Monday, August 22, 2016

Does Publishing Have a 1% Problem?

I read somewhere, in some article, someone complaining about the internet in general and blogs in particular for being a “first draft world.” I could see the point, but, to me, that's one of the things I like about the internet in general and blogs in particular. Though there is value to the perfect essay, story, poem, whatever, there is a different kind of value in that first draft, that first take, those early ideas, and the internet in general, and this blog in particular, give us a chance to have a longer conversation starting from those first ideas. So, with that, here is a first idea, the beginning of a potential conversation, something that has been rattling around in my head that I'd like to get out into the world to see if goes anywhere.

With the release of the new Harry Potter story and the trepidation of so many fans and readers about the play overcome by curiosity, nostalgia, or the enthusiasm of the moment, bookstores around the country saw their sales for the month, the quarter, and, potentially, the year change dramatically. In many ways, this is a bit of a shock; given that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play and not actually written by J.K. Rowling, many of us believed that, though it would sell better than just about any other title in our stores, it wouldn't be the smash hit it seems like it's going to be. But even though it won't hit the same heights as The Deathly Hollows, it will still likely be the number one bestseller at most bookstores (or pretty close to it) and will still likely have a huge impact on the overall sales and profits of bookstores.

Books that sell like Harry Potter, are unusual, but just because they are unusual doesn't mean they don't have persistent, long-term impacts on the book industry. In fact, I think there is ample evidence to, at the very least, suggest that the book industry (both publishing and retail) is driven by and depends in an alarming degree, on these atypical phenomena, on these 1% books. Because it isn't just Harry Potter.

As has been pointed out,  (here and here for example) the much reported increase in sales and profits at independent bookstores over the last couple of years can be almost entirely attributed to the rise of adult coloring books, a totally new genre with no digital equivalent. Though some who have pointed this out have done so in a way that tries to temper the enthusiasm around the indies resurgence, to me, that speaks to a newly nimble industry far more able to capitalize on new trends (or fads, we'll see) than they were a decade or so ago.

And then there's merchandising; books and other bookish material based on movies, video games, other franchises, and such. Though I don't think this impacts independent bookstores as much as it impacts the wider retail world, sales of merchandised books are (as of BEA last year at least) almost entirely composed of Frozen and Minecraft books. (It is one seriously intense pie chart, I'll tell you.)

And then there's Lincoln Michael's extensive piece on book sales (which you should read anyway). It was framed around finding a definitive answer to what “good sales” might be for a book, but his data say other things as well. Imagine, what the industry would look like if, as is often the case in some statistical calculations, the outliers were removed. How many copies of works of literary fiction were sold in the last few years if we do not include sales of All the Light We Cannot See? (Actually, maybe don't do that.)

What does this amount to? Publishing is a 1% industry. A vast majority of book sales and profits within the book industry, at the publisher and the retail level, come from 1% of titles. (Actually, probably far less than 1%, but I'm not a statistician and 1% is quick to type and easy to get your mind around as a metaphor.) What is interesting about this to me, as a bookseller, is that publishing is a 1% industry in spite of itself. At nearly every level of the industry there are efforts to get people to read more than just the bestsellers. Even with dwindling publicity budgets that force difficult decisions, publishers put promotional and marketing money into more than just 1% of their list and they do or lead the essentially free promotion on social media for even more titles than they spend money on. The authors themselves add to that diversity of effort as well, doing their own paid or essentially free promotion. Even with the dwindling book coverage in media, reviews are still written about more than just the top selling, sure hits, and that diversity of coverage is even greater online. I would argue that the entire point of independent bookstores is to support diverse purchasing, to lead readers to mid-list, back-list, small press, unheralded, and uncovered books, to find a way to get that person carrying Gone Girl around to pick up the new Meaghan Abbott or go back a bit and start reading Patricia Highsmith. Hell, even Amazon is doing it's best to get you to buy something else with your James Patterson.

And yet, the numbers don't lie. For all the effort everyone in books puts in to diversifying the market, it's still the smash-hit and the current trend, plus Frozen and Minecraft merchandising, plus James Patterson and his cohort of sure bestsellers, that account for nearly all the money in publishing.

What does this all mean for books? I don't know if this is true for any other industry, but in books, weirdly, the most powerful customers are actually non-readers, the people who maybe buy ten books for themselves over the course of their adult lives. They are the ones who turn books into smash bestsellers, global phenomena, and cultural touchstones. And, unfortunately for publishers, by definition, they are the potential customers the book industry knows the least about. They don't interact with the bookternet, they don't leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and (again by definition) they don't generate enough data to do any meaningful prediction of their future behavior. Perhaps there is something that unites a professor of religious symbology, a boy wizard, Mormon teenage vampires, and fanfiction erotica based on Mormon teenage vampires, but, with so little hard data on what non-readers read, there isn't a way to spot that pattern.

