The Blockbuster Model: A Reader's Response

Yesterday morning, I got all bent out of shape about Anita Elberse’s “Blockbuster or Bust” article in the Wall Street Journal. I wasn’t the only one—GalleyCat has a few nice responses, including this quote from a senior editor at a major house: “many of the bestsellers that keep us afloat are not the blockbusters, they’re the ones that we bought for relatively little (six figures or less) and sold the hell out of.” Although I don’t have any hard data, it does seem like the majority of “money makers” for presses are surprises. (Even at the nonprofit press level, I doubt that Graywolf had any idea how well Out Stealing Horses was going to do.)

We did get a rather lengthy comment about this post, essentially defending the blockbuster model. (In addition to a really interesting one about B&N and Borders.) “Awasky” brought up some interesting points, and since this sort of “business of publishing” thing is an obsession of mine, I thought I’d reprint and respond to some of his/her points. (And take a chance to publicly thank him/her for responding in such detail.) If anyone has any thoughts, objections, etc., etc., please feel free to post them below.

As someone who works for one of the big trade publishing houses, I was sent the WSJ article. From what I’ve seen within the industry, it’s completely right. At the moment, the only books whose sales continue to be strong are the blockbusters—if publishing is going to survive at all, it needs to focus its attention on blockbusters rather than splitting that attention over hundreds (or thousands) of books that barely break even.

I have to say, this seems a bit tautological. Of course the blockbusters are the only books whose sales continue to be strong—that’s why they’re blockbusters! But no, seriously, my objection isn’t with the attention paid to books that are taking off, or have found an audience, it’s the idea of paying obscene advances in hopes of creating a blockbuster. Oh, and I totally agree—Elberse does describe how the industry tends to function. That doesn’t mean it has to function that way, or that this current dominant model is the best way for publishers to function.

By applying moral good or evil to what is the reality of the book publishing business right now, I find I have to object to most of the things you say in this post.

There’s something that’s been nagging at me ever since I read this article . . . I’m not sure I can properly articulate it, but it seems to me that when a publisher decides to pay $X million for the rights to a book, plus $XXX to market it, to ensure that it’s everywhere—in stores, on the radio, in your TV—when it comes out, to basically ensure that this book has penetrated mass culture, that publisher is impacting the world in ways that go beyond simple dollars and cents, and should take that responsibility seriously. Books are not toothpaste. What is read, discussed, and thought about by thousands of people is more meaningful than “shifting product.” Yes, publishers need to stay in business, and it is a business, but in my opinion, it’s a special sort of business.

1 – You’re presenting commercial success and quality as mutually exclusive (which they aren’t); assuming that publishers can either line their greedy pockets or produce “culture.” Believe me, most people in this business are here for the love of books, not the money.

Yeah, I know. I do that a lot. And it’s true—not all best-sellers are crap, and not all books that sell like crap are works of genius. Personally, I’m not a fan of Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, or Glenn Beck’s (!!! Oh dear God, everyone should check out this video) The Christmas Sweater (the top three current NY Times bestsellers), and wouldn’t consider these “literary” books, but someone might. (Not sure who, but still.)

2 – You refer to books with big advances as undeserving. Undeserving? I’m not going to argue the literary merit of Dewey, but that book more than made back its advance and is one of the reasons Hachette is the only publisher that seems to be doing well right now. Advances are calculated based on expected sales. So, big sales=big advances. That’s good business. Advances aren’t some grade publishers are giving out for effort.

Although in the WSJ article, Elberse points out that big advances=big marketing budgets, which generally=big sales. So it’s more complicated than this. The expectations are premised upon what a publisher thinks it can do with a book, not just what a book will sell if you throw it out there to let the readers decide.

3 – You hold up Penguin Classics as a purveyor of culture. Penguin Classics publishes classics because they are public domain and therefore free. The only cost is production. If that was not the case, Bronte and Melville wouldn’t be readily available. Never mind the fact that “classics” are classics because everyone says they are—they have proven track records and are guaranteed sellers as long as there’s an expectation that a well-read person will have read these books. Don’t kid yourself that books are classics based strictly on merit—it has as much to do with tradition and historical perspective as what’s between the covers. And do you honestly believe these books didn’t face market pressures in their own time?

