Friday, November 10, 2006

Denial is Not Just a River in Egypt

I was reading an interview with Geoff Manaugh about architecture and JG Ballard the other day. Buried in the middle of the interview, the question was asked, “Much of the discourse on Ballard springs from English critics. As an American, do you see him as an especially British writer?”

Manaugh’s response gave me pause. (Emphasis mine)

Actually, no. I think, aside from vocabulary and punctuation and spelling — and Ballard’s settings, of course — it’s not at all obvious that Ballard is English. You can make points about sense of humour and so on, but Ballard doesn’t strike me as a British writer in the same way that Ian McEwan does, or Iain Sinclair. Or even Iain Banks. Ballard’s book don’t sell well in the U.S., but that’s entirely a top-down problem. I think the American publishing industry is in a state of free-fall, marketing all the wrong books in all the wrong ways. Trying to market Ballard would never occur to them. They want to sell people John Updike novels in hardcover — despite the fact that no one wants John Updike novels, and hardcover books are completely obsolete as a format. So they ‘experiment’ by publishing 900-page hardcover epics about farm life in 1920s Nebraska — and then still seem surprised that no one’s reading fiction in this country.

Short, good, fairly priced, intellectually progressive paperback books — that’s all you need.

While I agree with Manaugh about what the industry should be publishing, I agree with him more about the state of the industry. The publishing industry is in serious trouble. The sales numbers from 2004 bear this out. The fact that most professionally published authors cannot sell enough books to earn out their advances bears this out. The fact that writing a good book does not automatically mean that you have a best-seller bears this out.

But somehow, despite the fact the industry is in serious trouble, there is still no significant reduction in the number of authors who are willing to bend over backwards to get published. It does not seem to matter to them that the final judgment of their career will be how many books they sold in the first four months of publication. It does not seem to matter to them that they will probably never make more than $20,000 in the course of their (short) publishing career. It does not seem to matter to them that in five years, their books will be no longer available. It does not seem to matter that in twenty years, nobody will remember who they are or what they wrote. It is almost as if the simple act of being published is enough of a reward to overcome the other indignities that are inevitably associated with the process.

Despite the fact that the end result has changed dramatically, the publication process has not. If anything, the publishing industry has become more conservative than ever in their selection process. Up to 15% of new books being published every year are new authors, we are told. Up to 15%! Is that supposed to give the prospective new author a lot of hope? 85% of books being published every year are from proven industry performers. That means more of the same. But if overall sales are going down, then it probably stands to reason that perhaps the book-buying public (you remember them) is getting tired of “more of the same.”

In her response to me, Karen Syed made the following point:

The publisher and the author do create the demand with every effort they make, from the cover to the text to the promo materials. It is like any other product on the market. You have to be clever enough to convince the consumer that they MUST have your product and that is superior to the other similar products.

Manaugh clearly disagrees and I’m right there with him. The point of selling books is not to tell the reader what he should be reading. The point of selling books is to find out what the reader wants to read and to sell him books that fit the criteria. Certainly, raising interest in other books that may have been outside the reader’s point of view is a good thing. But without a clear idea of what the reading public wants to read, it’s downright impossible to get a good grip on what should be published. Anything short of that is just guesswork. (Educated guesswork is still guesswork.)

Go back to that Nicholas Sparks essay I linked to earlier. There’s an important paragraph that you should keep in mind if you actually think that professional publication is the only way to go:

With that in mind, as a writer, you have to understand business factors that are important to the editors making the decision on whether or not to buy your novel: What's the genre? What successful books are similar to the one you've written? Why is yours better? What's the market for your novel? How can we get the word out to that market? And most importantly, will this book be recommended to others?

Note that the the publishing industry isn’t interested in doing their own market research that has somehow become the job of the author. As far as the industry is concerned, current book sales are as much market research as they need. What is selling now is what will be selling next year. It works now and it will work tomorrow. To accept this at face value is asking everyone to ignore the facts about book sales. And to ignore the facts about authors not earning out their advances. Oh, and the fact that an author has to spend quite a lot of time and energy and money in order to be successful, self-published or not? You might as well ignore that as well.

As far as the publishing industry is concerned, the Pope is not sick until he is dead and there is nothing at all wrong with the current state of the industry. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the current business practices of the industry. Any noise to the contrary just indicates that those of us who have been paying attention (as we have been instructed to do) have no idea what we’re talking about.

Remember that when you prepare your manuscript for submission: these are professionals and they know what they are doing. Just pray that you don't get told that you should have written a better book when your book fails to sell. Because that's not really their fault; after all, they took a chance on what was clearly a bad book. That's really your fault for not putting enough effort into your own sales and marketing. Any argument to the contrary merely underscores the fact that you have no business in professional publishing anyway.

It sounds very much like an argument that a scared fourth grader would make. But let's be honest change is scary. And if the industry is experiencing negative growth, that means that it's changing. There is no real way to predict where this change will take the industry as a whole, but change can also equal opportunity for those that are bold enough to take advantage of the flux.

For example, self-publication may not automatically equal profitability, but perhaps it's time to let the myth of the self-supporting author die. For the most part, the author that makes a living on his novels alone is the exception rather than the rule. Everyone should be allowed to publish — the first amendment of the Constitution hasn't been eroded that much (yet). But not everyone should automatically expect sales. Sales are a reward for hard work and until every author realizes that, self-publication will remain a small, comic-opera movement without a shred of credibility.

But clearly, that's just me beating the drum for my personal agenda. A potentially healthy alternative to an unhealthy system will never work because it is different. And new. And fraught with challenges and unknowns. There is no promise of a reward at the end of a lifetime of work — monetary or otherwise. The current system should be all that you need. Ask anyone. You can trust their answers. After all, why would a professional lie to you?