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 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.