09 October 2006

Too Many Pies

I received a nice response to an essay I posted to the Child_Lit list last week [thank you, Jim Thomas!], so I'm posting it here, too, in the interests of widening the exchange of thought and, of course, saving myself work.

Having become dismayed after reading such recent fantasy novels as D. J. MacHale's Pendragon and Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's Beyond the Deepwoods, list member Fairrosa wrote:

Is there hope for a better future of fantasy novels for young readers? I wanted more fantasy for years since there was such a dearth of this genre, but then now we have opened the floodgate and the pearls are now being washed away or buried under the large quantity of junk-like substances.
And I replied...

Painful as it can be for us literary types, it helps to think of these trends in terms of economics. Imagine you're a publisher. In the US, that means you're working within a capitalist system. Your job is to produce profitable books for your employer. Along the way, you hope to create lasting literature, but you can do that only if you pay the electricity bill.

For complex and perhaps unfathomable reasons, children's fantasy novels suddenly become the books that sell more than any other kinds--more even than adult thrillers and love stories. In fact, some of those novels rewrite everything we knew about publishing, such as national boundaries, sales patterns, and how much a ten-year-old is willing to read at a sitting.

So naturally you look for more children's fantasy novels to publish. You see higher potential for profit in books that in other years you might have passed over. Some of those books are okay but not great, others very complex, others very long, etc. In the new environment, a lot more children's fantasies get a chance. This produces both some wonderful breakthroughs and some dross.

Meanwhile, other types of books aren't doing so well, so you become more choosy there. You pluck only the most likely to be profitable: those from experienced authors, from celebrities, the very best, and the very easiest to sell.

Now imagine that you're an author or hopeful author. You see fantasies for children earning much more respect, and much more money. Even without crass opportunism, you can't help but see more potential in that field, too. Where ten years ago you might have filed away a fantasy idea in the back of your mind, now you think it sounds like a fun project to work on. So we have children's fantasy novels from experienced authors in other genres like Adam Gopnik, James Grippando, Rick Riordan, et al. And we have a lot more first-time authors, or hopeful authors, of fantasy.

There's a rule for small business: "You always have one of these problems: too many customers or too many pies." (This is a rule I heard from my mother, who learned it from her business professor Neal Yanofsky, who's now President of Panera Bread and putting his bakestuff knowledge to good use. In a mind-twisting turn of events, Yanofsky and I turned out to have had the same first-grade teacher. But I digress.)

Right now there are so many fantasy customers that publishers don't have enough pies. So they're shipping some pies that aren't quite as good as they could be, or simply aren't quite as good.

At some point, the cultural tide will flow away from fantasy for young people and toward some other literary genre or form of entertainment. And then pretty good fantasy manuscripts will go begging for publishers, and very good ones will go begging for readers. There will finally be enough pies--in fact, the field of pies might on average be much better than before--but there won't be enough customers.

So the sad economics answer to Fairrosa's question might be that we'll see publishers be more choosy and demanding about fantasy novels when all those kids she tells about good fantasy books have for a while been insisting on something else.


Lee said...

In all of these discussions you are leaving out the effect of the internet and new paradigms of publishing.

J. L. Bell said...

I disagree. A blog can't help but exemplify "the effect of the internet" on spreading news and opinion about books. And several Oz and Ends postings have discussed how the internet and resources available on it affect the publishing process, stories, formats, etc.

As for "new paradigms of publishing," I think that's had far less of an effect on how authors write stories or what stories large numbers of people read than it has had on how quickly people write stories and believe they have "published" them.

Publishing involves not just making a story available, but in bringing it to the public's attention. In that, the internet has helped (by making communication easier), and the internet has hurt (by creating more competition for our attention). The big publishers continue to have an advantage, as sales figures show.

My favorite statistics in this regard indicate that per-capita consumption of books in the US is slowing down, but more Americans say they're writing their own books. As Lulu.com pointed out in 2005, extrapolating those trends suggests that in another forty years there will be more books "published" than read. Which is, of course, not real publishing at all. That is simply too many pies, not enough customers.

Lee said...

You've made some very good points that need addressing. To be fair, I'll have to go back and read your older posts before commenting about your first paragraph, but there are plenty of bookish blogs which function mainly as review sites without examining the underlying issues. I'm new to your blog.

As to new paradigms of publishing, I suspect that you may be right - for the most part! - about how quickly people are viewing their work as published on the internet, but I don't see that this is necessarily a bad thing, unless you mean that their fiction is that much poorer because of it. Much of it is, undoubtedly (however, much conventionally published fiction isn't very good either), but there are those writers struggling to escape the corporate network or embrace the potential of the new media. Look at the difference the internet has made to music - this without judgement. Nor is the internet the only new paradigm to which I'm referring. 'Instant books' - and I'm using a publishing insider's term - is certainly one of them; electronic books, another.

