Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Getting to Balance

Americans have a tendency to take everything too far. We have this drive that's entirely market-driven. Where is the market? What does it want? What does it need? What will it support - but not support, what will it overuse? How can I master the market and become a billionaire? This crazed thinking has been building and building in post-war America, and when it hit a hiccup with the recession of the 1970s and 1980s, it came back bigger and stronger and badder than ever, with Reagan at the helm. We're of course still coming out of the ugly daze of the Bush years, when once again, free enterprise and competition reigned supreme. (And let's not kid ourselves, President Neo-Liberal Clinton didn't impede the progress much - hello, NAFTA.)

And now look at us, and by "us" I mean the publishing community. We're in a real effin' slump, it sometimes seems. We watched the massacre at HarperCollins last year, with layoffs across the board. We've seen beloved community bookstores close. Remember when one major publisher just stopped acquiring new books? The last couple of years have seen job losses and store losses, and many a pissed off author has picked up her ball and announced she was going home - home to publish her books herself. Stephen King did it at the turn of the current century, and John Edgar Wideman did it in the last few months, both taking the initiative to screw their usual publishers and publish their newest works themselves. On top of all that, the two biggest bricks and mortar bookstores are on shaky ground. Borders was on the brink of collapse in 2008 until they managed to restructure some debt, and now news comes out that the board of directors at Barnes & Noble might put the chain up for sale.

I would love to make a big announcement here, have the big answer to solve these huge problems, but of course I can't. And my reaction is rather anti-climatic to type out. It seems to me that the answer is moderation, something foreign to most Americans.

We're clearly in the midst of a very painful transition, and one that's going to mean people lose their jobs and lose their publishers and lose their local (chain) bookstore. But the people we need to blame are not the ones locking those doors to the now-empty stores or shuttering that imprint at a major house. These corporate bodies got too big, too fast. They're unmanageable, and they are asking too much of books.

I'm reading Jason Epstein's Book Business, a book published by Norton in 2001, based on three lectures he gave in October 1999 at the New York Public Library. Epstein worked his way up at Random House after starting there in 1958, when it was (as he describes it) a charming, quirky publisher located in the Villard mansion in Manhattan. It even had parking! And authors could crash right in, with some even spending wayward nights on the couch in his office. It then gets bought and sold and bought again, and imprints are spawned, and massive changes take place. This was a major growth period in publishing when bestsellers sold by the millions and media corporations saw books as more products to pitch, to sell in new locations, to incorporate into other media - synergy!

Now I'm only 40 pages into this book, but Epstein points out something of interest here: as he discusses the ways in which new technology will dramatically alter the industry - and yes, he's quite prescient in this section - he states,
Trade book publishing has always depended on the generosity of patrons and the undercompensated devotion of employees and owners. It has never rewarded investors looking for normal returns, which is why the entertainment conglomerates - CBS, ABC, RCA, MCA-Universal - that acquired such distinguished houses as Henry Holt, G. P. Putnam, and Random House, including Alfred A. Knopf, in the 1970s and 1980s, deluded by the false promise of synergy, eventually found them a burden on their balance sheets and disgorged them. The million-copy sales of a few name-brand best-selling authors led these conglomerates to believe incorrectly that general book publishing is a mass-market business, like selling soap or razor blades or movies. Between 1986 and 1996 the share of all books sold represented by the thirty top best-sellers nearly doubled as retail concentration increased. But within roughly the same period, sixty-three of the one hundred best-selling titles were written by a mere six writers, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, and Danielle Steel - a much greater concentration than int he past and a mixed blessing to publishers, who sacrifice much of their normal profit, and often incur losses, to keep powerful authors like these.
I know that was a lot - the man uses long sentences. But I couldn't stop. This was just such an eye-opener for me - not shocking, I know, but made such sense.

Let me just quickly untangle and connect here. Epstein's larger point beyond this quote is that these authors can easily pack up and start selling their own books directly to their fan base, which is just what they've done now using the latest technologies (see Wideman, above). We also see the backlist, once the stalwart of publisher's accounts, getting scooped by folks like Andrew Wiley and Jane Friedman who are digitizing backlist books and getting them to readers, sans publishers. The big publishers are losing their big ticket players.

In another section, Epstein mentions how this leaves publishers scrambling for quick sales, acquiring crap books - as Christopher pointed out, the latest being the chronicles of Bieber - to get immediate sales because who knows where we'll be in five years? The publishers need the money now. In collusion with them, the big box stores need the money now and are turning books around with remarkable speed - if a book doesn't sell at B&N or Borders in a matter of 4 - 6 weeks, it may very well head back to the publisher's warehouse. They got rent to pay and shareholders to please, so there's not pussyfooting around, people.

My point is, this is so much to ask of a book. People that love books aren't sharks. People who like reading books are by their nature kind of slow movers, and maybe that's not so bad. In fact, if more shit hits the fan, the world will most likely need people who are patient and thoughtful and attentive to figure out how to fix some major problems. But we can be crap consumers. We like libraries, and used bookstores, and we hold onto books we love for far too long. You can't get us to buy a stupid gift card to give out on someone's birthday, because instead we pick out a book we love that makes us think of the birthday boy. We probably don't have much money anyhow - we work in things like publishing, we teach, we write, maybe we work in a cubical 9 - 5 but daydream during work about what we're going to read on the train heading home. That won't get us a big promotion and big raise, now will it?

But these big industries and these rich shareholders are staring at us and saying they want more from us. Well too bad. So leave us be. And for those of us who got jobs at Random House and B&N and Holt thinking, well, it's not ideal but I get to read here and be involved so I can overlook the evil... we'll have to use the skills elsewhere, because the writing's on the wall. The dinosaurs are falling, they're crippled. They may not recover. That big fat publisher could be one 12 year old pop star away from landing on his face and not getting up again.

But maybe it's time we evolved and created smaller, more manageable venues - publishers and bookstores, independent and run thoughtfully, conscientiously, with respect for authors and editors and readers. This may be the only way for books to survive.

Back to Epstein for more insight...

1 comment:

Liz Svoboda said...

I have also noticed this trend, at least from the lowly consumer angle. Recently, B&N has been flooding my inbox with ridiculously discounted book offers. And I wish I could 'help' them, but as a lowly college undergrad soon to be grad I don't have the money to spend frivolously, so I wait for MY authors' new books to come out and by them and I get the rest of my reading material from the library.

Sociable