April 21, 2015

Two for Tuesday: Are there too many books?


Too! Many! Books! (via Shutterstock)

Too! Many! Books! (via Shutterstock)

Topics discussed: warmth, beach vacations, gently crashing waves, rust, Rust, Norwegian domestic terrorism, American domestic terrorism, the long tail, The Long Tail, Stewart O’Nan, Alex’s party skills, cynicism, poker, Authors United, “you didn’t build that,” unpredictability, automotive analogies, Pontiac Aztek, #innovation, counterproductive Nazis, All the Light We Cannot See, Winter Institute, short chapters, tl;dr, Richard Nixon, Richard Holmes, Roland Barthes, Tim Parks

Alex: Hi Mark! Hi Two for Tuesdayers! What a lovely Tuesday it is, too. We are definitely writing this on a Monday evening and not on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

Mark: Yes, we’re definitely not sitting indoors on the most beautiful day of the year so far. That’s a thing we’re definitely not doing.

Alex: We should stop doing these now that it’s nice out. We should go to the beach instead. Just me ‘n’ you. Walking on the beach. Talking about publishing.

Mark: Nothing like a publishing-themed sunset stroll—the waves crashing gently at our feet as we discuss imprint value and digital marketing.

But Alex! Here’s the thing. I can’t go to the beach. Because there are too many books to read! I just read a review of a book about rust. Rust! And now I want to read that book, because the review was great! And also because rust is great. (The book is called Rust: The Longest War, by Jonathan Waldman, and if you work at Simon & Schuster and are reading this, feel free to send me a copy. I accept bribes.) And also, I want to read FSG’s new book about Anders Breivik, because there’s nothing I like more than Norwegian domestic terrorism. And I also want to read Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, about American domestic terrorism in the 1970s. (I guess I like to read about both Norwegian *and* American domestic terrorism. I think this is your influence, somehow.)

Alex, all three of these books are long, and all three were published in the last month alone. How will I find the time? No, I definitely can’t go to the beach.

Alex: Well, first, that’s a deeply stupid thing to say and you are deeply stupid for saying it.

Mark: Thanks!

Alex: You’re welcome. As I was saying, the beach affords quite a lot of time for uninterrupted reading—there’s pretty much nothing else to do there (especially if you, like me, cannot swim). Also, it usually takes a long time to get to the beach which means that, if you live in New York, you will have to take the train. So basically if you want to catch up on reading you should go to the beach every day. Not going to the beach will only prolong your misery, until you die alone, buried under a collapsed pile of ARCs. I will identify your body, once the police are able to wade through the molded papers and the stench. You will have been dead for four days and will be very bloated and gross, but I will recognize you, because you won’t look that different, really.

Second, there really are too many books to read! Whenever I meet someone who works at a big house at a party, I ask them what’s changed the most at their job in the last two-to-five years. (I do this because I am fun and good at parties.) The most common answer I get—by a wide margin—is this: “We are putting out way, way, way more books than we used to.”

I don’t have any hard data to back that up, but I think it’s true! It’s at least anecdotally true twice-over—people who work in publishing sense it, as do many discerning readers (like us!)—and big publishers in particular seem to have embraced the “long tail” business model starting a couple years ago. (The book The Long Tail, which popularized this concept and is pretty good, was published in 2008.) So, maybe you want to read so many books because publishers are putting out so many books! Also, you should lighten up, bro. It’s summer! (I am reading Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset which is brilliant, as well as a blast.)

Mark: You make a good point about beaches allowing for plenty of reading time, but think about it this way: I’m very pale. In the time it takes me to put on sunscreen, I could probably read two hundred pages about Anders Breivik. As you know, I’m all about efficiency, and so it strikes me as a more efficient allocation of time to simply never leave my apartment again and read and read and read.

Also, yes, you are definitely good at parties. Here is how I imagine your party interactions:

Nice person at party: Hello!


Nice person at party: Oh . . . okay. I was actually just going to get another beer, but sure! So . . . where do you work?


Nice person at party: I . . . I’m not sure. That’s sort of an odd question with which to begin a conversation. I mean, there’s a lot—


Nice person at party: Um, well, I guess it might be that it feels like we’re publishing more and more books? I can’t say for sure, but I get the feeling that—


You know, you’re weirdly easy to imagine as a robot.

But yes, as you say, while it’s anecdotal, I’ve certainly felt this, too. And I’ve never met anyone in publishing who has said that publishers are publishing *fewer* books than they used to. Of course, I wonder how much of this is attributable to mergers and consolidation—as imprints disappear and get shifted around, maybe there’s less actual growth in the amount of titles than there seems to be.

Let’s talk about why this is happening. A cynic would say that publishers are just trying to throw more and more ideas against the wall. Are you a cynic, Alex?

Alex: Am I trapped inside on a beautiful Saturday? Am I a goddamn delight at parties? Yes, I am a cynic.

