Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ask the buyer what to sell

Via Shelf Awareness, this New Yorker piece by James Surowiecki - which was actually the Financial Page - talks about Simon & Schuster's recent decision to partner with a website called Media Predict. As the website notes, "Via Project Publish, Touchstone Books will be the first major publisher to put our market-based method for evaluating media content to the test." So a group of readers will evaluate book proposals and choose the top 50, which will then be evaluated by "a team of editors," with the finalist, naturally, being published.

There is a recent history to this phenomenon, with the failed experiment known as the Sobol Award. (See Miss Snark's smart response to this scam.) It was similar in that it created a contest to get yourself published, but it also offered cash prizes. Oh, and it charged participants $85 each, which is what really set people like literary agent Snark off. Rightly so! As the Award's website explains, they didn't generate enough interest to pull it off.

But this deal between S&S and Media Predict is different. I don't believe they are charging money for entries, and they are relying on readers to pick the winner, causing some critics to refer to "American Idol." It's another kind of good ol' fashioned market research, right? Right. But I guess some of us snooty types like to think of books as being above the market, about more than just a product. This is something I've returned to repeatedly on this blog, as I worry that the more we view books purely as product, the more the book as we know it becomes endangered. Survival... endangered... it all comes together.

University presses work in this way, to some extent, from what I've seen and heard. The editors talk to professors and read publications related to the disciplines they publish into, and they try to jump on the trends and publish books professors want to use in courses. But this system allows for more opportunities of originality, it seems. You and I might not be able to always understand an academic book, but many of them are cutting edge, fascinating, very necessary polemics that present an idea or topic that will likely get a tradier treatment years down the road. Textbooks are a bit more led by market research, whereas university press editors get to work with scholars on keeping up with an intellectual discussion - and I say that knowing some might replace "discussion" with "market," which again is just base.

As someone who doesn't own, I imagine that when people move into a neighborhood, they choose it because it has character. Many of them then, once they become owners, work tirelessly to remove any sign of character for fear of hurting the elusive "market." It's all about resale value. I find this tragic, yes, but on a lighter note, truly bizarre. You cannot live in your home, in the space in which you spend very important down time, in fear of the market! Relax, express yourself in that space, spread own and make yourself comfortable. The activities you choose shouldn't harm your neighbors, of course, but they should express your own individuality rather than your ability to follow the status quo. "I assume you'll be putting in GRANITE countertops, William... no?"

So then we get to publishing - on the other end of the profit spectrum from real estate, to be sure. As the New Yorker piece points out, in all it's stark sadness, "most books today are not economically successful, which means that much of the time and money that publishers invest in projects is wasted." Youch. So I want to say publishers need to have a firm identity, and need to stand by that identity and make it consistent, a vision that will attract people and keep people around who will come to rely on the vision of the editor or editorial team. Some good examples of this kind of publishing include McSweeneys - and go buy a book there, as I certainly did, as they're hurting from PGW's bankruptcy! - and David Godine. These places have a secure, strong identity which does not always point so directly to the market.

But I know that's idealistic. Still, do we need to sound as desperate as S&S here, begging readers to just tell us what to publish? I hope not.

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