CN: the first thing that comes to mind when I consider writers and the state of publishing is one of those science fiction movies from the fifties, you know, where some light is seen in the sky and then something like a smoking bowling ball lands someplace and then a couple of geeks get out of a pickup truck. They find a stick and poke the smoking bowling ball and say, ”Welcome to California.” Then a cobra shaped thing comes out and wastes the shit out of them with a death ray.
So, I think we are in the smoking bowling ball stage. Something has landed and we don’t know what it is. The best we can do is scratch our head and poke it with a stick.
By this I mean, we haven’t come to terms with the digital age, and the impact that this is going to have on publishing. And while it would be easy to say that we are only talking about Kindle, and books in digitized form, it is far, far more ominous than that. Ask an ex-independent book store owner about the impact of online shopping, which seemed pretty innocent in the beginning.
For instance, what about pricing and royalties? For some reason, a Kindle book is being priced at $9.99. Now, for writers there is a big difference between a ten percent royalty on a book of $25 and one at this price. Just as this might mean the end, altogether, of book stores. The economics seem to be driving it that way (after all, you can avoid cutting down a lot of trees, although I guess you still have to make plastic, but only once). So, that’s the simple part.
But it’s not that simple, if a writer’s chance of making a living, already precarious, is reduced even more. The downward pressure on a writer’s livelihood is a serious matter and I think writers are scared.
Where it gets complicated, and where writers and I would imagine publishers feel doubly uncomfortable is that if you don’t need books, that is physical items on a shelf, maybe you don’t need publishers. If the technology is there to make a book suitable for Kindle, and anyone can set up a website to sell it, and if there were some other web based method of letting people know about books (say this very website), where does the publisher fit?
Where, by the way, does an editor fit?
Is this the way it’s going to go?
And beyond that, will it be like the newspaper business, where more and more they are giving away content. Will writers have to do that, too, that is give away large pieces of a book to try to get people to read the last half. And if that is the case, what impact will that have on the way books are written?
Please understand: I am not saying I think this is the way things are going to go, but that this is the way one thinks when poking at that smoking bowling ball and seeing that sleek, metallic cobra head come out with that little hot spot there in front that begins to glow a little more intensely….
That’s one thing.
Another is seemingly more mundane, but in fact, more realistic. That is, what is happening to the American novel or novels altogether.
I used to think that I knew what was what, but I didn’t have any real, err, data as they say in the science world, but a couple of years ago I was a judge for the National Book Award, and I read a lot, and I mean a lot of books. I really don’t know how many, but I can say that one of the judges for the nonfiction part of this said she came home and found that her kids had made a fort out of the books that were waiting to be read. I understood this instantly, and even thought of building a fort myself out of the books that had come in the door.
But here’s what I found was wrong with the novels I read. Somehow, novelists have got the idea that a novel is really just a piece of nonfiction with the details made up, when this is as far from the truth as can be.
A novel is a sort of dream, something that comes from that dark, interior place, and this dream is dressed up in the trappings of everyday life, but really is far deeper and stranger than that. The best example of this dreamy quality I can think of is the Great Gatsby, with those big glasses looking over the ash pits (like god himself). That big wedding cake of a house. All the shirts, etc.
The dream underneath this book, or a dream of any kind, seems to be missing from the novels I’ve read recently. I could list some of them, but I really don’t want to single out ten or twenty current writers: they all have the same problem.