Why is this happening? Well, I think part of it is to try to maintain control over the deluge of books published every year—market share is important to the big publishers that dominate the industry and I think those publishers have made an effort to try to turn the explosion of content into a blessing of sorts. If the floodgates are open, publishers like Penguin Random House want to make sure they have the most, best water.

But more importantly, publishing more titles just makes sense—though only up to a point. I was talking about this phenomenon with an intern last week and he used poker as an analogy to describe what’s happening—if you get a hand with a 10% chance of winning, but expect to play that hand 10 times, you should play it every time, because it’ll pay out in the end. (This may not be an entirely accurate analogy—I only play the Sex and the City slots.)

I write a lot about my fondness for Authors United’s description of publishing as “venture capital for ideas” and about the fundamental chaos of publishing, where there are very, very few sure things. Big risks are very rare—from soup to nuts, many of the calculations in the publishing process are often made with a sense of controlled risk, of trying to minimize the opportunities for catastrophe without necessarily impeding the possibility of success. Still, most books don’t earn out, often for reasons that don’t entirely make sense—though that never stops me from coming up with cool-sounding explanations. For publishers, publishing more books makes sense because the market doesn’t really make a ton of sense—if you know that one in 10 (or one in 100) books will breakout in a way that pays for the other 9 (or 99), but don’t know which one will, it makes sense to publish 10 (or 100). There’s one crucial caveat, however—it makes sense as long as you can maintain quality control.

And I’m not sure that you can! There are only so many outlets that have the power to break books out these days and, even with the content revolution, book coverage, from a sales point of view, hasn’t followed suit. Marketing plans have a bit more flexibility, but not as much as many would think—there are similar constraints, which are magnified when your books start to box out your other books.

More importantly, human beings break books out (we should talk about the “You didn’t build that” argument with regards to publishing sometime) and human beings are fallible and weak and made of meat and bones and get tired and can only do so much, even if they’re exceptional at their jobs and in really good shape.

Mark: First, did you really just say that human beings are made of “meat and bones”? That’s pretty gross. And possibly cannibalistic. I’d ask if there’s something about your eating habits that you’re not telling me, but I’d rather not know.

Unpredictability is very important in all of these discussions, and you’re right to bring it up. I think it can be hard for people not in the publishing industry to grasp just how unpredictable this business really is—how unlikely many of the successes are, how unexpected many of the failures.

Because I’m a car fan, I like to compare the publishing industry to the automotive industry. Like book publishers, car companies bring many new products to the market every year, but even if every car company in America introduces twenty new models in 2015 (and this is totally implausible), we’re talking about a fraction of the amount of new books that will appear this year.

This makes sense, of course: the budget for the research, development, and production of the new BMW 5 Series probably exceeds the yearly acquisitions budget of all of the big houses combined. So of course there’d be fewer cars than books. But I think it’s a telling comparison: every new car enters the market in a similar way, and because of the largely steady array of distribution, advertising, and marketing channels available to automakers, it takes a miscalculation on the level of a Pontiac Aztek to flop in a truly dramatic way. (Let’s devote a future edition of Two for Tuesday to the Pontiac Aztek.)

Book publishers, on the other hand, are fighting a radically altered set of distribution, advertising, and marketing channels and are, as you say, competing for fewer and fewer slots. A skeptic would say that publishers should be far more proactive about this fact and #innovate their way into a glorious future. This is not wrong, exactly—large publishers are certainly not doing enough creative thinking—but it also doesn’t give credit to the many interesting approaches to marketing and distribution that are put into practice by houses big and small every day. (We’ve spoken before about how annoying it is when people presuppose—without any evidence—that publishers are bad at marketing.)

But back to unpredictability: it’s really, really hard to know what will work! Will the sequel to a bestselling romance novel prove to be more successful than the first-ever Uighur-langauge edition of Mein Kampf, distributed in America by a mysterious group of counterproductive Nazis? Yes, probably. But most of the time, the comparisons aren’t quite that stark.

My favorite recent example of unpredictability is something you and I have talked about before, but not, I think, on Two for Tuesday. (And if we don’t talk about it on Two for Tuesday, it never happened.) At the end of December, the New York Times published an article about the huge success of Anthony Doerr’s (Pulitzer Prize-winning!) All the Light We Cannot See. The article essentially confirmed what people in the industry had come to assume in the second half of 2014: that that novel was the year’s breakout work of literary fiction. What struck me about the piece was that the path to success Alexandra Alter described was not exceptional:

Scribner ran an old-fashioned campaign courting independent bookstores, beginning months before the book came out. In January, Scribner sent Mr. Doerr to meet with bookstore owners at the Winter Institute, an annual gathering of independent booksellers. There was such widespread enthusiasm for the novel that Simon & Schuster’s executive vice president for sales and marketing resorted to double negatives, gleefully reporting to [editor Nan] Graham that “nobody who’s read it doesn’t love” this book.

