Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Bargain Hunters of Doom

Here is a piece presenting similar concerns to my Terrible Confession of earlier. It offers evidence for the destructiveness of book lovers' bargain hunting. I'm not really buying the writer's injunction not to "blame [recent bookstore-killing] carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers." Still, talk about nails in coffins. I don't know what to say about this, or what publishers could do about it since, as Editorial Ass has schooled me, lowering book prices is not an option. Nothing comes without consequences, I guess. It's very discouraging to think that Amazon and such sites, even as they help bring books to the masses, are actually hurting those that produce the books, in more ways than one. If even book advocates end up hurting the ones they love, then what is to be done? The only thing I can think of is a publisher takeover of all book-selling sites. They could control the market with an iron fist. Alas, I fear they lack the capital for such a coup, even if they banded together. And I'm sure someone would just start another site, and people like me would continue patronising brick and mortar used book stores. Sigh.

No No No No

This Holt Uncensored post almost infuriates me. It starts out fine, proposing to be an elegy for things editors have supposedly lost over the years, "their high standards, their belief in readers, their ability to nurture authors, their love of language, their patience, their dedication, their eye." Have they lost these things? Terrible! Shocking! Tell me more. But it very quickly turns into what seems to me a completely wrong-headed screed against marketing departments, or against the sort of power marketing departments have over editors nowadays.

One of the first things I was struck by during my first publishing internship was how far the marketing department's reach extended. It seemed like every question I asked (to a designer: how do you decide what look to go with?, to a production guy, how do you figure out how many copies to print?) was answered by "marketing." I admit this seemed sinister at first. And okay, some of Holt's points about the semi-tyranny of such considerations ring true. Editors have to be able to take chances, to use their judgment as to quality, to put out books that might have long term artistic importance instead of immediate commercial appeal. But the idea that every editor all the time should be concerned only with lofty, artistic goals is not just impractical but undesirable.

It is really the overall tone of this piece that gets me. The premise seems to be that any concession to popular taste or commercial value is wrong. "
I don’t agree with the notion that editors should even be in communication with readers," writes Holt, "- the same taint of commercialism exists." This dismissal alone makes me want to scream. Apparently, being an editor is not about finding what people want to read, but about finding what is "best," and then foisting it on the readers. This has a sort of paternal reek to it which I find insufferable. The be-all-end-all of this horror is encapsulated, for Holt, in the "Hollywood" philosophy of "'give ‘em what they want,' not what was editorially best. Not what was original or creative or adventurous or, god knows, a challenge." God forbid publishing should be about courting readers, about trying to please them and lure them into more reading. Yes, this is the recipe for obtaining more filthy lucre, but it also happens to be a good one for reading evangelism, which I think is one of publishing's primary goals. You dont' get people to read by forcing someone's idea of literary greatness down their throats. Like every industry, including Hollywood, you get more customers by finding out what people want and giving it to them. Yes, this means many of them will be reading Danielle Steel and Dan Brown and other such unsatisfactory types, but it means they will be reading, period. And maybe eventually they will feel like moving on to more literary reads. There is a place for both artistic integrity and commercial consideration in editing, though probably not an equal place. This will be frustrating and awful at times, but that's no reason to malign accessibility and popularity.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Look. I once found a falcon feather in a text book.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


In years past the occasional article would reach me, foretelling the die out of the reading population and the demise of publishing. I would get scared for a while but quickly settle back into my confidence that nothing too dire would happen during my lifetime (much like my [oh-so-mistaken] conviction that my time period would be pleasantly uneventful historically) and that I would be able to wiggle in somehow and work unmolested in my chosen industry. Outside the safety of school and fully immersed in the Recession, the articles I see now have more of an impact. And I see lots and lots of them. They are both more extreme and more convincing then ever before. They make me equally depressed, or at least they have. But I am beginning to develop a protective scar tissue. Yes, we can all acknowledge that things are increasingly difficult. I don't think anyone can know what will really happen, but there doesn't seem to be any chance of stasis. In a way there is a sort of freedom in acknowledging that. Reading these terrible articles I think now, not, "oh that's so terrible oh my god what will happen," because I've thought that too many times to think it again, but rather "so what will happen? what will we do?" I think this has something to do with the articles themselves also. I've noticed an earnest, if harsh, search for answers and solutions that makes these commentaries something more than the facile shadenfreude of times past. The sense of seriousness associated with what is now the much more real prospect of disaster is at least somewhat helpful. See, for example, Gallycat's impatience with one doomsayer, or this excellent kick-in-the-pants by Lawrence Osborne, or this forward-looking essay on The Urban Elitist, or Richard Curtis' eerily prescient, unearthed essay on returns.

