Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Awful Truth About Publishing

On Buzz, Balls & Hype, M.J. Rose recounts the conversation she recently had over lunch with her friend in publishing, and it bears quoting.

"But while I’m here, I might as well tell you all about the lunch I had last week with my friend, one of the most intelligent people I know in the business.

Or MIP for short.

MIP, who was admittedly in a bad mood that day, told me that all the marketing ideas I could come up with from here to kingdom come, were never going to get authors what they really wanted.

“Really? What do they really want?”

“A bestseller. A BIG BOOK. A HIT!”

Well, MIP’s right.

Probably nothing I or my esteemed colleague and partner in crime, Doug Clegg, can come up with will make a book A BIG BOOK. Only a publisher can do that because that takes cash, baby, and a lot of it.

At least $250,000.

We were standing on the corner outside the restaurant, and before he crossed the street to go back to his office, MIP left me with one final bon mot that I’d like to share with you.

The real issue, the saddest part of the story, the mess, is that we do not have enough readers for the number of books we are publishing to all do well. We do not have enough readers for even one quarter of all the books we are publishing to do well.

And NO, NO, NO, MIP does not think there are too many books.

Quite the opposite.

The problem, he says, is we do not have enough readers.

'I think that the larger issue of static/declining readership is the real heart of the matter. It's pathetic that, as an industry, we refuse to really deal with what afflicts us. The obvious way to sell more copies of books is to raise the level of the water. Right now we're battling over a little pond, and instead of noticing that the water is draining and doing something about it, we just keep talking about how each of our little pieces of the pond could be better managed.'

The idea of the industry taking on that challenge is -- and not with something as lame as a print ad campaign that is now in it’s what? sixth or seventh ineffectual year, a campaign, no less, that positions reading as an illicit or illegal activity up there with high crimes and sexual demeanors...

No, the idea of the industry really taking on that challenge…. now, that’s a dream."

An essential post. Unfortunately, the way your publishing pal sees the relationship between the number of books and readers makes it clear that even when the proverbial 16 ton weight of evidence hits them on the head, publishers won't come to their senses.

Reading for entertainment is a minority interest. Always has been, always will be. It's a fantasy to think that the number of readers will significantly increase. It'll probably decrease incrementally. What ideas do publishers have to create a dramatic increase in readership? I haven't heard any. And it would take resources to implement, if there were any ideas worth trying. M.J. Rose’s MIP says that it takes at least $250,000 to try and make a bestseller. If publishers are so parsimonious with their funds that they give that push to only a handful of books every year, they would be loath to commit a multiple of that to a campaign to get more customers.

Short of a miracle, the only answer is to drastically reduce the number of books being published. And for some reason, publishers just don't seem willing to consider that.

Do You Want Everything Written Published?

Over at Pod-dy Mouth, Karen Mitchell wrote this in her comment:

" But many traditionally published books are also of poor quality, so it seems to me that the "bar" is pretty low as it is."

I think that's a fallacy. Many books published by reputable trade publishers may not be of interest to you or not to your liking, but that does not mean they are bad. Bad means something written by someone with only a fleeting grasp of the rules of English grammar, spelling, and basic construction. Bad means so bereft of any style or plausible plot that it makes the reader cringe. Bad means something written by someone whose writing suggests they may not be in full possession of their rational faculties.

You do acknowledge the fact that there are good books and bad books, however you want to define good and bad. Someone must exercise some qualitative scrutiny over what to publish and what to leave unpublished. Agents and editors currently fulfill that function. The problem with POD isn't that the bar is low, it's that it doesn't exist. If the POD vanity model replaced the current agent-editor-trade publisher gateway model, we'll be inundated with tens of thousands of titles with no way to tell good from bad. Everything anyone writes will be published. Well, actually, it won't be published. It will sit on the servers of POD companies waiting, forever, in most cases, to be turned into a book.

The problem then becomes how to develope a mechanism to find and publish the meritorious books, and pretty soon we're right back to where we are today. Certain human activities always tend to get organized into certain systems.

Bloggers With Blinders

Tim Rutten writes a good piece in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times about how recent drops in newspaper readership have some, including some bloggers, predicting the imminent demise of papers. Rutten writes:

"Why, then, this rush to bury newspapers?

At the moment, you've basically got three groups who are busily organizing a wake without a corpse.

First are the ideologically minded commentators — mostly right wing, a handful on the left — who have found a congenial home in the blogosphere. Their critique is basically an exercise in wishful thinking. They want newspapers to die because their editors just won't print the news they want in the language they demand. These folks see the world through utterly polarized lenses and don't believe any other view is possible."

Thanks to Mark York for spotting this first. It ties in perfectly with my comments on Hugh Hewitt below.

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