Thursday, September 18, 2008

Publishing just can't win this week

From today's L.A. Times:

Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, believes that the reading public "feels stuff not worthy of them is being shoved down their throats." The difficult part, she says, is that the audience for "serious books . . . really doesn't want to be marketed to. But if you don't market to them, they don't know what to read."

As someone who has worked on a number of books that were considered "literary" but got less coverage than any celebrity memoir or Harlan Coben book, I feel that. The industry has become so focused on what will sell rather than what is good, that, at times, it feels as though we are destroying ourselves from within.

The article looks at reprints, with the basic argument seeming to be that people are becoming dissatisfied with the fiction being offered to them, so they are turning to older books that are now being reintroduced to the market. And that the big houses are in danger of losing the trust of readers by tainting their once respected name.

It's an interesting theory, but I would like to argue that there are plenty of good books still being published. The focus just isn't being given to them. And in order to publish the "good" books, it seems that publishers have to balance it out with the "commercial" ones that will bring in the money. Publishers hedge their bets on a couple sure blockbusters in order to keep them afloat so they can try out other books.

But doesn't it seem that maybe if we shrunk the scale, we could solve all the problems at once? Why do we have to have massive lists? Can't we throw all of our energy into books we believe in, rather than just try to market them in between fielding calls about Stephanie Meyer or Curtis Sittenfeld? And, it's not just publishers that are to blame. The media covering the industry doesn't seem to be interested in discovering a new writer...they seem to just want to talk about the author everyone else already is.


1 comment:

Andrew Wheeler said...

Well...if everybody shrunk their lists -- particularly if they did it by getting rid of the books that sold well and paid to keep the lights on -- most of us wouldn't have publishing jobs for very long.

The publishing industry doesn't exist so that we footsoldiers can spend our days surrounded by literature we love -- it exists to get books into the hands of people who want and need them. Those books that people spend their money on are the whole point of the enterprise.

Three years ago both Sittenfeld and Meyer were brand new writers -- are you saying that they're old hat because they've written more than one book, or that you don't personally like their writing, so they should be ignored? If that's the level for being old and tired, than every writer with anything like a career is old hat.

And the media really can't be faulted for wanting to give their own audience a story. If those unknown, wonderful, uniquely special new writers have stories, then pitch those stories; but, if they're just more people who wrote some pretty good books, then what makes them more interesting than anyone else that People or Oprah might feature this week?