Although information started leaking last week, it wasn’t until this morning that the Penguin-Random House merger was made official:
Publisher Pearson says it has agreed a deal with German media group Bertelsmann to combine their Penguin and Random House businesses.
Under the terms of the deal, the two businesses will be run in a joint venture called Penguin Random House.
Bertelsmann will own 53% of the joint venture, while Pearson will own 47%.
First off, I think “Random House Penguin” is a much better name, mainly because of the ambiguity—is it a Random-House Penguin? or a Random House-Penguin? Makes the new über-publisher seem both literary and playful.
The tie-up between Penguin and Random House marks the first deal between the world’s big six publishers. The others are Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. It would bring together the publishers of the Fifty Shades series and Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks.
I keep reading this “Fifty Shades AND Jamie Oliver” line, and, to be honestly ignorant, I have no idea what it signifies. “This new MegaPublisher will publisher Super-Successful Book #1 PLUS Super-Successful Book #2!!!! ZOMG!!” Honestly, if you told me right now that Random House already published both of these, I’d totally buy it. It’s not like these are two random products suddenly being lumped into one administrative mess: “It’s going to combine Twilight and Gilbert Sorrentino!! Holy shitsnacks!”
Anyway, on to the real content: the creepy consolidation of two massive publishing entitles:
Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino, who is leaving the firm at the end of the year, said: “Penguin is a successful, highly-respected and much-loved part of Pearson. This combination with Random House… will greatly enhance its fortunes and its opportunities.
“Together, the two publishers will be able to share a large part of their costs, to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers.”
In case you’re wondering, “be able to share a large part of their costs” equals “eliminate redundancies, especially in terms of personnel.” I hate to be the voice of cynicism, but all the “No jobs will be lost! We will rule the world together!” lip-service being paid to Penguin and RH employees has about a 99.9% chance of turning out to be utter and complete bullshit.
Based on recent results, combining the two firms will create a business with annual revenues of about £2.5bn and about one-quarter of both the UK and US book markets. [. . .]
“In the UK the market share will be around 27%, so they may have to divest themselves of some non-core interests,” said Philip Jones from the Bookseller magazine.
27%?! That’s fricking INSANE. And in no way can this be good for the book world. I don’t want to get into all that right now—I have sales calls to make, classes to teach—but putting so much power into the hands of one entity that produces a limited amount of books, yet will be defining culture, is fucked.
Which, for many, will bring to mind Amazon’s position in the marketplace . . .1 Speaking of Amazon:
“Amazon has 90% of the ebook market – if [the competition authorities] allowed that to happen, how can they block a merger that gives Penguin Random House 27%?”
And that’s really what this about, isn’t it? Making a company big enough to negotiate with Amazon in a way that will reap it shittons more money and profit. Great.
By random contrast, I just want to point out this WSJ article about the “semi-socialist” Bundesliga. (Referred to as a “soccer paradise.”) It’s a really interesting contrast between the free-spending, unmonitored Premiere League in the UK, and the less-profit motivated Bundesliga in Germany. Not only is the quality of the Bundesliga better—there are more teams with a legit chance to win the title, in contrast to the Chelsea, Manchester x 2, dominance in the Premiere League, or the Real Barcelona duo in La Liga—but the clubs are financially better off (Munich made $230 million last year, which exceeds the commercial revenues of Arsenal and Man United combined) AND more people are attending the matches.
What does this have to do with RHP? Nothing, really. But the idea that there is an alternative model to flat-out late-age hyper-charged capitalism—one that can be more successful in all the key areas—is a very captivating one.
1 This is a bit of a flawed analogy though. Amazon is a provider, a retail outlet that takes what is made elsewhere and dominates the chain from production to consumption. By contrast, Random House Penguin will control what is made available. This is a stark and horrifying difference. Amazon is predicated on the idea that “more of everything is better”—more books sold to more people in more formats equals more money—RHP is all about the production and sale of products that will benefit itself only. For all of the issues that people have with Amazon’s corporate practices, they are geared towards providing customers with what they want, when they want it, and at a reasonable price—it’s their tactics to achieving this that are circumspect. RHP will be about blockbusters and leveraging its enormous impact to restrict buying options, or at least direct customers into buying its products for the benefit of the corporate shareholders. In my mind—in which product diversity trumps everything, since the things I like are often not in line with mainstream anything—this RHP situation is a million times worse.
