Tuesday, December 30, 2008
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.
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
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
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
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
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
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
Sunday, November 23, 2008
'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.'
Saturday, November 22, 2008
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
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
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
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
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Saturday, October 25, 2008
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).