Wednesday, July 02, 2008

An Alternate Viewpoint

Back in October, 2006 here, I wrote this in a post:
Corporations must answer to their shareholders, who expect rising profits and fat dividends. Taking chances is dangerous when you must answer to your shareholders once a quarter . . .

The burden of quarterly reporting means that it is makes more sense for a publisher to put its dollars on a safe bet--a proven author like Stephen King, Nora Roberts or James Patterson--than to gamble on an unknown. This doesn't mean that unknowns or debut authors are out of luck. It simply means that the funnel is a little narrower and your work must be a little stronger than in previous decades.

This past Sunday, Jonathan Karp, a publishing executive for the Hachette Book Group, wrote a piece for the Washington Post. In the article, he said:
Among major publishing houses, the impetus to meet annual profit targets is a fact of life--the basis of budgets, salaries and bonuses . . .

A publisher expected to produce annual growth has several options:

1. Add more titles to augment sales. But no one knows whether the books will sell . . .

2. Sell more copies of existing authors and titles . . .

3. Ask popular authors to "increase output."

4. Diversify your "product line."

5. Cut costs, pray to the gods of movie tie-in paperback editions or hope that one of your authors gets his or her own talk show.
On June 25, 2007, I wrote here:
. . . change is on the horizon. While ownership of publishing houses has been limited, the Internet has been fragmenting the book market itself. Consumer choice is increasing. Consumers can now buy physical books, audio books, e-books, or download podcasts.

I've repeatedly said that digitization and print-on-demand technology will break the stranglehold the large publishers have on the system. They no longer are the only ones in possession of the technology to produce a printed book.
In his article, Mr. Karp writes:
The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively.
Up to this point, Mr. Karp and I are in agreement.

But then, he goes down a path I can't follow.
Many categories of books will be subsumed by digital media . . . Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off, and the next generation will have so many different entertainment options that it's hard to envision the same level of loyalty to brand-name formula fiction coming off the conveyor belt every year. The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle.

Consequently, publishers will be forced to invest in works of quality to maintain their niche. These books will be the one product that only they can deliver better than anyone else. Those same corporate executives who dictate annual returns may begin to proclaim the virtues of research and development, the great engine of growth for business. For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books -- works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.

Karp's statement that readers of genre fiction will die off comes out of nowhere, with nothing to support it.

If he'd said readers would die off, I might have understood. People ARE reading less than they once did--and probably because of the many entertainment choices competing for their precious discretionary time. But he specifically separates readers of genre fiction from the greater population of total readers--for no reason that I can determine beyond wishful thinking.

We all view life through the lens created by our own experiences and opinions. I think it might be helpful to examine the filter through which Karp sees the world.

He is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Twelve, an imprint established in August, 2005 by Warner Books (now owned by the Hachette Book Group). Twelve publishes no more than one book a month; hence, its name. I have read and greatly admired a number of his imprint's releases. However, let's face it. Twelve is not the norm in publishing.

What differentiates one genre from another is the specific emotion the reader seeks to experience. For instance, horror evokes terror, mysteries evoke curiosity, thrillers evoke excitement and romance evokes a warm, sexy feeling. The reason genre fiction is so popular is because it provides the reader with the specific emotion that s/he is looking for at that moment.

IMHO, genre fiction will never die off as long as it continues to meet reader expectations for a specific type of emotional experience.

While Mr. Karp and I are in agreement that consumers today have a dizzying array of choices on which to spend their entertainment dollars, I think his hope that "the age of disposable books won't last . . ." is somewhat elitist. I suspect it is also a form of self-soothing for a man who suddenly finds himself trying to cope with a turbulent industry facing radical change.

Starting in the '70s, media conglomerates began gobbling up the ownership of the major publishing houses. Today the major New York houses belong to half a dozen mega-corporations.

This trend toward corporate ownership introduced the short-term thinking I alluded to in the opening of this post. It also made industry execs more cautious and risk-aversive. For this reason, New York publishing houses, like major Hollywood studios, tend to fall back on tried-and-true concepts and top-selling stars. And, in publishing--as in the film industry--the most innovative work, the coloring-outside-of-lines, the greatest flexibility, frequently comes from the independents. In publishing that would be the independent presses and the e-publishers.

If I had to guess, I would say that what will happen is not the death of genre fiction, but the advent of even greater consumer choice. Fiction will come in more formats, more lengths and even more retailing venues.

As an example, if you find yourself stuck in a waiting room, you'll be able to purchase a short story, download it to your cell and read it while you wait.

Or perhaps you and your best friend, who lives 1,000 miles away, can read a book together on a social networking site. At varying points in the books, the two of you will select the plot twist that you find most interesting and follow that thread as it forks off into other choices. Think of it as a more structured form of fan fiction.

Perhaps your e-reader will allow certain scenes of a book to be presented as a video--a modern version of a children's picture book. Or perhaps your e-reader will permit you to select the soundtrack you want to play in the background while you read a horror story. Imagine listening to Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" while reading a creepy horror novel.

Mr. Karp, I don't see less choice in our future; I see more. Hopefully, there's room for both our visions--although you are probably not heartened by mine.

Thanks to both Nathan Bransford and Jonathan Lyons for mentioning Karp's article on their blogs. Read the entire article from the Washington Post here.

P.S. There are two pieces of classical music that I first heard as a child which frightened me. Both can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck today.

The first was two and a half minutes from the Peer Gynt Suite. It was titled "In the Hall of the Mountain King." I was seven years old, and my mother was in the hospital giving birth. My father had fallen into an exhausted sleep, and I slipped out of bed to watch a late night movie on TV. It was The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and "In the Hall of the Mountain King" played while the piper rid Hamelin of the rats. The combination of the music and the rat shadows creeping through the streets scared me out of my juvenile wits.

Close your eyes and listen to that two and a half minutes performed by the Jerusalem Orchestra below. Imagine the rats first slinking and then rushing toward the river where they jump in to drown. See if this doesn't raise the hair on the back of your neck!


Laura Vivanco said...

I couldn't imagine the rats the way you suggested. I did imagine them, but (a) they weren't the first creatures on the scene and (b) they were in tutus, and dancing around. First of all, an elephant came in and slowly began to dance. It wasn't very good at first, but it gained in confidence, particularly as some other animals (including the rats in tutus) came in to show it how to pirouette. Eventually the hall was filled with dancing animals going faster and faster until most of them were exhausted and the rats performed a few final movements and then bowed to their audience.

I strongly suspect this is the result of watching Disney's Fantasia when I was a child and watching Angelina Ballerina with my own child.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: Interesting.

Actually the movie I saw is on YouTube so you can actually watch the scene that terrified me so much. I smile to see it now, but it made a serious impression on a little girl sitting in the dark so she wouldn't get caught and whose mother was in the hospital.

Here's the link:

Also, the second piece of classical music that frightened me was Stravinsky's Rite of Spring from Fantasia. I may write about that more another time. I just heard a very interesting story about it on NPR last weekend.