OK, so typically I like—or at least highly respect—Jeffrey Trachtenberg’s Wall Street Journal articles about publishing. He’s one of the better book reporters out there, and it’s nice that the WSJ covers our little industry. But his new piece, Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books, is a bit troubling.
There are two main points in here, both of which are valid and will play out over the ensuing years: 1) advances for literary novelists (especially debut writers) are down from the “golden days,” and 2) ebook sales are increasing while hardcover sales are decreasing, and the economics of this seem disadvantageous to everyone.
One of the interesting assumptions in here lies in that “golden age” crack above. As Trachtenberg points out, a lot of literary novelists receive “small” advances from their publishers:
In some cases, independent publishers are picking up the slack by signing promising literary-fiction writers. But they offer, on average, $1,000 to $5,000 for advances, a fraction of the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that established publishers typically paid in the past for debut literary fiction.
Let me try and break this down a bit: First off, within the past decade, the number of fiction titles being published has skyrocketed. Click on the top press release on this page to download a pdf of publishing stats from 2002 to 2009. As you can see, fiction has basically doubled, from 25,102 books published in 2002 to 53,058 in 2008, and a projected total of 45,181 in 2009.
In terms of opening the doors to more writers and making more forms of literary expression available to readers, this is a great thing. But unfortunately, book sales (regardless of format), don’t really keep pace with this. Apples to oranges here, admittedly, but the most recent stats from AAP indicate a decrease in net sales for publishers of $.4 billion.
It doesn’t take a MBA to see that with slow growth in sales and rapid expansion in offerings, something has to give.
For anyone who doesn’t know how advances works, here’s a brief overview: in the traditional publishing scheme, authors are offered an advance for the rights to their books. Although certain behavioral economics-based stuff comes into play here (reputation of the author, perceived bidding wars, friendships and loyalties), in the most pure economic sense, advances should be based on what an author is expected to earn back through sales. So, if you expect to sell 3,000 copies of a $15 book, and are planning on offering a 8% royalty rate, a $3,600 advance would be appropriate. Other things can figure into this, such as foreign rights or film sales, or whatever, but generally speaking, this is how this should work.
Just going with those numbers for a minute, in this case, the publisher would receive $45,000 in total revenue from these sales, which has to cover the author’s advance ($3,600), the printing costs (~$6,000), bookseller discounts ($22,500) and marketing expenses ($3,000). (Typical Digression: I’m taking a pricing class now in which one of the main tenets is that you don’t include fixed costs—salaries for salaried employees, sunk costs of overhead, etc.—when figuring out whether to take on a “project” or not. Most publishers will include these costs in order to demonstrate just how fucked they are when it comes to publishing books. I’m going to let these go for now, because it is impossible to figure fixed costs when analyzing what it costs to make a book. We operate with low overhead and next to no employees. Random House does things a bit differently.)
To pull this back to the article at hand, this is where I think Trachtenberg ends up focusing on the wrong thing. His main beef seems to be that it’s totally screwed that publishers aren’t keeping food on the plates of literary authors. And as someone who loves, loves, loves, writers and their books, I agree that this situation sucks. Do I wish all my writerly friends could get $200K every four years in order to live well (enough) and have the opportunity to write a genius work during this period? Absolutely. But for that to happen, from a semi-sane economic perspective, they’d have to sell 167,000 copies of each of their books. That’s quite possible if your name ends in Larsson or Franzen, but for most literary writers? Fuck. And. No. Five figure sales are decent for the majority of writers, with quite a few of those 50,000 works of fiction selling far, far fewer copies.
One could (has? will?) write a series of articles about why these sales are so low (blockbuster model, crappy distribution schemes, more attention paid to nonfiction than literary fiction, the Internet, etc., etc.), but the main point is that there’s a fairly direct correlation between sales and an author’s earnings.
