October 01, 2008

It's just literarily the end of you


After surveying the plummeting birth rates in Western Europe, the irascible Spengler of the Asian Times quipped back in 2004, "The Greens hector us about the end of the world. Perhaps it is not the end of the world, but just the end of you."

That metaphor sprang to mind reading Kassia Krozser's reply to Boris Kachka's bibliophilic business obituary, "The End." What he really means by that, opines Krozser, is not the end of us, but the end of you, the "literary (with a capital L) fiction" crowd.

Out here in the real world, readers decide what they want, and, man, they want a lot of stuff . . . . There was never a Golden Age of Publishing when people bought only high-brow fiction that elevated the mind.

Observing Kachka's sympathies for editors at the New York publishing houses who didn't flock there "because they want to publish Danielle Steel," Krozser snaps back, "Don't insult the readers. You really, really need people to buy your books."

That doesn't only mean publishing books that people want to read, but also making them available in the most accessible forms possible. The lessons from history are clear: though it originally fought the VCR tooth and nail, digitizing its backlist saved Hollywood.

And on more than one occasion, the new technology has come to the rescue of the old.

It took a while for the new business model to prove itself, but then Netflix did it, and it was heavyweight Blockbuster scrambling to catch up. Many publishers apparently think Blockbuster was right to dawdle and the record labels should have stuck with the LP.

I'm as much a fan of the traditional book as the next guy (what Seth Godin calls "souvenirs"), but bibliophiles rhapsodizing about pressed wood pulp and offset printing reminds me exactly of audiophiles going on and on about the superiority of vinyl and turntables.

Fine, if you insist, and to each his own. Just don't take the whole industry down in order to protect your preferred niche.

Yet at the same time that publishers are whining about the decline of the literary novel, Krozser ironically observes, the industry "relies on mega-hits to justify its existence."

Even the Harvard Business Review baldly suggests that making a blockbuster is something we all can do if we only put our minds to it. Like there's a "best-seller" mine out there and if we just keep digging, we'll be rich! Chris Anderson respectfully disagrees:

I can confirm that blockbusters are indeed great when you happen to have one. The problem is that neither we nor anyone else can predict what will be a blockbuster or how to create them with any regularity.

Also via Chris Anderson, David Heinemeier Hansson brilliantly explains the problem with this "bet-the-house" approach. Although he is talking about software development, his observations and conclusions apply equally well to the publishing world.

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