JE: You know, I can’t even find Kindle sales on my royalty statement, and I know I’ve sold a bunch, but I’d be curious to know what percentage of my retail sales they comprise, so I could know how worried I ought to be. But the truth is, I’m really not worried at all. I’ve been writing books for free and burying them in the backyard for so long that making a decent living just feels like gravy. Last year this time, I was rolling nickels for beer money and eating pot pies every night. My wife was pregnant. And you know what? I still felt lucky. I’m just gonna’ keep writing books, hope somebody publishes them, and let the consumer figure the rest out. If you believe that, I’ve got an autographed portrait of Jesus, I’ll sell you. What I find refreshing about Craig’s comments is the conception that the novelists are to blame every bit as much as publishers and consumers. Sadly, most works of contemporary fiction I read are too self-conscious, and seem to forget the reader completely. It’s sort of shocking the percentage of writers who can turn a lovely phrase, but really have very little instinct for storytelling. I’m talking about basic nuts and bolts– pacing, tension, turning points, character arc, stuff even the greenest screenwriter has some grasp on. Most novels are kind of a mess on a storytelling level. Not to be reductive, but it seems to me that good storytelling is more about the distribution of pertinent information, rather than the manufacture of said information–how and when and in what manner the writer distributes it. It really doesn’t matter if the writer is describing the landing at Normandy, or an excruciating wait in the DMV line. It’s how they move the story. How they infuse the story with tension, how they move their character through dilemmas. I don’t care how out-of-the-box a writer’s narrative approach is, at the end of the day, the best he can do in most cases is re-imagine and frustrate Aristotelian dramatics, if he’s going to really move readers. Because you know what? After lo these many centuries, people still process stories according to these principles. I’d go so far as to say that these principles are necessary for the digestion of stories. You want to invent a food that bypasses the small intestine? Go for it. But don’t be surprised when it gives people diarrhea. A lot of great sentence writers just don’t get this. Language doesn’t keep the story moving–that’s poetry’s domain. A reader can’t invest his hopes in words–a reader wants to invest his sympathies in characters. That’s what bugs me about all these slacker novels. The writer serves me up some existentially disaffected protagonist who doesn’t really seem to care what happens to himself, so why should I care? That said, here’s what I see as the biggest problem, an
I’m crossing my fingers that a bad economy will only help the cause: There’s just too many novels being published, and most of them aren’t very good. If they were films, they’d go straight to video. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of great novels being written, there’s just too many mediocre novels muddying the waters. I wrote about five mediocre novels myself, and at this point I’m just happy nobody saw fit to publish them.
JC: Oh boy, where to start? Why don’t we talk about writing first, and then do the business stuff? I’ve heard Jonathan bemoan the rise of the ”sentence-writer” more than a few times and, yes, he has a point. A lot of writers can craft a line and not a story. The converse is true as well. there are just as many authors who have great plotting and timing, but whose writing makes my eyes bleed. They can tell a story, but they can’t write one. Maybe they should hire ghost writers for their novels. I may get one for off weeks at the blog.
The thing is that these writers can tell a story, but can’t put you there. I started the new E. L. Doctorow Homer & Langley yesterday, and let me tell you what a pleasure it is every time I pick up one of his books for the first time. From page one, I’ve been immersed in both good storytelling and more than a few good sentences. But more about that later. The point is that great writing draws you in to the story, and it doesn’t really matter why some writers fail, because whether the fault is stylistic inadequacies or flatfooted plotting, the failure is the same. And pulling you into that story, where you block out the rest of the world and take part in what I think Craig is calling the “dream” of the novel.
I wonder sometimes if what we see as flawed writing is that much worse than it once was, or if it’s just that the massive increase in the number of novels published makes it evident. Or in Craig’s case, the many books he had to read for the NBA that would normally have never made it anywhere near his desk.
Or is it in the editing? From my understanding, modern book editing is a diverse enterprise. Not to slander our many editor-readers, because the quality of editing seems to range from those who work closely and intensively with their authors to craft great books, to those who give a book a quick copy-edit and send it on its way. All editors are created equal, but some are more equal than others, to paraphrase George-O.
Is this part of the result of the overloading of the Great Publishing Machine? Probably, but the more interesting question is the one that Craig posed: what the hell is that bowling ball thing, and what’s going to happen when I poke it?
Here goes nothing.
We will know that the digital age has arrived, when a coterie of small publishers give up on the printed book altogether and dispense with the physical distribution platform and choose only to sell ebooks. They will have decided that the increased costs associated with paper sales, distribution, returns, pulping, remaindering, etc is greater than the potential profit. That is not going to happen tomorrow, but it will happen, and it’s not as far away as some would suppose.