And here’s the weird leap in the article: As Trachtenberg points out, royalties for hardcover sales are much higher than those for ebooks. (According to the graph, an author get $4.20 on the sales of a hardcover, $2.27 on an ebook.) This is absolutely true, but the thrust of the article seems to make this some sort of zero-sum game in which the growth of the ebook market will eventually overtake the sales of hardcovers, and suddenly everyone will be twice as poor as they used to be. (Not to sidetrack this already rambling post, but these royalties—15% for hardcover, 25% for ebooks—aren’t standard throughout the industry. Just saying.)
What he doesn’t mention is that a) this has been the case since the existence of paperbacks (numbers I work with: 10% royalties on hardcovers listing for around $25, 7.5% on paperbacks selling for $15, which means an author earns $2.50 for a hardcover sale, and $1.13 for each paperback unit), and that b) this is simply price discrimination with different customers buying different forms of the products at different prices. It’s really not all that uncommon or as catastrophic as it’s being portrayed.
The nagging assumption here is that no one will buy the hardcover if a cheaper ebook is available, thus screwing the entire payment system. That ebooks cannibalize sales. But there’s not a lot of evidence for this yet. I’ve heard a number of anecdotes contradicting this and stating that people who wouldn’t buy the hardcover are buying ebooks (thus expanding the audience), or more disruptive to the WSJ argument, that giving away free ebooks has led to increased sales of the title overall.
If anyone has hard data, send it along. The only thing cited in this piece is that “sales of consumer books peaked in 2008 at 1.63 billion units and is expected to decline to 1.47 this year and 1.43 billion by 2012.” Is the decrease in sales of hardcovers? Trade paperbacks? Mass market titles? And the insane growth in ebooks (estimates that these will make up 20-25% of total unit sales by 2012), is that reflecting only a decrease in sales of hardcovers? Or are these replacing the mass market romances people used to buy? All the data here seems weak and speculative.
I know this is longer than Clarrisa, but quickly, there are two final things I want to say . . . First off, rather than focus on ebook pricing and the
backwards slow-to-adapt struggling publishing industry, we should instead focus on audience development. We simply do not live in a culture that can support 50,000 works of fiction a year on sales alone. Period. If we all paid full price for 100+ novels a year, well then, maybe. [Insert witty joke about the total impossibility of that happening in a culture that still supports American Idol.]
Check this quote from Nan Talese:
“We aren’t seeing a generation of readers coming along that supports writers today the way that young people supported J. D. Salinger and Philip Roth when they were starting out.”
Yep. We aren’t. And probably won’t.
Also, this whole “author’s deserve $50K advances for simply putting words on paper” argument is weird to me. I don’t mean to sound like an elitist, but seriously, of the 50,000 works of fiction published in 2008, how many deserved to be? 20,000? 100? Somewhere in between, surely, but the point is, some books are simply printed, others are works of art that won’t appeal to everyone, and a select few are picked up by the mainstream culture and make tons of money.
I’m a bit touchy about this article because it seems to be attacking indie presses (“they only offered a $3,500 advance! Cheap bastards!”), which is misguided, and because it’s reinforcing a publishing system that is failing. And next week, there will probably be a piece about how Random House’s advances are way too high and that the blockbuster model is ruining our culture. There’s just nothing sane here.
To counteract the latent vituperative bent of this post, I think everyone should check out OR Books. Incredibly innovative, great authors, zero advances, quick turn around time for books, and only selling through their website. This is a different option. It runs counter to everything talked about above, and, if successful, could provide some ideas that other publishers could learn from. Learn and adapt. The answer isn’t always to freak out; sometimes topics deserve reflection and thought, and sometimes there’s a third way to do business.
A number of interesting e-book related articles and news items came out over the past few days, and rather than try and make something coherent out of all this, I’m just going to post a smattering of links . . . So:
The big news this week was Jeff Bezos’s announcement that Amazon.com is now selling more e-books than hardcovers. From the Wall Street Journal:
Amazon.com Inc. said it reached a milestone, selling more e-books than hardbacks over the past three months. [. . .]
