Friday, March 06, 2009

A Riff

A former colleague of mine who is still a mentor has been cracking me up over his commentary on the state of the publishing industry these days. Most recently, he expressed his concerns over the fact that HarperCollins has established a new "It" imprint. His spot-on evaluation is here. (Don't you just love his title for that post?) He's inspired me to write one of my own.

My first reaction is that the likes of some of my publishing "heroes," like Bennett Cerf and Alfred A. Knopf, who had very high standards, aren't merely rolling in their graves. They're performing miraculous acrobatics in their graves. Of course, they might smugly be pointing out to ghostly comrades that "Well, that's HarperCollins. What can you expect?" But they can't possibly be too impressed with what's been going on at their own Random House (Knopf, still one of my favorite publishers, despite having been gobbled up, is an imprint of Random House) these days.

What kills me is what kills my former colleague. Why do those running these companies insist on competing with other forms of media? They are not keeping their eyes on the ball, which is not that they need new "dumbed down" content but rather that they need to be delivering their content in ways that best suits their customers. I mean, imagine Gutenberg inventing the printing press and all the Biblical scribes of his day deciding, "Hmmm. We're going to be put out of business. What can we do? I know. We'll start transcribing street conversations." People who wanted the Bible wanted the Bible, and they knew what they wanted.

The publishing industry has always catered to a minority: those of us who read. Yes, occasionally, there is some fluke like Harry Potter that somehow manages to capture the attention of non-readers (and publishers should consider such flukes to be just that, instead of thinking they should be a company's bread-and-butter), but for the most part, those of us who buy books and read them consistently desire to read "good stuff." We are picky and always have been. For instance, I have absolutely no desire to read a whole book of "Tweets," as published by the new "It" imprint. And if you actually went out and asked Twitter addicts, I doubt they do, either. They're getting what they want from Twitter, which is instant communication, and that has nothing to do with book publishing.

I am a reader. Guess what. I don't watch television. I don't play video games. And movies? Well, I watch them, but I will almost always tell you, "The book was so much better." What do I do? I read. And read. And read. I always have. I don't believe it has anything to do with age, either. I know plenty of young people who still bury their noses in books the way I did when I was young, despite coming up to text people, check their Facebook accounts, and play video games. We are still out here. We haven't disappeared.

We readers are extraordinarily opinionated. We tend either to love or hate the books we read. I also happen to be one who pays attention to publishers and which ones give me the books I most enjoy. Algonquin? I love you. Overlook? Thank you for keeping P.G. Wodehouse and Freddy the Pig alive. Knopf, I don't know how you do it, being owned by Random House, but somehow you manage still to keep your typo-to-page-count ratio quite low.

I am not the least bit interested in some sort of "ET Tonight" version of publishing. I want talent. I want thought-provoking. I want things like excellent characterization, believable plot, writing that is seamless, and well-researched nonfiction. Is this why I find myself turning to blogs more and more often? And is this why I question whether or not publishers are really doing the same? If I were running a big-name publishing company today, I'd be spending a good deal of my time out here in the blogosphere, mining for gold instead of waiting for it to come knocking at my door.

So many of my friends (oh, and one husband) are adamantly defending the physical book. They are sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to electronic publishing. I'm not there. I am way past that. However, I am not way past demanding standards, demanding quality. I don't really care how you deliver it to me, but I want you to give me 2009's answer to Wallace Stegner, to Virginia Woolf, to Thomas Hardy. And don't tell me they're not out there. Human beings are story-tellers. Some do this far better than others and always have. They are most definitely out there. They deserve to be heard, and we readers deserve to be able to get our hands on them. A friend of mine, who recently finished reading Montaigne pondered, "What would he be doing today?" My answer? "Blogging."

The major publishers need to wake up and realize this. They do not need to be finding new markets that won't bite. They need to be making sure they keep feeding the market base they've always had. If those of us who want good quality, thought-provoking, fantastic story-telling want all that in an electronic format that works for us, then that's where publishers ought to be focusing their money and efforts. Don't change the content. Leave the empty television shows to the major networks. Leave instant communication with no real substance to Twitter. Leave inferior film versions to Hollywood. But please, please, somebody, keep feeding my mind with words strung together by those who have the imagination and talent to do so beautifully.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Emily! I think some of the major magazines are finally "getting" the fact that the best writing out there right now is on blogs, but publishers really need to do the same. I am ,though, admittedly, someone who can't imagine anything BUT a book and is stubbornly resisting electronic publishing. I'd better go tweet about it.

Bob said...

Emily, What a wonderful post, so impassioned. I’m more disgusted than impassioned, but I’m honored to be mentioned in your blog. You touch the key issues, including the central one: publishers are abandoning their one bastion and have decided to fight the “enemy” on the enemy’s turf. Stupid. If I were running a publishing company today, I’d defend my territory with occasional guerrilla warfare in their territory – for instance, publishing meaningful fiction/non-fiction that might have an ongoing component in the Blogosphere or an interactive web site. Something optional – after all, no reason to lose the Harry Potter readers to just one series of titles. Publishers need to build on their strengths and borrow the best from technology to expand their audiences. Keep the faith!

Anonymous said...

Amen! Great post. It is clear that the big publishers just don't get it. That's why many of the most interesting books are coming from smaller publishers. They get it. What is sad is that they often don't have the marketing dollars so it is harder for readers to find the books they publish. I think they are getting better at it though and as the big publishing houses implode I hope to see the smaller presses stepping into the gap.

Emily Barton said...

Court, thanks. And, you know, there's nothing wrong with stubborn resistance when it comes to preserving what's worth preserving, which the book most certainly is.

Bob, well your disgust helped feed my passion (I like the way blogs work in that regard), and I couldn't agree more with your guerrilla warfare analogy (you have the best analogies). And, yes, a few of those tactics, used strategically, are not a bad thing.

Stef, yes, it's exciting times for small publishers (so much easier for them to spread the word online, which again, the blogosphere helps them do), and I hope to see a small publisher renaissance.

Rebecca H. said...

I totally agree with your argument that the way the book gets delivered (physical book, e-reader) means less than the quality of the writing. There ARE modern-day Virginia Woolfs out there, and we want to read them!

Oh, and I'm not interested in a Twitter novel, although I like Twitter a lot (although perhaps a really great author could surprise me -- it's not impossible to write something profound in a series of tweets!)

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, maybe some Virginia-Woolf-like author could write a novel about getting completely disconnected, because all her friends Twitter and she doesn't.

litlove said...

Bravo! Standing ovation from over here! I loved the line about Gutenberg heading out to publish street conversation transcripts. That is so hitting the nail on the head when it has a migraine. When I was growing up, I read. Enormously. But very few of my school friends did - we were definitely a minority. So I don't believe any of this nonsense that the reading market is so much smaller than it was. I read a very good book (whose name now escapes me) that said the rot set in with the big conglomerates in the 80s and 90s, who lumped books, music and video together and decided to get a 15% profit on each, regardless of the fact that no publisher ever made more than 4%. It was madness then, and it still is now.

knitseashore said...

I am late to this post, but so heartily agree! People still look for quality, whether in books, cars, TV shows, a good meal, etc, and they are not going to settle for inferior quality just because a publisher decides that is what is most popular. Twitter books are never going to make nonreaders into long-term readers and bookbuyers. But ticking off your regular reading customers will send them elsewhere!