RARA-AVIS: Crisis? What Crisis?

From: Kevin Burton Smith (kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 30 Jun 2009

Mario wrote:

> Kevin, sometimes you use such enormous straw men... The crisis in
> publishing is
> real and is not the product of a bunch of whiners who can't achieve
> "success"
> and therefore are jealous of those who sell a lot.

Talk about straw. I never once said any "crisis" was the fault of anyone.

What I did say was that both Al and Charles offered a refreshingly clear-eyed view of the role best-sellers play in the industry. Without the income and fan base and demand generated by best-sellers
(and even good-sellers) in a genre, a lot of these writers would have even less chance of being published.

In fact, I'm not even sure what the crisis is, exactly, or whose crisis it is. I'm not sure some writer being turned down by every New York publisher in the book -- and his subsequent and constant bitching about it on every list on the internet -- constitutes a crisis.

> The market as a whole is bad,
> meaning smaller number of titles published, smaller advances (or
> none), and so
> on. Who people blame is really beside the point. This is an economic
> issue, a
> trade issue.

But for who?

Book sales have been far more robust and resilient than the naysayers predicted a few months ago. Yeah, they've definitely dropped, but not as quickly or as deeply as people feared.

Perhaps the drop in the glorification of ignorance has something to do with it.

So, what exactly is the crisis? There are still plenty of new books around and plenty of interest in them (the ongoing, if occasionally fractious, vitality of this list is proof of that). There are still plenty of choices. There are new authors coming out every day. There are more ways than ever to hear about new and re-issued books. And there are more alternate roads to publication than ever for those writers who don't have the skill, talent, patience, persistence or just plain luck to get published by those big bad New York publishers.

So whose crisis is it? And by the way...

If you look at all of publishing (including self-published, POD and e- books) there is a GREATER number of titles being published than ever. At least according to PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY. There's a reason why ISBNs are now 13 digits, not 10 -- and it's not because hardly any books are being published.

Remember, even THE DISASSEMBLED MAN found a publisher. And even managed to be discussed on a big-shot crime fiction discussion list.

Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, if it even got published, it might have sunk without a trace. Like Jim Thompson's did.

(Remember, Jim Thompson was once considered the most unfairly UNDERRATED crime writer of the last century. It took until the eighties for most of his books to get back into print, thanks to Black Lizard. So the "good old days" weren't so good for him. Nobody would suggest Thompson is underrated now...)

What has changed is that the amount of books being actually purchased hasn't increased proportionally to the number of titles published. But the big problem isn't that the money pie isn't getting bigger -- it's that more and more writers (or people who think they're writers) want a slice of that same pie, and because of the increased demand for slices some people aren't getting the size they think they deserve.

Certainly the publishing system as we know it is going through massive upheavals. I'm not denying that -- working in a bookstore, I see it every day.

The local bookstore, be it a big chain store or some small indie hole in the wall, is in danger. The neighbourhood used bookstore is disappearing quickly -- or already gone in many communities. And larger traditional publishers may be more picky than ever about who they'll take a risk on.

But the average reader doesn't necessarily see any of these developments as a crisis. At least not yet. There'll still be plenty of books to read, one way or another, whether it's through Costco or B&N or Amazon or via Kindle. So where's the crisis for them?

It may be the end of the world as we know it, but it's not necessarily the end of the world. And the "good old days" as fondly remembered by twenty, thirty and forty year old would-be fictioneers is wishful thinking, for the most part.

There's no real evidence to suggest they would have been published then either. Although I'm sure they'll all trot out anecdotal, self- serving evidence to the contrary.

> I think there is something else going on besides the economic
> collapse of the
> US. There is anecdotal evidence that people are reading less and
> less (books,
> not blog posts and gossip on the Internet). That sounds like an old
> warhorse but
> apparently it is happening. One of my teenage kids was telling me
> that from his
> classmates, only a couple read anything besides the mandatory books
> (and those
> they often avoid reading by using notes). These guys will soon reach
> adulthood
> and they don't know anything (book knowledge isn't the epitome of
> knowing, but
> there is important stuff between covers...).

There's anecdotal evidence to suggest about anything you want. Especially if you don't think too hard.

How about this one?

The younger generation just now coming up, the TWILIGHT/HARRY POTTER kids, are far more likely to read actual books than their older siblings and even their parents. I see it several times a week at the bookstore where I work. The parents head to the video section or just stand around waiting impatiently while Junior heads off to the books.

> A telltale sign is that the blockbusters are lesser busters, they
> don't achieve
> the sales numbers of decades ago.

Like television and music, it's the glut of titles and choices that are more likely to blame. AMERICAN IDOL probably wouldn't even crack the top ten back in the seventies. Is there a crisis in overall television viewership as well?

Markets are fragmented. From 3 TV networks we went to 30, then 300, from 5 Oscar nominees to 10, and the overall number of choices in film, books, TV, music, etc. continues to multiply even as the over- all demand remains relatively flat. It's the method of delivery in most cases that is changing -- not the message.

Something has to give and it's the sales per individual title. The same pie being sliced ever thinner. The culture itself is no longer the inclusive, shared culture it once was. almost everything is niche and cult and sub-sub-genre. We have narrow-casting instead of broadcasting. The mainstream is disappearing, bombarded by special interest groups. If the Beatles came out now, they'd probably be a cult band half of you would never hear of.

And if they did somehow make it big (by appearing on AMERICAN IDOL, maybe?), the whiners would complain about the Fab Four's success, because they're too popular, and have contributed to a "blockbuster mentality" that has destroyed what it was like in the "good old days"...

> So in a way, a perfectly predictable and
> predicted downslide of a society that has access to lots of books
> but actually
> reads little.

Oh, right, the downslide of society. There are so many crises to keep track of, I keep forgetting about that one.

Kevin Burton Smith www.thrillingdetective.com

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