Amazon said Kindle device sales accelerated each month in the second quarter—both on a sequential month-over-month basis and on a year-over-year basis. But the statistics that Amazon shared were all relative—it didn’t share actual sales figures. The company has never said how many Kindle devices or e-books it has sold. [. . .]
Amazon painted a picture of accelerating growth in sales of e-books, which can be read on the Kindle and through software on a host of other devices, including Apple’s iPad and iPhone. The figures don’t include free e-books.
Over the past month, the Seattle retailer sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books it sold, it said.
At one of the independent bookstore I used to work for the owner would always give us data on the store’s performance in a series of ratios. This was always extremely aggravating, since he’d project a bar graph with no scale, no numbers, a sliver of profit (how much? A million dollars? Ten?) and a lecture about how we were all wasting too much time reading and not organizing the shelves.
So I get why everyone’s critical of this statement, and granted it would be nice to know what actual figures are. (Although this is the book business . . . Real hard data, like, how about actual print runs?, isn’t all that easy to come buy. Even when hard data seems to exist—such as BookScan—a lot of effort is put into debunking that so that everything can remain as murky as possible.) That said, it’s interesting to note that sales of hardcover books at Amazon.com increased last year, and unless the sales of paperbacks plummeted (unlikely) it sounds like ebook sales were more supplementary than cannibalistic. And that’s interesting.
What I’d be interested in finding out is ebook sales by genre. Even if given in ratio form (for every 1 ebook sold of literature in translation, 70,000 business ebooks were sold), this would be interesting to know. And would sort of clarify the current scene a bit. Cause maybe not all ebooks are epubbed equally. Or whatever.
Speaking of ebooks and their distribution, over at The Atlantic there’s a longish article on Google Editions and what it is:
So what does Google Editions add to the mix? The answer, based on conversations with Google representatives and bookseller—particularly among the independent stores—is that Google will be adding millions of digital titles for sale on any device with Internet access: smart phones, tablets, netbooks, desktops, and every digital reading device except Kindle, which for now at least continues to operate on a closed proprietary system. But Google and Amazon are continuing discussions, so that may yet change.
In preparation for its rollout, Google says that through its “Partnership Program” it has made deals with 35,000 publishers and scanned millions of titles. For now, if you go to Google Books, you can preview up to 20 percent of the title you select (go ahead and try it with a best-seller like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and then choose from available options for purchase of the printed book. Assuming the program works as planned, Google Editions will put up for sale a vast universe of trade e-books, plus technical and professional titles and out of copyright works (which will be free) for use when, where and how the consumer chooses. The consumer will put the books they buy on Google’s cloud (which means its enormous servers) and can access their personal library at will. Suppose you start reading on your iPhone and switch to your tablet or desktop—the book will pick up where you left off.
In effect, Google Editions seems poised to become the world’s largest seller of e-books. If you’ve followed this issue in recent years, it may seem confusing that Google will be selling books while still in litigation with the Association of American Publishers and the Author’s Guild over the right to display the texts of millions books Google has scanned through its library project. That case applies solely to books obtained from cooperating libraries that made their collections available to Google to, in effect, give away, which is why the publishers objected. The settlement under consideration now in the courts would require Google to pay royalties for books it displays and gives authors the right to opt out of the program if they choose to do so. In any event, the outcome of that case has no bearing on the Google Editions enterprise, according to Google’s spokesmen.
This should be interesting . . .
I still think it’s funny that the L.A. Times interviewed a twelve-year-old from a Rochester suburb for their future of reading piece, but this article is pretty interesting. Starting from the p.o.v. that digital will change everything (sure, sure, beliefs and qualifications and dissents all noted), Alex Pham and David Sarno list a number of interesting reading and writing related websites. Because of my obsession with how people find out about books, this is the part I like the best:
“We’ve pretty much reached the point where the supply has now shifted to infinite,” said Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press, a small New York publisher. “So the next question is: How do you make people want it?” Part of the answer may be found on Goodreads.com, a digital library and social networking site where millions of members can log in and chat about any book they want, including many that will never see print.
