And yours, too!
A few weeks ago The New York Times ran an article that said the publishing business is struggling because it fails to take chances. It doesn’t publish risky books or look for the next avant-garde or breakthrough literary piece. It’s no longer looking for the Great American novel.
I find this to be almost utterly ridiculous. Not the part about publishers not taking chances. That part’s true. The part about that being why they’re struggling. That’s not true at all. After all, when publishers do take chances with deep, literary work or inventive writing, they sell a few thousand copies and the author is lucky if he or she even gets a cult following. Or an offer to publish again.
What Books Sell
So what books sell? Romance novels, thrillers, sci-fi trilogies, and fantasy. Adults are reading young adult books because teen-angst speaks to them. The stories are easy to follow, even though they often have deep issues and complicated backstories. Even the adult classics of the past are now de facto YA because they’re taught in high-school English. Fortunately, non-fiction remains popular among adult readers, but even that often follows a series of predictable topics and authors. Intriguing works often find themselves relegated to the academic shelves, but that isn’t new – that’s always been the case.
You might as well say the film industry is doing poorly because it doesn’t take chances. Yet, what movies, week after week, top the box office? Superheroes, sequels, and “vulgar” comedies, while occasionally a taut drama breaks through. Oscar-worthy films generally pull in mediocre receipts while earning diehard followers. Vastly original or risk-taking films do even more poorly.
Just like publishing.
Television—and for that matter, internet-developed television—does a ton of research and finds out two things: what does the audience want and is it cheap to produce. And most of what dominates the Nielsens is relatively mindless, and what dominates cable TV is definitely mindless. Even the high-brow channels have gone in that direction, and when we do get a high-brow show with great buzz (i.e., Downton Abbey), it’s produced overseas and all PBS has to do is pay a (large) licensing/rebroadcast fee.
The music industry is the same way. Plenty of songs sound the same because they sell. There are thousands of underground and indie artists who are fantastic, and who are all but forced to give their songs away to develop a following. But the big-selling artists, the interchangeable mainstream pop stars, are what allow the recording industry to take a chance on a questionable but original act every couple of years.
Is Publishing Dying?
Publishing isn’t dying because it’s not taking chances, because, in fact, it is. Just like independent filmmakers, internet videographers, and some cable stations putting out cool programming, so do small publishers and the occasional imprint. And every ten years or so, when a publisher does take a chance and a book becomes a bestseller, everyone rushes to copy it until it becomes a watered-down mainstream product.
No, publishing is struggling because it hasn’t fully adjusted to the times, people have plenty of other (and faster) entertainment options, self-publishing is pulling away a certain number of readers, a new book costs two or three times a Netflix subscription and plenty more in concentration, and most people stop reading after their schooling ends. In sectors where publishing is doing well, it’s because it’s giving the public exactly what it wants, not what critics and hipsters think they would like to read. I mean, how often does a poorly reviewed film go on to make $300 million at the box office? All the time. The same is true of publishing.
But don’t think this is a new phenomenon. Look back over publishing’s history. For every amazing, iconic book that comes along, publishing was cranking out a dime-a-dozen dime-store books like romance novels, Westerns, sci-fi and pulp fiction, because that’s what allowed them to take chances. Like the film and recording industry, all those tripe-filled bestsellers allow them to take the occasional chance on something new. When books aren’t selling well, they take fewer chances and fall back on the tried and true and retreaded.
The publishing industry has to undergo changes, but not with what it’s publishing, because that’s where the money’s coming from. The people are the ultimate arbiters. When they buy different books, they’ll start to see different books.
In the meantime, anyone looking for something new should write it themselves and work as hard as they can to peddle those copies because that’s the only way they’ll sell!