Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Publishing needs to return to its traditional role as the grower of careers rather than the cherry picker. The classic author/editor relationship has been lost for most writers, mainly because the new megalithic companies are constantly merging and cutting staff. Editors have become dead weight because their role is no longer to develop talent but to practice strategic marketing. There’s a great story about the brilliant novelist, John Gardner, waltzing into an editor’s office with a grocery bag full of his manuscripts, dropping them off, and leaving. Naturally, the editor “falls in love” with the work, and a dynamo of a novelist is born. Suffice to say, this doesn’t happen anymore. For one thing, you can’t get past security to get up to the editor’s office. For another, if you did manage to get face time with the editor, she’d tell you to come to her table at the such and such conference and leave a sample there. It’ll set you back a couple grand to attend the conference, of course. And she’ll probably advise you to query agents and “keep writing”! Meanwhile, she has the latest Cokie Roberts book to whip into shape….
Small presses operate on a different model. Take a labor of love and add dedicated admirers of great writing who are also tireless, ambitious, and immune to failure — that’s the typical small press. Usually they’re focused on a particular genre or type of writing, sometimes a particular region, but more often than not they seek out excellent writing over stuff that sells. How do they get ahead? I have to think getting ahead isn’t really the point. Breaking even is nice. Still, for a writer hoping for some kind of career, getting published by a small press doesn’t usually spell renown. You can groom your reputation, you can put out a series of respectable titles, and you might even be able to lay the groundwork for speaking engagements and readings, which will in turn help sell your books. Odds are you won’t be noticed by national critics, though, nor by the reading public. Like small magazines, the small presses — with a few exceptions like Milkweed, Soft Skull, Two Dollar Radio, and Tin House — are mainly read by aficionados and other writers — though every now and then something breaks out. As with so much writing today, if no one knows it exists, it can’t take off.
So it’s up to the Big Five to change the model, and that doesn’t seem likely near-term. Unless they start breaking themselves up into their constituent parts again and welcoming back the committed editor of yore, I don’t see the drive for short-term profits easing up.
The battle with Amazon last year is a great example of the dysfunction. Hachette, as a proxy for the other big houses, revealed a certain prehistoric mindset in its strategy, in effect cutting itself off from the largest retail spigot there is nowadays. Its authors suffered the brunt of the loss when Amazon made it nearly impossible to buy their books. We don’t know very much about the settlement’s details, but it’s a pretty good bet that Hachette found a way to lean toward Amazon’s way of doing business without having to admit to a complete surrender. (Not that Amazon is blameless in all this. Their business model takes a page from Vlad the Impaler.)
Just as the music business failed to adapt in time to the digital model, publishers seem to think they can apply old strategies to a new retail universe and come out whole. It won’t work.
Yet, publishers are in business to make money. Business always boils down to moving widgets, so romantic notions about how it used to be and how writers and their editors had lifelong symbiotic relationships are charming but irrelevant now.
Why can’t publishers succeed at selling the innovative?
The truth is, they probably could if they took the plunge, but the relentless consolidation of the industry over the past twenty years has caused the gears to freeze up. Whereas a Random House or a Simon & Schuster, as an independent company, would have taken risks on certain revolutionary texts back in the halcyon days, they’re now divisions of large media corporations like CBS and answer to the top brass. Taking too many risks causes bad year-over-year numbers. Heads will roll.
But a strategy that emphasizes the obligation of publishers to contribute to cultural progress — that is possible and involves leading the consumer rather than letting the consumer be the arbiter of taste. Naturally it also involves some risk, but rather than pumping promotional funds into Twilight or The Hunger Games novels, why not highlight a series of novels each season called The Cutting Edge or Extreme Reads? Make it sound like X Games for books. New readers will be attracted to the idea that books can be radical, they can break out of the glass cage and challenge you, open you up to new things. You can’t tell me that a competent marketing team couldn’t come up with an irresistible campaign that focuses on key demographics and pulls in millions of new eyeballs that will make novels as popular as video games.
Not long ago, the New Yorker ran a piece by Louis Menand about the rise of the pulp paperback in the 1940s. These things sold in the millions, bought mainly on the basis of the cover art and brash tag lines, and while most of them were throwaways, pulp editions of 1984 and Catcher In The Rye sold like Mickey Spillane potboilers. When the average consumer who hasn’t made a habit of reading literary novels overcomes the feeling that he’s being talked down to, he’ll take a chance on something new.
This can be done today. The only reason it’s not happening is that publishers are too timid.
Literature doesn’t have to be stuffy. People love the movies that are occasionally made from highbrow novels, and that’s because the movie business does a better job of marketing than book publishers do. They aren’t afraid to put out The House of Sand and Fog or The Remains of the Day. They know they can put butts in the seats.
So when I call for innovation, I don’t mean just in the realm of writing the books. I mean in marketing strategies too, and in the way publishers engage readers. The current model is broken. If we’re going to break the cycle of mediocrity, we need a new battle plan.
© 2016 by Kevin Brennan