Lori Hettler of Tobyhanna, Pa., runs one of the largest book clubs on Goodreads, with nearly 7,000 members chiming in from all over the globe. Discussions can go on for hundreds of messages, with readers passionately championing — or eviscerating — the club’s latest selection.
I’ve really been getting into Goodreads over the past few months, especially now that it’s linked up with my Facebook account. It’s thanks to Goodreads that I found out about Albert Cossery.
And related to the series of posts I was writing about the future of reading, I mentioned Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, the way using the Internet reconfigures your brain, how hyperlinks make it hard to remember shit, et cetera, et cetera. This bit from the end of the L.A. Times piece sort of reflects on that:
Whereas printed texts often are linear paths paved by the author chapter by chapter, digital books encourage readers to click here or tap there, launching them on side journeys before they even reach the bottom of a page. Some scholars fear that this is breeding a generation of readers who won’t have the attention span to get through “The Catcher in the Rye,” let alone “Moby-Dick.”
“Reading well is like playing the piano or the violin,” said the poet and critic Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “It is a high-level cognitive ability that requires long-term practice. I worry that those mechanisms in our culture that used to take a child and have him or her learn more words and more complex syntax are breaking down.”
But Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said it was a mistake to conclude that young people learned less simply because “they are flitting around all over the place” as they read.
“Kids are reading and writing more than ever,” he said. “Their lives are all centered around words.”
Dr. Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of “iBrain,” said Internet use activated more parts of the brain than reading a book did.
On the other hand, online readers often demonstrate what Small calls “continuous partial attention” as they click from one link to the next. The risk is that we become mindless ants following endless crumbs of digital data. “People tend to ask whether this is good or bad,” he said. “My response is that the tech train is out of the station, and it’s impossible to stop.”
But simply making things digital and available and whatever isn’t necessarily enough. Over at the always fascinating (and very well-designed) Triple Canopy, Penguin’s Tom Roberge has an interesting post about the Internet, hierarchy, and design (scroll down to “Annotations” section and look for “At Swim in the Shallows” to read the whole thing):
In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks wrote, “The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian.” This is a long-standing claim, and is on one level true: Internet access offers (near) universal freedom to create and disseminate information, and to consume it on the other end. But on another level, this assertion is complete bullshit: We all know that the Internet has its own hierarchy, that the virtual equivalent of the crazy homeless man ranting about UFOs shouldn’t be—and, generally, is not—taken seriously.
Consider design. Books, for several hundred years, have not changed much at all. The paper is nicer. The covers last longer. And the evolution of printing technology has allowed for prettier pictures. But the format has remained static since the letterpress days: One reads from left to right, top to bottom, turning the pages to make progress. The Internet, on the other hand, is almost infinitely malleable—but you need a good blacksmith. Which has led to a hierarchy: the nicer, the more professional looking a site is, the more respected it is. Which sort of negates the egalitarianism.
I think blogs were created for the very reason of attacking articles like Lev Grossman’s Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. This article is so annoying and so preposterous that it’s actually dangerous.
It opens with Grossman’s praising “plot” as a sort of guilty pleasure that we crave but find our “attachment to storyline” to be “disgraceful.” That said:
If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.
OK, so I’m not entirely clear on what he means by “plot,” but more on that in a second. First off, here’s his bit on the Modernists—those assholes that destroyed our guilty pleasure of reading books with plots:
Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. [. . .]
But let’s look back for a second at where the Modernists came from, and what exactly they did with the novel. They drew a tough hand, historically speaking. All the bad news of the modern era had just arrived more or less at the same time: mass media, advertising, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. The rise of electric light and internal combustion had turned their world into a noisy, reeking travesty of the gas-lit, horse-drawn world they grew up in. The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie. The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did.
One of the things they broke was plot. To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. Ask a veteran of the Somme whether his tour of duty resembled the “Boy’s Own” war stories he grew up on. The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived. They took in “The Mill on the Floss” and spat out “The Sound and the Fury.”
Granted, the Modernists did a lot of interesting things to the structure, form, content, and style of the novel. They did “break” the Victorian form; they made something new. But does this mean that The Sounds and the Fury has no plot? The story is out of order and told in a relativistic fashion, but there is a “story.” There are characters, events that follow one another, conflicts and resolutions. There is a plot—just not the sort of plot Grossman likes.