I'm not completely convinced by anyone's vision of the future. Many note how long people have been predicting publishing's death, and how stubborn it has in fact been. I think this time is different, and big things will happen. The Recession, although it didn't actually cause all or most of what's happening now, will force things forward speedily and painfully. Childhood lessons about ripping the bandaid off quickly make me think this is a good thing. I feel sure that books and publishing won't ever completely die off. I can't pin down too many coherent or without-a-doubt objective thoughts on why, but probably the most important is what one pleasantly optimistic Gallycat commentor suggests, "What will save publishing is what began it - the need, the drive, the will of the human being to communicate through story. When all the layoffs and takeovers and "reorganizations" are over, what remains will be what always remains - people desperate to hear and tell their stories," and what editor Mark Tavani reiterates on Notes from the Handbasket, "books are a mere format....the most magical thing about them is the information they convey: the story they contain. The word “book” and the word “story” are not synonymous, just as eight tracks and music are not the same thing. Stories pre-date books by milleniums; and though books might someday go away, story will last as long as our civilization does." Who knows how recognizable tomorrow's publishers will be. At their most basic, though--entities that help diseminate stories--I think they will remain useful and therefore in existence.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Idea: Imprint Brands

The upheaval at Random House prompted this reaction from a Maud Newton amie: in addition to all the Big, Serious implications, the change "also means that SONNY MEHTA is now publishing DAN BROWN. How in the hell does that make any sense?" This reminds me of an Idea that's been quietly boiling for a while. I agree that it is crazy for Dan Brown to be under the Knopf umbrella, and I hope that that imprint won't really lose its literary identity. But I think most people wouldn't recognize the problem or care much at all. I will pick up a book just because I see the Knopf colophon on it. As a pretentious teen I was obsessed with Penguin Classics. Most imprint names mean nothing to me, though, and I'm sure that the majority of readers don't even register them. They don't serve much purpose, and honestly, it seems a little disingenuous to keep up the pretense of having many independent publishers when in fact they are all owned by a very few large companies, regardless of whatever editorial independence they have or supposedly had at Random House and elsewhere. So many of them might as well be jettisoned. Others, though, could be used in a new way. Right now books are branded in the sense that different genres have different design standards--it's easy to tell a chick lit novel from a sci fi one from a historical biography based on font, colors used, graphics style, etc. I think it might be useful to have actual brand labels, though, in the form of imprint colophons. It seems to me that one of the most obvious and effective ways to increase readership is to get those who are already reading to read more, and this means helping them find things they want to read. This was a constant problem for me as a child and teen: I would get really obsessed with one kind of book, say, retold fairy tales, and have to search through the haystack to find another one. I don't think imprint brands should be this specififc necessarily, but it would certainly be nice to have an easily visible indication of whether a certain book was a drama, or a humorous novel, or a literary mystery, etc. It would make browsing easier for those who don't read enough to have highly developed scanning abilities, and could help people find a book to fit their mood. An awareness of what the colophons meant would of course have to be cultivated. This would happen naturally to a certian extent, if people kept reading a certain kind of book and noticed the same logo over and over again. Charts at bookstores is another idea.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Black Wednesday

