Monday, May 14, 2007

Making Publishing Predictable

This piece in Sunday's Times was, like all newspaper articles about the publishing industry, deeply depressing. Here's a sample:

The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.

Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.

I'm not so sure about this. Does anyone really want the publishing industry to give readers what they want? I know that I don't want what I want--I want what I don't yet know I want. Sure, I'm always happy to sink my teeth into a nice crime novel when I know it's going to satisfy me in a particular way. But the whole point of literary fiction, and really the only thing that separates it from commercial fiction, is that it provides a new way of seeing. You're not supposed to know you want to read it. You're supposed to be surprised.

Increasingly, the publishing industry can't stand surprise. It is bad for the bottom line. And the idea that the Times would suggest that the industry's unpredictability is a problem really makes me want to give up, and just scawl my novels on bar napkins and staple them to phone poles.

What the publishing industry really needs to do is to give up the idea, cooked up at some point during the buyouts of the 1990's, that putting out books can be as profitable as any other business. Perhaps it can, but dammit, it shouldn't. Books should be a labor of love, and a decent way to make a decent living, at best.


rmellis said...

I didn't find it all that depressing. If the publishing industry strangles itself by becoming entirely hit-focussed (as the music industry has done), readers will turn to alternatives presses, and smaller presses will get more readers. Creative ferment will abound!

Gone will be the days of big advances though -- but that was a short-lived phenomenon. I remember a writing teacher in college (late 80's) saying that he knew only one writer who made his living solely by writing. Now there are lots...

5 Red Pandas said...

When I still worked in publishing I was given the impression that publishers basically published literary fiction mainly out of charity- they didn't believe they'd make much money off of it.

I think you're both right. The industry is going to have to realize that putting all resources into one or two big hits is bad long term business, but I don't know if the audience for literary fiction will ever grow beyond what it is now- there are too many competing entertainments and frankly, many people do think reading takes too much time and effort. The people I worked with in the industry didn't even read literary fiction. If not them, then who?

I think unknown writers who don't fit the industry's perceptions of what will sell will go to the smaller houses just in order to be published, and perhaps they'll make as much money as they would have with the big houses simply because the big houses would not have devoted much money to their advertising budget. In that case, they might do better at a smaller house than they would have at a big house.

Perhaps writers and publishers will have to stop treating book publishing like a lottery where very few are handsomely rewarded and spread that cash around more equitably.

Anonymous said...

The reason I like books is because it is unlike TV/internet/etc. If they do this, they'll take all of the fun and mystery out of it.

Anonymous said...

I hope you guys are right. It does appear that independent publishing is getting stronger. I'm thinking in particular of Kelly Link's Small Beer Press--her last book was quite a hit, how did they do that? How did they get distribution? How did the get into chain stores?