I’m going assume (from Grossman’s grand statement below about the future of the novel) that what he means by “plot” are fairly straightforward linear narratives that are realistic, recognizable, simple-to-follow, and tend to have genre elements. I hate even writing “simple-to-follow,” since something that’s difficult to one person can be easily comprehended and enjoyed by another, but, well, in Lev’s unfailingly rational attack on “plotless novels,” he sort of brings it up:
This brought with it another, related development: difficulty. It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when literary novels were not, generally speaking, all that hard to read. Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who’s talking, and when, and what they’re talking about. The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters.
We all know that Art should never be confusing, or challenging, or “difficult”! Why didn’t Joyce spend his life churning out detective novels? Finnegans Wake should’ve been a sci-fi novel!
I think we can all agree that some of the modernist masterpieces Grossman has in mind — Ulysses, Sound and the Fury, The Waste Land — are not brainless mind candy to be consumed on the beach or the toilet, but labeling them as “difficult” brings with it a ton of baggage that, in the end, can be extremely damaging to book culture and the appreciation of literature as a lasting art form.
Because what usually happens after someone labels a book (or group of books) as “difficult,” they then go on to belittle this book (or books) as essentially unreadable, not worth your time, or as “work”:
After all, the discipline of the conventional literary novel is a pretty harsh one. To read one is to enter into a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience. The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward’s way out, for people who can’t deal with the real world. If you’re having too much fun, you’re doing it wrong.
There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it’s still exciting—when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. [. . .]
Nam Le’s “The Boat,” one of the best-reviewed books of fiction of 2008, has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which admittedly doesn’t include all book retailers). In the first quarter of 2009 alone, the author of the “Twilight” series, Stephenie Meyer, sold eight million books. What are those readers looking for? You’ll find critics who say they have bad taste, or that they’re lazy and can’t hack it in the big leagues. But that’s not the case. They need something they’re not getting elsewhere. Let’s be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins’s young-adult novel “The Hunger Games” instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because “The Hunger Games” doesn’t bore them.
And there we go. So here’s the basic argument: no “plot” = difficult = boring = elitist = doesn’t sell in a supermarket.
When I first read this article, I was totally outraged—this article essentially attacking all the books that I like, all the books that I publish, all the beliefs I hold dear about the power of literature as art. And all based on the belief that there’s a certain type of book that appeals to a mass audience and therefore sells astronomically well, and that sales figures trump quality every single time. It really shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve replaced critical appreciation with “units shifted” in our hierarchy of artistic values, but even so, it still pisses me off.
And letting my prejudices show for a minute: This sort of argument is intended to direct young writers into producing more “readable” books. Books with “strong plot” and “realistic characterization.” I don’t want to take away from these sorts of books, but there’s no reason that a certain portion of authors can continue to work in the Modernist (or Post-Modernist, or whatever label you want to apply to these “difficult,” “plotless,” “boring” books) vein creating art that requires a more sophisticated reader willing to contemplate and explore.
And on a really selfish note: I don’t want to live in a world completely dominated by genre fiction and “plotted” novels. I want more variety. I want books that I have to read twice. And yes, I realize that Stephanie Meyer and Jodi Picoult already rule the day, and yes, I realize that one WSJ article isn’t going to alter the course of the novel, but I don’t like Lev’s alone in his beliefs. In fact, his argument is perfectly in line with all corporate publishers—publishers whose accountants would love to eliminate every “unprofitable, difficult, plotless” book from the company’s list. (As I’m writing this, PW Daily arrived with news that Random House’s profits fell a whopping 35.5% for the first half of 2009. Goodbye, “difficult” literature!)
The one potentially redeeming part of Grossman’s piece is his list of authors who are revitalizing the novel:
The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century. Look at Cormac McCarthy, who for years appeared to be the oldest living Modernist in captivity, but who has inaugurated his late period with a serial-killer novel followed by a work of apocalyptic science fiction. Look at Thomas Pynchon—in “Inherent Vice” he has swapped his usual cumbersome verbal calisthenics for the more maneuverable chassis of a hard-boiled detective novel.
