The Kraken and the long tail
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  • April 29, 2013
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20000_squid_holding_sailor[1]James Patterson has caused some ripples in the ebook world (see here or even here) by calling for government aid for the traditional publishing model. I’d like to examine his principal delusion: that publishers are the guardians of literary culture.

The first duty of any business is to make a profit and reward its shareholders for their backing. It should also be able to provide its employees – who are investing their time and labour rather than their capital – with job security and decent benefits. Thirdly, it should behave in an ethical way. If for no other reason, to do otherwise will bring the business down, whether by alienating customers or falling foul of the law.

20000_squid_holding_sailor[1]Nowadays it can be hard even to fulfil these modest goals. Furthermore, the big publishers are owned by even bigger, Kraken-like organizations. Compared with the profits from other media, books are mere krill. The Kraken’s fearsome beak is ever in the mind of your average publisher. No wonder he (or she) has become so averse to risk: no wonder we have seen the rise of books by, ghosted for, or about “celebrities” (i.e. people who are prominent elsewhere in the Kraken’s empire).

A myth still exists about book-publishing. Picture an untidy office in Bloomsbury or Manhattan, crowded with bookshelves, heaps of manuscripts, framed book-covers. Seated at the pedestal desk is a kindly fellow, not yet elderly, sporting a bow-tie and a somewhat bohemian hairstyle. He is on the phone to a young author, offering encouragement and reassurance. The firm has already published two of the author’s books, which together sold 403 copies but received gushing reviews. Our publisher Believes in this author and will stick by him until he produces the Breakthrough Novel, whereupon the firm’s faith will be amply rewarded. Our grateful author will then stay with the firm for the rest of his Glittering Career, etc., etc.

Publishers are nothing if not propagandists. The myth of loyalty, if it ever had any foundation in fact, helps justify the low rewards generally accorded to authors by the traditional model. When we consider that publishing is a business, such conduct is incompatible with a publisher’s primary goal – to make a profit. If an author only sells 403 copies of his first two novels, no matter how gushingly praised, his third is unlikely to see the light of day.

A minority of new novels will make much money; a handful will hit the big time. It’s a lottery. Publishers have little idea which ones will succeed and little patience with writers who are initially unsuccessful. Bookstores are even less patient. A new book by an unknown or mid-list writer is given a limited time on the shelves before it is returned, unsold, to the publisher. Retail shelf-space costs money.

The result of all this is that the industry churns out far too many titles. At least 50% of fiction sales are made through word-of-mouth. It takes time for momentum to build and far too few books are given long enough in the sun.

The ebook has changed all that, of course. Now anyone can be a publisher. An ebook is not recalled after two weeks or a month and pulped: it stays in the catalogue. It is just as accessible as any other ebook. It has a chance to recommend itself to readers, and it is the readers, surely, who are the ultimate arbiters of quality.

The ebook has introduced another change, which in time I think will have an even more profound effect on literary culture. More and more backlists are being ebooked, such backlists having been out of print for years and perhaps comprising some really marvellous stuff. New books not only have to compete with other new books, but with all the old ones too. This is raising everyone’s game.

Mr Patterson need not fear the electronic slush-pile, since poor reviews and the retailers’ algorithms make bad books sink. Instead, as a self-styled champion of literature, he should welcome the ebook revolution, even though the general rise in quality might make it harder to sell the sort of works which … well, I think we’d better leave it there.

Reposted with permission

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