And it's not like publishers are ignoring these potential customers. Whenever one of those hits happens, it is instantly followed by a raft of trendsurfers all trying as hard as possible to give the people what they want. And publishers are always trying new things to reach non-readers. James Patterson's latest novella serie—excuse me, “BookShots,” are targeted directly at commuters who might otherwise be reading the Metro or on their phones. The Lian Hearn novels were pitched in media coverage as “binge-reading,” to capitalize on the trend of binge-watching. (Which if you ask me, is utterly preposterous, because A. Serial storytelling has been around forever, see, there's Charles Dickens waving at you all like, “Remember me, I took over the fucking world with serial storytelling!” and B. I would argue the success of binge-watchable shows comes from the fact that they borrow the techniques and tropes of serial storytelling. In essence, TV is better today because so many producers, writers, and networks are making their shows more like novels.) It's why they put movie covers on books even though no reader likes movie covers. Publishers novelize movies, they novelize TV shows that were made from comic books, they license their works for websites and video games, they even have fictional characters from somewhat successful TV shows, “write” books. A lot of the criticism aimed at publishing and bookselling tends to focus on the idea that publishers and booksellers are snobs shocked “real people” aren't excited about the intellectual broccoli they're selling, but publishers and booksellers would like nothing more than to figure out what non-readers want and give them as much of that as possible.

But there are some other troubling and challenging implications. The thought (or hope) from Harry Potter's wild success was that it created a generation of readers, that its historic success would translate into those diversified sales as all of its fans grew into adult readers. But if sales of The Cursed Child tell us anything about Harry Potter's wider effect, I think they, at the very least, imply that rather creating a generation of readers, J.K. Rowling created a generation of Harry Potter fans. Of course, many people who later became voracious readers started with Harry Potter and you can see the impact of those readers all over the book industry, but, I think the numbers suggest that they would likely have been voracious readers anyway, it's just that Harry Potter got to them first. I think you can say the same for any of the worldwide bestsellers. I don't think there's any evidence that 50 Shades of Grey readers bought a lot of other books--even other books like 50 Shades of Grey. Some did, of course, but not nearly enough to have any meaningful impact on sales of any other books.

This is not a knock against Rowling or James or any of the other 1% authors, some of whom (Rowling, James Patterson, Stephen King) do a lot of good work to support readers, kids, bookstores, and other authors. In fact, the 1%-ness of books seems like something of a constant, even when those who represent the 1%, who, you would think, wield influence beyond the customer base, try to diversify sales. It says to me that the difference between a reader and a non-reader is more fundamental, most likely established in school or at home and is thus, beyond the reach of the book industry's influence.

To make things perhaps even worse for the book-industry, the next most powerful customers are probably the one-or-two-books-a-year customers. These are the people who maybe read a little on vacation, maybe get stuff out of the library, maybe get books as presents from their reader friends and family, but, in general, only buy one or two books a year. These are the readers that keep All the Light We Cannot See and Gone Girl on the bestseller list for weeks and weeks (Years and years, sometimes). These are the readers who make every James Patterson and Stephen King a bestseller. These are the readers that drive blurbs and comparisons and set publicity strategies.

This is the part of the blog post where I usually try and find some kind of strategy, some kind of something for bookstores and publishers and authors to do besides hope Ingram has enough copies of whatever happens to catch the non-reader's imagination, but, for this challenge, I got nothing. The roots of this problem, I think, reach into literacy and reading education and into wage stagnation for the American middle class. To put this another way; most people get to the end of their formal education without a love of reading and even those who do, in America at least, don't have enough disposable income to buy a lot of books.

But is the 1% nature of publishing really a problem? Does it matter what forms the economic base of publishing? Especially if publishers still try to diversify their lists? Especially if, as it stands now, the only way to pursue 1% books is to release a whole bunch of books you like or think will be popular and hope one of them hits? Especially if the biggest publishers can still afford a handful of six-figure advances every few years? Does it matter that the diversity in literature is sustained by such a narrow field? Given all the other ways publishing can improve and all of the other economic conditions that impact publishing, is this even worth thinking about? Should I just be glad that, every now and then, some book injects a ton of non-reader money into the industry?

And that brings us to the conclusion, the end of my first draft idea, my first attempt as hashing out something I've noticed. But now that this is out there, something might happen with it. The internet in general and blogs in particular might have a lot of first drafts, but those first drafts can start conversations, conversations that help us towards the ideas and insights we write for.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post, and I agree about the 1% issue. The problem is, books, like every other form of art, are not necessary to life the way food, water, clothing are, and because they are also very subjective, it's impossible to determine why one book sells well and another just like it doesn't. And because people have a "herd mentality", they want to read what their friends and family are reading, which means focusing on maybe 1-4 books a year that make up the bestsellers, and if you're not one of those 1-4 books, or maybe one of the next 20 that sell well, you are likely going to earn very little and receive very little recognition or sales. It's a shame because unlike with other aspects of the economy the herd mentality in the arts means a few people do extremely well, a few moderately well, and the bottom 90%+ do poorly.