John Thompson’s book Merchants of Culture does a brilliant job of spelling out why publishers are in so much trouble these days, and he does this not by attacking them in any way, but simply by explaining the underlying rules and practices of the industry. Publishers, it turns out, are hemmed in on both sides. Their job is to be the intermediaries between authors and the reading public – except that nowadays, there are agents blocking (or facilitating) their access to authors, and bookstores blocking (or facilitating) their access to readers. Agents and bookstores have become increasingly powerful in the past forty years or so, and they have made publishers play by rules which, on the surface may seem compatible to everyone’s best interests, but which have ended up also raising the stakes of an already risky business.
The most workable solutions to the complicated dance of the book business have been a) consolidation of publishers into huge corporations who have the financial clout to play what is now a very expensive game, or else b) the subversive strategies of the very small publishers, who can find ways to dispense with agents, and work in cooperatives for practices of distribution, and in this way get to publish exactly what they like. There are a truly surprising number of small publishers. In the USA, 93.6% of publishers have revenues of less than $1 million a year (these statistics are from 2004), 74.6% had revenues of less than $50,000. However, together they account for less than 10% of total book sales. Of course, the businesses accounted for by these figures may be all sorts of ventures, from self-publishers to educational institutions to trade associations. But there are a lot of people out there, doing it for the love of literature and for the good of the counter-culture. They are also having a horrible time of it, if Thompson’s account is anything to go by. Supposing that a small publisher, or even one of the few surviving medium-sized outfits, has a lucky bestseller that raises the profile of the company; they get a cash windfall, but the next thing that happens is that the author leaves them for one of the bigger, richer publishers. Take Charles Frazier, whose first novel, Cold Mountain was an unexpected success, selling more than 1.6 million copies in hardback. His small publisher, Grove Atlantic, was boosted up a level by this triumph. But when it came to Frazier’s second novel, Thirteen Moons, the $5 million advance they scraped together by combining forces with some other publishers, was topped by Random House, who paid $8.25 million for it. And what happened next? Well the novel bombed – do you suppose anyone read it with a cool, appraising eye at any of those publishers?
And the answer is no, because all publishers are on a desperate quest for what are known as ‘big books’. That’s to say bestsellers, books that are sailing on a cloud of buzz and hype (‘Hype is the talking up of books… buzz exists when the recipients of hype respond with affirmative talk backed up by money.’) The problem is, as Thompson so lucidly points out, that no book exists as a big book when it is bought. It is the twinkle in a publisher’s eye. It is the ‘one’ that a desperate single woman has dated a handful of times. It is the sure bet on the race track. When authors and books are picked as big books, this conviction is based on what Thompson calls ‘the web of collective belief’ but it is also known as the emperor’s new clothes. There are some factors, considered reliable enough to constitute the necessary element of the hoped-for big book: the track record of the author, comparable books that have sold well, and the author’s ‘platform’, or how well-known the author is. Not that any of these factors is actually really reliable when it comes to successful books. What this means is that competition hots up for books because….well, because the nature of competition is to hot up. The culmination of this madness is the book auction, whereby agents will tout potential big books around the publishers, getting them to up their bids. One anonymous source said ‘If I have a book that there’s a lot of interest in and I could go either way on, I’m probably going to go forward with it because I want to be a player.’ The editor added, ‘Often you’ve been in an auction and you just hope you won’t win. Everybody does it.’ And the outcome of all this frenetic buzzing? Only 30% of so-called big books make the kind of money the publishers are hoping for. 30%!! When advances for big books are counted in millions, then just imagine the amount of money lost.