This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap.
These are all fine writers, and I wouldn’t dispute that they’re all doing good work, but in terms of the article, it once again falls back on binary divisions, praising this novelists for writing “entertaining” novels with “entertaining” being defined by what’s “fun” for Grossman to read.
What a complete mess of an article! I’m not going to list everyone that comes to mind, but Mark Binelli, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Meredith Brosnan, Dubavka Ugresic, Jose Manuel Prieto, Attila Bartis, Roberto Bolano, etc., etc., have all written very entertaining novels over the past couple decades that would be considered “plotless” and “Modernist” by Grossman. I know I’m rambling now, but I really don’t even know what the point of his article really is. A self-justification for his own reading habits?
I’ve been internally fuming ever since I read this Blockbuster or Bust article in the Wall Street Journal by business school professor Anita Elberse. Elberse is most famous for her take-down in the Harvard Business Journal of the long tail theory. Now she’s back, ready to defend the “blockbuster model” employed by publishers (and movie execs, music moguls, etc.).
The “blockbuster model” is exactly what it sounds like: publishers pay millions in advances for high-profile books ($2.5 mill to Sarah Silverman, $1.25 mill for fricking Dewey, the list goes on) in hopes of finding a “mega-hit” that makes up for the mediocre sales of the rest of its list. Or, in business-speak:
Most large media firms make outsized investments to acquire and market a small number of titles with strong hit potential, and bank on their sales to make up for middling performance in the rest of their catalogs.
OK, yes, that’s a model. A dominant one in fact. One that—to many—seems a bit rocky, especially when you consider how publishers decide which titles to throw their checkbooks at:
Rather than putting all its eggs in one basket, wouldn’t it be smarter for a publisher to place a larger number of smaller bets — particularly in today’s harsh economic climate?
Hardly. Despite its double-or-nothing daring, the blockbuster strategy remains the most sensible approach to lasting success.
Consider, first, how these bets come about. Given the variability in execution in books, and the constantly shifting tastes of consumers, it is extremely difficult to forecast demand for a new title. The one useful indicator of commercial potential is its resemblance to an existing bestseller, so a project can be tagged, say, “the next Tipping Point“ or “a hipper Harry Potter.” This similarity is an indicator that’s evident to any editor or publisher who sees the proposal — and thanks to busy agents, many do. As a consequence, there is heavy convergence of interest on certain properties, triggering competitive bidding situations.
“It’s like Marley & Me meets The Bridges of Madison County.” Hold on while I gag. . . . Yes, this sort of “this book is like best-seller exhibit A, so it will be a best-seller as well” powers a lot of editorial decisions. But is this really a good thing?
(This article absolutely drives me crazy. It’s like my economics classes—I completely agree on the description of the situation and how it works, but when it comes to value judgments on whether this situation is “good” or not, I feel diametrically opposed to what business people stand for.)
It’s clear that Elberse is valuing is the business of business, the business of profit making, over the cultural contributions publishers can, and do, make. Spend big bucks, put a lot of weight behind the book, make a ton of money, move onto next mega-hit. (cringing)
At least she sort of recognizes part of the potential downfall of this model:
When a publisher spends an inordinate amount on an acquisition, it will do everything in its power to make that project a market success. Most importantly, this means supporting the book with higher-than-average marketing, advertising and distribution support — which is exactly how Grand Central handled Dewey‘s launch. To do otherwise would be foolish: If a product like Dewey fails to draw readers, Grand Central knows its profitability will be severely hurt. With such high stakes and money tied up in a few big projects in the pipeline, the need to score big with a next project becomes more pressing, and the process repeats itself. The result is a spiral of ever-increasing bets on the most promising concepts, creating a “blockbuster trap.”
So, in this trap, publishers keep spending more money to get bigger books with bigger potential returns, causing them to spend even more money on even bigger books. . . . I hear that sort of idea worked out really well for the banking industry, so why not? Besides, you can’t break out of the cycle, right?
But what would happen if a publisher like Grand Central decided to stop making large bids like the one it placed on “Dewey” and systematically walked away from the most sought-after — and therefore expensive — new properties?
