Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Who's Running the Publishing Industry?

As children in our Social Sciences class, we learned about Supply and Demand. It's the cornerstone of all of industry: people want (demand) and businesses create for consumption (supply). Which comes first, though, isn't one for ages, unlike the chicken/egg conundrum. Sometimes a product will be created that fills an heretofore unknown void in the consumer landscape (supply preceding demand), whereas sometimes the consumer landscape demands a certain product and an industry will comply (demand preceding supply).

But what of supply and demand in regards to the publishing industry? As a writer of literary fiction trying to secure an agent to represent my first novel, I have been told frequently in rejection after rejection: "Your story is very interesting. The writing is very good. I love your narrative voice...BUT...I don't think I can sell literary fiction in this market right now." Now, I understand that this could just be a gentle way of saying: "Your writing really isn't that good." And, as a first time novelist diving into the deep end of the pool, I assumed that was the case with the first few rejections that stated the above, but after about the fourth or fifth, I started thinking: "hey, maybe they do like my writing but actually can't sell literary fiction in today's market!" And that got me to wondering: who exactly is running this business?

The usual trail to publication and literary success:

1. Aspiring author writes novel.

2. Writer queries novel to agents

3. At least one agent recognizes the excellence of said novel and offers representation (it only takes one they tell me)

4. Agent and Author work together to create best manuscript possible

5. Agent queries her contacts at the publishing houses

6. At least one editor at a publishing house recognizes the excellence of the novel and offers to publish (again, it only takes one).

7. Editor and Author work together to create the best manuscript possible

8. Novel gets published, sells millions, author never has to work a day job again

Even despite the abysmal state of the publishing industry in this day and age, this happens frequently. According to a publishingcentral.com's article from this past May, Bowker reports that there were 275,323 new titles published in 2008. That's a goodly amount of new books to be sure, though apparently down 3% from 2007. So, while the odds are stacked against us first-time novelists, they aren't completely insurmountable. That is unless you write literary fiction.

Supposedly the demands these days are coming from the consumers standing in the Young Adult Paranormal section of the bookstore (think Twilight, and Harry Potter, of course). Every agent, every publisher, every bookstore is apparently looking for the next big YA hit. It makes sense in an if-the-iron-is-hot-beat-the-shit-out-of-hit kind of a way. But is searching for the next formerly big thing selling the consumer short? I mean, we've already got Twilight, so why do we need another?

Reading, for many, is an escapism, especially these days. I get that. My mother was a Harlequin Romance kind of woman. She would, literally, get a box of them sent to her and would devour them in a day while lying on the couch, most likely, pretending she wasn't 50 years old, living in Oklahoma, the mother of eight children and working at the local Army hospital in the janitorial department. Books are great for that. I see people reading all the time on the bus into New York and on the subways. They're trying to step out of our lives for a bit, be somewhere else besides the Lincoln Tunnel. And YA Paranormal is about as far from the Lincoln Tunnel as one can get, I would suspect. But, besides the escapism, books can also teach us about others as well as teach us about ourselves. Books can, and should, provoke us to think beyond, not just step out of, ourselves. They should encourage us to turn and look at back at ourselves once we've taken that step beyond. Great books can do that. but not so great books can do that, too.

The thing is: I don't think the publishers these days think about any of that. I think they are merely looking at sales reports and demographics and the bottom line. Granted, the book industry is a business: that's the bottom line in regards to keeping the industry afloat. But surely, they can step outside themselves as well, right?

So, the question is: who's running the publishing industry? Does the consumer want the next Twilight or is it the publisher, merely because Twilight has become such a phenomenon? If the publisher gave the consumer something other than the next Twilight, would the consumer revolt or would they take what's given them? Does the consumer even know what they want before they enter the local bookstore or stop in at Amazon.com to browse the offerings? I doubt they do. Most times, in regards to books, you don't know what you want until you see it. And if they don't know what they want then what makes the publishing industry think they know what the consumer wants? In truth, no one knows what will be the next Twilight or the next Da Vinci Code or the next Freakinomics. It's all a crap shoot, though I would suspect the publishers are trying to make it less of a crap shoot by forcing particular books onto the unsuspecting public. The supplier has to anticipate the consumer's need/demand, but in the realm of books I don't see how that is possible. And the supplier can't either, so they choose which books to push. They create the demand by creating buzz via marketing. But they don't do that for every book they publish. In a way, they don't give the consumer the option as to what they demand.

I guess all this means that the publishers are running the publishing industry but they're doing a shitty job of it (and not just because they don't push literary fiction). They push books that will sell, which aren't always the best written books or even the most interesting books (The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova from a few years back is a prime example: huge success from a debut novelist, but the book itself was boring beyond belief. But the marketing campaign was so thorough an assault the book sold millions, undeservedly, in my opinion. Same with The Lovely Bones. While the story was interesting due to its perspective, the writing was atrociously heavy-handed and in the end the story was banal and uninspiring).

All this makes me wonder what amazing books are we missing out on because they don't fall into the biggest section on the publisher's pie chart. You think about the great works of literature and wonder: would they have a fighting chance in today's bottom-line oriented publishing industry? The Catcher in the Rye? To Kill a Mockingbird? The Grapes of Wrath? Moby Dick? I fear not. I fear they wouldn't make it past the query letter phase from all these agents trying to predict what the publisher is wanting who are trying to predict what the consumer is wanting. "Interesting story. I connected with the character of Holden Caulfield. The writings good. But I don't think I can sell this in today's literary climate. But remember, it's all subjective..."

Not that I'm saying I've written the next Catcher in the Rye but if the agents and publishers don't start taking more chances and don't start having more faith in the consumer to know what they want rather than being told what they want, we may never know.

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