Friday, July 30, 2010

Charybdis - The Death Spiral

Now the destroyer of the establishment in me used to read revelatory and go rampaging on into the night on the wings of furious indignation, upbraiding the lords of culture, power and influence for their callousness, for their machinations, for their inhumanity. I wanted to infiltrate Wal-Mart and expose anti-union activity. Break into nursing homes and expose abuse.

Because that is what you have to do right, you fight back? Because at the heart of every Complex - military, education, fast food - is a blackened heart of avarice and greed, of the kind Steve Albini was talking about when he told us about The Problem with Music. We must battle with that and overcome. Right?

So too then must it be with publishing books, an aged, long-toothed institution older and even more nefarious than brash young corporate music. And so we have our enemy now, and it is the The Death Spiral! *Cue ominous bum bum baaaa music*

*deep sigh*


Sorry, knee-jerk reaction to seeing the word "death" associated with "publishing". So let's read,
How, you may well ask, can these buyers read and pass judgement on, for example, the over 1000 SF titles published in a year?

Of course the answer is they can’t. Instead, an equation makes the buys of most of the books on the racks or blackballs the ones that don’t make it that far. It’s called “order to net.”
Oh. Really!? That does sound less than good. Personally, as a bibliophile, I think books should be valued more highly than anything (I didn't say cost!), I think librarians and teachers should make six-figures. Publishing is a business, though I think at end of day a business where you have a lot of underpaid people working passionately on making available something they really believe in: books. Onward Norman,
Let’s say that some chain has ordered 10,000 copies of a novel, sold 8000 copies, and returned 2000, a really excellent sell-through of 80%. So they order to net on the author’s next novel, meaning 8000 copies. And let’s even say they still have an 80% sell-through of 6400 books, so they order 6400 copies of the next book, and sell 5120....
You see where this mathematical regression is going, don’t you? Sooner or later right down the willy-hole to an unpublishablity that has nothing at all to do with the literary quality of a writer’s work, or the loyalty of a reasonable body of would-be readers, or even the passionate support of an editor below the very top of the corporate pyramid.
That sucks. It really does. It is a terrible way for the efforts of a person seeking to create and tell stories to end up, but I really just don't get it. Something is missing here. These numbers cannot just fall precipitously unchecked can they? Why are only 6400 people buying the second book? Shouldn't the second book do better than the first? What happened to all that editorial passion? Where was that editor when the promo-person from B&N came in to talk about tabling and end-caps for the next season when the book was coming out? Was she out sick that day? Did he sleep with promo-person's sister and never called? Did the ARCs going out to the bloggers and the indie store owners fall in the river? What happened?

Where are the fans in all of this, the people who fucking loved the first book? How come only a fraction of the people who found the first book find the second? What happened to the channels whereby the first book was found? Why were those channels not functioning on the second book? What happens when the second book wins an award?

Where is the demand?

WHY can't the voice of a passionate editor overcome the mechanical deliberations of publishing's Livia, spiteful grandmother that she is to our poor Claudius? WHY can't the desire of devoted fans overcome?

Now maybe this is me being a sort of devotee of Richard Nash - I count myself in his debt for publishing books on Bill Hicks and Martin Millar's Good Fairies of New York - but demand is key, demand is word of mouth and it takes a lot of forms. I myself have induced the sale of Good Fairies, The Name of the Wind, and Wolf Hall because I cannot shut up about those books. I have easily driven 10 sales for each of those books just being a schmo. This happens because a great book makes a fan of its readers, and fans are crazy. Being nearly driven doubly insane waiting or the sequel to Name of the Wind (March 2011 by the gods!), I can vouch that this is true.

Now an editor, they can be dangerous. This is someone who thinks an author's second book is catnip growing in a cat-quarium (like an aquarium, but for cats), can put on the working cap, show up at that tabling meeting, and fight tooth and nail to get that book on endcaps on both coasts. How many copies does that sell? How much higher does that fight raise the pre-orders for the title?

Wait, maybe Norman and I missed a step here. He's going on about supply. I'm railing about demand.

Maybe this is my false assumption: that the editor loves the book enough to be willing to fight for it. That the second book got published because the editor thought it was in fact better than the first book?

Is the problem here really that the editor DOESN'T love the book? Doesn't LIKE the book?

Let's reexamine this. The second book comes out, without the love of an editor, without crazy-ass fans like me rooting for it, without the love a couple independent bookstore owners who blog and can chat up a couple hundred other indie stores at BEA. Why? Well, hard fact...

...the first book just wasn't that good.

The second book isn't any better. Maybe #2 was published because it would do well enough to just about break even, and offer up a couple of paychecks along the way. Is that maybe what Normie and I missed, that maybe the 2nd or 3rd doesn't deserve to be published? The first book was the editor taking a chance after having a surprise hit in quarter-life memoir "Spitting in the Wind", but it failed to light a fire among the readers.

If you follow Norman's example of the spiral, the hard fact becomes a hard lesson: that long-term success for a writer remains tied to the quality of their books and their appeal in the market.

What Norman's article inadvertantly demonstrates is not the cruel grinding up of a writer in the gears of commerce. Instead it reveals the hidden truth that authors will not continue in perpetuity, once they have published, to receive all the blessings of the system and the fruits of the institution of publishing. They must remain viable in order to bask in the light of Zeus's favor. They must push themselves forward, their writing forward, and skate the ever narrowing razor's edge of being critically objective of their work while letting loose the energies of their imagining every time they push themselves out into the market.

Writers can get published writing a book that is just good enough can get a writer inside of the wall, but like most things, being "just good enough" isn't enough to keep you there.


William Owen said...

I probably could have found a better way to spend two hours than writing this.

Here is further reading via Ron Hogan:

Lyle Rosdahl said...

This is an important subject to think about now and I think you're right here. To an extent what you're calling for is true of most jobs (and our lives). Mediocrity is lulling and safe. You can cruise along as an entry level librarian and not really ever do much (not to get fired, not to get promoted -- I know a few) and be just fine. But there is no passion there. No lust. I believe the great writers have that and that, even if it's not always financially viable, will keep their work interesting and interested in the world. Why else write?