" writer - too many awards and great reviews; way too much crisp, clear writing. I clicked on your name, and realized that I've been to your website before, checking out your books. :) I'm a big fan of well-written sci fi and fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Publishing or not publishing certain books really isn't what ails the publishing industry. It's their antiquated business model. There's a discussion on another blog regarding the ridiculous returns policies of publishers, as one example...that in itself is a killer...the publisher basically takes all the financial risk while the chains virtually take none. Also, the publishers need to rethink how they market their books. While I love going to physical stores, it is much easier and in most cases economically cheaper to buy online. Why is Amazon doing so well? Because of their brilliant and effective business model...small inventory, no physical stores, low overhead, high profit margins (relatively speaking for selling books as opposed to say selling computers, etc.) The Kindle is yet another example of Amazon taking a brilliant innovation and running with it...publishers need to sit down and run their businesses like a business. They need to get down and dirty and figure it out. Maybe sit and talk with the likes of entrepreneurs like Bezos and Gates, etc. and learn from them.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Do publishers really bear most of the blame? They're still (so far) profitable even as they, as you write, assume the burden of risk when it comes to returns, not to mention paying a whole lot of money just to have certain books stocked prominently. Even with that sweetheart deal Borders is seriously struggling.

Zoe Winters said...

My take is that I get publishing is a business. I also get publishers operate on very thin profit margins most of the time.

I think more small publishers make room for more books to get published. But I don't think it's reasonable to expect Random House or Simon and Schuster, etc, to publish arty books that may or may not sell.

I think there are two main problems in publishing. 1. The bookstore returns policy. It sounded like a good idea at first, but really, it's stupid.

Because it's not wholesale, it's consignment. And publishers should not bear the entire brunt of financial risk. Bookstores need to step up and own their own buying decisions.

If they can't take the risk, they shouldn't be in this business. They should open a flower shop instead. And that goes for the chains: Borders, Barnes and Noble, etc.

2. Time lines. Without the bookstore returns policy this wouldn't exist. But as it stands, the major chains send books back within a couple of months on receiving them.

If it's a new author, or not a bestselling author, it might take more than 2 months to build an audience.

The only solution I can see for authors in this mess, is to build their following first. Ebooks, podcasts, etc.

Nonfiction authors need a platform, but clearly fiction authors do too, unless they just want one published book.

Since "staying publishing" is more difficult these days than "getting published," "getting published, isn't even currently on my radar.

Zoe Winters said...

And, sorry that comment was so long. It's not until I hit the send button that I get the full force of how wordy I can be! :D

Dale LV Cabbie said...

I think that if there is a problem with the publishing industry it is a matter of not taking full advantage of the changes in how products are sold.
Many retailers now provide online shopping services that are going quite well. Amazon.com is, I think, becoming a major book distributor and a few key strokes will walk you through a massive bookstore.
In addition, major advances allow for ezines, ebooks and Print On Demand. I have seen POD hardcopy books and they are just as good as anything bought in the stores.
In addition, I recently sought two Reader's Digest books which had been out of print for many years. A few keystrokes and I found both of them! One was local and I had it in a few days. The other was in the UK and the biggest cost was postage.
So, in my opinion, in the current economic situation and with a rapid change in personal shopping habits, the publishing industry has no choice but to change.
How many newspaper sales have plunged as people - LIKE ME - prefer to read online instead of having a piece of rag paper get ink all over my fingers and hands.

Scott said...

Sounds to me like the publishing industry could use its own cable network. Book TV on C-SPAN2 just ain't gonna push units.

But marketing a variety of authors, film-like reviews, highlighting sleeper titles and those authors buried by the consignment model, etc. would make great viewing, in my opinion. Amazon is a place to search, and the reviews are helpful so I have my book there, but certainly we can have more TV hosts pushing books than Oprah.

Games have a channel (G4), films have several, IFC has their own network – so where's the books? I've found something close online, such as booktelevision.com, but I just get the feeling that more can be done for authors pubs believe in before stores, with their limited and busy spaces, make the orders.

Zoe Winters said...

That's true, Scott!

Publishing is fascinating. It should be a televised spectator sport!

Simon Haynes said...

"I don't think you qualify as a "hack" writer - too many awards and great reviews; way too much crisp, clear writing."

This is me, getting all embarassed and stuff. Thanks ;-) Now all I need is for some forward-thinking publisher outside Australia to recognise the "artistic merit" in my books.

Love the word verification: telly. How did they know I was a brit?

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