If publishing is indeed about bringing stories to public attention, then most publishers seem to be woefully ignorant of this brief with regard to many books on their lists.

By all means you are right that the internet has 'hurt' (value judgement rather than observation??) by creating more competition: this is precisely one of the issues that needs to be addressed. How will this change the face of publishing? That it will do so seems to me to be self-evident.

Perhaps we need to redefine what we mean by 'real publishing'. Publishing is a essentially a business model; writing is something entirely different, and it is perfectly possible for writers to look for a different model of dissemination. Which models will flourish in ten years? Forty? No idea. Perhaps one(s) that we can't even imagine yet.

Extrapolating trends, by the way, is notoriously tricky.

Lee said...

Sorry, but I forgot to mention that over at Lowebrow, I've added some coments by Daniel Pinkwater on precisely these issues.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not sure there's anything to say in response to "Things will be different, but we don't know exactly how." That's undeniable, but not very helpful in deciding where to go next.

That's why I write about phenomena I actually observe. While I've posted such predictions as that "within our lifetimes I predict that most novels will be printed" with POD technology, I devote more space to what's already happening. Like fantasy books becoming thicker in every sense of the word, or the Children's Book Council changing its mission.

I think the hype about new publishing models still outshines the realities. For instance, we can complain about big corporate publishers (and having worked at one, I do), and how they don't do much to market their "midlist" books. But even for those titles with lesser potential, big publishers send out about as many review copies as most fiction self-publishers probably sell. So who does a better job of reaching readers?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, publishing firms became the venture capitalists of literature. (Before that, authors supplied most of the money, and most of the authors were rich to begin with.) Publishers supplied the start-up capital, management expertise, technical support, and marketing that authors needed to reach their customers. While the tools and technology have changed and will continue to change, I don't see the status of publishers within the industry changing much. Authors still benefit from that sort of support.

Lee said...

' "Things will be different, but we don't know exactly how." That's undeniable, but not very helpful in deciding where to go next.'

True, in a way it's a lazy fail-safe statement, and I'm perfectly willing to admit it. I do like to observe and analyse trends - or perhaps, more honestly, watch others do so, since I'm not very good at this sort of thing - but I still think it salutary to remind ourselves of how uncertain predictions can be, and why.

Yes, there's plenty of hype. But there are also those serious writers like myself - there are others - who are quietly trying to reach readers in nontraditional ways. Will we succeed? Again, I don't know, and a lot depends on how you measure success: writing well (ideally, better and better)? making a living? becoming part of the canon? building a small group of readers who appreciate your work? being reviewed by Kukatani or Wood? having a blockboster film made from your novel? going to bed at night, and maybe to your grave, knowing that you've done good work, work worth spending years of your life learning to do? leaving your heirs with a mountain of money?

Some authors benefit from the type of publisher support you mention; most need outside jobs, and many are very frustrated.

As to review copies, I'm not entirely sure if this is a good yardstick for measuring the number of readers an author reaches. And again, perhaps even numbers is not the best measure. Some of my favourite authors have a relatively small readership; some of the biggest numbers attach to authors whose work I neither admire nor aspire to imitate.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm perfectly happy with writers wishing to define success as money earned, or readers, or lasting esteem, or any combination thereof. But we must all have some goals at heart, or else writing is an empty exercise.

I also think that "new paradigms of publishing" will be more than simply transfering page images onto school laptops or special readers, however well designed. It will come when authors adapt their stories to new ways of publishing and reading.

Lee said...

'I'm perfectly happy with writers wishing to define success as money earned, or readers, or lasting esteem, or any combination thereof. But we must all have some goals at heart, or else writing is an empty exercise.'

I hope you didn't think I meant there are no goals -I'm very clear about what mine are, for example. The ones you mention relate primarily to how texts are received, however, rather than how they are created. But I don't agree that writing is necessarily an empty exercise even when it fails to attract a readership - at least not for the writer. I am very process-oriented, of course.

'I also think that "new paradigms of publishing" will be more than simply transfering page images onto school laptops or special readers, however well designed. It will come when authors adapt their stories to new ways of publishing and reading.'

Absolutely! Even McLuhan, amongst others, pointed this out a generation ago. This is where it all gets interesting. Stay tuned...

Have a look, for example, at what Peter Wild is doing. Here is one link to Dogmatika, though he is publishing elsewhere as well:


J. L. Bell said...

As a form of communication, writing rests on the flow of a message from writer to reader. If there's no reader or no flow, I consider that an empty exercise. Hence my emphasis on readership, measured in some way, as the yardstick of success in writing.

Lee said...

Well, I knew you were going to say that - so glad you didn't disappoint me! Have you read John Banville's views? I don't have his exact words here in front of me, so please excuse any possible misrepresentation, but to paraphrase: a work of literature is about itself.

I wonder if we should continue this conversation at some point over at my blog. I feel as if I'm grandstandng here, which I really don't feel comfortable doing.