Saturday, October 24, 2009

Extraordinary Publishing Delusions and the Saneness of Crowds

October 11, 2009

I'll take a break from namelos to rant about the trade book publishing industry. From my perspective on the lunatic fringe, it seems ripe for a Gibbon's-like treatment (you remember The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). In other areas of publishing, e.g. medical/technical and scholarly, publishers are adjusting their business model to accommodate the array of challenges we all face. Trade book publishing seems to be clutching its braces, puffing out its chest, and shouting we're going to keep on doing what we've always done the way we've always done it … and even more so.
A case in point. I'm a life-long reader and rabid fan of genre fiction, primarily mystery and thrillers, and I'm a big fan of Dan Brown. I've read all his books. I have a prized first edition/printing of The DaVinci Code that I bought before it became a mega-bestseller. I thought at the time that it was very good, although not as good as his earlier books. I was surprised when it became so enormously successful. Subsequently people sought out the other books and the whole thing seemed like an example of what publishing is all about. You publish someone until, if you're lucky, a book breaks out, and he/she builds an audience, the back list flourishes, and everybody is happy.

Then came the long interim between The DaVinci Code and The Lost Symbol. Rumors would surface, mention would be made of when the new book might be published and what it might be about, and the back list titles would show another little bump in sales. Then came the frenzy and hysteria of the launch. The revelation of the jacket alone was cause for headlines. A first print run in the millions was announced. Much speculation ensued regarding how Amazon would price the ebook version. Security usually reserved for presidents and popes surrounded the printed copies. Finally, the book was published and set a first day sales record … a million copies or some such figure. I've read somewhere that the first print was 5 million and, based on the first day's sales, the publisher went back to press for 600,000 more copies. The marketing team was on steroids, pumping out smoke. Their fun-house mirrors slimming, trimming, and glittering. The book world was all aquiver. The Lost Symbol was going to save the industry. Beautiful!

But there is a problem. The book just isn't that good. To give it its due, it has all the allure of a particularly engaging crossword puzzle. But, as fiction, the characters are one-dimensional and the plot is transparent, at least the bit that involves characters. The fat lady sings well before the book ends. The long coda is reveal-ation (you have to read the book to get that reference) of the esoteric puzzle that informs the book combined with some philosophical speculation. Okay, I didn't like the book. Enough already. I'm not alone in that assessment: read Maureen Dowd's review in today's The New York Times Book Review and of the almost 1000 readers' reviews on Amazon, the majority are negative. These are people who bought the book and were disappointed enough to feel compelled to post a review!

However, the point I'm making is not about Dan Brown's success or failure. He wrote the best book he could and maybe his reach exceeded his grasp. Following an enormously successful book is always rough. I'll buy his next book and hope he hits his stride again. My real point is about our industry which is counting on the sales of this book to offset a disastrous year. We're looking for salvation to a book that is disappointing a great many of its readers. These are loyal fans who have been hyped to rush out and buy a book that does not deliver. When those 5.6 million copies don't sell through, when the mountains of them in bookstores stand undiminished on Dec. 26th, and booksellers start returning them in the new year, it will be a sad day in Mudville. This was inevitable in the biggest-is-best (whether it's any good or not) mentality that pervades trade publishing these days. Everybody is just doing what they get paid to do. But if this kind of publishing is what is supposed to save the industry, then we're in terrible trouble. If we save ourselves by disappointing our customers, we aren't worth saving. Our operating principle should not be caveat emptor. That's what I'm saying.

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