Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Aaghgh death of book, death of book, agh agh

Bloggers I like (John Green, Dear Author, Smart Bitches etc) are all discussing the way the US publishing industry has recently been exploring the nether reaches of the U-bend in the Crapper of Fate (pls xcse coarseness, but that's how they all make it sound). Apparently book sales have collapsed and all is doom and gloom. But but but - I checked out an interesting site run by Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books - here is his industry sales review which runs up to Oct 2008 (when the fact that a hedge fund was chief shareholder in one of the biggest US conglomerates, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt screwed them royally):

Check out the table about 2/3 of the way down the page - it shows the sales, and for the last 5 years, US book sales have run around $16.5bn per year...This year it looks as though it will be less because November saw a 14% plummet, and who knows what December brought - although maybe Santa bought a few books - he was certainly generous with the printed matter in our London/Brussels axis.

But the thing that baffles me altogether is this constant moan about the decline of the market - there have never ever been so many readers in the world - literacy rates may be proportionally lower globally especially since cute folk in organisations like the IMF and World Bank have helped poor countries switch money out of essentials like education in favour of paying interest on 'strucutural adjustment' funding. But overall, the number of people who learn to read continues to increase, little by little. Of course, their disposable income for books is shrinking at the moment, but the fact of the matter is if the right books are published, people will buy them and they will buy them more than ever right now, because books are a much better way of escaping the glooms than DVDs, say, or reruns on TV.

This is because reading is interactive and requires us to lose ourselves in a different time and place. The problem is that publishers at the moment have been burned by their own stupidity so badly - offering humongous advances for rubbish that won't sell (hmm, step forward sleb bios of ex-Big Bro contestants and Strictly Come Dancing judges), while failing to understand that by and large, fictions readers don't want more of exactly the same, but do want something just as good, if not better. Which is a subtle distinction that requires a punt every now and then, the kind of punt that takes imagination and people who understand about books. Which hedge fund managers by and large don't. Nor, clearly, as we are all discovering to our cost, do they seem to know much about their own business.

What all this means is publishing fewer books, more of which are crummy, thus deterring readers. What publishers need to do is publish more varied and interesting titles and build up small niche markets with print-on-demand technology offered through amazon and other retailers - because everywhere there are niche markets. And they need to ditch their sales guys and the big cars and get the authors out there pimping their own books, because no one can sell a book like a passionate author (take a look at John Green, frex). So - drive down the unit costs of book production - but not the editorial costs, because the one thing most books need nowadays is a lot of pruning and sometimes, slashing and burning, - save the planet by cutting down on paper costs and lumping around big heavy boxes of books which then get pulped, and get authors to work their markets through their own websites and through readings, offering courses and all the other things that most writers have to do already because so few of them as it is can make a decent living out of just writing. Plus, maybe, just maybe, some detailed research into the various genre markets.

Romance is alive and well because the romance genre, long snubbed, has gone out and built its own market through magazines and websites and now blogs and webrings, from AAR to great author pages. The readership is faithful and focused and is prepared to shell out for books because in tough times, you can save up for a couple of weeks, or a month and go out and buy 3-4 books in a hit. And if you are lucky, one or two will be good enough for re-reading, but otherwise, most romance readers have their stash of keepers that they will wheel out when the going gets touch (just as I did last week with one of my favourite Ibbotson books, The Morning Gift). There are lessons to be learned from the Mills & Boons of this world, who generally seem to be able to ride out recessions...


Spurinna said...

Surely part of the problem is that readers are no longer able to distinguish between 'good' and 'mediocre'. Take for example the success of books on Oprah's booklist, or that of the Harry Potter series (which is a great story but certainly not in the same category as Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy or Tolkien for that matter) or worse the success of The Da Vinci Code. In these cases, readers have been sucked in by the publicity hype and failed to register the shortcomings of the 'literature' that they are reading.

Then compare the successes of such examples to books which routinely end up being sold off for half price or worse - being pulped - a phenomenon that occurs most especially in the academic market.

Publishers have yet to realise that the internet offers them a vehicle to offer books at an affordable price. I would buy three books at 10 pounds a time but not necessarily one for 30 pounds. Likewise when it comes to articles, I would happily pay 3-5 pounds for one article but some publishers are charging up to 30 pounds for just one article which could be anywhere from 3 to 50 pages in length (and certainly not as long as a book).

Nonetheless, there is more reading going on. This is a GOOD thing! Andre Previn's Pop Classics did wonders for a generation unused to classical music. Publishers could, if they were more longsighted, use the popularity of certain books to introduce readers to other narratives that will stand the test of time.

Madeleine Conway said...

I agree about the failure to distinguish and that is the fault of me and mine - English teachers. Cultural relativism has had quite a bit of currency in classrooms, so people are afraid of saying something is mediocre or even outright bad (like the DVC).

Old-school publishers are rubbish at marketing, and particularly rubbish at marketing the mid-list. They lose their heads in auctions for poor books and then throw more money after them in marketing budgets. I think there are some smaller newer houses trying to do better - Quercus, for example