I love nothing more than a project, a little challenge that requires list making and plotting out, and that can conclude with a pleasant sense of accomplishment. I have been looking at the Recession as this, as a challenge to me and to publishing that can inspire an almost pleasant hunkering-down and working-through. But I began to realize this week that this might be a goal with no neat conclusion. Not a sort of puzzle or a list of conditions to be worked through, but a blank, impenetrable wall destroying what comes against it and blocking further progress. There is no way, with the frightening depth of the layoffs and ill-boding changes in publishing on Wednesday, to equivocate about what is happening and what will continue to happen to that industry. In what led up to Wednesday and in the response to it some very gloomy realities are visible. What struck me most was the anger of posters and commentors: there was a sense that, in many ways, publishing had brought this on itself. I'm not in a good position to determine what kind of impact corporate structure has on the big presses, or how entrenched the seemingly slow-moving, reactionary nature of the business is. Many on the inside seem to think these are serious problems, though. Even without them publishing is facing all sorts of road blocks, and it is pretty easy to be intensely pessimisstic at a time like this.

I have always thought of the Great Depression as the worst possible period to live in: I would rather live during a war, during a time of great oppression, anything, than that time. In my mind it has such a suffocating claustrophobia, like the sense I would get in elementary school when we studied biomes and came to the desert: if you were there and you were thirsty or in trouble, there was nothing you could do. Nothing but sand for miles. What seems so horrible to me about the depression is not so much the horrible deprivation--though that, of course--but the sense that there was nothing to be done about it. I see the stretch of years during which there just weren't any jobs to be had, no desperate measures to be taken, no lows to unwillingly stoop to. Just nothing. I have been separating this sense from my feelings about our current downturn, because I don't think anyone really believes their times will be like history in either its highs or lows. And I know we're not at that point yet. But there is some of that creeping in, the jobs being lost, with no new created, and the jobs that will be lost in the future, unpreventably. Especially within publishing's sphere, a Depression-Era hopelessness seems more and more logical. This is very bleak talk, I know. I still don't entirely believe it, and I feel sure that we'll come out of it more easily and less scathed than those before--not for any rational reasons, again, but because of my sense of relative immunity--because I am young, because I can't help my progressivist mindset. I will still hunker down, and I hope publishing will too. Maybe we will get somewhere.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Half an Idea: Nook Books

I watch a lot of home improvement T.V. A lot. HGTV is probably my favorite channel. Perhaps this doesn't seem to jive with the "young" descriptor in this blog's sub-heading, but I have always been a domesticated fuddy-duddy. Anyway, I have noticed one phrase being repeated over and over on these shows, which inspires a glow in me unrelated to the satisfaction of a bedazzled kitchen or an elegant floorplan. This phrase is "curl up with a good book," and it is brought out every time someone manages to squeeze an arm chair into a bedroom, or in the face of window seats and cozy nooks and fireplaces. It's almost as common as the "this can be my closet, but where will your clothes go, honey?!" chesnut. Somehow I doubt that most of these people spend as much time as they seem to intend actually curled up and reading, but this idea is heartwarming nonetheless. At the very least it indicates a positive association with books, an ideal concerning them. People want that feeling, that moment. It fulfills some platonic ideal of homelife in their heads. Surely there is someway of piggybacking on this feeling to actually get them to read more. Maybe it is a line of books--easy reading novels, most likely--marketed as "cozy reads" or something like that, maybe it is an HGTV book club, I don't know. It's lovely to have this sort of opening, though. And so encouraging and touching to see reading venerated in such a way.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Scary Times

