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.