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.