I remember studying history in high school and thinking of the people living, say, right in the middle of a hundreds-of-years-long period of peace, or the people who lived right on the edge of one, not knowing their world was about to be upset by a volcano or a big war or a terrible depression. I wondered where my time would end up fitting in--turbulent but historical, or just one generation in a series of years so continually calm that they could be lumped together by the century. As it turns out, I think there will be plenty for the history books, both on a large scale and, should the history books care to record it, in the narrower arena of my chosen industry, publishing. It seems like every day there is a new Big Development, a new trend forming, a new disturbing figure or statistic. It is hard to tell where things will fall, what the long-term impact of all of this will be. The Recession's impact colliding with already-existing difficulties in the business has whipped up a lot of chaos. Some of it will die down--Harcourt can't freeze acquisitions forever--but some of it seems set to lead to permanent changes. I'd like to be optimistic, and there is some reason to be--this downturn is an added, immediate incentive for publishers to break out every practice and idea they have to get people reading. That kind of change could be really exciting to see. But the panic that goes along with all this might also lead to short-sighted, ultimately hurtful changes. I read article after article after article and vacillate on my outlook. The reading habit is eroding--this is ongoing. I think part of the job publishers have is to shore it up--by putting the best books out, obviously, but also by creating new ways for people to incorporate them into their lives, by presenting people with compelling reasons why they should read them, by working to start people reading and to help them keep at it once they do. Maybe they will focus on this even more now. Right now, though, my ever-present fear of the public's indifference is intensified by a fear of what publishers are doing. Are they going too far in courting celebrity authors, ignoring books of lasting quality that can be read for years and that will make those who read them want to read more? Are they pushing authors to self-publishing, and will this ultimately make things even harder for them? Are they shutting down innovation to say money in the here and now? I want to know where things will fall. I'm actually worried that changes other than lack of readership might spell disaster first, something I never considered before. I don't want to imagine a reading public having to get by without publishers, or with some stunted version of them--what they do to sift through projects and refine those they choose, to bring those to the public, can't be replaced. The thought of a thousand self-published voices vying for attention is unnerving (let's be honest, there are MANY more writers out there than ever need to be read). I don't know. I don't despair. I just wonder what some future chronicler will end up saying in his "2008: The Collapse" chapter.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Via the NY Observer: Steve Ross, Collins publisher, "said he was glad the publishing industry and the economy in general are collapsing now rather than when he was first starting out in the early 1980s.

'It'd be absolutely terrifying to be starting out now, to be young and to not have the benefit of years, if not decades, of perspective," Mr. Ross said. "I would have seriously considered leaving book publishing.'

What would he have done instead?

'Law school,' he said. 'Or worse, I would have gotten an MBA.'

Oh boy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Idea: Product Placement

Let me start out with a couple of disclaimers in this the second of my Idea posts. First, most of the time when I have an idea about publishing--a book that should get made, a marketing tactic--I find out that it has already been thought of, possibly long long before. So I can only say that, at the point that I post my Ideas, I have yet to discover any similar, already-in-use practice. Second, many of my ideas involve spending, which I understand is hard to stomach for such a hard-pressed industry. But hey, when do you NOT have to spend money to make money? Anyway, here goes: Idea No. 2, Product Placement

Very occasionally I see a T.V. ad for a book--usually a thriller by someone like James Patterson--and without fail these ads make me cringe. There is just something so unnatural-seeming about it. Partly, I'm sure, because it's so rare, but also because books tend to be separated from the rest of the entertainment world, from the rest of the commercial world. They are older, certainly, than most of it. They are perhaps a little bitter towards their more prosperous companions. And T.V. is so often blamed for the demise of reading that I suppose it is natural that the two should seem like odd bedfellows. I don't propose changing this exactly; books are special, they are. Having ads for books like there are ads for movies would just be weird no matter what. Still, no matter what else they are, books are also a product, so I see nothing wrong with using T.V. and other media to get them out there. The direction that advertising is taking now, with internal product placement as opposed to separate ads, would lend itself well, I think, to advertising books and promoting reading in general. Imagine a character seen carrying a book around, or reading it, or even mentioning it briefly. Whether it is a fictional housewife reading the latest Oprah's bookclub-type book, or a snarky Showtime/HBO character referring to the latest piece of hip lit fiction, a little nod could go a long way. Has anyone checked the sales of Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency since Mad Men started harping on it? By tailoring the advertising this kind of product placement could avoid the stiltedness that some has--"What's that honey?! You're in labor! Let me just text your mom on the new iPhone! It has 674 apps! Look how shiney it is!" [close up of iPhone]. I think marketing folks would have to arrange a sort of barage of placements in various places so people really get the impression that this book is a trendy must read. T.V. and movie spots could be supplemented by covert celebrity endorsements, as with Jennifer Aniston's Smart Water deal, so that society's celebrity obsession would include a literary element. Then, not only will certain books get a boost, but people might get more used to seeing others reading and might come to consider it as a normal or fashionable thing to do in general. It would take finesse to pick the right placement for books, and perhaps to suggest ways that they might be integrated. Certainly this is not someting to do with every book that comes out. But, I think it could work. And maybe publishers could get some sort of discount, what with their products contributing to the greater good of society, and to the substance of many movies and T.V. shows in Hollywood.

