WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 9: Publishers can step it up too

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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

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14 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 9: Publishers can step it up too

  1. 1WriteWay
    January 21, 2016

    You’re not holding your breath, are you?

  2. John W. Howell
    January 21, 2016

    I have to agree about the movie guys taking a plunge into the different but there are a lot of fraidy-cats there as well.

  3. christineplouvier
    January 21, 2016

    Today’s writing gurus and gatekeepers advocate talking down to the reader, by their telling authors they must avoid using adverbs and polysyllabic words, keep sentences short, and conceptually reduce their writing to fifth-grade level. A literary novel that uses advanced vocabulary and usage compliments the reader’s intelligence, showing that its author believes the reader capable of automatic understanding, or figuring things out from the context, or being smart enough to know when to consult a dictionary or thesaurus. We need more novelists who are courageous enough to resist the trend to impoverish language, because I’m running out of enjoyable fiction.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 21, 2016

      You are so right, Christine. And I’ve often asked, Why not challenge the reader, even a little bit, to stimulate? If you talk down to someone, she never grows.

      We hear readers complain that, “This writer likes the sound of his own writing too much.” That usually means the writer wasn’t talking down to them.

      Too bad publishers are geared toward pleasing all those 5th-grade intellects out there!

    • sknicholls
      January 22, 2016

      You are so very right. I wrote a literary historical novel and it was well received by intelligent readers . I edited it myself. Then, I decided to write a simple crime adventure novel that I knew would fall into “commercial fiction” with a humorous edge. My new editor has cut nearly every adverb and every adjective. He insists adjectives are redundant and unnecessary, and slow pace and adverbs are lazy writing. He keeps promising me that my readers will thank me later. I honestly don’t see these readers as the sort who would leave reviews. I’m not insulting them. I just think the book is geared for those with a short attention span who want action and entertainment, not deep emotional engagement or any sort of and who wouldn’t take the time to write a review.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 22, 2016

        These rules about adverbs and adjectives are all part of the “boilerplate” problem. Pick up any classic novel and you’ll find loads of them. They offer ways to play with rhythm and pace in a way that limiting yourself to nouns and verbs can’t. Sure, they can be abused, but there’s plenty of bad writing out there with no adverbs in it.

        As for the readers, in the commercial market nothing seems to matter but plot.

      • sknicholls
        January 22, 2016

        I agree. I used them sparingly, understanding the rules, but he cut even those few. The book was boiled down to action and plot. For what it is, I’m okay with it, but it was an extreme alteration in writing style for me. I was making a point that one protagonist was flirting with another and said she shot him a flirtatious smile. Removing that adjective and saying she nudged him and shot him a smile just doesn’t seem to convey my intentions. But he’s supposed to know what’s best…at least that’s what I’m paying him for.

  4. kingmidget
    January 21, 2016

    I think the whole Amazon-Hachette controversy is fascinating. The whole point of that, I believe, related to the pricing of e-books and how Amazon wants them lower. And Hachette refused to go along with that. As near as I can tell, the price of e-books on Amazon has continued to rise, to the point now where most traditionally published e-books cost more than the paperback version of the thing. So much for lowering prices.

    As for marketing … as near as I can tell, that’s almost entirely dependent on Amazon these days. Yes, publishers are part of the problem, but it’s very difficult to change the eco-system when it is so dominated by one entity.

    Just had a thought … Amazon runs their Breakthrough Novel contest every year. And I am always amazed at how crappy the winner is. I seriously wonder what would happen if Amazon were to put its marketing might behind the unique and the literary as much as it does behind the tried and true, and the already popular.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 21, 2016

      I notice on Amazon the phrase, “Price was set by the publisher.” And it’s usually a kind of high price for an ebook. But I think publishers have calculated that they will do better selling physical books, so the weird disparity in price gets people to pop for the paperback instead of the more expensive ebook. Feels like a short-term strategy, but who knows?

      Marketing I’m not sure about. Yes, Amazon chooses to push certain books, but marketing really begins with the publisher, who decides how much money to spend on it for each title. That includes, I suppose, pitching to TV and radio, producing a book trailer, buying print ads, putting together a tour, sending copies to lots of review outlets. So I don’t blame Amazon entirely.

      And speaking of the Breakout Novel, that’s one of the entities that had no “literary fiction” category. I know, because I entered it one year. I had to go with “general fiction,” I think.

  5. Audrey Driscoll
    January 21, 2016

    Canada (home of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, among other literary authors) is full of small presses that (with subsidies from the government) manage to hang in there and publish a few books every year. Our public broadcaster (CBC) also supports writing; “Canada Reads,” which is just getting underway for 2016, is their baby. But self-published wannabees aren’t welcome. The entry into that community seems to be through the academic creative writing degree and contacts with those who are already “in.” Otherwise, it would take a long slog of submitting (love that word!) to various literary journals in the hope that one would eventually be seen as having “paid one’s dues.” But we do pride ourselves on the CanLit phenomenon.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 21, 2016

      Gosh, Canada is so cool! And while it’s true that small presses in the U.S., along with literary journals, usually get by on subsidies and grants, there’s just not much of a public emphasis on literary writing here. Still, our MFA programs are full to the gills and proliferating.

      And, boy, do I know that long slog you mention… I’ve since stopped “submitting,” because my emotional callus got so thick I finally realized I didn’t care what those people thought anymore.

      That said, I will take an agent’s call, if one happens to find me here. 😜

      • Audrey Driscoll
        January 22, 2016

        Yes, though not as prone to submit as I used to be, I think I would talk to an agent if the opportunity arose.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 23, 2016

        We do have to keep an open mind…

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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