Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Business Side of Art

The obsessive hunt for sure-fire mass market bestsellers is "tainting" the UK publishing industry, according to Clare Alexander, president of the Association of Authors' Agents….

"We have the stupidest bestseller list in the world at the moment." Publishers are not trying hard enough to creatively market less well-known authors, instead relying on 'Richard & Judy' or literary prizes, she said.

Although this article centers on the UK publishing industry, it isn’t so far removed from North America, where getting on Oprah generates hundreds of thousands of sales. In recent months there have been criticisms for picking well established, successful authors who don’t need the publicity, although in light of the incident with James Frey one can appreciate why she might be cautious.

The first thing about the Bookseller article I’m quoting from that I think is important to note is the reality of the statements being made, and what this means for both authors and readers in the future. Putting extreme emphasis on bestsellers without growing authors means that we’ll see more one-hit wonders in the book business, from people who get one clever idea and can’t match it afterwards (especially if they only get a one-book deal, which is quite common right now) and more formulaic books. It is why a book like DaVinci Code gives birth to dozens and dozens of clones, and it’s why fantasy books are so popular with children’s book publishers in the wake of Harry Potter. Something succeeds and everyone wants to cash in.

Publishing has become a trend follower.

For those – like myself – who find formula gets old fast, who relish in the original works that bring something fresh to the genre, these trends should be of some concern. We may eventually reach the point where fewer and fewer authors are published in more narrowly defined subgenres that are proven sellers.

Those who’ve already read and found much food for thought in John Rickards’ post “The Genre Has No Clothes” will appreciate Clare Alexander’s point: Specifically, the genre cannot expand and grow if publishers are obsessed with only the next bestseller. More and more authors will fall through the cracks, despite their skill.

There needs to be a long-term view in place, instead of solely focusing on the short-term gain. Authors do need to be grown through their backlists, and innovative works need to be supported. The reason is that a high number of readers will abandon the genre or the very form of storytelling through books if every new book feels like a repeat or variation on something else. Many readers will get bored, and in the wake of complaints about the costs of books who wants to spend more and more money on books that are copycats of something they’ve already read?

Following this trend to the exclusion of all else will ultimately result in a more serious state for the publishing industry than it’s ever experienced, and it may well mark the death of fiction publishing.

Ah, but publishing is a business, you say. Publishers should be allowed to focus on what sells.

This is where the publishing industry relies on a double standard.

There was agreement among the panel that word-of-mouth is still the most powerful force. Marketing and publisher's hype can push a book so far, but only personal recom­mendation can generate major successes.

The problem with this conclusion is not that it’s wrong, but it’s what some publishers have determined as a result. In order to generate word of mouth people actually need to have read the book, but distribution issues are also hampering book success.

My own experience reviewing confirms to me that more than 50% of the time I receive books from the authors, and that a startlingly high percentage of the time when an author tries to get their publisher to send a review copy I don’t ever receive it, probably around 40% of the time. I’ve stopped concerning myself with taking on reviewers as a result. I’d love to have more, but I’m not willing to work review copy offers the way I used to (I used to e-mail all listed potential reviewers to see who was interested). Now, I take books very hit and miss, and from the ones I accept at least a quarter of them are never sent.

As authors hear things like that, they feel more pressure to produce review copies and distribute themselves. More and more authors are spending their entire advance, and sometimes more, promoting their books, but there are other issues authors can’t solve themselves. At no point should authors who have major publishers have to make blog posts in order to tell people where to find their latest work because would-be readers can’t find it stocked in stores.

This is why I’m concerned about the focus of author groups on drafting strict rules for legitimate publishers that sometimes exclude valid publishers from their list in their attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff. As more and more big publishers develop a more conservative fiction list (by conservative I mean perceived bestsellers and formula books) it would be nice to believe that the smaller presses will sprout up, the ones who will publish the experimental, the completely original. I want to see books like Mabanckou’s African Psycho in print. Thank goodness we have Creeping Hemlock to bring us new Tom Piccirilli but the result of narrowly construed acceptability lists means that it will be the formulaic, the “bestseller potential” books that get the additional publicity of awards. Many readers don’t understand the eligibility rules, and I certainly don’t blame them for not being interested in the politics, but it gives artificial importance to some books that are nominated against others that don’t make the list that are every bit as good, if not better, but simply have a publisher who pays advances of $900 instead of $1000 or who hasn’t been in business for two years.

Just yesterday Sarah Weinman posted something that speaks to that indirectly. She refers to a review by Janet Maslin in the NY Times, in which Maslin states: Only the toughest and smartest cops could police a city like Los Angeles, with its giant size, ethnic complexity, large amount of crime and chronic shortage of police manpower,” Mr. Leake continues robotically. (Michael Connelly, the Los Angeles police-work aficionado, writes admiring blurbs for many crime stories. “Entering Hades” is not one of them.)