First, agents would stop sending such a publisher their most
promising book proposals. “If you are constantly backing out of big-ticket auctions, your list is going to hurt,” is how one publishing executive explains it. “You are going to get a stigma that you don’t play for the big ones, and you are going to get shunned out. Agents will no longer consider you for what they feel are their best projects.” Publishers can’t afford to cost-save themselves out of the market. Even if they could develop extraordinary competence in finding gold in the “slush pile” of hundreds of pieces of unsolicited material received each week, the dividends would be limited. After one success, the talent the publisher had nurtured would discover the value of an agent.
Uggghh . . . But wait, there’s more:
Book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble want to see evidence that a book is worthy of their scarce resources. They like nothing better than to know that a book publisher has made a significant push for a title and is planning an extensive marketing campaign. In most media markets, support from the biggest retailers is decisive. A significant share of books is bought on impulse, so significant shelf space and room on display tables (“pile ‘em high and watch ‘em fly” tactics) are particularly important. A blockbuster strategy helps retailers to use their resources effectively, too.
Yeah, no, that’s great. Who really gives a shit about quality, about culture, about the benefits of reading? In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons our industry is in trouble, and one of the causes for the so-called “decline in reading.” The primary examples used in this article—Dewey, Nicholas Sparks—are not good books/writers. But crappy books like this are force fed through the system because of this “all-or-nothing” sort of model. Reputation and “marketability” lead to undeserved astronomical advances, causing publishers to promote these books at the expense of real literature, leading impersonal box stores to assault the eyes and sensibilities of readers.
Again, in my opinion, this sort of short-term payoff mentality that runs throughout this sort of publishing—and business schools—damages culture. Maybe it’s fine for cookbook publishing or whatever, but in terms of literature, I truly believe that we have to take a more rational, tempered, long-term approach. Look at the Penguin Classics list. Included are tons of the greatest authors of all time and works that have survived. That have added something to our culture as a whole, that weren’t published just to try and make back the $1 million advance.
I had some hope that the financial collapse would bring everyone back to earth and back to the idea that you can “make enough money” instead of always trying to drive up profit margins in an industry that has never been particularly profitable.
Unfortunately, if this “blockbuster” mentality continues to be “the most sensible approach to lasting success” we’re in a lot of trouble. Thank god for university presses and nonprofits. And I want to personally thank Ms. Elberse for giving me something to get all fired up about, and for clearly laying out (in an negative image sort of way) all the reasons why people need to support nonprofit presses (and independents) in order for real literary culture to survive.
Richard Woodward has a really nice overview of Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clezio is today’s Wall Street Journal
Noting that at least a dozen of his more than 35 novels and story collections have been translated into English over the past 44 years, however, I could not help but wonder: Is a blinkered American literary scene to blame for his obscurity here?
To find out, I have immersed myself in his fiction, reading seven novels and two story collections — eight in English, one in French. I sampled his untranslated writings on cinema as well. Many works from the ’60s and ’70s have dated so badly — as he moved from existential despair to political outrage — that it took many cups of coffee to turn their pages. But most also contained passages of gorgeous writing — and one, the 1967 novel “Terra Amata,” was transcendent.
More philosopher than deviser of intricate characters or plots, Mr. Le Clézio is like a post-Darwin Rousseau, decrying the ruination of indigenous cultures around the world, often through the eyes of a child. At the same time, he is fascinated by the callousness of nature. In more than one novel he descends below grass level to record the brutality of insects.
Still, the book of Le Clezio’s that sounds most interesting to me is The Interrogation:
In his introduction, Mr. Le Clézio describes it as “the story of a man who is not sure whether he has left the army or a mental home.” Written in the shadow of Robbe-Grillet and Beckett, it simulates an unstable mind through abrupt temporal shifts.
And it’s described in the WSJ “Le Clezio Primer” as follows:
The Interrogation (1963): Organized into alphabetical fragments, the narrative concerns a damaged young man whose story is told, writes the author, “as a kind of game or jigsaw puzzle.”
Of course, it’s out of print . . .
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