Let's set aside the economic sound and fury and focus on the writing rather than the noise.

Saw this column at the LA Times website by David L. Ulin and it seemed very interesting:

Two weeks ago, right as the collapse on Wall Street was beginning to look as if it might not have a bottom, the New York Observer published a piece on (yet again) the crisis in book publishing.

"A frost is coming to publishing," wrote the paper's publishing correspondent Leon Neyfakh. "And while the much ballyhooed death of the industry this is not, the ecosystem to which our book makers are accustomed is about to be unmistakably disrupted. At hand is the twilight of an era most did not expect to miss, but will."

Neyfakh's piece went on to suggest that, with money getting tight, publishers might start to consider only books or writers they see as sure things, and that for lesser-known talent -- the so-called mid-list authors -- "the advances are going to be lower and it will be that much harder to sell them."

Maybe so, although this is hardly a new argument; I've been listening to it for 20 years.

What's more likely, I think, is that publishers will scale back some of their higher-end advances, especially in regard to certain risky properties: books blown out of magazine stories, over-hyped first novels, multi-platform "synergies." At least, I hope that's what happens, because one of the worst trends in publishing -- in culture in general -- over the last decade or so has been its air of desperate frenzy, which far more than falling numbers tells you that an industry is in decline.

There's little doubt that the economy will affect this further, or that, even without the advent of recession, publishing is a business in crisis mode. But I see hard times as having a potential upside -- if we focus on the work itself.

Since the late 1990s, when computers began to enable publishers to track book sales to the copy, the industry has been numbers-dominated, less about the aesthetics of the language than of the spreadsheet. This is problematic, say, if you're a first novelist who gets a good-sized advance and a decent publicity push but only goes on to sell 1,000 copies of your book.

Sure, the money's nice and it's fun to go on a book tour, but what happens when you deliver the next manuscript? According to one agent I know, you almost have to hide your numbers, moving from publishing house to publishing house to stay ahead of the curve.

As a result, both publishers and writers have long since given themselves over to a blockbuster mentality, even in regard to books that wouldn't normally fit that mold. In recent years, this has meant an increased focus on "author platforms" (whatever they are), as well as a frantic embrace of all things new -- blogs, author websites, social networking -- as if this, rather than its contents, is what sets a book apart.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all in favor of new technology, new delivery systems, new venues where the conversation about literature might take place. But the unrelenting insistence on newness has led down any number of blind alleys, perhaps most distressingly the ridiculous (and ongoing) print-versus-Web non-controversy, which has been promulgated almost exclusively by the least insightful people on both sides.

Clearly, literary culture, like everything else in contemporary society, is at a moment of extreme transition; that's what makes this both a scary and exciting time. But it's exactly why we need to avoid hype rather than embrace it, to look critically not at author platforms but at authors, not at the mechanisms of culture but at the substance of the culture instead.

This, of course, may be the silver lining to our current economic contraction: No more will publishers or writers have time or money for ephemera. During the Great Depression, even popular literature got serious: The 1930s saw the birth of noir. As the money dries up, so too, one hopes, does the gadabout nature of literary culture, the breathless gossip, all the endless hue and cry.

A month or so ago, I was on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair when the conversation turned to just how difficult, in the face of what are now nearly constant distractions, it can be to settle down and read. I keep thinking about that as a metaphor, a signpost for all that's wrong with how we interact with literature.

We talk too much and listen not enough; we respond to personalities as much as we respond to prose.

Maybe that's the way it's always been, but with hard times upon us, it doesn't seem too much to ask that this signal the start of a more stripped down, less self-absorbed period, in which we set aside the sound and fury and focus on the writing rather than the noise.

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John, very thoughtful piece, and I agree there just seems to be too much emphasis on hype and packaging as opposed to the actual books. I think there's also a problem with a cookie-cutter mentality where a lot of publishers are too afraid to take on anything that's too different or risky. I was talking with an editor at one of the NY houses about this, and the way he described it to me is that fear governs every decision. If at any level you recommend a book and the person you're recommending it to considers the book a waste of time, you've put your career at risk--and because of this only safe books are being considered. According to this editor this happens at every level in the decision making process.
"A month or so ago, I was on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair when the conversation turned to just how difficult, in the face of what are now nearly constant distractions, it can be to settle down and read."

It's part of retraining the brain. You're right, it's a signpost for what's wrong with how we interact with literature.

Brian is usually reading 3-4 books at any given time. One or two being read at work, a bathroom book, an ongoing home read. When he had kids he learned how to read in small moments between everything else. Instead of watching TV while he eats breakfast he'll read a book at the table.

Perhaps we can insert jokes about the ability of the male mind to turn on selective hearing... but there really is no excuse for not reading based on distractions. The same people who use that excuse are probably quite capable of following their weekly TV shows.

One of the things I've seen a bit of commentary on is how ratings are sluggish this year for a lot of new programs. As people get bored with the subpar on TV, maybe they'll look for other things to do with their time.
Unfortunately there has never been much of a correlation between quality and sales, and it's ultimately sales that drive the business. I think editors' hands are tied a lot of times. They might find a great piece of writing, but they're forced to reject it because they know it'll never make it past the marketing department in committee.

But as a writer, in principle, I agree with everything you said, John.
This is why you get people saying you should figure out how to write a more commercial novel.

Thing with that is, that's how you end up with all the clones, and by the time you start writing a DaVinci Clone or something else, the market will be (although unaware of it) preparing for the next "it" novel.