I probably didn’t explain this well—and won’t now—but I had in mind the idea that these books have sold more over the long terms than a lot of best-selling books do over the short term. There’s something to be said for sticking with a book until it finds its audience in contrast to a quick hit.

4 – It’s all well and good to complain about the attention paid to bestsellers, but bestsellers are called that because they sell. And just throwing money and publicity at a book is not enough to make it one (I give you The Interpretation of Murder), so it’s not like publishers are being arbiters of culture, choosing to focus on these books because they think they are more worthy. I can point to the shelves and shelves of amazing books my company has published that have sold less than 3,000 copies, most of which were bought by an editor who believed in the books merit in spite of its lack of commercial potential. And publishing these books is doing no good for either the publishers or the authors. So publishers try to focus their resources on the books they think they will sell. That’s it. You expect people whose livelihoods depend on sales of these books to make bad business choices? We often do, which is a lot of the problem. But if you want art for art’s sake, there are plenty of charities for that.

There are? Will they fund Open Letter? I feel like this is shifting a bit . . . Bestsellers are one thing, the “blockbuster model” that I was writing about is another.

5 – Why are you complaining about bestsellers squeezing out other books? Do you have any idea how many books are published every year?

Yes. Approximately 276,000 not counting p.o.d. or short run titles. We even have a pretty good handle on how many of those books are translations.

Even in this recession, my company is publishing more books next year than it ever has before. We are in no danger of seeing the number of new books each year drop below the tens of thousands. Those books are out there right now. If you don’t want to read Dewey, it’s not like there aren’t other options.

Again, that’s not really what I was talking about. Of course there are thousands of books out there to read—hundred(s) of which we discuss here on this website. And there are hundreds of others we’d love to have the time/energy to write about. That still doesn’t mean that the reliance on big advance blockbusters isn’t a bit off kilter.

So it seems that the problem as you present it is not that there aren’t plenty of books, which believe me, there are, but that the media and the booksellers pay attention to ones you think are unworthy. And I’m sorry for that, but people will always being reading things you might disapprove of, and if we want to survive as an industry, we have to sell books to those people.

I have no problem selling books to readers. Or, to put it more accurately, selling heap loads of books to boat loads of readers. (Like the hundreds of thousands of people we hope are anxiously awaiting Jan Kjaerstad’s The Conqueror.) This conversation has drifted away from the discussion of the “blockbuster model,” which involves a huge investment based on (in my opinion) flimsy principles, in hopes of having to sell an astronomical number of copies in order to stay in business and remain profitable, to more about bestsellers. I don’t begrudge commercial publishers selling lots of copies of books (big houses do some really great books, and as a business it’s their prerogative to make as much money as possible), I just think there are might be saner business models for publishers that might be even more stable and successful, and could lead to a more interesting, diverse book culture that engages lots of different groups of readers, even if there are only 3,000 people interested in a particular title.

One of the biggest problems facing publishing right now is that is filled with people who are making decisions based on love of books, not on business. I should just point to the number of layoffs happening in book publishing right now as proof that we have not been focusing on the bottom line nearly enough. We are businesses; to survive we have to start acting like businesses. To expect us to act like patrons of the arts is ludicrous.

Exactly. And maybe these layoffs are happening because the business model publishers are relying upon needs to be tweaked a bit. One thing that inevitably gets left out of conversations/articles like this is that there are presses that are essentially patrons of the arts and that this nonprofit model (or university press model, or hybrid of the two, or whatever) is equally valid to the commercial “blockbuster” model. These presses serve a slightly different audience, and are guided by different goals and missions. They might publish books that people who read (or watch, or listen to) Glenn Beck might not “get,” but that doesn’t mean that these books aren’t appreciated, enjoyed, treasured, etc. These presses also face a different set of problems: undercapitalized due to the paucity of funding options in our country for literature, have a more difficult time getting their books into stores, don’t receive as much media coverage for their titles, etc. It’s not a perfect model, but it does exists, and has worked really well for a good number of presses that function to benefit culture and don’t gamble on paying big bucks for potentially big books.

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