The very act of including in a review a comment on who did not blurb a book should raise concerns within the industry, as well as eyebrows. Such a statement presumes that authors receive copies of all books each year and then actually read all of them and choose to only blurb the most worthy. They do not. In the same way that not all books published are eligible for the Edgar Award or the Dagger, not all books can be blurbed because many are never sent to established authors. To assume the lack of a blurb can be interpreted as a statement against a book shows a lack of understanding of the process at the least. Sarah already said it best: (Maslin’s comment about Connelly) tells us what, exactly? That he should have? That by not doing so he's passing silent judgment? That by mentioning the lack of blurb, Maslin's passing not-so-silent judgment? (Guess what door I'm picking.) I can think of any number of reasons for this so-called blurblessness, from not being approached to this being just another manuscript Connelly turned down on principle now that he's not giving nearly as many "admiring blurbs" as he once did. Editorializing on the book is fine; editorializing about the intentions of a writer unrelated to the book is not.

While I do not think the publishing industry is about to fall apart in the next few months, I do think that ensuring our long-term success and growth as an industry requires assessment and consideration of the trends in publishing. There is already too much of this. I see comments on reader discussion lists about growing disbelief in blurbs, and it’s a cynicism I can appreciate when some authors openly admit they’ll blurb anyone who asks, even if they haven’t read the book, or that they’ll only blurb their friends. Any endorsement that isn’t on merit falls flat on the face of it.

As a result of such misguided philosophies employed by some authors the entire process of author referrals has been tainted. It may not be completely destroyed at this point, but the credibility of that referral has been undermined. And distributing advanced copies to authors in attempts to get them talking about new books to look for has been standard practice amongst the biggest publishers. This is how the cycle feeds.

If publishers want to reach the point where word of mouth can catch on to the point it generates sales they need to make sure that the word of mouth referrals can remain credible, and that people actually get their hands on the books. The focus needs to be on ensuring review copies actually get sent out by publishers, that we preserve review space or find new venues for reviews that are effective, and that books are getting distributed to stores.

For I know one way to almost certainly ensure the failure of a book, and that is to do nothing so that it gets no reviews, nobody can accidentally find it in a store or know it exists.

And from the department of major congratulations, Amra Pajalic is the latest author to be picked up by Australia’s sensational Text Publishing! Breaking open the virtual champagne, three cheers for Amra – another writer we’ve had the privilege of publishing in Spinetingler btw.


Graham Powell said...

One thing that amazes me is the amount of absolute crap that used to be published - and not bestselling crap, either, but obscure, hard-to-find crap.

For example, I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Harry Stephen Keeler yesterday. Keeler's fiction can be described generously as "eccentric", or more accurately as "shite". But he published with a major house for over 15 years!

I know that many people think too many books are published now, but how many were being published each year in the 20s, or the 50s?

To me the biggest problem with publishing is that large sections of the reading public are gone forever. Other forms of entertainment have taken over among, say, working-class men. Many publishers have responded by fighting over the largest portion of what's left, while others have successfully targeted smaller niches (i.e. Hard Case Crime).

I personally think niche publishing is the wave of the future. I just don't know if there's any money in it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, there's plenty of shit being published now, and by big houses too, but one person's shit is another person's fertilizer, I guess.

I'm not sure there's ever been big money in publishing, but in point of fact the stats show that book sales are up (help me out here Barbara) it's just that they're spread over a larger number of books. And The DaVinci Code and James Patterson prove there's money to be made.

The reality is that efforts do need to be made to woo the more casual readers, but perhaps people need to address all the reasons why people don't read. It isn't just about electonic media, although that can contribute. It's also about the boredom of what's out there. It was about 13 years ago that a friend turned up to visit me for Christmas and left behind The Bridges of Madison County, saying she wanted to see what was making the bestseller list. Neither of us were impressed. Read a bad book and you want to watch a movie, read a great book and you want to read another great book.

We spend far too much time apologizing for how unimportant books are and excusing lack of reading. The philosophy should be more in keeping with what Hard Cast Crime does, which is business savvy. They've also connected with their readership in a way that fuels interest and word of mouth. The book club is excellent. All of that matters, and the specific focus of what they publish enables people to pick up their books with a high degree of satisfaction - it's the exception to the rule, the proof that people will read books based on the publisher and not just the author name.

But the problem remains elsewhere that they're doing away with imprints and lumping more under one generic title, which makes it harder for readers to pinpoint books that will be of interest to them, a very select few books get promoted properly from the publisher and authors are increasingly left to try to deal with the business side of things on their own.

John McFetridge said...

It's true that blurbs have become pretty much meaningless. And it's true it's a practise publishers will continue with.

Publishers are like any other giant multi-national, they want the biggest return on the smallest risk.

I have no stats to back this up, but pretty much every writer I know of from the last hundred years or so has had another job in addition to writing. It's possible the tiny percentage of writers who support themselves entirely from writing fiction hasn't changed.

But Graham is absolutely correct that large sections of the reading public are gone (who knows about 'forever') and publishers are fighting for what's left.

One of the reasons I like genre fiction, and specifically crime fiction, is because many of the writers' "other jobs" are in a variety of fields, all over the map. And in "literature" pretty much every writers other job is as some kind of literature professor.