Image via perezhilton.com Not sure if Paris is being paid for her endorsement.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Read?

I have and will talk a lot about the value of books, or at least I will operate under the assumption that they have some, so I decided I should be less vague and try to pin down what where this value actually lies. Here, then, is a by-no-means-comprehensive list of some of the benefits of reading, as I see them.

1. Knowledge. Probably the most obvious and universal benefit. Reading exposes you to information. You learn from it. Learning having its own benefits which I won't go into, and which vary depending on what you are learning about. And I'm not just talking about nonfiction here. Although it's not their primary purpose, fiction books manage to convey quite a lot of information. A lifetime of reading them has gained me loads of often shallow and useless, but always interesting info. For example: a barouche is a kind of carriage. Turkeys will stare up into the rain with their mouths open until they drown. Putting the milk in after the tea is poured is more genteel.
2. Entertainment. Also obvious. Yes, kids, Reading is Fun! And unlike other mediums, you can find a book to suit pretty much any entertainment whim any time. Adventure novel, serial killer bio, Austen-esque historical romance, whatever you're in the mood for. Plus, while you're being entertained you also garner a whole host of other benefits, which can't be said of T.V. or movies. Reading is the vitamin-fortified Coco Puffs of the media world, good tasting and good for you. (T.V. is Oreo-Os or something debauched like that. Okay, not all of it, but still.)
3. Improves self-awareness and -understanding. This is one benefit that goes to the heart of my conviction that reading can solve many of the worlds problems. It's become obvious to me that many of the world's problems are caused by the world being abysmally stupid in relation to, or simply unaware of, the world's mental, inner workings. Watch Dr. Phil or American Idol and reflect on how, on a larger scale, that kind of delusion could lead to monomaniacal power-grabbing and war-starting in an official supposedly devoted to Christian values and small government. Reading, especially reading fiction or memoir, presents a model of self-examination and thought, which can then be followed, especially if reading leads to writing, which it certainly encourages and which should maybe be benefit 3.5. One of my pet peeves is when people denigrate reading as being isolationist, so to speak, or disconnected. This is true, but it's not a bad thing. Being constantly outward-focused at the expense of any self-reflection is spiritually impoverishing. Cultivate your gardens, people.
4. Mental Exercise. No matter what you're reading, your brain has to do more and different work than it usually does. If you're reading something you're interested in or enjoy, this work isn't a chore at all, but simply an added benefit. Reading a romance novel instead of watching a sexy movie requires you to use your imagination, make inferences about settings and characters and combine it with what you know and feel to make a complete picture. Nonfiction can lead you down paths of reasoning and logic that you would never encounter in daily life. And so forth.
5. Broadens the mind. I think this is different from gaining knowledge. It's more of an attitude thing. Reading about the experiences of others, even if they're fictional others, and learning about varied situations and places with the sort of increased depth that books offer in contrast to other mediums, can help break down walls of superiority, indifference, or scorn. This requires a certain amount of will--a person could very well choose to read only those books in accordance with his views and experiences. But I think there is something about reading that tends to discourage this limitedness, which leads outwards and upwards. Or something about the human attention span. Reading one thing often leads to another, and though you might end up having gone in a circle sometimes, more often you will have branched out somewhere new.