So how does that work? I don’t know, ask Richard Nash. How about doing some cost accounting? Right now ebooks are riding on the coattails of printed books, but when they reach that critical mass to survive on their own, the associated costs of the ebook will be substantially less than the paper book. So the price will go down, probably. What will be interesting to see, is what will sales do? At 9.99, will an ebook sell the equivalent of (in terms of profits) the hardcover sales plus the mass market sales? I think so, but the transition is going to be hell. A lot of people are going to screw it up and a lot will get it right. There will be a lot of growing pains
What I do know is that Craig has correctly intuited that there will be a shakeup in the author, publisher, platform supply chain, and I think the publisher loses some ground. First, unless someone gets some more strong distribution platforms out there, Amazon will have publishers by the balls. Authors, realizing that they can sell a digital book themselves will squeeze the publisher, and will form two lines (at least. There will surely be a full spectrum of reactions). Some will come to see their publisher as handling duties that they can outsource for a better rate, and some will decide that they are happy to let a publisher handle it for them, preferring to stick to content creation. Either way, I think you see authors take lower advances, and much higher royalties.
JR: I’ll be the first one to agree with Craig when he points out that today’s fiction is nothing more than non-fiction with the details made up. It’s interesting to see how many novels are simply regurgitated from a writer’s life, with a little artistic flair thrown in. What are they teaching at these MFA programs? How do you craft a story, JE talks about it, arc, narrative, tension, mix that up and you’re on your way. The main problem I see with novels in particular in today’s market is readership. If Oprah Winfrey picks up a book, a million units move and more in trade paper. But what is Oprah, when all is said and done? A trafficker of the lowest common denominator (she just wants to make people happy, so does McDonalds), to put a fine point on it, and I’ll bet she doesn’t have a Kindle. Underneath that readership is the voice of the writer, and that has been lost in the hurricane of distractions that now plague society like locusts. Television,video games, phones, computers, porn, gambling, navel gazing, anything but reading! Amazon throws it all at you with the artistry of a jack hammer. There aretoo many books being published every year, by every single imprint in the business (they all have incredible overhead, and an interest in profit, this is a capitalist society we live in). That leaves no time, or a much shortened period of time for a publicist to get a book exposed, even if the author is JE, who has more friends than god. So now what? Oh right, they think they can jam ebooks down our throat. Have you ever walked around a big time publisher’s office? It’s a cubicle farm with people staring at computers propped up by cartons of books, and they are trying to feed the computer books, in the hopes that they can market them properly, the disconnect between how it used to be done and how it’s done now…will keep writers up at night for a long time to come. The trouble is the big time publishers are too invested in forward shark like movement to really stop and smell the roses. They print 5 million copies of a bathroom book (Lost Symbol) and saturate an already over-saturated market with a book that is no better then the back of a shampoo bottle (marketing with a fire hose instead of a laser). Not only is it insulting to readers of literary titles, but also to the mashed potato sandwich crowd, where it should at least make them feel like they’ve chosen the wrong path in life.
Distribution, oh please, lets talk space, bought and sold by COOP advertising, that’s where the rubber meets the ro ad. If BN has 50% of their real estate devoted to proprietary product, what’s left? Backlist, coretitles, kids department, and front of store bestseller list (which is all bought by the big time publisher), coffee shops with over priced fatty drinks, a music department with CDs!!!! That’s right; they give over 25% of their stores to CD’–that’s like someone selling VHS, at Barney’s prices. Do you think anyone at BN has heard of Itunes?
How about you shrink that part of your store down to a set of kiosks the size of a phone booth and anyone who wants to buy a CD can bring in their Ipod and download it. This will leave more room to sell books. It is a **bookstore** for goodness sake.
You wrote a book, I’m happy for you. Now find an independent publisher who will take care of you, as that end of the world is cracking open like independent filmmaking circa Reservoir Dogs. Independents will take an interest, get you in on the ground floor and get your book into the hands of people who will read it, blog about it, water cooler it, give it to friends. If no one will publish your book, shit, DIY it, and find out what kind dark forest that is. Michael Mann said it best, “life is short, and the time we get here is luck”.
DH: Craig says we haven’t come to terms with the digital age. Do we want to? I remember watching a predatory nature film on TV. It was an infrared night shot of a herd animal of some sort, wildebeest maybe, being surrounded and attacked by a pack of hyenas or wild dogs.