Certainly it would be better if publishers were more concerned with expanding the market and trying to get back into those lost areas. And, in fact, some are trying. Al Guthrie's book for "reluctant readers" (I forget the title offhand) is a great idea.

More things like that would be good.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know what's interesting? I think about 40% of the writers I know live off their writing alone.

And I know that's a statistical anomaly.

But that isn't even what it's about, although the fact that only 5% of writers earn a living through writing alone should raise more questions about organization eligibility rules that focus on advances. Let's face it - every business wants to earn the highest amount possibility off the lowest return, but their main solution for increasing their profit margins isn't cutting advertising funds. You will not sell products people don't know about or can't find in stores.

And building readerships is really, really important. Something we neglect at our own peril.

Barbara said...

Numbers to the rescue!

According to the Book Industry Study Group (figures reported in the Statistical Abstract), the number of books sold in the US (after returns) is trending up in recent years, though not dramatically - an increase of about 8% since 2004. Mass market paperback sales are down, religion book sales are up, university press sales are flat, adult hardcover is up.

According to Bowker, home of BIP, in the same period of time the number of titles published grew more quickly - but not wildly more (less than 16%). The really wild number I saw at the Bowker site, though, was the increase in titles since 1993 - from 104,000 to nearly 300,000 - though some of that change is due to different ways of counting titles.

As for best sellers, in 2006, according to Publisher's Weekly, only .2% of titles made it to PW's lists. Point two percent! I recall reading somewhere that the numbers for bestsellers have changed a lot over the years - that it now takes far more sales to make it than in the past - but I can't find whatever I read so I may have hallucinated that. PW does say that in recent years the time a book spends on the list is shorter and a few more books are making it - but it's still a tiny fraction of a percent.

I could find no figures on the percentage of books published that are shit, I'm afraid, but I suspect it's rather high.

I do agree that it would be a good thing if publishers were more focused on growing the market than they were in cannibalizing each others' sales. But they don't play well together, as a rule. You're absolutely right, that would-be readers get discouraged when they read a bad book; it takes a run of enjoyable books to make a convert. But matching the right book to the person is hard.

Interesting about Hard Case and branding - the old saw is that the author is the brand; readers don't care who publishes the authors they like. It's only a few small presses that seem to develop a brand.

The whole advertising scene is a head-scratcher. I'm getting more and more immune to advertising, and ever more suspicious of recommendations from people I don't know well, and have never believed blurbs are genuine. But I'm able to make good calls more often than ever since getting into some online reading groups. I have not been at a loss for what to read next in about three years, and that's totally due to finding the right online mouths for word-of-mouth. But it's hard to find places where genuine opinion trumps hype and astro-turfing.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Extremely well said Barbara - and I think part of the reason for declines amongst some is that they don't have friends reading, and don't have time for online groups or know about them. My best friend is just a bit younger than me, two children under the age of 5 and they don't have the internet. She's reading books I recommend to her, but the move to the genre is based on my influence, and she hasn't discarded reading outside the genre (and I wouldn't encourage that either - it's just to say that it's not like she's reading a dozen crime fiction books each year). But every increase is an increase...but what do you do if you don't have friends like me?

I came to crime fiction through no friend referral but simply from pulling books down off the shelves in the bookstore and discovering Rankin. I'm now keenly aware of what a fluke that was, with so many backlists not being stocked in stores and with distribution issues...

I just wonder how many potential readers haven't had their stars align or whatever. As much as I have my issues with advertising (more so the bsp extremes some authors go to these days) if you're running a business you can't just shrug and say, "Hopefully people will discover the book" and do nothing. The more authors pick up the slack in terms of promotion the more issues around it and how it's being handled - and in some cases mishandled. Sadly...

Al Guthrie said...

Book sales figures can be a little misleading. What's happening is that more and more people are buying bestsellers, so the figures look good, but they're skewed. The reality is that in the UK, at least, very few novels sell 10,000 copies (far fewer than once was common). Those that do sell over 10,000 tend to sell in vast quantities (far more than once was common). No doubt in part due to the supermarket effect (and the Richard&Judy effect). Anyway, whatever the reason, many big publishers are increasingly focusing on the search for the books that'll sell 10,000 copies. Which is not good news for debut authors, since they're unlikely to hit those heights straightaway and are thus seen as too much of a risk. Unless they have a 'platform' -- a publicity hook. Which most don't.

Sandra Ruttan said...

But in a weird way, I take that as having a positive side. Other than special editions of DaVinci Code, most people only buy one copy of a book. Nobody buys three copies of the new James Patterson for themselves.

What that means is there are readers out there who just aren't being reached. I certainly read more now than I did six years ago, and part of it is knowing what's out there.

But those sales figures prove as well that it is the books given a lot of attention and promotion that sell exceptionally well. Of course, part of the problem may be authors who want six figure advances out of the starting gate. We all know those are rare, and honestly there's a lot to be said for a smaller advance and more patience building a backlist.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the shout-out Sandra.