So that is what I can come up with right now. Idealist, maybe. Not every book will have every one of these benefits, but I think most will contain at least a small proportion of each. Some are obviously geared heavily in one direction, but as I said, one aspect of reading in general is that, once it is adopted as part of your life, even in the smallest way, it snowballs into an ever-increasing influence that can lead to all sorts of books and benefits, no matter the starting point.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Terrible Confession

Once again an Editorial Ass post strikes fear in me. This time, however, I am worried that the publishing industry will heed her usually spot-on rallying cry, not ignore it. She lists a few ideas for making publishing profitable and thus not, as a commenter had suggested, worthy of dying a justifiable death. Her second suggestion (raise prices), however, got my hackles up, and leads now to a terrible confession and the first of what I intend to be a string of Ideas for Saving (or Improving in Some Small Way) the Industry We Call Publishing. Here goes: I was planning on keeping this private and certainly never telling anyone who might care about books, but in the interest of making a point, I feel I must. Plus, Dingbat isn't my real name, so I don't feel any real danger. I buy used books. I buy on sale remainders. I shop at discount book stores. Constantly filled with worry though I am about the plight of publishers, I, a book person, seek in my book-buying practices to deprive them of every possible ounce of profit. Same goes with book stores. Just this weekend I bought pounds and pounds of books at a library sale for about a dollar a piece. I believe the last time I bought a full price book in a full price store was in May (Etgar Keret's The Girl on the Fridge), just because I was out of sorts and wanted something right then. So there it is. Why do I do this? Because it is not unusual for a trade paperback to cost $18. More often it is around $15. If I want to buy four books, which doesn't seem like many, I am up to $60, plus tax. That's serious money. And Editorial Ass thinks it should be more. My Idea, on the contrary, is a very simple one: lower prices. I am not sure how practicable this is. $15 for a lot of paper seems a little much, but I know there is a lot involved in making a book. And maybe the problem is less critical than it seems to me, consuming books as I do at a much higher rate than the average book store customer. Maybe I'm like that family with 18 kids who has to make their own soap because $2 a bar becomes a lot when you have that many showers to take. Still, I think the current price is dangerously close to the absolute cap for what people consider reasonable for a paperback book, and if there's any way to lower the price without catastrophic effects on profits, it needs to be done. This seems like an obvious move so I assume there are roadblocks at present. I would hate to see my pretty paperbacks suffer design-wise, but maybe there's a happy medium between those pulpy, yellowing mass market versions and their upright, smooth trade brethren. Or maybe it's a matter of fixing other policies that lower profits and lead to the need for higher prices on what does get sold. I don't know. But I would love to shop in a legit bookstore and support publishers with pride, so I hope something changes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Oh Dear Con't

Here is Motoko Rich's lengthier and more fact-filled version of my "Oh Dear" spiel. The facts go towards solidifying the reality of book publishing's recent hard knocks. It contains a similar amount of optimism, or reports a similar level in publishing folk--that is, a sense that books have something special to offer and might do all right for the holidays and beyond. And it does document some soul-searching and imminent changes to the industry, although apparently stratospheric celebrity advances will be kept in place through a sort of Catch-22--as things get leaner publishers need that big hit even more, which means they have to continue paying out big time for those hoped-for blockbusters. I'm wondering still if those cautiously optimistic book publishers are, like me, just wishful and sheltered by their own overwhelming appreciation for books, or if they have a real point about the saving graces of the medium.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