The cow was defenseless. It couldn’t run. It just **stood** there. Its fragile life passing before it as it was torn apart one small piece at a time. Bookselling these days is like a nature film that I don’t want to watch.
Mr. Nova talks about the precarious chance of writers to make a living. But I think that most casual readers, most customers of Amazon or Walmart, don’t see it that way. All they see is the writers who get the biggest co-op budgets. And seeing just those writers, it’s like the life styles of the rich and famous. Maybe someone should make it clearer to the public how most writers actually live.
As for Mr. Nova’s National Book Award “fort” of American literature. Speaking as a book buyer, I might have hundreds of novels brought to my attention every month. Even after you winnow down this herd of stories by eliminating genre fiction from consideration (And I’m not sure that I want to eliminate mystery, sci fi, fantasy, erotic lit…whatever) I still see no consensus forming about what a serious art novel should look like.
I think that JE is exaggerating the consistency of the formula that produces winning fiction. But I love JE’s point about the “cult” of the sentence. There’s no confidence in a direction. Lost in the woods and not knowing what to do; we sit down on the ground and whittle dead wood into a campfire of beautiful sentences; waiting for the signal that will tell us where to go.
I don’t know why a “novel” has to look like a novel. I’m used to reading lots of different literary forms: epic poetry, histories that read like literature, philosophy that reads like a performed play, treatises, dairies, memoirs. One of my favorite books is Nikos Kazantzakis’ *The Odyssey A Modern Sequel*, written early in the 20th century. It’s 776 electrifying pages of verse. None of my friends will go near this radioactive book…as if a take on epic verse must be poison…unreadable. Why can’t writers and readers show more flexibility? If you’re a gourmand, you have tried more than one dish on the menu. And also trust a foodie to know how to recognize a good ham sandwich.
I love JC’s point about clumsy sentences. It drills down **to the word** for me. If I’m reading a novel and I have to stop and say; “That’s a really dumb word to use here.” then I may put the book in my kitchen trash bin. The writer needs to work ten years, like JE says, so that they become so skilled that they’re not doing that to me. It’s a great thing to trust the artist.
JC’s take on a likely transition to digital publishing is the smartest that I have read. I especially love the coattails metaphor. Right now it’s ebooks that have attached themselves like remora to the printed book. But maybe someday, the remora will turn into the shark and printed volumes will be the ancillary form of the text.
A dual form of distribution makes sense to me. Some writers will want to go it alone or form collectives with like-minded authors. There will also have to be clearing houses like Amazon for most readers who will not want to go to ten thousand different sources to find the text that they want. And outsourcing publisher services, as JC suggests? Why shouldn’t a writer go to one source for their editing and another to promote or distribute the book? No wonder publishers are scared shitless. They should be.
But when Craig Nova or JE publishes a book, I am thinking that it’s the writer who is the enterprise and not the book. As a cultural entity originating creative power, the writer has “cash value”…that’s a phrase from William James. I am trying to answer the question of where the writer’s income comes from. I seem to be ending up with the idea of Craig Nova tee shirts. But that’s not what I mean. The writer should be “followed” and everyone who supports this process legitimately has the right to earn a living. The current system? History.
JR is so right, so convincing, when he talks about the “voice” of the writer. Everything else is spin. It’s existentially: nothing. Oprah is nothing. This sounds silly but the problem with essential truth is that it often sounds silly. The spin of our age is of no significance.
There are a lot of time warps in our business. In publishing, you can encounter the 1950′s (I see black people!) In chain stores, it’s like walking into the 1980′s. Maybe I need to buy wider ties and a clunky portable phone the size of a toaster before I walk into one. It was exciting in its time but not now. But I don’t want to tell the dust where to settle.
Let me get back to JR’s “voice”. It’s what those of us who love art really care about…as opposed to those who think that they just might be interested since they have nothing better to do and need to stay distracted somehow. The voice of the writer, getting lost in all the turgid, pseudo-significance of our I-love-being-stupid society. The writer’s voice has always survived somehow. It has always made itself heard. It will find a way. Don’t worry about it.