Anyway, today's schedule featured a panel titled "The Best of Times and the Worst of Times: Best Books vs. Best Sellers in a Changing Business." It is a long title, but the panel discussion itself was far more interesting. The overall themse that the moderator was trying to make was that the quality of best sellers has dropped over the last thirty years. Unfortunately for her thesis, most of the panelists disagreed, pointing out the numbers of "literary novels" that appear on the bestseller lists of today. Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" were cited as examples of this phenomenon. I am not at all interested in Franzen's book, having heard him talk about it enough to consider him in a negative light. Sebold, on the other hand, seems likes a fascinating woman with a fascinating story to tell. I am on reserve to listen to the unabridged version of her book. I should get it in a few weeks, and am psyched to listen to it. And of course, there have been other "literary" works that have sold well over the last few years, as well.
The book publishing and selling industries are fascinating, and in a fascinating state of flux. First there was Oprah and her amazing book list. Franzen of course was the last straw for that venture and it folded up slowly thereafter. But she could take a first novel by a complete unknown and make it sell over a million copies. A real life chager, she could be. It was an amazing phenomen, while it lasted. Katie Couric and Kelly Ripa have started book clubs, but neither has had the influence that Oprah had. But Oprah was able to convince people that reading good works was possible for everyone. The division between "high brow" and "low brow" has been accentuated the last few years and maybe Oprah and those like her were able to bridge the gap. In the same way that J K Rowling is creidted for helping create a generation of young readers (although I must put in my own plug for Brian Jacques as an author for young readers whose new novels appear regularly on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal lists), then certainly Oprah must be credited for helping create a generation of old readers. Old in the sense of being over the age of twenty, so don't get offended by the term. I am simply using it in contrast to the young readers that Rowling and Jacques appeal to.
People in the literary mainstream really have a problem with John Grisham and Stephen King and Tom Clancy. They are referred to as "brands" as if a brand were a bad thing. Maybe that New York bias is still there i nthe industry, although the power in the industry has shifted elsewhere. Not to any particular place at all, but simply has become more diffused. I am sure that I will have to go to New York to meet a publisher if it ever gets that far for me. And of course I would be thrilled to go to New York to meet a publisher. That is still where the bulk of the industry is, but the power and influence and other aspects of promoting books are moving away fro mthe Big Apple.
There are over one thousand new books published each year, which encourages me. Maybe I have a chance. That of course does not guarantee that a book will sell -- there is about a 2 week life cycle for a book to sell that first printing before the risk of being remaindered soars -- but getting published is the first goal, and getting sold is the second. I am not in this for the fame or the wealth or the groupies. I am in this because I like to write.
But back to the panel that I saw today on the tube. The effect of "buzz" is slowly diminishing, and moving away from New York, as well. Marketing and publishing techniques can sell a lot of copies the first week, but a bad book quickly drops off the list. The panel and the publishing industry in general are chock full of anecdotes about word of mouth and how an offhand comment by someone on TV (the Today Show, Ripa, C-SPAN, Imus, whoever) can unpredictably pump up sales volumes. It is as if there are so many books to choose from we can not do it by ourselves. We look for anyone, someone, to recommend a title to us.
From a business perspective, this is a weird business model. One of the bookstore owner made a fascinating point about the effect of returned books and label prices. This is just about the only the industry where the product is shipped to retailers completely returnable at face value. This is just one of the traditions of the industry, but maybe one of the new distribution channels will cause the industry to rethink this notion. "Publishing is how this industry does R & D," she commented. No other industry does their research and development work in quite this same way. I thought this was a good point. If books were sold from publisher to book store to reader in the same way that shoes are sold from manufacturer to Wal-Mart to me, I do not know what the effect would be, but it mght make for a more sdtable industry overall. You would not by a new shoe sight unseen just because the manufacturer promises how it will look and what it will contain. But that is the way books are published and sold.
But would that help me personally. Maybe on-demand and small houses are what will help me personally be published. But it is hard to say. I just make comments on the industry, keep a keen eye on it, write, rewrite, rewite, rewrite, and rewrite. Maybe one day I'll submit, and maybe even be published. We can always dream.