I had a little argument with the male members of the fam yesterday. I was trying to talk my brother, who is not a reader, into finding something he'd like to read, or into reading something that I would find for him. My dad, who is a reader, opined that reading wasn't for everyone, and that this was fine. This seems like a fairly innocuous statement, but I was oddly upset, more so than I am when I am confronted, which I very often am, with the fact that so few people read regularly. The other day I was watching something on PBS, I believe it was about fractals, and one of the scientists stated his belief that fractals could solve all the world's problems. I thought this was absurd, but touching. I like it when people are that into their field, when they have that much confidence in it. But I see how it can blind them. I think my dad's comment presented a version of me that looked very much like one of those people, passionate but mistaken. Or, to put it less kindly, overly academic and out of touch. I've been operating under the assumption that almost everyone can and should read for pleasure, and that they will gain from it if they do. I don't expect everyone to be readers to the same degree, to read the same kind of books or the same number. But given the vast variety of books out there, it seems possible that there is something for everyone. And even if they only ever read stacks and stacks of romance novels or celebrity biographies, they are still doing something with their brains beyond what more passive amusement and everyday life demand. What I want most to do is bring the benefits of reading to as many people as possible, to find readers everywhere and reach out to them. I believe, like the fractal scientist, that this is a way to solve many of the world's, or at least the country's problems. Writing that out it looks much more faith-based and messianic than I am normally inclined to be, but there it is. My brain sealed over the little crack of doubt pretty quickly, leaving me once again certain that the problem of low readership was solvable and not inherent, and that solving it would be a good and not just a neutral, profit-generating step. If someone who reads as much as my dad can be so complacent about everyone else's preference for abibliotic* lives, though, it might be even harder than I thought to generate change.
*abibliotic: coined, as far as I know, by me right now, and meaning hostile to or generally unacquainted with books.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Oh Dear

I edit, in a limited way, Topic's Publishing News page, which means basically trying to keep up with and eliminate the many, many irrelevant posts put up by the friendly "roboblogger," and also occasionally linking to publishing news stories I have found elsewhere, especially since the site tends to be newspaper-heavy and I am more of a book publishing type. In any case, I went on just now to take down some posts about J. Lo and Obama, etc., and when they were gone I noticed a very depressing trend. Almost every post was a "XXX laid off at ABC Newspaper" story. And most of them had been put there by the roboblogger, who I don't believe assembled them with any conscious or unconscious intent to depress. It's just fact. Horrible, depressing fact. I've separated this newspaper meltdown in my mind from anything that might happen to book publishing, reasoning that the main causes behind it--the rise of online media, of news services that make local reporters obsolete, etc.--weren't at all relevant to books and couldn't hurt them. My thinking since this whole economic armeggedon started has been, "Book publishing has already been winnowed by hardship. It has come to depend on a loyal reading populace who won't abandon it like others will Hummers and brand-name foods. It is not a boom industry. It can't be that affected by all this." Because, really, how much can you take? How much harder can it get? But of course it is affected. After all, one of those laid off stories was one I posted on Rodale, which publishes books as well as magazines. And then I read this post from Editorial Ass about book publishing's own disasters. So what now? As she mentions, book publishers have always had slim profit margins, and some have already folded. Apparently publishers depend on readers who are very much influenced by the tough times. Although it obviously hurts--a lot--in a way I don't think this will change much. People will still read, they just won't buy full price books--and maybe publishing will benefit from the boom, or at least the relative stability, that entertainment industries seem to experience during depressions. I don't think it's out of the the question. When we come out of this, I don't think people will have fundamentally changed attitudes towards books, as they might towards newspapers or luxury magazines. And maybe this big shake up will help change some publishing practices for the better. Ass mentions how crazed advances are shrinking, and how attention is being drawn to the kooky nature of book return policies. I just hope things don't get too bad before then. Scary stuff.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Kindle Conflict

Heffernan's piece for the Sunday Magazine makes no sense at all to me. She seems to find great charm in the Kindle's lack of sophistication, and essentially posits that its existence makes sense because it is just a little hooked in to technology's web, but is otherwise comfortably remote, drawing one in with its non-backlit pages and, um, words. Most of the significant postives she names for it, though, concern it being as close as possible to an actual book. You can get absorbed in it! It doesn't emit any garish electronic light! I try to remain at least neutral about eBooks and Readers, but this argument for them, ironically, only makes me want to decry their existence--or the Kindle's, anyway. Nothing that she says about the Kindle make me think it is a good replacement for an actual book, and several things she says make me quite wary of it. Clumsy design, ugly casing, awkward internet hookup, and general failure to take advantage of its nature as an ELECTRONIC device to make the reading experiene richer in some way. Really, as far as I can tell, the only reason she likes the Kindle at all is because she likes reading, and most readers aren't going to be motivated by the Kindle's charming backwardness to give up their yummy, easily manipulated books. This article only reinforces my feeling that eReaders still have a ways to go before there can be any good reason for buying one--and certainly any good reason for a passionate reader to leave the world of paper behind.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Popular Novel: An Idealist Rant

