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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, December 04, 2006

a cold eye on publishing

A couple of days ago, while checking in on Debra Young's pendrifter blog, I clicked on to a post by novelist Holly Lisle about the destructiveness of the contemporary publishing industry on the career of the writer.

Yes, it sounds bad: how the impersonal, automated methods of big-box bookstores, by programmatically ordering ever-fewer quantities of a writer's books, and distributing them throughout the chain in ways that make little sense, systematically choke off the writer's ability to attract readers and effectively ruin that writer. Holly Lisle is a staunch fan of the independent bookstore, where human beings who are knowledgeable about books and who like them choose to promote writers based on a variety of factors, thus allowing writers to build audiences and make a living at their craft.

I'm sure all of this is true. Certainly, big-box stores are impersonal and filled with a lot of stuff that doesn't interest me. The main bookstore here on the North Shore is the big-box Chapters-Indigo on Marine Drive, with another one opening (or just opened) at Park Royal in West Van. There are many titles in these stores, but still I usually can't find what I'm looking for--in fact, almost never can I find what I'm looking for, if it's something specific.

Of course, when ordering and stocking decisions are made by computer programs, these will probably be inferior to decisions made by knowledgeable people. Also, big-box bookstores are inferior even to other big-box stores, like Wal-Mart, which is able to keep prices low. In general, at Chapters-Indigo I pay full price for books (with a discount that I get for buying an annual membership card--a loyalty program that could just as well be instituted by an independent). And their growing monopsony power over publishers is terrible, in that they can drive down prices, as Wal-Mart does (while not passing these on to the consumer, for the most part), and delay even longer than smaller bookstores in settling their accounts. To me, this is probably the single worst attribute of the chain stores, and the most damaging to publishing as a whole.

But I'm wondering whether the big-box stores are really as bad as they are made out to be. In one sense, the big question is how much retail shelf-space there is out there for books. For no matter who orders the books, or how many copies are ordered, there is only so much retail space in which to put the product. The more copies of your book there are on the shelves, the fewer copies of mine there are. It is a zero-sum game.

This problem has long been a big factor in grocery retailing. There are far more providers of food and related products than there are supermarket shelves to put all that stuff on. The result is a ferocious Darwinian war between suppliers, who have to pay off retailers to stock their stuff, or to put it at eye-level, or to set up end-of-aisle displays. The war for shelf-space created the old phenomenon (not practiced so intently now, I think) of cereal boxes' being much larger than their contents (remember the old package advisory, "this box is packed by weight, not volume; some settling of contents may have occurred"?). The reason for this "settling" was to take up more shelf space, presenting a larger billboard to shoppers and depriving competitors of space. A freaking rainforest-ecosystem in there.

As far as I know, nothing so intense happens in the war for bookstore shelf-space. But space is still limited, and in a certain sense it's just a matter of taste as to what fills it.

So, yes, writers' careers are ruined. Holly Lisle makes the point that no one cares about midlist writers because there are always plenty more where they came from. I've heard the "turtle eggs" analogy used. In fact, writers have always got the short end of the stick, right back to ancient Rome, when the "publishing industry" first started. In those days, entrepreneurs would make copies of a writer's book and sell them, and often make a lot of money. There being no concept of copyright, the writer would get nothing.

Back then, of course, writers were mainly gentlemen of leisure, who had no need or expectation of revenue from their writing.

The bigger problem, in my view, is that there is too much product out there. As with movies and TV, the industry has built itself on the pipeline model, where product--as much of it as possible--has to be moving through the pipe in order for the business to keep going. Thus, there are too many books of too-low quality. The pipelines are all operating at as high pressure as they can, spewing product into the limited space of bookstore shelves. This might keep publishers afloat, but are readers' interests being served?

I think not. The great mass of books, especially fiction, are junk food. It's churned out quickly and disposed of. If you're Doritos you don't want to be edged out by Cheez Pleezrs, but in the big picture, does it really matter?


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