Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Longing for the Good Old Days

There was an interesting article on the demise of the massmarket paperback by the agent Richard Curtis in this month’s newsletter of Novelists Inc. He traces the paperback’s swansong to the disappearance of independent distributors in 1996, and details all the ills that have flowed from that historic restructuring of how books make their way into our local bookstores, grocery stores, and pharmacies.

My first book came out in 1997, which means I missed the days of authors wooing drivers with coffee and donuts in predawn visits to distribution centers (not that I could have participated anyway, since I was living in Australia at the time). I could say “thankfully missed,” because that kind of fake-smiley-you’re-my-buddy schmoozing is not my style. Yet there is no denying that the disappearance of those drivers virtually killed the careers of most new and midlist authors—even those too dignified/stupid to schmooze. Without the drivers’ specialized knowledge of what sold where, outlets started taking the easy way out and simply restricted their buying to the top 10 or 15 bestsellers.

It’s ironic because along with this new distribution network and its increasing promotion of a few bestselling authors, authors are also suffering from the insidious effects of the new computerized tracking of the Numbers. A simple keystroke can now tell editors and booksellers how many copies of Author A’s last book were printed and how many copies of that book sold. Let’s face it: people are lazy cowards. If I’m a bookstore manager and I see that we only sold two copies of Author A’s last book, then that’s probably all I’m going to order of Author A’s new book, no matter how wonderful Author A’s new book might be (unless I see that Author A’s publisher is plunking down a big chunk of money on advertising). It doesn’t matter if Author A’s previous book has a poor sales history because it was a lousy book, or because it had a lousy cover, or because its publisher had so little confidence in it that they only printed 5,000 copies, or because it came out the day of 9/ll. None of that pertinent information is stored in the computer. Just the Numbers.

And then there is the effect of the Internet. The sale of used books has always been a sore point with authors, although there was a time when we consoled ourselves with the thought that used bookstores give readers a chance to take a risk on new authors they might not otherwise try. But now, when the obsessive among us log onto to check our Amazon rankings (more Numbers—and yes, an editor will look at that when deciding on whether on not to buy an author), we see a tantalizing link: New and Used Copies Available from Just $.01! Hhmm. Let’s see. I can buy a new hardcover (remaindered) for $5 including shipping and handling, or I can pay $9+ for a brand new paperback. Talk about a no brainer.

I don’t know what the publishing industry can do about this. I do know what new and midlist authors are doing. Those who were outside the winners’ circle when the gate clanged shut in 1996 are writing under pseudonyms to escape the opprobrium of their previous Numbers. They’re abandoning storycraft and wordsmithing to concentrate on writing fast-paced books with lots of sex and violence, because that’s what attracts publishers and publishers’ marketing departments and those all-important promotion dollars. They’re trying to figure out how they can have a Platform if they didn’t go to Yale or they’re not a movie star. They’re setting up websites, they’re blogging, they’re tap dancing on the corner and waving their arms and screaming Look at me! Read my book!

Ah, for the good old days.


Charles Gramlich said...

Scary. Especially since I never learned tap dancing. At one time I thought learning to write would be enough. Now I know better.

Kate S said...

Now I'm depressed.

cs harris said...

Sorry, everyone!