Recently this article ran in the New York Times. It's made me think about the role of more popular, commercial books in publishing in general. In this case the writers of what are now very successful books had to start out self-publishing and selling books out of the backs of cars because they couldn't get publishers to pay attention. I don't know exactly how other mass-markety type genres got their start--did romance novels begin as an underground thing, were sci-fi books passed from devotee to devotee?--but it seems likely that these and other books that are now making huge profits for publishers were initially scorned as crude or unsalable. I find it frustrating that this could still happen, that such a vibrant market could be missed. Other industries use market research to guide the most minute details of their operation--no doubt they overuse it to an extent. And I'm sure there are failings in even the best-designed research plans and the conclusions drawn from them. But I would like to see such research applied more to publishing, with the hope that publishers could reach a larger buying pool by first figuring out what people want. Editors can't be relied on to be aware of every market, of every potential trend. Figuring out how to figure readers out more effectively is so important, not just to the financial health of publishers, but also to readers and potential readers who can be drawn more closely to the Wonderful World of Books.
I won't argue that all books are equal, or that one can get the same benefits from reading a beach book as a classic novel. I admit, the plot summary given of one book in this article: "a Versace-clad seductress... shoots her boyfriend in the head during sex, stuffs money from his safe into her Vuitton bags and, as she fondles the cash, experiences a sexual frisson," makes me shudder a little. But no one starts out reading Tolstoy, and no one can read all Tolstoy all the time, so to speak. And almost any book, any reading time, is better than none. In the interest of getting people reading, whether they stick with one genre or whether they branch out and up and experience the full benefits that challenging, "literary" novels can bring, it's essential to figure out what they want. Bringing more people into the fold is not selling out. It is a way, not just to stop the losses and sell a few more books, but to permanently bolster the health of the industry by creating more people who read regularly (even if they get their books from the library, as they do in this article).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

eBook Thoughts

Publishing Trends has its new survey out. Again I am mildly depressed by it (cutbacks made worse by this year's economy, job insecurity, a sense of fewer readers and the imminent End of Publishing as We Know it), but not terribly surprised. One thing that inspires neither of those feelings in me, though, is the revelation that only about 30% of respondents had ever read an e-book. Joe Wikert finds this fact not only stunning but disturbing. My feelings are more mixed. On the one hand the figures seem to indicate a dangerous unconcern for this new medium, a cavalier attitude towards something that is supposed to revolutionize the industry. Wikert mentions having an eReader as something that has sparked ideas he'd never have had without one, and it's certainly important for publishing folk to make eBooks and the different opportunities they allow a considered part of a general effort to help books reach as many people as possible. On the other hand, this change has been on the horizon for years, and there are still many legitimate reasosn for supposing that eBooks won't be overtaking everything any time soon. Really, if you can't get the bookiest of book people interested in a palm-sized library, something is still quite wrong. Obviously part of this can be ascribed to the reverence these people have the the book itself as a sort of fetish object, and possibly to the "hubris" that Wikert mentions--though the rest of the survey indicates more fear and disappointment than deadly pride. I don't think publishers are entirely wrong in suposing the general reading population shares special affection for, or at least comfort with, books as physical objects, either. I haven't read much market research on people who read eBooks, and I don't know that much exists. I think there was a Times article a while ago mentioning the popularity of sci-fi books and, surprisingly, romance novels as eBooks. But while certain populations may be eager to take in their books in this admittedly efficient way, and while people in general may be getting more and more used to the digital medium, I'm not convinced that all or most of publishing will need to convert anytime soon. My thoughts tend to go in all sorts of directions on this topic, and I'm anxious to see where it goes. One thing is clear, though: with the economy as it is, and with publishing salaries as humble as this survey indicates, I doubt that uninitiated 70% will be coming around very soon.