As a friend with decades in the industry once told me, the trick is figuring out what the next big thing will be before it is the next big thing. Personally, that's too much like looking into a crystal ball, if you ask me, and all that time analyzing is time I'd rather spend writing. I agree with you Jude - editor's hands are often tied. If you start obsessing about that stuff, you'll drive yourself to drink. We do the very best we can with what we're in control of - then we roll the dice. It's like anything, though. I've been perfectly qualified for jobs I haven't gotten, that have gone to people with less experience. There are no guarantees in life.
I should really clarify, I didn't write any of that, it was the books editor at the LA Times, David L. Ulin. I do agree with him.

I also think that once you get past the top couple of giant bestsellers, there is a correlation between quality and sales. Often with stats you take out the very top and the very bottom and this is a case where I think you should.

So, looking at crime writing, taking away the "freaks of nature" lika a Da Vinci Code and a few others, what you're left with is usually books of a rather high quality. Often it takes five or six such books for a writer to make a 'breakthrough,' but it happens often enough that it's a better model to follow. Pretty much all of my favourite authors started off slowly, building an audience by publishing quality books. Guys like Richard Price and Elmore Leonard. Many of my favourites still haven't reached those giant sales numbers (Jonothan Dee is a good example) but they continue to publish excellent books.

Aiming for that big, #1 bestseller is like retirement planning by buying lottery tickets. It's a bad strategy for writers and it's a bad strategy for editors. Their hands may be tied, but they'll only stay at their jobs if they do everything they can to wriggle loose a little.

Or, maybe I'm just saying this because I had a book come out this past summer and it flopped ;)
How do you know it flopped, John? Is that speculation or grounded in something?

I'd been thinking WBW must not have done great - I mean, add in the fact that bookstore sales in the US were down 5-7% in June and July and of course that's not going to make it any easier, but apparently sales weren't bad. They weren't stellar either, mind you, but considering the economy I wouldn't be expecting that.

Right now, I'm having all the same jitters. The new book comes out amidst the all-star lineup of known names who will sell, and that makes it harder to get reviews, harder to get stocked. If I think about it, I'll go crazy, obsessing about things outside my control.

So I'm choosing not to think about it. :)
"Freaks of nature" Very good!
On another site, I just read that Dan Brown's publisher may well be in trouble (they are laying off a lot of people) because Dan Brown didn't deliver on the sequel of the Da Vinci Code. I guess he still gets to keep the advance, or a painfully large part of it.

First books rarely make anticipated sales. My first novel (15,000 copies printed) flopped so badly that the publisher lost faith instantly -- even though enough novels in the series were finished to prove I could deliver. Mind you, publishers don't bother to support a new and unknown writer enough to create sales. Meanwhile, I'm told (by my knowledgable agent) that a series hasn't had its impact until 7 books are on the market. So we hope and struggle on without publisher support.
I've read a few things about the publisher having trouble because they haven't got another Da Vinci Code from Dan Brown and I also read that they gave a $1.25 million dollar advance to a first novel that, "didn't live up to expectations." (everyone's saying which one it is, so it's no secret, the book is called Gargoyle). Now, it's unlikely the people who came up with the business plan of relying on another Dan Brown and throwing so much resources behind a single book are the ones being laid off, but I can dream.

Your agent seems right to me, Ingrid. I can't think of a single series in which I bought the first book. The first book of yours bought in a bookstore was Island of Exiles, how far into the series is that?

It's true, we just shouldn't think about this stuff, but how can we not?
It's # 4, but actually the 5th book published.

We (you and I, and everyone else in the same situation) must be patient and keep writing books that are at least as good as and hopefully better than the first. Slowly but surely, those books will eventually get us the readers we need.

The point about Dan Brown's publisher has been made before and about other publishers also. They put all their money on one or two titles (advance and heavy promotion), while neglecting their other contracts. If they win, they win big. If they loose, they may also loose their other authors.

While you're worrying, do a little dreaming. Revenge is sweet.
I used to be constantly stressed about the injustices of a career in music, how many things necessary foe success were beyond the individual's control. As I got (much) older, I came to realize that's just how life is. So it goes. (Sorry, Kurt.) Now I try to worry about only what I have control over, which means I worry very little, because if I have control over it, I can take care of it. So I do my writing every day, look for outlets, and hope I'm ready when/if an opportunity comes, because I might well not get another one.

As for dealing with the publishers, it's like the old joke: two guys in a bar. Bob gets up to leave. Ed says, "Where you going?"

Bob: Over to that poker game on Tenth Street.

Ed: You know that's a rgiied game, don't you?

Bob: Yeah, but it's the only game in town.

Writing and hoping to get published is a lot like that. You can either play or not. If you play, it's likely you won't win. If you don't play, you're sure as hell not going to win. Either way, it's always your choice. That's the part you control.
Interesting topic, John. According to figures I've seen, the vast majority of books sell less than 5,000 copies. Perhaps the current publishing model needs to be changed. Walk into any bookstore and what do you see on the discount table? $25 hardcovers selling for $5. That is certainly not an effective business model. I understand that Harper Collins is considering using digital printing or print on demand technology for its mid-list authors. If a book generates good sales, then they'll move to a larger print run. It seems to me that most book publishers are making the same mistake that music industry executives made. They're miles behind the technology curve and locked into a 20th century model.


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