What’s so fascinating about this is that every year, many publishers bring many authors to Winter Institute. Many books (at least, more than, say, three dozen every year) receive this kind of early bookseller support. Many authors have devoted editors and publishers. And yet this kind of success is extremely rare.

In other words, unpredictability is not an excuse for inaction or taking shortcuts or anything like that, but it’s an absolute fact of life. And all we can do is try to mitigate it in as many different ways as we can.

Alex: Hm, the explanation I heard for the success of All the Light We Cannot See is that it has short chapters. This is weirdly the one publishing thing marketing books occasionally harp on about! You see, these books are often especially annoying because the authors claim to “test” their ideas on their own book, and one of those ideas is usually “People like short chapters.” So, the chapters in most marketing books are very short. That should be a blessing, because they are also usually very bad, but there are, unfortunately, very many of them.

Mark: Should we start making our alternating contributions short? No more than five sentences per person, before we switch over?

Alex: Probably! The most consistent criticism of this column I hear/see from obsessively Twitter searching the link is “tl;dr.” A lot of people use that as an insult! Get it, the column is long and because it is long, they didn’t read it. (I have a theory that these people also complain loudly about short “clickbait” articles. In related news, I am apparently building a psychological profile of our critics. This is why they call me the Nixon of publishing! I’ve got my eyes on you, Michael Schaub.)

The Winter Institute thing is interesting and funny and also, why not?, telling. When books are successful, the explanation is almost always circular: this book worked because people were excited about it because the book worked! (Plus one other random explanation, like sending them to Winter Institute.)

The Winter Institute plan is a good one—and one, I should say, we’ve had some success with as well—but, like anything else in this fickle industry, it relies on a strange calculus. For it to work, you really need a book that booksellers will love tied with an author you know they will—if you only have one of the two, it’s likely that the plan won’t work so well. (Thankfully we have Lynne Truss who is beloved and wonderful.)

The worst thing about publishing is that you can do everything right and the book you’re working on still won’t be as successful as it should be—that phenomenon will likely only increase, as the volume of what’s published goes up. Because publishing is poker or car-selling (and publishing, I guess), a lot of guesswork is done in retrospect. If you have a lot of remainders, maybe you shouldn’t have done that second printing after-all; if the book sells out too quickly and you wait to reprint, well, you killed your own book by reading the market incorrectly. Occasionally, these explanations are entirely accurate, but not as often as one would think—from a lifetime of reading the letters to the editor section in various newspapers, I can say pretty definitively that if all somebody knows about economics is supply and demand, they don’t really know anything about economics.

But that example is only focusing on the production side of things! There are a million other factors—a million little pieces, if you will—

Mark: I won’t.

Alex: —that go into a book’s success or failure (or more likely something in between the two). One thing that’s become increasingly fascinating to me about the discussion around publishing is how limited it is. In a technocapitalist world dominated by technolibertarian companies (and pundits!) we’ve gotten really bad at talking about labor and production. Those two things rarely factor into most discussions about publishing, even though publishing is just labor and production. Richard Holmes may have disproved the idea of the solitary genius and Roland Barthes may have killed the author, but our discussions about the future of publishing too often treat books as if they are meticulously crafted by one person. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, everyone all the labor in production in publishing goes into realizing an author’s vision (or should), but I think it’s an important distinction to be made.

One question I have about the “long tail” approach is if it will alter the Big 5’s idea of success. Right now that idea is pretty simple: BIG BOOK THAT MAKE BIG MONEY, to quote one of those garbage Hulk parody accounts, probably. I’ve argued in the past (repeatedly, I’m sure) that I’m not sold that the big publishing model is sustainable for literature, literary nonfiction, and a few other categories—time-intensive books, where success is often best felt decades down the line. It’ll be interesting to see if big publishing changes the way they do business—if they stick with authors for longer than two-ish books, for instance—even though I doubt that it will. The problems with these companies are structural: they’re part of enormous, publicly-traded companies with investors who demand returns. A model where publishers publish more books by the same people—and work to develop those people—strikes me as more sustainable (though I am prone to golden age thinking), but I don’t see those days coming back.

Mark: Is it golden-age thinking that people other than you and me are willing to read 3,000 words by us about book publishing? Maybe not, but it’s certainly delusional.

Before we go, I did want to refer our readers to an excellent piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books blog, which was recommended to us by our author Michael Thomas, whose great new novel we’re publishing next year. Parks is perceptive and provocative on just about any topic, and his pieces about publishing in, for lack of a better formulation, the modern age, are all worth reading, though some are better than others. This one may be his best yet. He brings some much-needed historical context to the anxieties about overproduction that we’ve just talked about, and he responds to all of this with some much-appreciated (at least by me) equanimity. His argument, to put it reductively, is that the rate of book production is acutely related to the available technology, and that it’s no surprise that we’re seeing as many books as we’re seeing. This isn’t the whole story, of course, but it’s a smart corrective.

Alex: There’s only one place we can go from here: live cocaine-era Fleetwood Mac.