What publishers are increasingly doing is putting more of their financial eggs in fewer and fewer baskets. This is inevitable when the price paid for a book is huge – the effort generated to market and promote it will be correspondingly large. An intriguing example of the power of marketing to sell a book was Elizabeth Kostova’s vampire chunkster, The Historian. The novel sold at auction for $2.1 million and, when published in 2005 went straight to number one on the New York Times bestseller lists, thanks to the internet and to the chain bookstores, places where it was promoted heavily. And then what happened was that we all read the book – do you remember it? I remember thinking it would be so much better if it were 200 pages shorter and had a decent ending. I don’t know what her second novel sold for, but I’ll bet it was a lot of money, and I’ll bet it bombs. We won’t forget what a trudge The Historian was in a hurry. But that’s another problem – the memories of the book world are both unreasonably short and unreasonably long. Readers remember for a long time when a book has disappointed them, but shoppers only recall a book for six weeks after publication. Apparently that’s the window for marketing these days. Within six weeks of arriving fresh in the bookstores, a book has exhausted its first burst of enthusiasm. If it isn’t selling well within two weeks, the plug is pulled and all marketing ceases. And it will be an awful lot harder for the author of that poorly-selling novel to get another book published in the future.
By the time I’d reached this part of the book, I turned to Mister Litlove and said to him, ‘I give up. It’s hopeless. I am never going to publish a book commercially, ever. I’m not a celebrity, I have no sense of buzz, I hate hype and I don’t ever want to write like anyone else.’
‘Oh but it’s easy to explain how businesses work,’ Mister Litlove replied. ‘In reality, though, they’re in a constant state of chaos. Anything’s possible, really, because the chaos is what predominates.’
I thought this was a very smart remark, because after all, I manage to find enough books to buy that were never hailed as big books, I suspect. Publishers do have to keep splitting the risks they take over a range of books because that’s all you can sensibly do with risks. And at the end of the day, no one can predict what will make a book sell well and/or be a good book (these things not necessarily being the same). However, the web of collective belief, otherwise known as self-fulfilling prophecy, is I think, the cause of most of the trouble in publishing. If publishers are always attempting to mount a bandwagon, always trying to tap into the feeling of the moment, then they are ignoring the core base of their business – the readers. Publishers desperate for big books are always trying to find the book that will tempt the casual reader to part with cash. But the floating voters of the consumer world are, by definition, fickle. That person who buys ‘the’ Christmas book of the year isn’t going to spend lots of money on books for the other 11 months of it.
It makes me think of another entertainment model – the world of computer games. My son used to be a huge fan of World of Warcraft, but for months now he hasn’t played it at all. Apparently a new extension called Wrath of the Lich King came out that intended, as one its main aims, to attract the more casual gamer. ‘What was the matter with it?’ I asked him. ‘It was too simple,’ he said. ‘There wasn’t enough challenge for the serious gamer. It was mediocre.’ The Wrath of the Lich King has done a lot of damage to the audience for World of Warcraft – not that it isn’t still a multi-million pound earner, but many of the people who used to play it are no longer interested, and are playing other games. The rot has set in because the company went for greed – more! more audience! – rather than satisfying their core market.
Publishers can go on chasing their big books, and wasting millions of pounds and dollars on them. But they dumb down the market, and if the trend for dumbing down continues, no good can come of it. Here’s a thought: why don’t publishers divert some of those potentially wasted millions towards the percentage of the market who, like me, are actually heavy book buyers and big readers, and see if they can’t figure out and satisfy our tastes? We’re still pretty numerous, since more people than ever have had a university or college education these days. Mister Litlove and I were thinking there’s potential in having a bookshop that stocks only unusual and quirky books, overlooked books, little gems, brilliant works in translation, the midlist that never got any marketing money directed towards it. You could really cater to your customers tastes, and use the internet to reach a wider audience. What if publishers thought first and foremost about their core, reliable customer base, and satisfied that first? Rather than following around hype and buzz, and ‘vampire novels are selling but upmarket women’s fiction isn’t’ type predictions that mean nothing. You might say to me, ah how naïve, Litlove; the business model is what it is and you can only work inside it. But the business model clearly isn’t working, is it? Otherwise we wouldn’t be hearing such howls of distress from the book world.
My third and final post on this book next week will be about the future of publishing, as Thompson sees it.