Wednesday, June 27, 2007

This Business of Books

The great thing about having an acclaimed first book is that the quality of your rejection letters gets so much better. Having gotten used to models of politeness like that yellow “NOT FOR US” card that Soho Press took the time to mass print and send to me, it did come as a rather pleasant shock how nice some of the letters were. These were some of the most heartfelt, personable and downright gripping no thank you’s I’ve received ever since I was sixteen and thought telling this girl she could sit in my lap instead of the bus seat was hot. One publisher wrote “ I know, I know, I know that I’m making a mistake turning this down but I have to,” contradicting my belief that Publishers never had to do anything. Another could rhapsodize about her favourite major and minor characters (some of who I had never given a second thought) but still decided that her publisher would not know what to do with it. And so on it went the torrent of nice let me downs, letters that let me know that I was a very good, but ultimately too risky proposition to publish.

And here I was thinking I was a Victorian. I’m not sure what being a risky writer means. Granted my new book is almost 500 pages of Slave dialect from the nineteenth century, but does that make a book risky? Hasn’t everybody seen Roots? My let’s call it affinity for sexual and scatological explicitness is well documented but I don’t know if it’s any worse than Ulysses or The Bluest Eye or Sabbath’s Theater for that matter (not that my work is anywhere near as good). I’m beginning to think that rejection letters say more about the publisher than the book being rejected. In some cases it’s simply a matter of the wrong publishing house. And granted I’m not so stuck up my own ass that I thought I was writing the great masterpiece to end all literature, but it’s puzzling to me just how cowardly the industry can be. Puzzling because too often this cowardice is written off as good business sense.

Contrary to what others may think, I have no problem with publishers being all about the money. Publishing is after all a business, not a charity. My problem with publishing is not that these guys are too mercenary but that they are nor mercenary enough. For an industry that all about the dollars very little done makes business sense. Take for instance the dependence on blockbusters, something the industry picked up from music and movies. Given how bad the state of publishing is, the dependence on mega cash cows couldn’t make less sense. And yet every publisher does it, waiting for the breakout book that will save the industry. So 8 million is spent on Charles Frazier’s new book before anybody even read what is truly a bad novel. Here was an industry setting up expectations that nobody could have matched anyway. And yet that hasn’t stopped the hunger for the next blockbuster novel.

At the Frankfurt and London Book Fair a malaise descended on the proceedings because there was no major breakout book. None except The Raw Shark Texts that was not only hyped the year before but has yet to justify it’s enormous push (Some say it has—see comments—, but I'm not seeing Cold Mountain/Corrections/Everything is Illuminated ubiquity yet). This makes no business sense. It doesn’t surprise me that so many roads lead to BMG because this is exactly the BMG/JIVE way of doing things. Comedy rocker Mojo Nixon said almost two decades ago that instead of giving Aerosmith 80 million dollars, why not give 40 bands two million dollars, that way if three or four or ten of that 40 amount to nothing there is still a wide playground of opportunity. Or put another way were Steven Tyler to croak he wouldn’t be taking your company down with him. The publishing equivalent of that would be the midlist, but there is no such thing as that in publishing anymore, despite whatever somebody might tell you. Again in the search for the next blockbuster, basic rules of business, taken for granted in every other industry are ignored. Things like building brand loyalty, nurturing the audience, exploring untapped markets, growing with the artist and the audience—nobody does that sort of thing anymore, well next to nobody anyway. Publishers have always said that this is an unquantifiable industry and I’m inclined to agree, but some things don’t need analysis, only common sense.

Some people may say that the publishing industry has always been this way. Forty-eight houses passed on Catch 22 and the biggest novel of the 50’s was Peyton Place. But the nature of the business, the character of the business has changed. Somebody has tried to make the business quantifiable, a matter of scientific numbers and nerdy analysis and I think I know whom that is. People old enough in the music industry moan that they don’t make stars like they used to and they are right. Prince broke through with his fifth album, Bruce Springsteen his third, Madonna her second. As everybody scrambles for the next big hit, nobody nurtures talent anymore and as a result there is no artist with a solid, successful career. Publishing is not much different. And yet if you take that business model to any other enterprise; no we don’t care about nurturing talent because this one thing right here, it’s gonna be the bomb, you would have been laughed to scorn. I can’t imagine the videogame industry one of those blamed for taking away music and publishing’s money running like that. To have everything riding on one videogame to be the blockbuster that sells billions instead of nurturing ten or twenty titles so that they can all eventually make a billion each would be a ridiculously stupid idea.

And in all the publishing industry's bawling about the shrinking size of their reading audience nobody seems to be paying attention to a rather unexpected bonus. Say what you want about the Harry Potter phenomenon but the fact that it created a kid (millions rather) who would rather read an 800 page book than watch TV or play a videogame is an astounding phenomenon that should not be taken lightly. Here is an audience that's massive, young, loyal and malleable. And starting next year they will be without the one thing that pulled them together. The industry has a unique opportunity to build on an already existing audience, to do the long haul thing, to respond to the wide gaping hole left by Harry Potter's absence by keeping these readers hooked to other stories and growing as they grow. Or they can just sit by and let the audience—the first massive loyal reading audience in nearly century— splinter and ultimately disappear. My money is on the latter.